Fell running guide Dave Taylor tests out ten of the best head torches for trail running use on his local stomping ground in the Peak District. We've selected a spread of what's out there ranging from Petzl's latest super sophisticated, self-adjusting Nao right through to the budget-bargain Alpkit Gamma.
Once upon a time if you had a head torch the chances are it was the Petzl Zoom, there wasn’t really much alternative. Things have moved on and nowadays the choice isn’t so simple: there’s Intelligent Lighting, Reactive Lighting, Regulated Output, USB Rechargeable and Programmable torches to consider.
With prices ranging from less than £20 up to ten times that it can be difficult to make the right choice and get value for money. And of course there’s the L word - Lumens. It’s tempting to go down the “mine’s brighter than yours" road but is brighter really better?
Burn Time Testing
For some runners a torch giving three hours battery life is perfectly adequate whereas those doing events such as the High Peak Marathon or 24 hour “rounds" like the Bob Graham" need something that will stay bright for longer. With battery life the manufacturers claims might not be what you actually get - the middle of Bleaklow in winter is not the place to find out that the claimed burn time is over optimistic!
So I timed how long it took for all the torches to go from fully charged to going out. The regulated torches retained their brightness before switching off suddenly whereas the unregulated ones gradually dimmed as the batteries drained.
All torches were tested on full power with the exception of the UniLite, RXP, Verso, Nao and the Trail Elite (the rationale being that with these torches the user would only use maximum power occasionally and that having the torch on a lower setting, comparable in brightness to the others would be a more useful test).
Each manufacturer states the brightness measured in lumens but all torches have slightly different beam shape, spread and tint so the best test is to see what the beam actually looks like in the dark. For comparison I photographed each torch on its highest power and widest beam using the same exposure and aperture.
What Do You Need?
For off road running at night I need a torch that satisfies a number of criteria:
- Brightness - is it sufficient for the terrain.
- Battery Life - will it last the run before the batteries need changing.
- Ease of Operation - how easy is it to turn on / off, adjust and change batteries especially when wearing gloves.
- Comfort - how does it feel on the head while running for several hours.
With that in mind I put ten torches to the test on night time runs in the Peak District.
About the tester
Dave Taylor is a professional fell running guide and outdoor instructor based in the Peak District. He's an experienced off-road runner who has won both individual and team medals in British and English championships to his credit. He was the race planner for the 2014 Marmot Dark Mountains race.
Most importantly he's a committed and passionate runner who's out there in the hills in all weathers, night and day, making him the ideal reviewer for this test. More info at www.fellrunningguide.co.uk.
To check out the head torches either scroll down the page or follow the links below. We've arranged the products in alphabetical order to make life easier.
Alpkit Gamma - £17
The Gamma is the least powerful of the torches on test and by far the cheapest. The beam is adequate for running on easy trails and footpaths but not bright enough for moving faster over more technical ground. Also there is only one beam setting so no switching from spot to flood light and the Gamma projects quite a narrow beam compared to the more expensive torches.
An additional rear red light on the battery pack can be switched on and off and is useful in group situations for people to follow as well as being a good safety measure if you find yourself running on unlit roads. The torch is not regulated so the light gradually dims as the battery drains. The 3 AAA batteries are housed in a separate pack to the rear and are easy to change.
One button on the top of the torch cycles through all the modes and is quite easily located whilst wearing gloves. Having the batteries on the back of the head and with a top strap the Gamma is well balanced and small foam pads on the light and battery packs give added comfort.
The battery compartment lid can break with long-term use, but Alpkit will happily repair it for you or provide a replacement lid with which is easy to fit. You can achieve a temporary fix with cable ties.
Finally, the lower-powered, multi-coloured LEDs are handy for map-reading and talking to other runners without wrecking their night vision.
'Great all-round option for runners on a tight budget, but lack of outright punch limits it on more technical terrain.'
Although outshone by the other torches on test and not packing enough punch for serious terrain the Gamma makes a great supplementary torch. I have adapted mine to go round my waist for use in foggy conditions.
The Gamma is ideal for anyone doing shorter easy runs on paths and non-technical trails. It also makes a handy back-up torch to have in your pack and the rear red light is useful if you want to lead groups.
Cheap, easy to operate.
Underpowered, battery compartment lid can break.
Alpkit's full lighting range at www.alpkit.com/lighting
Black Diamond Revolt - £70
The Revolt uses a triple power LED as its main beam and two lower powered LEDs all of which have their brightness adjusted by pressing and holding the on / off button (as with the SEO5). The main beam gives a reasonable spread of light although not as good as the SEO5 or Trail Runner II and there is no adjustable zoom.
