Gear Review: Head Torches

A perennial question going around ultra-running circles is which light-source to use. As with all things ultra, the answer is an absolute “it depends”!

The main metrics to consider are:

  • Carry type
  • Brightness
  • Burn time (both at maximum brightness and, more importantly, at the brightness you will generally use for running)
  • Battery type (primarily replaceable vs rechargeable)
  • Quality of light (how even and diffuse the spread is)
  • Quality of carry harness
  • Weight
  • Cost

In addition, there are other qualities, such as red LEDs, flashing settings, locks, and reactive lighting.

Carry type

Most people use a head-mounted torch; this has the advantages of always pointing roughly where you are looking and leaving your hands free; the small distance between your eyes and the light means that there is relatively little shadow visible over obstacles resulting in limited depth perception. The second most common carry type is hand-held; in this case, the light always points where you want it to, and you can control the amount of shadow over obstacles; however, this means that at least one hand is not free to use for running or carrying equipment or feeding yourself. The last, and least common, type is chest/belly mounted; this leaves both hands free, and maximizes depth perception from trail shadow; however, the light points where your torso points – not where you are looking nor where you want it to point; further, the carry point can get in the way of hydration systems, the light can easily be obscured by bushes hanging onto the path, and the depth of the shadows can be too large, limiting the amount of trail that can be seen. In my opinion, the head torch method is the best for trail running, and also offers the greatest span of choice.

Brightness

You frequently hear that you don’t need more than 100 lumens or some such number for running. While it is true that you will usually run with your light at a relatively low setting, there are times when brighter settings are useful. For example, challenging navigation where you must clearly see landmarks or flagging at a distance, or when covering very technical terrain. I find 100-140 lumens is a good brightness (depending on light quality and terrain) for general running, while 250-300 lumens provides good navigation light.

Burn time

This comes down to longest event you are planning to do. If you are planning to run only a couple hours in the dark, you don’t need to be as concerned as if you are running clear through the night on a 100miler. You must also look at the burn time at different brightness levels: if the brightest setting is very bright, it does not matter that it may only last a couple hours, provided that the “regular running” brightness lasts a more substantial time. I like a light that offers at least 3-4hours at maximum brightness and at least 9-10hours at regular running brightness.

Battery type

There are two broad types of batteries for our purposes – swappable and non-swappable. Non-swappable (frequently recharged via USB cable these days) batteries are convenient, as you can make sure you always start the run on a full charge for best possible light. However, if you need to run for longer than the battery life or the light accidentally turns on in your pack, you will quickly rue using this as your main light. The best choice for replaceable batteries are either AAA or AA cells, as these can easily be obtained anywhere in the world, and pack good life for weight and cost; for heavy-duty, long-burn lights, 3-4 AA cells is a good choice, while 2-3 AAA cells is good for a light-weight light which does not need to pull heavy navigation duty. There are some lights which boast a rechargeable battery pack which can be replaced by a number of AAA or AA cells; if the other attributes of the torch meet your requirements, this can offer the best of both worlds. Larger battery packs can either be carried on the back of the head (simpler and offers better balance) or on an extension cord in a jacket or pack (more complicated, messier, requires a pocket… but vastly improves battery life in very cold conditions)

Quality of light

This can be broken into two components: beam breadth and diffusion. The first is more important: how wide the bright part of the beam is, how wide the total beam is, and how rapidly the intensity drops off. Generally the wider the beam the better – but ensure that most the light heads down the trail where it is most needed. The second, diffusion, is becoming less important as brighter LEDs become commonplace. In the older units or for the very brightest lower-cost units, to get adequate brightness, an array of LEDs are used, with the result that trail shadows are softened, making depth perception harder.

Quality of carry harness

This is more important for heavier units than for lighter ones, but wider, more contoured straps will make the light more comfortable and stable; for the heavier units with battery pack at the back, a strap over the top of the head is beneficial. However, straps should not be so complicated that they cannot be quickly adjusted.

Weight

This is an often over-rated metric. The lightest usable running headtorches (e.g. Petzl Tikka) weigh-in around 85g, while the heaviest common ones (e.g. Black Diamond Icon) tip the scale at 235g. These weights should not put a strain on the necks of most runners, and should only be of concern in the pack on the very extremes of light and fast.

