There is a massive amount of choice in headlamps these days. A lot of companies like to throw numbers around to get the sale. The race to advertise a higher “lumen” count has led people to focus on this, but there is a whole lot more to be concerned with when purchasing a lamp. One of the biggest things to look at is most often ignored. Is the lamp regulated or traditional lighting?
Most headlamps traditionally run out the battery on a curve. So while your 200 lumen lamp will output the full 200 lumens when initially powered up with fresh batteries, it will quickly decrease to 70-80% of this power level within the first hour or two, and steadily decline in power beyond that. The reason for this is to prolong battery life, and make sure you do not have to use 10 liters of your backpacking pack for those extra AAA’s. This is how you see lamps with quoted battery life well in excess of 50+ hours.
With a regulated lighting system, the lamp will output its maximum power for a defined duration. This is beneficial in performance/aerobic activities, short duration night missions where full power is essential. So when heading out for that two hour, mid-winter, after-work trail run in the dark, you can know that you are getting your full 200 lumens and 100m beam for the entire duration of the run. So what is the downside? When regulated lamps reach the end of their battery life, power drops dramatically to a very minimal reserve level (Near or below 10%), that gives you about 30 minutes of dim light before the lamp goes dark.
“There is more to the quest for en’light’enment than it seems!”
These are two big differences that cater to two different types of user. The backpacker heading out for a weeklong trip will likely value battery life over performance, so as to not carry all those extra heavy (and wasteful) batteries up and down the West Coast Trail ladders. The trail runner or night hiker will likely value the short duration / maximum power scheme of a regulated lamp to ensure they are getting maximum bang for the buck for the short time they are out on the trail.
Petzl takes this one step further with their reactive lighting system, found on the Reactik, Reactik+, and Nao headlamps. These lamps offer a regulated lighting system, as well as what they call ‘reactive lighting’. The lamps contain a sensor that measures both ambient light and reflectivity and automatically adjust the headlamps power accordingly. This means that when looking straight out into the dark, the lamp will shine its full power spot beam at maximum power, but when you glance down at a map, it will instantly dim to low-power proximity lighting without the push of a button, or blinding the wearer. In addition, these lamps can be programmed into different profiles with Petzl OS software (free on the Petzl website). For instance, setting one can be the full power, 2.5 hour setting, while the second setting can be your 20 hour, slightly lower power setting for when you need it to last for the duration of a long weekend camping trip.
Ultimately there is no shortage of choice out there, and the marketing can be really confusing. The “lumen-race” is on, and brands like to highlight the biggest numbers on their marketing and the product packaging. But there is often more to the story than just the maximum output of the lamp. In some situations, the more powerful lamp may not be the best option if it only last for an hour. In other cases, you only need that maximum power for brief moments, and prioritize battery life. As with most things: the decision will ultimately come down to the old “what are you using it for” question. Are you going out for a short duration run on super technical terrain with difficult route finding? You probably want a regulated light with high power. That way you know it will be at x-lumens for a determined time-frame. Are you doing the north coast trail in the winter and looking for a battery to last a week? Then a traditional lamp that prioritizes battery life may be more what you are looking for. In any case, there is more to the quest for en’light’enment than it seems!
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