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The best headlamp in 2023, tried and tested

Jul 02, 2023Jul 02, 2023

Flashlights are great for finding your way or taking care of tasks in the dark, whether you’re illuminating large areas or directing light just where you want it, but for many tasks you need both hands free and a headlamp is a much better option. With a headlamp secured to your forehead with an elastic band, the beams are always pointed in the direction you’re facing, making it much easier to work on low-light DIY projects, or run and hike in the dark without having to hold a flashlight steady the entire time. They’re great for emergency situations too, letting you concentrate on — and accomplish — urgent tasks.

We tested 14 popular headlamps, evaluating them on usability, performance, comfort and durability to find the best headlamp overall.

With stellar performance and a great mix of comfort, features and usability, the Spot 400 was the clear standout among the headlamps we tested.

Of all the headlamps I tested, the Black Diamond Spot 400 provided the best combination of usability, functionality and reliability. In a nutshell, it has just the right number of features and beam options to be useful without being overwhelming or too complex to use, and it illuminated our test area better than any other headlamp we tested.

First off, the Black Diamond Spot 400 was one of the best performers in our test group. It’s brightest setting (a maxed-out combo of the spot and floodlight) illuminated the testing area at a local park as well or better than any other headlamp I tested, and when using the floodlight only, it lit up huge swaths of land without blowing out my night vision or using a ton of battery life.

During my battery runtime test, the bright spot/flood combination lasted 6 hours and 15 minutes before fading out completely. Only the rechargeable version of this model, the Black Diamond Spot 400 (R), and the BioLite 800 PRO lasted longer. This headlamp was also comfortable to wear for long periods of time, and during my nighttime runs around the neighborhood, it didn’t bounce around like some heavier models tended to.

Although the two-button control interface has a slightly steeper learning curve than the single-button models I tested, Black Diamond did a great job of designing it to be intuitive and straightforward. After a minute or two of reviewing the manual, switching between beams, settings and colors became second nature. One button powers the unit on and off and also acts as a dimmer when held down, and the other button cycles through the three beam options: spot, flood and red. When pressed twice in quick succession, the power button also initiates a flashing strobe mode on whichever beam is selected. Black Diamond does a great job of differentiating the two control buttons on top of the unit by both shape and texture, making it really easy for your fingers to tell which is which.

The “power tap” feature lets you use a single tap on the right side of the unit — no buttons needed — to instantly boost the current beam to its brightest setting, and a second tap reverts it back. You could also achieve the same result by using the dimmer button, but this instant adjustment is a useful alternative for scenarios that require a lot of light immediately. An “SOS” setting also makes the Black Diamond Spot 400 uniquely suited for emergency situations. A power tap while in strobe mode adjusts its flashing beam to an SOS morse code sequence, which is more likely to catch the eye of potential rescuers or a search party.

We loved the Black Diamond Spot 400’s “dual-fuel” power capability. You can use either three AAA batteries (the Spot 400 package includes 3 Duracell alkaline batteries) or a separately purchased BD 1,500mAh rechargeable battery pack. This battery pack and charger is an extra $29, but the added power option makes this headlamp really useful for emergency situations, where you could find yourself in need of illumination and without power for long periods of time and would otherwise need to swap in alkaline batteries to keep it working. I will say that Petzl’s rechargeable battery packs are more convenient to use, though, since they have a micro-USB port on the battery itself and don’t require a separate charger like the Black Diamond pack.

I also tested the Black Diamond Spot 400’s advertised IPX8 waterproof rating and submerged it in a bucket of water for 30 minutes. I ran the headlamp through its beam and power settings while underwater as well as afterward and noticed zero effect on its performance.

If you’re looking for a versatile, tough, user-friendly headlamp, you really can’t beat the Black Diamond Spot 400.

