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Best Headlamps:
Because You Need A Little Technology To See In The Dark

Before we get into the features of the best headlamps in this hiking gear review, let’s ask and answer the pivotal question:

“Why carry a headlamp?”

Truth be told, I don’t always have one in my pack (gasp!).

Hang on, let me explain.

For instance, a headlamp in the Canadian Northwest Territories or ANWR (Alaska, north of the Arctic Circle) in July? Forget about it! Mother Nature supplies 24/7 light for navigating and setting up camp.

And if I’m day hiking on a well travelled familiar trail, I might be without one. But not usually! I’m a stickler for being prepared, thanks to my Girl Scout training many decades ago.

As an avid hiker, I'm very interested in finding the best headlamps for my needs.

But I'm also prudent about pack weight, so I might not always have one with me!

Stark mountains in bright sunlightWho needs the best headlamps when Mother Nature provides non-stop light?


Headlamp uses

So when do I reach for my headlamp?

Sometimes I’ve dallied on purpose, waiting for twilight. That’s when the animals become active and begin to travel to find food and water.

  • What a thrill, to watch a deer trail become animated with beautiful life forms! And after I’ve enjoyed the nature show, it’s time to find my way back to my destination.

Other times I dally just to enjoy the thrill of hiking back to the trail head or base camp in the dark! If I’m confident of my own night vision, I forgo the headlamp and “feel” and “sense” my way along the trail.

  • However, I’m finding that as I age, my night vision isn’t as reliable as it once was, so I choose to turn on a headlamp to illuminate the trail.

There are other reasons for the headlamp.

If I’m in my tent at night, I might want to read a map, or reorganize my pack. There might be a gear repair or minor sewing job to complete before I sleep.

  • These tasks call for different types of light beams: softer broad, or bright pin point.

If a medical emergency were to occur, I might have to hike in the dark until I could get a cell phone signal (if I have my phone, which is not 100% of the time) or back to the trailhead to drive for help.

  • A headlamp allows me to make good time and prevents me from face planting (thus needing a little medical help myself).

Random question...

Here’s a random question (but related to the best headlamps, I promise):

Have you ever played flashlight tag?

I wouldn’t recommend it on a long backpacking trip when every second of battery power is precious.

But if you’re in your own backyard, either literally or in a favorite campground near home (or fresh batteries), you might want to try it with the kids.


A few reservations about headlamps

To be perfectly clear, I have a few reservations about headlamps in general.

Non rechargeable batteries are the first item on my list. I’ve switched over my household to rechargeable batteries, and would love to do so for my headlamp. It just makes sense. And some manufacturers are starting to agree.

And why so many lumens for hiking? You could purchase lamps with 1600 lumens!

But as a hiker concerned with the relationship between weight and mileage, why would you want to??

How much battery power does all of that illumination suck down?

My point: perhaps it's possible to be too bright, even with the best headlamps.


Disclaimer

You're here to read about the best headlamps. So you need to know that I was asked to review these headlamps.

I did not purchase them with my own money.

If you are inclined to think this biases me in favor of the product, think again.

I might be swayed if you offered me a furnished mountain lodge with a fantastic view, fully stocked refrigerator and months on end of solitude, plus a four wheel drive vehicle to access it, but a headlamp?

No way.

I have no affiliate or income generating arrangement with the Dorcy Company.

As always, my intention is to make you aware of reasonably priced hiking gear that works.


Dorcy headlamps review

Manufacturer supplied information:

1.  LED Headlight "Spot beam" 134 lumens, 12 hours battery life, 118 m (387 feet) beam. Number 41-2097. Dimensions:  2.75" W X 1.50" Depth  x 1.5" H

2.  LED Headlight: "Broad beam" 120 lumens, 12 hours battery life, 48 m (157 ft) beam.  Frosted lens. Number 41-2096. Dimensions: 2.75" W X 1.5" Depth.


Use the link in the disclaimer above for more manufacturing information, including photos.

I noted that both headlamps have these features:

  •  Long lived LED (light emitting diode)
  • On/off switch above LED
  • Panel swivels 50 degrees to fine tune the direction of the beam
  • Adjustable elastic head band
  • Shipped with 3 AAA batteries with Dorcy brand on them;  packaging stated they were made in China, Malaysia or USA.


Package warning: “Do not look directly into the light, eyesight damage might occur”.

I agree: these beams of light are very bright in close quarters.

I’d avoid looking into a mirror to admire myself modelling the high beam, for sure.

What good are using the best headlamps if you're blinded by the light?


General first impression of headlamps

These are made of thin plastic so probably are weather resistant but not waterproof. They don't look like they would stand up to heavy duty usage, but the design seems perfectly reasonable for prepared day hikers and moderate intensity backpackers.

No weights were supplied on the packaging. For a hiker, this is vital information.

I did a crude weight comparison (1 in each hand) with my current headlamp (83 grams including batteries) and found the Dorcy lamp to be about the same weight in my palm.

