Buying an LED Torch: Headlamp Design Considerations to Help Guide Your Purchasing Decisions

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by Rick Dreher | 2003-11-18 03:00:00-07

Be sure to check our Gear Guide to LED Headlamps.

Introduction

If your brain isn’t overwhelmed by all the variables in our primer on LED headlamps, it’s time to go shopping. Your first priority should be to define your needs, then come up with a list of headlamps (or handheld flashlights) that match them. Try to test them all before selecting. If you’re a fair-weather backpacker who hikes mostly in the summer, you might be able to get away with a button cell microlight such as the popular Photon II or III. Weighing mere grams, it will still provide enough light to rummage through your pack or stir a pot of food by, and can be modified to attach to a cap for hands-free use (use self-stick Velcro or a binder clip). However, if you’re caught on the trail after dark, only those with owl-like night vision will find it possible to navigate anything but boulevard-like trails using one.

For non-technical trail navigation, a photo cell headlamp such as the Black Diamond Ion or PrincetonTec Scout give a brighter beam and hands-free operation at a little more than an ounce or two.

One of the compact LED headlamps driven by three AAA batteries can be considered the next step up. The Petzl Tikka and Zipka series, the Black Diamond Moonlights, the Princeton Tec Aurora and similar lights are still lightweight, while giving plenty of light for non-technical nighttime navigation and in-camp chores, such as hanging a bearbag - tasks for which button cell lights are overmatched. Used prudently, a single set of batteries can last a season and the light, with batteries, only weighs about three ounces.

Bigger, brighter headlamps come in a vast array of configurations. If you’re a predawn climber, a nighttime explorer, or go on long hikes on short winter days, you’ll probably want a hybrid headlamp or a multi LED multi mode headlamp that puts out serious light for traveling and frugal (battery-saving) light for your time in camp. We’re in a transition period during which more-sophisticated and powerful voltage-regulated LED lamps (like the Photon Fusion) will likely displace incandescent and even hybrid headlamps as the backcountry standard.

Design Considerations

Headlamps vary in layout. Here are some design options to consider while shopping.

Straps: Headlamps have either a single, adjustable elastic headband or a band plus a top strap. Some straps are only large enough to fit around the head, while others can be sized to allow fitting on a helmet. The top strap helps stabilize the light and keeps it from slipping while you’re on the move, but some folks find them annoying. In response, some headlamps have a removable top strap - perhaps the best of both worlds.

The Battery Pack: The batteries sometimes are stored in front, inside the lamp unit itself, sometimes in a battery pack attached the back of the head connected by a cable, and sometimes kept in a remote battery pack that’s not part of the headlamp itself, also connected by a cable. Bulk, balance and battery warmth are all considerations when selecting which configuration. The simplest, smallest models have everything in the lamp unit. The Petzl Tikka, Petzl Zipka and Princeton Tec Aurora are all examples. These tend to be a bit front-heavy in use and, because they don’t have center straps, can slide down your forehead while you’re active. But they’re also the lightest and most compact available. Informal field observations lead us to believe that the batteries don’t stay as warm in these lamps as they do with back-mounted battery packs.

Back-mounted batteries are generally the standard configuration for larger, higher powered headlamps. With the weight divided fore and aft and with a center strap, the headlamp will tends to stay in place on your head. When it’s cold, you can keep the batteries warm by wearing the headlamp under a jacket hood, increasing their life. Some headlamps put as many as three AA batteries up front but use a combination headband and over the crown strap to solve the slippage problem.

Remote battery packs allow you to keep the batteries warm and out of the way inside your coat, pants pocket or backpack. Very large battery packs, such as those using multiple C-cells, are too heavy and too bulky to keep on your head. Routing the connecting cable so that you don’t snag it at an inopportune time can be a challenge, though.

The Lamp Head: Lamp heads vary in design: some can be aimed by changing their angle, while others are fixed. The aimable (pivoting) ones are quite handy. Incandescent lamp heads generally have adjustable beams, focusing from spot to flood; LED lamps have fixed focus (unless they have switchable LED arrays). An LED lamp head that sits too close to the head can create annoying glare, especially for glasses wearers, because stray light can hit glasses lenses or even the eyes. Compare, for example, the Princeton Tec Aurora with the Black Diamond Moonlight. The Moonlight places the LEDs farther from the forehead, reducing the possibility of stray light hitting the face. Some headlamps are waterproof while others are open to the elements. While intruding rain won’t necessarily spell ruin to an LED light, sweat or saltwater certainly may - plus there’s the possibility of switch failure.

