Headlamps are a very convenient and important tool in backpacking. For alpinists they are vital, but even if you aren’t climbing a 1000 meters vertical wall, it is really convenient to be able to cook, check a map, mount a tent or attend any other backpacker’s chore with your hands free. If you chose the right headlamp for your needs, that is. Here is a checklist, in semi-random order, to help you realize which of the many models is the best for where you’ll backpack and your way of backpacking. Comments and suggestions are obviously welcome.
Which size of batteries does it need?
Namely, does the headlamp use the same size of batteries as other electrically powered components of your gear, like the water filter? Carrying along only one size of batteries means that you can operate all your electric gadgets, even if not simultaneously, with the smallest possible battery weight (not to mention the money savings).
How easy it is to attach it to other objects?
Headlamps are obviously made for being carried on your head or helmet, courtesy of some more or less elastic band, and are great for that. Sometimes, however, for example when it must provide light to more than one person, it would be better to have the headlamp hanging securly from the inner top of your tent or vestibule or from a tree branch. Is this easy and safe with the model you’re considering?
Does the lens bulge out?
If yes, it will get scratches more easily from low hanging branches or simply from other objects in your pack or jacket pockets.
Which / how many parts of the lamp can be purchased separately as spare parts?
See previous question. Lens scratches aside, the easiest it is to repair by yourself a lamp changing only the part which broke, the smaller its cost and environmental impact will be. Manufacturers which makes spare parts easy to get and use should be preferred, whenever possible.
Is it easy to open the battery housing in the dark?
Why should I care? When I need to change batteries in the dark I’ll just turn my headlamp on and… No, wait…
Is the battery housing cover strong? Do the batteries stay in place even without it?
If the cover breaks or falls out ten minutes after you’re left for a ten days trek, it could be your darkest one. Especially if the batteries fall to the ground one second after the cover. Oh, and what about water and rain?
Is the headlamp usable with your standard gloves?
By usable we mean both “putting it securely around your head” and “switching it on and off without making a mess or wasting time”.
Does it bounce while you walk?
It would be quite annoying if it did, wouldn’t it?
Can you change the orientation of the light beam?
If the light beam cannot be changed without moving the headband (ie making the lamp less stable) or tilting your head, it may be more difficult to cook or read in a comfortable position. Or your fellow backpackers may lose their temper and decide to leave home next time that poor soul who is making them blind every evening.
How much waterproof the headlamp is?
Believe it or not, there is an official, international standard to describe the protection provided by enclosures of lamps and many other devices, electrical or not which defines 9 level of Ingress Protection (IP): X0 means not protected, whereas XP8 corresponds to “protected against the effects of continued immersion in water”. Click here for a short summary of IP codes and check out the IP code of your headlamp before opening your wallet. You have to figure out just how much waterproof your own headlamp needs to be, keeping in mind that more resistance to water means more weight, higher price and slightly more complicated maintenance. And that less resistance may mean less safety.
While we are at this, is there any way to make a headlamp truly waterproof which is practical, robust enough to last at least one whole vacation and not weighing two or three times more than the headlamp itself? Suggestions are welcome, I may write another article on this.