Technically, yes, a flashlight serves the same basic purpose as a headlamp, but you’ll be missing out on a ton of useful benefits even with the best flashlight. First of all, the hands-free operation of a headlamp is beneficial when it comes to pretty much any kind of DIY project. Flashlights require either a partner, a makeshift stand or your mouth to hold it steady and in the right direction, while headlamps position the beam exactly where you want it (as long as you want the beam focused directly on what you’re looking at).

Headlamps are also well-suited for emergency situations, like navigating your house during a power outage, changing a tire on the side of the highway or evacuating during a natural disaster. You’ll be able to take care of your immediate challenges or get yourself and your family to safety much quicker with both hands free to carry essential supplies (or assist family members or pets), operate communication devices or remove obstacles and debris. Also, unlike a flashlight, a headlamp is much less likely to be dropped or just set down and lost in a chaotic situation.

Since campsites and hiking trails can be extremely dark when the sun goes down, headlamps are great for campers and hikers too. The broad flood beams and low-power settings of a headlamp are perfect for illuminating picnic tables while preparing dinner and reduce the chances of tripping over unfamiliar terrain or tent spikes. Most headlamps include a red light setting, which lets you read maps and charts in the dark without compromising your night vision.

Headlamps are also pretty much essential for nighttime trail or road runners, where a missed step or hidden root can cause serious injury. Models that feature rear-facing lights can even help keep you visible to vehicles coming up behind you.

I’ve personally found a headlamp to be convenient for walking my dogs at night. It illuminates my path as well as the location of dog poop and leaves both hands free to use leashes and disposal bags without fumbling with a flashlight.

First, consider what you plan on using your headlamp for and make sure the beam settings can accommodate that. If you just want a basic, low-cost option to have around the house, a single-beam headlamp with a couple of power levels should suffice. If you need more versatility and see yourself using it to illuminate wide, open areas like a campsite, as well as smaller, focused tasks like tightening the lug nuts of a spare tire or inspecting a leaky pipe under the sink, look for an option with both spot and flood beam settings.

If you’re using your headlamp for early morning or nighttime running, choose a model with a second light source in the back of the unit. These two-piece headlamps use bright red LED’s for the rear lamp to make you much more visible to vehicles coming up behind you.

Headlamps that are compatible with multiple power sources, like removable rechargeable batteries and alkaline batteries, will be better suited for emergency use. While permanent, internal rechargeable batteries are convenient to use every day, keep in mind that you won’t be able to recharge them during a power outage — you’ll want to have more options.

Finally, consider weight: The lighter the headlamp, the more comfortable it will be and less likely to bounce or shift around while running or hiking. A lighter option is also more convenient for hiking and camping since you’ll be carrying less weight during daylight hours. Cutting even a couple of ounces from your pack can make a difference.

To accurately compare the 14 headlamps in my testing pool, I ran each model through a comprehensive testing process, evaluating their ease-of-use, performance, comfort and durability.

Because of their placement (on your head where you can’t see the controls) and typical use cases (low light and sometimes emergency situations where you don’t have time to struggle with a complicated interface) ease of use is especially important when it comes to headlamps. I evaluated how straightforward they were to control, as well as the clarity and overall helpfulness of their instruction manuals.

To compare each headlamp’s overall performance, I wore each one on evening runs around the neighborhood, as well as nighttime walks with my two dogs. I also used each to explore, inspect and perform maintenance on different areas of my home, like under the sink, inside closets, and under my cars. During these tests, I cycled through their specific beam options and utilized any additional dimming features.

All the headlamps I tested had lights that could tilt downward, so I compared how easy they were to adjust and noted whether they moved smoothly and securely or felt flimsy or stiff. If the headlamps offered a red beam option (or green or blue), I used them to read maps and books in the dark.

I also took the headlamps out to a large public park after dark to get a better idea of their overall strength, beam type and shape options. I positioned a camera tripod 50 feet away from a large tree in the middle of a picnic area and captured a photo of each headlamp’s different beam settings to compare later on. I paid close attention to how well the beam illuminated the tree and surrounding area, as well as the spread and shape of its beam as I cycled through the settings.