Beam Pattern: As noted earlier, LEDs come prefocused, so the lamp maker controls beam pattern by selecting and arranging them in the headlamp. Hybrid lights, whether LED/LED or incandescent/LED generally switch between a bright narrow high beam and a floodlight style low beam. With incandescent high beams, the beam itself is usually adjustable. Simpler lights - single or multiple LED with no options - have non-adjustable patterns that range from a spot to a circle to an oval, depending on model and maker. Also note that the beam thrown by a white LED generally has some intensity and color variation. It’s common to see a blue or purple fringe around the center white pool of light. This can be annoying for activities like reading. Some multi LED lights use a combination of focused and wide beam LED in combination with a reflector to have a lighting pattern that has a bright central beam but also good peripheral illumination.

Switches: There are pushbuttons, slide switches and twist switches. Lights having multiple modes may have one switch that does everything, or two switches - one for power and one for mode selection. Ideally, a switch will be easy to reach and use in all conditions, waterproof and won’t accidentally switch on in your pack. In practice, most switches are compromises from this ideal. It’s difficult to test switches in the store with cold, gloved hands, but you should at least keep the possibility in mind when shopping. (Editor's Note: The true test of the usability of a winter torch? The ability to operate the switch while wearing mittens.)

How to Test? The best way to decide which light is right for you is to borrow several and try them out. Next best is to read comprehensive, sometimes amusing, and sophisticated reviews online. In-store testing helps, but has its limitations. First, the store is brightly lit and your eyes will be daylight adjusted. Second, you have no way of knowing the battery condition in the various lights. Even so, playing with them in person means you can test whether they fit well, see their beam patterns and decide whether you can easily operate their switches, at least at 75 degrees. Be sure to move your head and bounce up and down to find out whether they stay put.

When REI first opened Gear Nirvana - their Seattle flagship store on Yale Avenue - they had the perfect solution: an enclosed diorama for their bicycle headlights. You stood at a rail in this darkened room and pressed buttons to switch on the various lights, illuminating the display (which had bushes, rocks, critters, etc.). The lights were powered by transformers, so that you knew you were comparing them all at full power. Something similar would be fantastic for comparing flashlights and headlamps. Retailers?


Citation

"Buying an LED Torch: Headlamp Design Considerations to Help Guide Your Purchasing Decisions," by Rick Dreher. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/00203.html, 2003-11-18 03:00:00-07.

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Forum Index » Editor's Roundtable » LED Lights

Discussion of light-emitting diode (L.E.D.)-based flashlights and headlamps. The reader is referred to the following articles as basis for this discussion:
In addition, to provide context for the lightware that is currently available on the market, the reader is also referred to:

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Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
Headlamp of the Future? on 11/26/2003 00:00:42 MST Print View

So, a question to LED headlamp users:

What initially governed your decision(s) to purchase the LED lights you currently use?

Weight?
Packed size?
LED flood brightness for closeup work?
Long-beam projection for night navigating?
Battery life?
Comfort/features?
Cost?

My ideal headlamp has a low weight and tiny size with no sacrifice in short range flood brightness or long range beam projection.

My favorite light is still the Black Diamond Gemini, because of the excellent range of its xenon beam and the battery life/short range brightness of its LED. New technology means they can certainly do better on the LED side, and the BD Zenix is a step in the right direction, but its main light still not as bright as the Gemini's xenon beam. I used a Gemini on an all-night 'emergency' descent of the Middle Teton (10 hours of rappelling down a rotten rock couloir in a storm), so we have kind of bonded. My highest priorities in my "headlamp of the future" is to retain the functionality of this lamp, while improving LED short range flood brightness and shaving weight and bulk.

Your ideal headlamp?

Edited by ryan on 12/06/2003 06:25:35 MST.

Rick Dreher
(halfturbo) - MLife

Locale: Northernish California
Battery choices on 11/30/2003 18:29:30 MST Print View

I have some unanswered questions from preparing the article series for you E.E. or electronics hobbyist types out there. Here’s the first:

Since super-premium alkaline batteries offer more capacity than lithium cells, and since lithiums cost perhaps five times as much as alkalines, might power management circuitry eventually compensate for alkaline battery voltage roll-off such that alkaline performance might equal or better that of lithiums? (Ignoring low-temperature performance.)

