The Best Headlamps
We researched the best headlamps and aggregated that data. Here's our findings.
It took some serious research to find a trusty headlamp among the sea of cheap, unreliable lights available. But after scouring the web for reviews, we identified only headlamps with reliable supply chains, responsive customer service, and positive user reviews from actual people.
To make our picks, we surveyed over 200 reviews from everyday customers at REI and Amazon to professional reviews from Outdoor Gear Lab, Outside Magazine, Backpacker Magazine, Mountain IQ, Switchback Travel, Wirecutter, Digital Trends, Adventure Junkies, Gadget Review, and the Big Outside.
From 29 of the top headlamps recommended by those reviewers, we found the five that were recommended by the most credible reviewers. Reviewers overwhelmingly rank the Black Diamond Spot as the best headlamp for its comfort, ease of use, brightness, and price. The Black Diamond Storm was touted as a more durable plastic model of the Spot, with better quality electronics and casings. But tech-savvy users delight in the easy user interface and the intelligent reactive lighting design of the Petzl Reactik. We also found glowing reviews for the hybrid battery and rechargeable Petzl ActikCore and the budget Petzl Tikkina.
THE BEST headlamp for most people: Black Diamond Spot
The Black Diamond Spot is the unanimous winner for best headlamp based on data from seven comparative reviews. It hits a Goldilocks spot between price, weight, brightness, battery life, and usable layout. While other headlamps may excel at one of these features, the Spot performs in all. The Spot is well-suited for around the house or in camp due to a bright spotlight and an evenly lit flood light. At 3.1 oz, it was among the lightest headlamps considered, which pleases weight-conscious backpackers. While most reviewers found it doesn’t throw light the 80m advertised, it still scored among the better headlamps. It has many bonus features like a battery meter and red lamp, which saves you from blinding campmates. Other reviewers like that this headlamp is made in the U.S. and is backed by much-touted three year warranty.
However, reviewers had mixed opinions on several of the Spot’s features, including waterproofness and battery-life. Outdoor Gear Lab found the Spot to not be completely waterproof and the battery life was not among the best. Whereas, Wirecutter gave it points for waterproofing and reported that the battery life is relatively good compared to other headlamps. Switchback Travel liked that beam brightness can be adjusted up or down by touching the right side of the headlamp, but Outdoor Gear Lab found it took time to learn and wasn’t intuitive.
The biggest complaint across most reviews is that people don’t like the Spot’s single-button mode-toggling system. Outdoor Gear Lab says advanced features can be hard to access. REI and Amazon reviewers write that the button-system makes it difficult to tell when the headlamp is on its brightest setting. All reviewers showed concern about optical quality, including a yellow hotspot in the middle of the spotlight, but no one found it to be so annoying as to write off the Spot completely. For the best balance of quality, weight, light brightness and distance, the Spot meets most reviewers’ needs at a manageable price.
The Best Headlamp at any Price: Black Diamond Storm
For those seeking a more durable headlamp, the Black Diamond Storm topped reviewers’ lists just a hair behind the Black Diamond Spot. It’s the most waterproof and dustproof headlamp in our line-up. At 350 lumens for the 2018 edition, it is tied for the brightest headlamp in our line-up, and it also has a longer battery life than the Spot. Like all other Black Diamond headlamps, the Storm is made in the US and backed by a celebrated three-year warranty.
The Storm has more features than other headlamps we reviewed, which users sometimes found polarizing. Several Amazon and REI reviewers complain that toggling between all the advanced lighting modes is too complicated. Switchback thought the system had a steep learning curve. As with the Black Diamond Spot, Switchback liked that beam brightness can be adjusted up or down by touching the right side of the headlamp. Conversely, Outdoor Gear Lab found it took time to learn and wasn’t intuitive. Yet, Backpacker found that there were advantages to all of the Storm’s advanced features. It has red, green, and white light, which made reading maps easier because some colors don’t show up with a red light.
