Depending on your adventure, being able to see in the dark might mean the difference between life and death, or simply finishing your book chapter or not. There is a dazzling array of lighting options available to meet the needs of the whole spectrum of outdoor activities, and with a little knowledge you can find the right product to suit your needs. If you’re just looking for a simple lighting solution for a camping trip and aren’t interested in the technicalities, skip forward to the Head Torches paragraph for a quick guide. If you’re into the tech-specs, read on further.
Modern options for portable, light-weight illumination include LED or incandescent bulb head torches, hand held torches, battery or butane lanterns or USB powered LED lighting strips. The LED head torch is by far the predominant system for outdoor activities and has almost made redundant the use of a hand held torch. Head torches (conveniently) provide light wherever the user is looking, and most importantly keep both hands free for activities. LED models are lighter and can be more powerful than a hand held equivalent, and have very long battery lives. We’ll have a look below at their features and benefits.
Suggested Uses: General camping and night time exploits that involve movement, backpacking/travel, hiking/trail running, rock climbing, mountaineering, canyoning and caving.
Cost equals brightness, a quick guide to buying a head torch:
A quality head torch can set you back between $30 and $200. The general rule of thumb is that the more you spend, the brighter (more powerful) a torch will become, and the more functions it will have. A brighter torch obviously means you can make out objects further into the distance, and see close objects more clearly. The brightness of a light is measured in Lumens, the higher the number, the brighter the light. Decide on what kind of activity you’ll be using the torch for most regularly, and look at the Lumen guides below to see what kind of torch is best for you.
A head torch with a rating of 20-50 Lumens will be adequate for activities such as cooking, reading a book, finding the bathroom in a dark hostel, or as a back up light. You would expect to pay around $30-$40 for a torch like this. It will be lightweight, and have simple on-off controls. A great choice for school camps or backpacking trips.
A head torch with a rating of 60-100 lumens would be more appropriate for actvities that start to involve a lot of movement. If you plan on hiking at night, finishing a climb in the dark, or setting up a tent after sunset, the higher power will be worth the price increase. Cost would range around $50-$80 depending on the functions. Features such as dimming modes, flashing modes, or an additional red light will start to be included.
A head torch with a rating of 100-300+ lumens, is built for using at speed or for seeing long distances in bad weather. Best for uses like off-track hiking, trail running, cycling, mountaineering, orienteering, animal spotting etc. Cost will be approximately $90+, and different models will have an array of high tech features like reactive lighting sensors and regulated programmable battery backs. Weight can vary dramatically depending on the size of the battery in this range.
Head Torches: The Techy Stuff
Lumens and Brightness
A Lumen rating is a description of the total amount of visible light emitted at the source of the light, aka the brightness. A single candle flame for example emits approximately 10 Lumens of light. Household ceiling lights might emit between 100 and 200 Lumens depending on the wattage. Common outdoor activity head torches range from 20-300 Lumens as discussed above. Most head torch brands will give a corresponding distance rating in meters (how far ahead you can see into the darkness). This is a useful guide, a better comparison between brands is usually the more objective and Lumen rating.
Weight and Batteries
Along with the brightness of a head torch, the weight of a product will usually be a key factor in your selection. Every gram when it’s on your back (or your head), and the weights do vary dramatically between products. Very generally, the more powerful products will be heavier than the less powerful cheaper models, but this varies according to material and battery type. A metal housed model will obviously be heavier than a plastic model, but has a corresponding increase in durability. Batteries are the heaviest part of the torch. Lighter weight torches will usually have AAA batteries mounted on the front of the torch, while heavier models will have AA or USB battery packs mounted on the back.
Cold temperatures can significantly affect the output of a battery, so some very specialised models of head torch will have a remote battery pack on a cable that can be stored inside your clothing. Most standard models however will take disposable Lithium batteries, and these have by far the best performance in cold temperatures. Keeping the batteries warm in your sleeping bag or pocket when not in use is the best solution otherwise.
USB rechargeable head torches are convenient for travel or if you have a solar recharging kit. Battery life on USB models is generally a little less than the equivalent disposable, but they are far cheaper to run in the long term.
As the price of a torch increases, it will begin to feature more functions. Some models are very simple to use, more complicated models seem to need a doctorate to figure out. Ask your sales assistant to demonstrate all the features!
The first useful feature added to most head torches is a dimming function, where the brightness (Lumen rating) of the torch can be turned up and down. Using the head torch at a lower brightness saves battery life, and helps stop you blinding your friends around the campfire. Some brands will have 2 or 3 set lighting levels that you can click through with the torch on/off button, and others have a constant sliding scale that you can move through by holding the button down. A flashing mode is often also included, and is useful for signalling or urban visibility.
Beam Type Adjustment:
Many torches will also have the option of selecting different beam types (or “shapes”). A wide angled (diffuse) beam is useful for manual work like cooking, or seeing objects at close distances while walking. A narrow (focussed) beam will have greater distance, and is better for seeing things further away while moving quickly. Some torches can be set only to one or the other, while others can slide through a range of widths.
A red lens cover, or a separate red LED light is often included on modern head torches. For highly scientific reasons, red light does not “reset” a viewer’s night vision like a bright white light does, so a red light is useful if you only need to use your light from time to time at night (glancing at the map etc).
The High Tech
Towards the upper end of the price bracket, some very cool functions are introduced, and these will hopefully become more standard as the technology develops.
Regulated Battery Life:
Cool. Torches without a regulated battery will shine their brightest the first time they are used with a fresh set of batteries, then will slowly dim down across the life of the battery, until the batteries run out. A regulated battery will maintain constant output Lumens for a set period of time without dimming, and then will cut back to a minimal output level until the battery runs out. Regulated batteries generally won’t have as long a battery life as unregulated, but of course they will be brighter (and potentially more useful) for longer.
Very cool. Some models allow you to set which features you want available at quick notice, and what combination of button presses enables them. For example, you could set 1 click of the on/off button to turn on a 100 Lumen regulated beam, 2 clicks to turn on a 50 Lumen S-O-S flashing signal, and 3 clicks to turn on a 30 Lumen unregulated battery saving beam. Set your favourites before you go on the trip, while you’ve still got the instruction book in your hands.
Reactive Lighting Technology:
Ultra-cool. Several torch companies are introducing sensors on their products that detect the amount of incident light incoming, and adjust the output Lumens of your head torch beam accordingly. For example, when you look down at a map in your hands, the light beam will dim down so you aren’t blinded by the glare, and when you look away from the map and across an open valley, the light will brighten up so you can see for the maximum distance.