--Rick Dreher

Kevin Sawchuk
(ksawchuk) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Northern California
LED lights on 12/01/2003 16:17:32 MST Print View

I prefer a headlamp for versatility--The Petzel I have has three brightness options which is nice for battery conservation and not having a light to bright for reading. It has acceptable brightness for hiking on trails at night, is poor for running at night (I run Ultras and the 100 mile versions require night trail running). It gives better contrast for hiking if you hold it in your hand instead of keeping it around your head. For dedicated handheld use the Princeton Tec Attitude (or their TD40 with a LED module "pushed" to 4 AA cells--this has no warrenty from Princeton Tec but has worked well for me) work well and are light. AA Lithium batteries are also much lighter and last longer than Alkaline.

Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
Re: LED lights on 12/01/2003 16:24:24 MST Print View

Kevin, tell us more about your TD40. This sounds like a good concept. Did you do the mods or did PTec? and how?

obx hiker
(obxcola) - MLife

Locale: Outer Banks of North Carolina
led lights on 12/02/2003 19:09:26 MST Print View

Please name some relatively common/accessible sources for AAA lithium batteries. I think I've looked at half the major chain electronics big boxes in NC & VA ( w/ no luck)

obx hiker
(obxcola) - MLife

Locale: Outer Banks of North Carolina
Re: led lights on 12/02/2003 19:23:46 MST Print View

I did find this info from a web search:
.zbattery.com states on their web-site:

AAA Lithium 1.5V batteries are currently not made. If a lithium battery is rechargeable,
it is 3.6V, not the standard 1.5V. There is a lot of confusion about this. You cannot use a 3.6V battery where a 1.5V is required. If you would like a rechargeable option for a standard AA, or AAA battery check out our rechargeable battery page and select the NiMH batteries for your best option.

Rick Dreher
(halfturbo) - MLife

Locale: Northernish California
Re: AAA battery choices on 12/03/2003 10:09:07 MST Print View

As you've discovered, nobody's making lithium AAAs at present. What I've not been able to find out is whether there's a technical reason (they don't scale down well) or a marketing one (wouldn't sell enough of them).

Note that the common rechargables, Ni-MH, etc. put out somewhat less than 1.5 volts, although this doesn't seem to be a problem with flashlights.

--Rick Dreher

John Coyle
(Bigsac)

Locale: NorCal
Re: Headlamp of the Future? on 12/06/2003 00:12:38 MST Print View

Speaking of the devil, my favorite light, which I have only had for a month, is the BD Zenix(the correct spelling.) I recently did a night hike with my son, who was using a Petzl Myo 3, near Cool CA, the same area a jogger was killed by a mountain lion 7-8 years ago. We both agreed that my Zenix had brighter beam projection and closeup flood light than the Petzl, which is a pretty good light too. I should mention that both headlamps had new alkaline batteries(Zenix 3 AAA, and Myo 4 AA.) Interestingly enough the BD Zenix is totally LED, while the Petzl is a combination long beam Xenon and closeup LED. The Zenix weighs 4.9 oz with batteries, and I can't think of any other LED headlamp in this weight class with such good long beam characteristics. A fairly strong long beam is helpfull in identifying nocturnal animals, a favorite pastime of mine.

I would have loved to have seen a mountain lion on our hike, but unfortunately this did not happen.

John Coyle

Kevin Sawchuk
(ksawchuk) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Northern California
PTec light on 12/12/2003 22:28:26 MST Print View

Sorry I didn't check back sooner Ryan--The PTec module is available commercially for around $30. It is sold so an individual can convert their older headlamps to LED technology. The module supposed to be used with 2 AA cells and the TD40 is a 4AA light. PTec will not warrenty 4AA use, but when I talked to a rep he said that several people had done this for some time without problems. This configuration has seen me through three Western States 100 races (from 9pm when it's dark till I finish around midnight) and many winter commutes home from work. It is NOT a headlamp, but for night hiking/running I prefer my light closer to the ground for more brightness and better contrast/shadows.

Robert Molen
(molen) - F
Rayovac Sportsman 3-in-1 Head-Lite on 12/13/2003 06:54:51 MST Print View

Great review!