The Storm takes four AAA batteries instead of the usual three, making it heavier than others we tested. The Storm also costs more than the Spot and a few of the other headlamps that made our list. While this means the Storm may be overkill for more casual use, it is still a good option for those taking their headlamps on rugged adventures.
high tech headlamp that works: Petzl Reactik
The Petzl Reactik is the best headlamp for people who like to be the first to have cutting edge technology seeking intelligent auto-adjusting lighting or customizable lighting from a phone app via bluetooth. The Reactik isn’t for everyone, but it excited two kinds of reviewers: tech-heads at Digital Trends and Gadget Review; and gearheads at Outside, Adventure Junkies, and Mountain IQ. The Petzl Reactik has two unique features that set it apart from other headlamps: auto-adjust lighting to your current conditions, and, the ability to set light output based on battery life. No other headlamp that made our list of winners has this ability yet, though we suspect this feature will become more popular (and affordable) soon.
The Reactik is powered by a USB-rechargeable Lithium battery, which we think may be a positive thing for the environment because it means fewer AAA batteries in the landfill.
For those who consider themselves to be true cutting-edge gear users, there’s an even more advanced version of the Reactik. The Petzl Reactik+ has the same features as the Reactik, but can be paired via bluetooth to a Smartphone. Although it seems gimmicky, both Outside and Gadget Review were impressed that the app allows you to send messages via strobe-lighted Morse Code.
The major downsides of the Reactik are its price and battery life. We suspect that as the technology advances, we will see prices go down and battery life go up.
Best hybrid rechargeable headlamp: Petzl Actik Core Headlamp
The Petzl Actik Core Headlamp is a good choice for people who want to save money on batteries or want a more environmentally friendly headlamp. The Actik Core is a hybrid headlamp that can run on a AAA batteries or two-hours of plug-in time on a rechargeable Lithium battery. It is a favorite of REI reviewers, Backpacker, Switchback Travel, the Big Outside, and Expert World Travel. Its non-rechargeable cousin, the Actik, gets compliments on price from Adventure Junkies, Clever Hiker, and Outdoor Gear Lab.
The reviewers liked the Petzl Actik Core because it provides only the options you need. It doesn’t have confusing advanced features or complicated on-off systems. It’s easy to switch between modes. The Actik is also the lightest headlamp we considered at 2.9 oz, and claims a distance of 311 feet.
While reviewers found the rechargeable Lithium doesn’t last as long as AAAs, reviewers were impressed by its 350-lumen output. This is notable because, as The Big Outside says, headlamps run by rechargeable headlamps sometimes aren’t as bright as when they run on AAA. 350 lumens is also among the highest outputs of headlamps we considered. Reviewers noted the Actik Core is easy to charge via USB (and if you’re carrying an external battery pack to charge your phone in the backcountry, you can also use it to recharge the Actik Core, too).
The two main concerns about the Actik Core are the price and lack of waterproofing. We think complaints about price are overemphasized. Why? Over the life of the headlamp, you can recoup the extra cost by saving money on AAA batteries. But, if you don’t use your headlamp often, it may be less expensive to go with a non-rechargeable model. The Actik Core remains a good option if you are someone who will be using the headlamp often, knows you need a lot of light, and likes the affordable and environmentally-friendly option of recharging over using AAAs.
Budget pick: Petzl Tikkinahttp
Reviewers found the Petzl Tikkina provided them high-quality budget lighting at mere dollars more than no-name headlamps. Unlike many no-name or hardware store brand headlamps, the Tikkina has a tilt adjustment and Petzl’s five-year warranty. That’s one reason why it has high reviews on both Outdoor Gear Lab and Adventure Junkies. We ran Tikkina’s flattering Amazon reviews through Fakespot (a website that analyses and identifies fake reviews), and they received an A-rating. This is in stark contrast to several similarly priced headlamps available on Amazon, which received D and F-ratings.
The Tikkina doesn’t offer anything fancy, but it has everything that most people need plus an easy-to-use interface. Outdoor Gear Lab likes the intuitive on-off button system for the three lighting modes. Adventure Junkies likes the brightness for the price, though it warns the Tikkina isn’t as bright as the headlamps twice its price. Customers at REI and Amazon found the headlamp to be everything they needed, and not much else. It doesn’t have a red light or lock, so if you know you want those features, opt for the Black Diamond Spot. For those who want a rechargeable option, Petzl sells a Core Lithium battery that can be used. That said, for the price of the Tikkina+Core battery, you’re better off getting the Actik Core instead.