The torch comes with Black Diamond’s own rechargeable AAA batteries and the torch can be recharged via USB with the batteries in situ. This is useful as it means that you always set out with a fully charged torch. It will also take standard AAAs as a back up.
The single on / off switch isn’t the easiest to use and opening the battery compartment on the head unit is almost impossible with gloves on. It is also quite tricky to then close the compartment correctly and so changing batteries mid-run could be quite problematic.
With the batteries up front the Revolt isn’t very stable whilst running fast and at one stage it slipped down onto the bridge of my nose meaning I had to stop to readjust the strap.
'USB chargeability is an attractive feature, but otherwise the Revolt is slightly disappointing as a running headtorch at this price'
The Black Diamond would suit runners looking for a USB rechargeable torch, but otherwise we think other headtorches tested offer better value for money. The Revolt is arguably better suited to hiking and camping use.
Note: the latest version of the Revolt has increased power to 130 lumens, though the version tested here is still available.
Lacks penetration, fiddly with gloves, not stable, expensive
Full details at blackdiamondequipment.com
Exposure Verso - £120
Made in the UK by proven bike light specialists Exposure Lighs, the tiny Verso doesn’t look like it is capable of putting out the brightness that it actually does. It can be powered solely by the mini Lithium Ion battery (CR123) in the head unit although I used the additional support pack - a clip-on blinged-up, carbon fibre battery - to extend the battery life.
With a choice of three brightness levels the Verso’s fixed beam gives plenty of light to match any kind of terrain and combining the two batteries gives 8½ hours before starting to dim. There is also the option of different programmes which adjust brightness to extend burn times.
A large button on the side of the lamp gives simple switching between power levels even with gloves on. The button changes from green to amber to red as the battery drains; useful in some respects but you need to take the torch off to look at the button, so you'll need an attentive running buddy to help you out!
Our control button was occasionally temperamental and needed an extra press to register, but Exposure has a good reputation for customer service and we'd expect them to sort that out without any issues.
A single, wide headband, adjusted by Velcro gives a snug, comfortable fit (a top strap is also included but not needed) and the lightness of the unit means that the torch is stable even when running over rough ground.
'Long battery life, brightness, light weight and simple operation make this a great choice for those prepared to spend a bit more on a torch. And it's British too.'
The Verso looks great with its engineered alloy casing and will suit runners looking for a bit of bling! But it’s not all show; as well as looking good, long battery life, impressive brightness, light weight and simple operation make this a great choice for those prepared to spend a bit more on a torch.
Excellent light, easy to operate, sleek and well engineered - a great looking torch.
Full details at use1.com/content/verso
LED Lenser SEO5 - £50
The LED Lenser SEO5 is unusual in that as well as having bright and dim settings the brightness can be set anywhere between the two by pressing and holding the on / off button. This may seem useful on paper, but in real life I have never found myself “between settings", i.e. wishing that the light was slightly brighter or dimmer than the pre-sets allowed.
The zoom is adjusted by twisting a ring on the lens. Using flood and the brightest setting the SEO5 gave a good spread of light that was easily sufficient for the terrain. The on / off button is quite small and not easy to feel whilst wearing gloves.
The 3 AAA batteries give four hours o burn time before a red LED warns you that you have a further 20 mins before the torch switches off. Changing the batteries is tricky with gloves on as the catch is quite small. The torch’s light weight and its single, wide headband made the SEO5 comfortable to wear.
The batteries are housed in the light unit so everything is on the forehead and this lead to a bit of bobbing when running over rough ground. Because of this the torch isn’t as well balanced as those with batteries worn on the rear of the head.
The SEO5 is a good, lightweight torch for runners who don’t need too much battery life and want more control over the exact brightness. The regulated beam means light output stays consistent over the life of the batteries. Not one for thick glove wearers though.
Good spread of light
Fiddly to operate with gloves, single unit not as stable as those with separate battery pack.
Full LED Lenser range at www.ledlenser.com
Petzl Nao 2014 - £145
This is the new, winter 2014 version of Petzl's Nao with almost twice as much light output as the original along with improved battery life.
Another torch using Reactive Lighting, the Nao offers two default brightness settings and on full power lights up a huge area. You can literally run at full speed over the roughest terrain as the spread of the beam at close range is exceptional.
Even on the lower setting there is plenty of light for fast movement and the Nao reacts instantly when looking up from close range to distant objects. As with the RXP there is the option of Constant Lighting with two brightness settings. Battery life has been improved from the original version and on the lower of the Reactive settings Petzl say to expect 12 hours burn time.