Princeton Tec Aurora - I agree that this is a excellent light for around the camp, but it does not have a long enough beam for night hiking.

Black Diamond Gemini - I also really like this light except for the weight... 7.1 oz w/ batteries. I went so far as to make a 3AAA battery pack to replace the 3AA battery pack getting the weight down to 4.9 oz w/ batteries. Because behind-the-head battery packs are uncomfortable lying on my back reading, I moved the custom 3AAA battery pack to the front.

Rayovac Sportsman 3-in-1 Head-Lite - This is the light I am currently using. Weight is 4.5 oz with 3AAA alkaline batteries. It has an excellent short range white LED light, a krypton spot light for longer range and night hiking, and two red LEDs I use all the time to keep my night vision... amazing how many more stars you can see. It is cheap too at $12.99. If I could only get rechargeable AAA lithium batteries for it...
http://www.rayovac.com/products/flashlights/LED.shtml

Red Photon Micro-Light 3 - This is my backup light with its red LED and SOS feature weighing 0.4 oz with batteries. Besides preserving night vision, a red LED also extends battery life 10 times a white LED.
http://www.photonlight.com/products/photon_3.html

Debra Weisenstein
(debweisenstein)
Aurora criticisms, etc. on 12/14/2003 07:27:37 MST Print View

I have 2 negative comments on the Aurora, neither of which seem to have been taken into account in the reviews.

(1) The swivel mechanism loosens over time. I've had to retighten mine twice. It's not a big deal if you're are at home and have the proper screwdriver to tighten it, but in the field it makes the headlamp unusable, as it refuses to stay where you point it.

(2) The switch is in a very awkward place for us left-handers. A centrally-mounted switch is much better from my point of view.

I also own a Moonlight, which I really like except that it once developed contact problems and had to be returned to REI for replacement. I've heard this from other Moonlight owners, and seems to be a design problem when the battery pack is separate from the light unit.

A Gemini is now my light of choice when night hiking and camp use are both possibilities.

Petzl Duo Belt is the one I use in New England winters for the AA (ie. lithium) capability and separate battery compartment that can be kept inside your clothing.

Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
Re: Aurora criticisms, etc. on 12/14/2003 07:56:28 MST Print View

RE: Aurora pivot head becoming loosened over time. We were aware of this problem in on the Aurora and paid close attention to it. Because this was an issue with initial shipments of the Aurora to retailers, we took it to an engineering lab and cycled the hinge pivot through 5000 complete (down and up) cycles. There were no issues whatsoever about the hinge become loosened and Princeton Tec has appeared to make good on their claim that the problem has been addressed. If you have an Aurora with that has its hinge become loosened after a short time, consider contacting the company and initiating a warranty exchange. -- Ryan

Richard Sullivan
(richard.s) - MLife

Locale: Supernatural BC
Black Diamond on 12/16/2003 23:05:17 MST Print View

My first generation BD Moonlight has developed the broken cord syndrome. BD reports that this is a known defect with early Moonlight and Gemini models, but are now equipped with beefier cords. Retailers are under instruction to replace all lights with this symptom, or you can ship directly to BD.

Note that the new versions of these models can be identified easily. The new Moonlight has multiple brightness control, and the new Gemini has two LEDs instead of one.

Folks - should I get my defective Moonlight replaced or get it upgraded to the new Zenix? BD has said they will do this if I pay the difference. Seems like a no-brainer for the Zenix, but just wondering if anyone had any opinions.

Ryan and Rick - Thanks for all your great work on this topic!

Richard Sullivan
(richard.s) - MLife

Locale: Supernatural BC
Re: Headlamp of the Future? on 12/16/2003 23:09:46 MST Print View

Ryan - do you have the first generation Gemini with the single LED? Do you have any idea how the short range flood brightness of the single-LED model compares with that of the new dual-LED model?

Gary Lewis
(evertrek) - F
Re: Aurora criticisms, etc. on 12/16/2003 23:42:41 MST Print View

My BD Moonlight also has the contact problems you describe, Debra. My quick fix for it is to use a clunky rubberband and twist-tie arrangement to force the wire into an angle that allows the light to work, but to do this I have to wear the battery pack over to the side a bit instead of at the back of my head. The light is the 2002 model, but I only used it about 100 hours and never abused it. Time for a different light.