I don’t own a scale capable of measuring grams, so I let it go at that. Then I looked at the Dorcy website, which claimed 2.9 ounces with batteries; that’s 82.214g. (Nice to know I’m a pretty good estimator.)

One year warranty. I’ve seen 5 year warranties on comparable lamps.

The usual wrangling with the heavy plastic package was irritating. There’s gotta be a better way!

  • Tip: Using small scissors, cut a one inch slice toward the midline of the package, half way down one side. Twist the packaging until the cardboard overlay separates from the 2 plastic layers. Use an index finger to separate the plastic layers, and pull them apart until the “guts” (the headlamp and plastic encased batteries) of the package fall out.

Battery installation was a snap – literally – 3 times in a row per headlamp. A bit fiddly to get the plastic case off first – would be impossible if wearing gloves or with cold or wet fingers. I’ve seen better designs, but it was easy enough to get the batteries seated.

  • Battery tip: Don’t leave your batteries in place over long periods of time. Reverse one of them, or risk the headlamp turning on as it’s jostled in your pack. Dead batteries = frustration & possible safety issues.

Headlamp Review #1: Spot Beam

Heads up! (literally) There is no band from forehead across the top of your head to the nape of your neck for protection against falling off when you bend down.

But the very snug adjustable headband should do the trick.

  • There's enough "give" to fit any head size or go over bulky hats.

An easy to reach on/off switch sits just above the LED; depress with a finger and you have light. The switch might be a bit too subtle to feel through heavy gloves, but it’s centered above the lens so it should be easy enough to switch on the headlamp even in the dark or wearing gloves.

Three beams to choose from:

a) “high” beam would be useful for doing close work inside a tent (repairing a torn pack seam or sewing on a button, for instance);

b) "low" beam gives softer light for finding your way back to your tent after a midnight foray.

Both beams have a bright center circle of light with a concentric circle of less bright light. On a trail, these beams were a bit disorienting because of the bright focal center at the expense of the shadows thrown onto the entire trail. However, if I were looking for something specific, and small, on the trail, the high beam would be my choice.

c) The "strobe" beam was just annoying. But if you like to disco in your tent, have at it. This might even be the feature that launches the product into your "Best Headlamps" hall of fame.

Or perhaps you could use it to indicate your position at night, or to signal to a trail buddy?

Note that you have to cycle through all 3 beams to turn off the light.


The light beam swivels up to 50 degrees in a plastic casing.

I found this very useful when trying to do close work in the dark.

It would also be useful if cooking or putting up a tent after nightfall, situations which call for intermittent close up and further away work.

But be aware that the swivel is made of flimsy plastic, so it’s possible that it would slip or crack off if used repeatedly, especially in very cold weather.

I also noticed that the back of the swivel arm has a metal disc that would reflect sunlight, and could be used as a signalling device on a bright day. An unintentional bonus design feature?


Headlamp Review #2: Broad Beam

Same snug adjustable headband!

A few less lumens: 120, rather than 134. Not a visible difference outdoors...

The frosted lens provided a beam that was bright but not harsh, a definite difference from the first headlamp.

The light diffused out from the center without the "concentric rings" effect I noted with Headlamp #1.

On a dark gnarly trail, this headlamp would provide enough illumination to see the major obstacles but you might lose some detail off in the shadows.

To avoid eye fatigue, I would prefer this softer light for working in the tent or reading a map on a dark trail.

See how the best headlamps fit the situation?


Conclusions:
best headlamps

If you're hiking, you should be carrying illumination. You could go with a flashlight, or a headlamp. Either choice is lightweight, and an insurance policy against trouble.

But are these the best headlamps?

In my opinion, either one of these lamps would be a good addition to your trail gear, if you’re looking for something that won’t get used all that often but is lightweight and takes up minimal space.

  • Don’t forget to turn one battery around, to prevent accidental battery discharge!

Having said that, I’d prefer the frosted lens lamp for tasks inside the tent, and the spot beam for nightime camp activities or trail navigation.

If I had to carry just one?

I'd probably choose the spot beam, and use the lower setting inside the tent. I’d rather have more, rather than less, light available because you can never predict exactly when and how you’ll need it.

Dorcy Spot Beam LED Headlamp

Note that some of the best headlamps have a “variable” option, going between the most and least lumens (500 to 1, for example) as your activities change. That is the handiest arrangement, but unfortunately not available with these models.

Full disclosure: I did not challenge the claimed 12 hour battery life, but will report back once I’ve had the lamps a bit longer. I don’t intend to turn them on and time how long the batteries last -  isn’t that what the manufacturer is supposed to do?

I’m more interested in tracking how many times I take it out of my pack, the weather conditions I use it in, and how many consecutive minutes/hours I deploy it.


Reliability & durability are of top concern for the best headlamps. Stay tuned for further illuminating information!


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In the wee hours of the morning in ANWR, Alaska, USA


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