To get a better idea of each headlamp’s durability, I researched their specific IP rating and tested their actual water resistance as claimed by wearing them in the shower or submerging them in a bucket of water. I cycled through the settings during these tests as well as afterward, so I could confidently declare whether or not they can withstand these claims (they all did).

I also evaluated how comfortable the headlamp felt on my head, as well as how easy it was to fit the band comfortably to my head size. Since the overall weight of the headlamp affects its comfortability, I also weighed each headlamp with a digital scale to ensure that the advertised weights were accurate.

I also compared the battery type and capabilities of each headlamp, noting if they used a permanent internal rechargeable battery, removable rechargeable battery pack or replaceable rechargeable or alkaline batteries. The type of battery used isn’t inherently better or worse than any other, but this information is useful when comparing which models are better suited for different users and situations.

The one-button control and single beam of this Black Diamond headlamp made it one of the most user-friendly models I tested. It has the same comfortable feel and high-quality construction found in other Black Diamond models and boasts an IPX4 rating that can withstand rain and sleet. The limited beam variety and lack of a red lamp limit its usefulness for camping and emergency applications and, ultimately, prevented it from being a top pick, but if you’re just looking for a budget-friendly, bare-bones headlamp, look no further.

This versatile headlamp packs a ton of bells and whistles into a compact and durable package. In addition to the white spot and floodlight settings, it also offers three color options RGB (red, green, blue), making it a great choice for those interested in preserving their night vision, as well as others in their vicinity. It even offers an SOS sequence for signaling rescuers. The variety of beam types, settings and colors on this model requires a steeper learning curve than most other headlamps, so if you don’t plan on using it very often, or just don’t feel like memorizing too many control sequences, you may want to consider a less complex option.

Since the battery – and most of the weight – is stored on the back of the unit, this two-piece headlamp has a front-facing light that’s small and practically weightless. This light has just one beam setting and a single button for power and dimming control, so it’s about as easy to use as a headlamp can get. The three red LEDs on the rear pack offer standard strobe, fast strobe or static settings, making this a great option for nighttime runners or hikers who want to remain visible to other members of their party while trekking a trail after dark. It uses a second strap that goes over the top of your head to keep that rear pack from slipping down, which does a good job of giving the whole unit a stable feel without feeling cumbersome.

This 600 lumen Petzl headlamp is twice as bright as the Petzl Tikkina 300, offers an additional spot beam for longer-distance illumination and maintains the same comfortable strap and stable feel. The single, extra-large button is convenient to locate and press while on your head, and I easily navigated the three beam options and red light settings during testing. This headlamp includes a rechargeable battery pack but can also be fueled by three AAA batteries if you prefer. The 2:30 runtime tied for the lowest in my battery test, although the 600 lumen beam performed at the top of the pack in my beam strength test at the park.

The single-button control and $25 price tag of this 300-lumen Petzl headlamp make it a fine choice for those who just want an easy-to-use, bare-bones option. The wide strap is comfortable to slide onto your head, and although I found the battery compartment lid frustratingly difficult to open, I appreciate that it utilized a thin rubber gasket to help prevent water from getting inside. The angle adjustment mechanism also lacks the smooth, continuous movement of the Black Diamond models and restricts you to five set positions that take some jostling to get into position. Because of the inferior hinge design of the Petzl, I give the Black Diamond Astro 300 a slight edge over this one for those on a limited budget. Plus, the Astro 300’s battery runtime is two hours longer, and it generally costs about $5 less.