Cost

The cost can vary dramatically – from as little as $25 for a Petzl Tikka (or less for no-name-brand units from Amazon) to over $200 for high-end Petzl or Light in Motion units. While running long events is expensive, in fuel, food, bribes to crew, and entry fees, and we always want to find ways to limit our costs, keep in mind that a good quality light will last man years of abuse, and so the long-run cost of even the most expensive units is relatively low.

Secondary Considerations

  • Having a lock to prevent the light coming on in your pack is highly desirable, as is having multiple brightness levels.
  • Different coloured LEDs and reactive lightly (dims when an object comes close) are down to personal preference.
  • Water-proof ratings are important if you run in wet areas, such as the Pacific Northwest, or you do adventure racing or obstacle course racing, where you will often be swimming.
  • Some sort of battery indicator – usually a small LED which burns with different colours or flash-patterns.

For most runners, there is no one “right” answer – and many runners end up owning several torches – often starting with the lightest and cheapest and working up to more powerful units. My personal arsenal includes:

  • Black Diamond Ion: purchased for $5 on an REI seconds sale, this is the torch I throw into the bottom of my summer running pack and forget. It weighs very little and takes up almost no space, but still provides more or less adequate light for basic trail running.
  • Petzl e+Lite: ultra-small light which can be put into the pocket of my running shorts for those days I am almost certainly won’t need a light, but want to cover myself. The light is certainly not ideal for any running – but is a lot better than nothing.
  • Petzl Tikka: a light-weight unit which delivers enough light for most running conditions with enough battery life for most races. This is a great go-to for when you probably won’t need light for long. This is my standard back-up light; see focus review to follow.
  • Light & Motion Vis360: very high quality light, incorporating flashing rear light, and USB recharging make this a great light for my early-morning road runs, where the 90minute battery life is not a problem. This brand charges a lot, but delivers a lot. It can be unclipped from the head band so it can clip to a bike helmet, making it very versatile. However, if you want to be able to turn off the rear light so you don’t blind your fellow runners/riders, you will need to upgrade to the Vis360+.
  • Black Diamond Icon: my go-to light for most running, from one hour evening jaunts to multi-day races. The generous 320lumens with smooth adjustability, combined with long battery life from four AA cells and water proofing, make this a powerhouse. It is also moderately priced, at USD70 rack price. The 2017 version is a big step up in many respects: USD100 gives you a car-blinding 500 lumens, a removable battery pack (you can put it in your pack to reduce weight on your head) and the ability to program which setting it defaults to when you turn it on.

Reactive lighting senses the amount of light coming back – if you get close to branches, the light dims to prevent you form getting blinded. Some runners love this, some hate it… I see the point, but am skeptical for myself.

Here are three other torches which I don’t own myself, but have been impressed by:

  1. Black Diamond Storm. Powered by four AAA cells, this torch puts out up to 250 lumens. At 110g and $60, it is much lighter on the wallet and body than the Icon; it produces nearly as much light, with the trade-off being less burn time – however, this is a small trade-off for most runners. It has the other essential features, including waterproofness and a lock.
  2. Black Diamond Spot. This is essentially the Storm’s little brother: 3 AAA cells, 200 lumens, 90g, $50… but still with the features (albeit lower waterproof rating). Although I don’t understand why Black Diamond makes two products so similar, but that doesn’t mean that either is a bad choice. This one is simply suited to slightly lighter duty.
  3. Petzl Myo. At 370 lumens and $120, this is a step up from even the Icon. It offers managed brightness, so that the light does not dim as the battery drains – a very nice feature! The lock is not as secure as the Icon, and the torch is water resistant rather than waterproof – probably only important if you have a hankering for really necky races! Powered by two AA cells, the torch is lighter (175g vs 280g) but has a shorter burn-time. Another good feature is the diffusion lens which you can flip up to move from a more focused beam to a flood. This product wouldn’t match the Icon for me, since I from time to time find myself swimming at night, but I can see how it is a better option for more weight-conscious runners who don’t need the waterproofness – and, if money were no object, I would consider it as my pure-play running light.

I will go into some of these matters in more detail in following reviews – but my hope is that this article will help you start thinking about your next light.

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