While didn’t test this I did test battery life on the lower of the Constant settings and got pretty close to Petzl’s claim of eight hours.
The Nao is also programmable by plugging the battery into a computer allowing you to manage the brightness and burn times to suit your needs. Unlike the RXP, operating the controls is simple via the large twist button that can be used even with thick gloves. A long twist switches between Constant and Reactive modes whilst a short twist alternates the two brightness levels on each mode.
The battery pack is located on the back of the headband and sits comfortably on the head. The headband is unique in using a mix of elasticated strap and static cord which is easily adjusted to suit the wearer. A downside of the Reactive Lighting is the size of the light unit which is a bit bulky, especially compared with the Verso and Trail Elite but I guess that’s to be expected if you want the reactive feature. and in practice the light stays comfortably and stably planted on your head.
'The choice for serious fell runners seeking both brightness and battery life, the new version of the Nao would be our first choice for big, 24-hour rounds like the Bob Graham'
The Nao is the choice for serious fell runners seeking both brightness and battery life. The 2014 version adds more lumens and longer burn time to the previous model to good effect. The Reactive Lighting is great for night navigation and conserving battery life making it a good torch for 24 hour rounds such as the Bob Graham.
Outstanding light quality, reactive lighting, easy to operate.
Big light unit, expensive.
Full details at www.petzl.com
Petzl Tikka RXP - £90
The RXP uses Petzl’s Reactive Lighting system which alters the output according to the ambient light conditions. In Reactive mode the RXP gives plenty of light when looking at the ground in front and powers itself up when looking up at more distant objects.
This is a really useful function for night navigation as you don’t get dazzled when looking at your map and should also eke out battery life by only giving you as much light as you need. There is a very slight delay in this transition as the torch reacts. Three settings allow you to choose power levels depending on the amount of light needed which for running is either maximum or standard and will give between 2 ½ and 5 hours of battery.
It is also possible to switch the torch to constant lighting, again with 3 power levels. The RXP can also be used with 3 AAA batteries but you need to purchase a separate adaptor for this. The USB rechargeable battery can also be tweaked with different power levels using Petzl's free OS software and a computer.
The downside of the torch is that it is complicated to use. Two very small buttons are difficult to locate with gloved hands and the sequence of presses to cycle through the various settings is confusing. With gloves on it's also different to tell the difference between the buttons and the flap over the USB port. With use you'd probably get more accustomed to it, but it's not an intuitive control system - the single knob on the Nao is a lot easier to use.
The battery is in the head unit making it quite bulky and meaning all the weight is up front. As a result the RXP bobs slightly when running quickly although the headband with a double strap at the back of the head goes some way to prevent this.
''The RXP will suit runners looking for Reactive Lighting at an affordable price and who don’t need too much battery life. Using it whilst wearing gloves is likely to make you wish you’d spent a little bit more on its big brother the Nao.'
Decent light output and the Reactive Lighting system is a really neat idea, unfortunately the Tikka RXP is let down by an over-complicated control system with hard to use buttons and odd sequences. We'd suggest splashing out a little more for the Nao.
Reactive lighting, USB rechargeable, programmable with Petzl OS
Fiddly and confusing controls, difficult to operate with gloves.
Full details at www.petzl.com
Silva Trail Runner II - £59.99
The Trail Runner II uses Silva’s Intelligent Light Technology meaning that it gives a combination of spot and flood lights at the same time. This does give a nice wide spread of light which is fine for the immediate vicinity however this isn’t good for picking out distant objects - for example looking for a stile at the far side of a field - as a single, high-powered spot.
Silva says that you will get 30 hours from the 3 AAAs on full power, in the real world we managed about fours hours before the torch dims considerably and realistically you would need to use fresh batteries. On the plus side, the single large button on the side of the lamp is easy to locate even with gloves and the sequence of high, med, low and flash makes for simple operation.
The rear battery compartment is easy to open whilst wearing gloves making battery replacement quick and simple. The smooth tilt mechanism feels well-made and a single, wide, anti-slip strap and rear battery compartment makes the Trail Runner II comfortable and well balanced.
'Handy mix of spot and flood beams and easy to use controls, but lacks outright oomph and burn time is less than claimed'
The Trail Runner II will suit runners looking for a mix of flood and spot whilst not requiring too much battery life or ultimate range. Ideal if you plan to wear thick gloves, well made and easy to use.
Good spread of light, easy to use with gloves, comfortable and well balanced.
Lack of penetrating spot / zoom, battery life less than claimed.