Despite being the most comfortable headlamp I tested, this ultra-light Biolite model lacked the user-friendly design and sturdy build of similar Black Diamond and Petzl models. The smooth, uninterrupted strap spreads pressure across a wider area than other headlamp brands, and even after wearing it for hours, I never felt compelled to take it off and rub my forehead for relief. It did take more time than I would have liked to wrap my head around the controls, since the included instruction manual does not explain how to turn it off without cycling through the settings (you have to wait 1.5 seconds for the current setting to lock it). The hinge used to adjust the angle isn’t as easy to use either and has an awkward, unstable feel to it. All that being said, if you plan on wearing a headlamp for long periods of time, and maximum comfort is your top priority, this could be the perfect fit.

In addition to a 425-lumen headlight, this runner-friendly Biolite headlamp features two red LEDs on the back for added visibility. This rear pack also contains an internal rechargeable battery, and a four LED battery-level indicator, so you’ll have a decent idea of how much power you have remaining. For about $10 more than the Biolite 325, this model provides an extra 125 lumen and separate spot and flood beam settings, although it suffers from the same inferior adjustment hinge as the BioLite 325. That said, the 2.8-ounce weight is extremely light, especially for a dual-light option. If rear visibility is important to you and you’re looking for a lightweight, comfortable, multifunctional light for running, the Biolite 425 is a perfectly fine option.

If maximum runtime and beam strength are what you’re looking for, you won’t beat this two-piece Biolite model. It lasted 7 hours and 30 minutes during my battery runtime test — the longest of any in my testing pool — and the 800-lumen output was unmatched as well. It’s also the heaviest model I tested, though, and combined with the bulky rear battery pack, it resulted in some jostling and bouncing during my runs. Other than that, I found the two-piece design to be comfortable while wearing around the house and that the lack of an additional overhead strap — found on all the other two-piece headlamps I tested — made it easier to slide on and off. However, the power cord connected to the front-facing light made it almost impossible to adjust the angle to the position I wanted.

The light on this multifunctional headlamp can actually be removed and used as a handheld flashlight, and with a 700-lumen beam, it is strong enough for long-range use. Although its single beam lacks the variety of similarly priced headlamps, the cylindrical shape of this model rotates inside the mount, allowing you to position the beam at the exact angle you prefer. The perforated band is also exceptionally lightweight and breathable, and a rubber lining gives it a nice sturdy grip on your head or hat. Its aluminum body is durable enough to withstand heavier drops and falls than plastic lights too, and it had no issue operating after being submerged in water for 30 minutes.

This beefy headlamp features a rotating bezel so you can manually transition the 700-lumen beam from a wide flood to narrow spot — the only model in my testing pool to do so. This design does result in a bulky, heavy unit, though, and while it was comfortable to wear when working around the house, it bounced uncomfortably on my nighttime runs. The quality of the beam is also not great, and while testing in the park, it created large halos and uneven spots when zoomed out. The controls are about as simple as they come, though, and the thick, rugged body feels extremely durable.

Despite the ultra-cheap price and low claimed output (just 168 lumens), this headlamp performed better than expected in my testing. It generated one of the strongest spotlights in my beam strength test, and the battery lasted 4 hours and 20 minutes before shutting off. The controls are simple to use too — one button for the standard white beam and the other activates the red beam — although you do have to scroll through all the settings in order to power it off. My main critique with this model is with its focused, spot-style beam. There isn’t a very usable wide setting, so even when powered down to its lowest setting, this narrow beam shape just doesn’t offer the even, consistent coverage that a dedicated flood beam would.

I love this tiny little light. Weighing just 1.6 ounces and using a doubled-up 1/8-inch-diameter elastic shock cord as the strap, this bare-bones headlamp is designed to eliminate unnecessary space or weight. Despite the minimal look, it still features an impressive amount of output options, with a simple dual-button control system: one button powers it on and rotates through brightness settings, the other cycles through the beam options. The cord is actually much more comfortable than I expected, and a foam square on the light reduces pressure on your forehead. Its 2:40 runtime was on the lower end of my testing spectrum, but the ultra-compact size and 400-lumen output makes it the perfect option for rolling up and tossing into your backpack, emergency kit, kitchen drawer or glove box.