How to Choose a Headlamp

 

At every RacingThePlanet event each competitor must bring two lights as part of their mandatory kit. The primary light source must be a headlamp, but the secondary can be a torch. With so many headlamps on the market, what are the most important factors to consider for a multi-day stage race?

When comparing headlamps generically against each other rather than for a particular activity, the main points of difference are:

Brightness Unit of measurement is reported in lumens; tells you how intensely the light bulb glows. High lumen count does not automatically translate into a long beam distance.
Bulb Type Most headlamps are now LED lamps, but some are xenon or halogen gas filled bulbs.
Beam Distance How far ahead will your light illuminate objects.
Beam Width A focused beam lights objects further away, a flood beam is more useful for general, close-up tasks around camp.
Battery Life How long do the batteries provide a usable amount of light.
Weight The biggest factors on weight are the type and amount of batteries the lamp takes.
Size Again the biggest factor on size is the number and type of batteries, but also the number and types of bulb.

For a multi-day endurance race like the 4 Deserts, the first and only starting point for choosing a headlamp is to consider how long you are going to be out on the course each day. If you are a runner then you are likely to only need your headlamp on course during one stage - The Long March - where you know that you are not likely to finish the stage before dark.

If you intend to walk the course in its entirety and are not an experienced ultra competitor so don't yet know you're pace, then plan on being out on course after sunset each and every stage, and prepare accordingly.

If we consider these two extremes when looking at headlamps then we should cover all the bases.

 

RUNNER:

You will mostly be using your headlamp in and around the campsite after nightfall not when you are out on course, but you will need it for a few hours on that long Stage 5.

Brightness: Ideally you want to have different brightness modes for use in different situations. The brighter the light, the more energy you use, so you want to be able to control your brightness for different scenarios so you can control your battery life. A good tip is to choose a lamp casing that isn't translucent as light will dissipate rather than being focused where you want it.
Beam Distance: Running on trails at night you need to have a long beam-distance so that you can navigate terrain at speed. You don't want to have to slow down just to see what's in front of you.
Beam Width: It's very useful to have different modes: from a focussed beam to a flood setting. Focused beams help you get that greater beam distance out on the course and won't waste battery lighting the surrounding landscape rather than what's just straight in front of you. The flood setting helps you in an around the campsite, finding things in your back-pack etc and not blinding people as much when you forget to switch to red light.
Bulb Type: LED's are incredibly lightweight and rugged, as well as being much more energy efficient and longer lasting than traditional filament bulbs. Xenon and halogen gas filled bulbs tend to shine much brighter than LED's and are generally only insisted upon by cavers these days, (they chew up much more energy than LED's).

The size and colour of the LED also play a part. Usually headlamps now contain a cluster of LED's that are used in different modes. A red LED for example emits red light, it isn't red because of it's packaging, and the larger the bulb, the brighter the light.

Another good tip to note is that red light is the lowest energy light, and therefore saves your batteries, so it can be worth having an actual red LED in your lamp rather than just a red filter if you are concerned about energy efficiency. White and Blue LED's are the highest frequency lights and therefore use most energy.

Red light is also the polite light to use in camp - it doesn't disturb others when they are trying to sleep, nor does it blind people when you are talking to them around the fire. An added bonus when you're racing in bug-intense areas is that red light doesn't attract swarms like white light, and so you will be comparatively less bug-harassed.

Battery Life, Weight and Size: We may as well consider these factors together as they are directly linked.

Most manufacturers now determine battery life as the length of run time until the lamp can no longer produce usable light at a distance of 2 metres, (Usable light is described as the light of a full moon on a clear night which has been measured at 0.25 Lumen at source). If just one time is shown on the packaging it denotes the run time of the lamp using new batteries and the lowest output setting throughout.

The more batteries a headlamp takes, the heavier it will be. If you want to minimize weight, then better to have less batteries in the headlamp and discard them as they are run-down, rather than having to carry around more weight for longer.