Full details at www.silva.se
Silva Trail Speed Elite - £210
The Trail Speed Elite, even on its medium setting allows fast running over rough terrain. I didn’t need to use the full 660 lumens although I did try it out just because I could! The tiny lamp unit has two lights, one above the other: Silva’s Intelligent Lighting.
This produces a mix of spot and flood which gives a wide and penetrating field of light. The large rechargeable battery gives eight hours on medium power, long enough to get you through the night on all but a winter 24 hour round. A large button on the side of the lamp is simple to operate whilst wearing gloves.
Most of the weight (120g) is in the large, padded, rechargeable battery pack worn on the rear of the head - there is the option of extending the cable to wear in a pocket or bum bag for added versatility and efficiency in really cold conditions - and the Trail Speed Elite feels well balanced and stable even when running fast over rough ground.
'Fearsomely expensive, but a combination of epic light output, decent battery life and easy to use controls ong with cold weather-friendly remote battery options and a handy bike mount make this the headtorch of choice for serious, fast-moving runners'.
The Trail Speed Elite is the torch for the fast movers. It may be a bit overkill for your average fell runner but its brightness and versatility allows it to be used for mountain biking - it comes with helmet and handlebar mounts - and even night skiing if that’s your thing, thus increasing its value for money. Simple functions via a big button make gloved use easy and the ability to carry the battery in a pocket makes it a good choice in cold conditions.
Brightness, battery life, versatility.
Full details at www.silva.se
Supra Beam V3r - £150
The Supra Beam gives a very good light making it easy to run fast on rough terrain and the telescopic lens allows instant transition between spot and flood modes. It is USB rechargeable and comes with a spare Lithium Ion battery and charging adaptor plus an extension cable allowing the battery pack to be worn in a pocket or bumbag.
The torch is well engineered in aluminium, looks classy and is backed by a five-year guarantee. A single small button - strangely located under the lens rather than on top of it - allows brightness to be adjusted by pressing and holding. A single press gives a 300 lumen boost which is great for searching out stiles, cairns, trig points etc.
At first it's easy to inadvertently press the button when trying to operate the zoom or tilt the lens and it takes a while to remember where the switch is. No doubt you’d get used to this quirk if it were your main torch. It is also easy to switch the torch on by accident during transport and the battery lead needs to be unplugged to prevent this.
The pack on the rear of the headband housing the rectangular battery is easy to open although prising out the battery to change in the field is tricky whilst wearing gloves.
The battery pack has a rear facing red LED which is permanently on; great if you’re leading a group and you want people to follow you, but not so clever if you’re competing in a night race and you don’t! Gaffa tape would solve it, but a separate switch would be a nice addition.
On the head, the V3r feels well balanced and comfortable and remains stable even when running over rough ground.
'Quirky Danish aluminium headtorch gives decent light output with an easy to use zoom and handy 300-lumen boost option.'
The Suprabeam is a classy looking torch that will appeal to runners looking for build quality and the versatility to carry the battery pack in a pocket or bum bag. If you can get used to its odd quirks the five-year guarantee might sway you to buying this well-made Danish light.
Good light quality, ease of zoom, build quality.
Strange position of on / off switch, easy to switch on by accident, constant rear red LED.
UniLite Prosafe PS-H8 - £45
Designed as an industrial torch rather than with outdoor activities in mind, UniLite is a brand you might not have heard of. Its fluorescent yellow casing makes it bright in more ways than one! Punching out 250 lumens on full power the PS-H8 was bright enough to handle all of the terrain although the odd, square shaped beam took some getting used to.
With three brightness settings, rear red LED and a manual sliding zoom the PS-H8 is a versatile torch. Powered by three AA batteries in a rear case the unregulated torch gives plenty of battery life before starting to dim.
The on/off button is quite small and hard to find whilst wearing gloves as is the manual zoom control, however the battery compartment is very easy to open making changing the 3 AAs a simple procedure even with thick gloves. The UniLite feels chunky and was the heaviest torch on test but being well balanced and with comfortable foam padding it didn’t feel uncomfortable even on longer runs.
As with the Alpkt Gamma, which it resembles in scaled-up form, the battery box has a handy switchable rear-facing red light that can run either in constant or flashing modes.
'Industrial heritage means it's heaviest on test, but it's decently bright in both senses and surprisingly comfortable.'
Bright and comfortable with a versatile zoom, though the controls are tricky to operate, the UniLite is an affordable, bright, rugged torch for anyone who doesn’t mind carrying a bit more weight on the head.
Fiddly to operate with gloves, quite heavy.