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Buyer's Guides

Head Torches | Buyer’s Guide

Everything you need to know about choosing a head torch from how bright it needs to be through to the difference between regulated and non-regulated output.

Headtorches are brilliant things: they leave your hands free to do other stuff like cooking or scrabbling desperately for holds on the rock. They automatically follow the direction of your gaze. And these days, the best of them kick out enough raw power to allow you to hurtle headlong down rough mountain tracks at night almost as if it were still daytime.

There are loads of choices out there as well. Petzl are arguably the best known brand in the area, but the likes of Black Diamond, Princeton Tec, Silva and others are hot their illuminated heels. And Alpkit has carved a neat little niche for itself as the king of the budget headtorch world with the Gamma.

Before you start, have a think about what your torch is for. Will it just be for camping and cooking with maybe the odd late walk out in winter? In that case a low-powered all-rounder like a Petzl Tikka could be more than enough. Will you be running at night off road? Our experience is that big flood beams or a mix of flood and spot work best for that.

Or are you a climber who might need a piercing, high-powered spot to pick out abseil stations or make out a route ahead of you? Or perhaps you need an all-rounder that’ll do a bit of everything from cooking to climbing?

How much light?

Thanks to increasingly bright and efficient LED bulbs, headtorches are becoming brighter all the time, but for a lot of general use, you don’t need a particuarly bright beam. Petzl’s Tikka 2 puts out around 86 lumens and that’s enough for use around camp and for occasional use for night-time walking.

For seeing further, a brighter LED is a good call, but you’ll almost certainly want the ability to use lower light levels for cooking, reading and so on. Some torches have dimmable main beams, others, like the Black Diamond Revolt above, use additional smaller LEDs – sometimes in different colours – as an alternative light source, which has the advantage of using less power and giving longer burn times.

Coloured LEDs

Red supplementary bullbs preserve your night vision and give a softer light and are common. Less seen are green and blue LEDs as used by Alpkit. The green ones are reckoned to be spot on for nighttime map-reading while the blue are for more general use. Not essential by any means, but interesting. Particularly if you’re in the special forces, apparently.

Power Source – Batteries

The advantage of conventional batteries is that you can replace them easily with spares – make sure the battery box opens easily either rechargeable or one off alkalines. Or in cold weather, opt for high capacity lithium cells for better performance.

You will, however, need a separate battery charger or a deep wallet. An interesting halfway house is the Black Diamond Revolt, which allows you to charge recharegeable AAA cells using USB while still in the torch. Or simply use conventional batteries instead. Genius.

Power Source – USB┬áRechargeable

Soem torches, like the cracking little Kickstarter-finded Bosavi above and the latest Petzl Nao and Tikka RXP use an internal lithium polymer or lithium ion battery which is chargeable with a USB cable. The plus side is convenience and no need to buy batteries.

The negative side is on multi-day trips when you need to provide an additional charging source, maybe a back-up battery pack or a solar charger.

 

Clever Gubbinses

Also on the power front, Petzl has two cunning features on some of its top-end torches like the new Tikka RXP and the mighty Nao. The first is something called ‘reactive lighting’ where the torch automatically increases and decreases power according to how much you need.

It uses a sensor to detect how much ambient light there is and works unobtrusively and well. The big plus is that it ekes out battery life by one putting out the big numbers when needed. It also reduces fiddling around to up or reduce output, good in winter conditions when you’re wearing gloves.

The other Petzl innovation is programmability using free software called Petzl OS. It allows you to choose light output levels by hooking the unit up to your computer and means you can predict burn times and adjust output to suit activities and preferences. It’s geeky but useful. Or you can simply ignore it.

Regulated Output

Something that’s not often touched on is the advantage of a regulated output. The way most torches work is that as the battery runs down, the output of the torch rapidly decreases, so that a headtorch which is perfectly adequate with a fresh battery can be much dimmer after just an hour or so of use.

Regulated torches, on the other hand, include clever circuitry which keeps the light output relatively consistent over the lifetime of the battery. Output will still drop slightly but by nothing like as much, which is a real plus. You will pay more for a regulated light, but for regular use, it’s worth it.

Remote Battery Boxes

There are two pluses for remote battery compartments like this Silva Runner. The first is that it removes weight from your head, which is ideal for runners and adventure racers in particular. The second is that it allows you to keep the batteries close to you body in an inside pocket in low temperatures.

This helps to keep the battery warm and operating more efficiently. With all batteries, cold slows the chemical reactions inside and reduces output. If you have a choice of batteries for cold conditions, lithium cells work best.

Remote Battery Boxes

There are two pluses for remote battery compartments like this Silva Runner. The first is that it removes weight from your head, which is ideal for runners and adventure racers in particular. The second is that it allows you to keep the batteries close to you body in an inside pocket in low temperatures.

This helps to keep the battery warm and operating more efficiently. With all batteries, cold slows the chemical reactions inside and reduces output. If you have a choice of batteries for cold conditions, lithium cells work best.

Headbands, Helmets And Comfort

Finally, make sure the torch you buy is comfortable. Padding on light units and battery boxes can help here and we like Petzl’s new-look harness above. You want a snug, secure fit that’s not painfully tight. You’re also looking for stability and adjustability.

You should be able to angle the torch slightly downwards to suit and when it’s adjusted, it should stay adjusted, even when you’re running.

A separate battery box may mean more battery power, but also more overall weight, but we’d generally rather have weight split between a battery box and a head unit unless the torch is a lightweight overall.

For running and cold weather use, a remote battery box with an extension cable is a really good call and minimises the weight on your noggin.

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