Regarding my hoped-for ideals in a light:

* LED(s) that would allow me to run on rocky trail without slowing down much, but that has a lower setting for camp use. Battery use for technical/runnable travel: 15-20 hours. Regulation would be needed, I think.
* A combined high-power spotlight capability, probably xenon, that could illuminate far ahead for occasional navagation puzzles.
* Pivoting head, ideally detachable for hand use. I experimented a couple nights ago and found that indeed, as Kevin Sawchuck wrote, one can see better for technical running and power walking with the light at hand level. Not only because of better "shadowing" but also because varying the left/right angle of the light sometimes illuminates better foot placements.
* Use of 123 lithium photo batteries would allow the above ideals for about 4 oz. (Ref. the tactical lights by Surefire and Arc.) Maybe even a design using 2 or 3 AA lithiums could pull that off.

I'm considering buying a good hand-held LED light as my walking/running light, and carrying a tiny light like the Ion for camp tasks. Or even lighter for camp work, I may try gluing velcro to my cap's bill and to a microlight (I like Inova's brand best). For night walking, a reviewer from Backpackgeartest.org sewed small elastic straps onto his bill to mount a Princeton Tec Impact LED handheld. An option for relatively smooth trail even when running, if the hat stays stable enough.

Are there any plans to review handheld LED lights here some time in the future? Ryan, your methodology and analysis are much better for backpacking purposes than those used by the several LED light review sites.

Rick Dreher
(halfturbo) - MLife

Locale: Northernish California
Re: Black Diamond on 12/17/2003 10:31:15 MST Print View

Hi Richard,

Thank you for the information from BD. As a gen-1 Moonlight owner myself, it's good to know about this weakness and BD's replacement policy.

The Zenix's flexibility compared to the Moonlight makes it awfully attractive. If you have even occasional need for the high beam, it's an easy choice. The Moonlight does have a broader, more even beam (compared to the Zenix on low) and is lighter. Other than price, those seem to be the only Moonlight advantages.

Best regards,

--Rick

Richard Sullivan
(richard.s) - MLife

Locale: Supernatural BC
Re: Aurora criticisms, etc. on 12/22/2003 21:41:26 MST Print View

One of my local retailers reports that he no longer carries the Aurora due to numerous switch failures. Anybody else hear of this?

Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
Re: Re: Aurora criticisms, etc. on 12/22/2003 21:44:41 MST Print View

Again, I am under the impression that this was an issue with the initial production run - but that the issue has since been addressed.

Richard Sullivan
(richard.s) - MLife

Locale: Supernatural BC
Re: Headlamp of the Future? on 12/22/2003 22:15:08 MST Print View

The ideal headlamp at present seems to be the PT Yukon HL, but it's a bit heavy at 8 oz (~7 oz with lithiums).

I am curious about the performance rating of the BD Zenix in the review. It could probably be improved by wearing the battery pack underneath a hat, and this would be fairly easy since the pack is slim. Maybe the Zenix is the best all-round lamp at present if the wearer can keep the battery temperature up?

The ideal headlamp for the near-future appears to be a Matrix 2 with some additional small LEDs for short range lighting. I am surprised that PT did not incorporate this, but hopefully they will soon.

I'd like to add that reliability is critical to the title of "ideal" headlamp. I've been carrying battery operated lights into the wild for 30 years, yet I am still plagued by failures. Ultimately, the thing has to work when it is needed most, regardless of performance characteristics, weight, or usability features.

Rick Dreher
(halfturbo) - MLife

Locale: Northernish California
Re: Headlamp of the Future? on 12/23/2003 10:24:42 MST Print View

Richard,

Would you mind detailing some of the failures you've experienced over time? Have you noticed some failure categories falling by the wayside as the technology advances; have any new failure modes appeared?

I can note some failures I no longer experience, now that I've moved to LED lights:

* Shattered lenses (this was becoming less common already)
* Burned out and broken bulbs
* Rapid battery failure (due to high current draw or to the light switching on in my pack)
* Failure to operate in wet conditions

We are still dealing with electrical circuit failure (battery contacts, wiring, switches and now, electronic controls); mechanical failure of the lamphead or battery pack and battery failure due to high current draw (in high performance lights) and/or cold temperatures. Also, not all LED lights are immune to moisture effects.

--Rick