Equally, the more bulbs you have in your lamp, the bulkier your lamp will be. If you will only require your lamp mainly for getting around camp and for a minimal number of hours on course, then you probably want a lamp with just a few LED's but different modes for creating that focused beam on the trail, and the flood mode in camp.

 

WALKER:

You recognize that your headlamp will be a piece of kit that you rely on heavily on every stage for your safety and success at the race, and so your considerations are a little different to the runners.

Brightness: When walking a course at night it is highly advisable to be able to control the brightness of your lamp. In general you won't need to use a particularly high powered beam as you are not traveling at great speed where you need to be able to see far into the distance. However, you do need to be able to detect the reflective marker flags on the course, and therefore you want to have the option of switching to a high-powered beam in case you are relying solely on your headlamp to find your way.
Beam Distance: Generally course markers are 25m apart, but there may be times where there is no clear path between markers, and you want to be able to pick up another marker further on, so it is a matter of personal choice as to how long you want your beam distance to be. If you are relying on your headlamp for safely navigating the course though, it's best to err on the side of caution and make sure you have the option of turning on a long distance beam.
Beam Width: A long beam requires a focused beam of light and therefore you want to have a lamp that has a long-distance setting. Flood beams are good for use in camp, and for lighting up a little more of the area around you as you are walking along.
Bulb Types: As you will be relying on your lamp heavily for your safety during the race you want to have bulbs that are energy efficient and rugged, so that means LEDs.

You might also want to consider using a lamp with a number of red LED's if you are comfortable using them, as they are the most energy efficient and preserve your night-vision.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of walking at night is being aware of the landscape around you in a different way; by using white light, you actually lock yourself in a bubble making it impossible to see virtually anything beyond your lamp's sphere of brightness.

Battery Life, Weight and Size: In a multi-stage race you have to carry all your belongings with you all of the time, and therefore the biggest factor in the weight of your lamp will be how many batteries you will need to carry for the duration. 

Fortunately at the 4 Deserts, you are not forced to carry all your rubbish with you, you can discard it every evening in camp. This means that it's more efficient to use a headlamp that requires less batteries to power it than one that maybe lasts longer only because it has space for four batteries rather than two: you can discard weight as you use up your batteries. You still want to make sure that you have an efficient lamp for the number of batteries that power it, but it does mean that you can happily ignore those cumbersome lamps with external battery packs which usually take four batteries.

Battery life is affected by the brightness of the light you are using, the number of LED's, and the colour of the LED's. As a walker, battery life is important as you are going to be using the headlamp a lot, so you need to pay more attention to those elements than a runner would.

 

A few other things to consider:

Types of battery: Whilst we are well aware of the environmental issues of using non-rechargeable batteries, there is a good reason we do not advocate using them batteries at RacingThePlanet events. Rechargeable batteries loose charge over time. To mitigate against running out of light, we strongly advise competitors to use alkaline batteries for all their back-up batteries.
Regulated and Non-regulated Light: Do you want your beam to dim gradually over the battery life or preserve a constant beam throughout with a rather abrupt cut-off? Our advice is to go for a non-regulated beam that dims over time so that you don't find yourself scrabbling for batteries in your pack in complete darkness in the event they run out. Plus, it's always wise to have as much info as possible about the state of your equipment.
Tilt: Do you want to be able to control the angle of your beam?
On/Off switches: Some models have locks to prevent them from being accidentally turned on.
Water resistance: What are the chances of rain, and what are the chances of getting your lamp wet during a water crossing? It's a small consideration, but you may want to mitigate by keeping your headlamp in a waterproof bag when not in use if it's not resistant.
Back-up lamp: Every competitor has to have a back-up light source. Whether it's a torch or another headlamp, it's wise to ensure that they take the same batteries.

 

If you want any advice, we're always happy to discuss options with you. Email us at [email protected]