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HEAD TORCH BUYING GUIDE

Simon James, founder of Run the Wild, talks us through what to look for when buying a head torch.


During winter, it's hard to get outside with the cold weather and shorter days. However, just because it’s dark outside, doesn’t mean we have to confine ourselves to the indoors. Whether it’s going for a hike in the hills on the weekend, trying to keep fit over the winter months or just taking the dog for a walk, a head torch is an essential piece of kit for us to be able to continue all of our summer outdoor pursuits well into the depths of winter. 

So what type of head torch is best for you? It’s a question that pops up regularly on forums, running clubs and from our clients at Run the Wild. In the past we’ve looked at large spreadsheets of comparative torch data and then weighed up what provides the best compromise, but with so many new head torch brands on the market and with continual changes, we figured it wasn't the best approach.. At the end of the day, most people are interested in 4 aspects when it comes to buying a head torch: brightness, battery life, weight and cost. However, the answer really depends on what you will be using the head torch for. The highest price or brightest torch, for example, does not necessarily mean it is the best torch for you.There should also be other considerations to make, such as comfort (including weight and weight distribution) and durability.

Brightness

The faster you are moving, the brighter the head torch you need. Brightness is measured in lumens (lm) and is the amount of visible light that the human eye can detect. Torches typically vary from 6lm to well over a 1000lm. To give you some reference points, the headlight of a car is around 800lm and on full-beam around 1300lm. Unless you are travelling around at the speed of a car you won’t need 1300lm! Another thing to note is that a brighter torch needs a bigger battery since it drains the battery more quickly and without it, wouldn’t shine for very long. This means it also weighs a lot more; the balance of brightness and burn time (time torch shines) vs battery weight is a constant compromise.

 

Petzl developed a revolutionary solution to this problem with REACTIVE lighting. The torch senses the amount of light bouncing back and adjusts the brightness and focus required. Shining the torch down a winding trail activates full brightness and focuses the beam into the distance, but when checking a map, the focus softens and the light output is reduced,thus increasing burn time and making it perfect for situations which require you to have both brightness and long burn times.Not having to manually change the brightness of your torch with cold, often gloved hands is a complete game changer.

 

The other factor that will affect how much brightness you need in a torch, is the ambient light. Urban streets require significantly less bright torches than those needed for a technical rural trail. For most urban settings, being seen is just as important as being able to see. Therefore, investing in reflective clothing and a rear red light is just as important as a good torch.

 

Most torches have different brightness levels. Some also have a red-light function at the front which enables you to retain your night vision, which is useful for camping. There are also some other considerations to take into consideration such as the temperature (colour) of the light. Yellow light is more sleep inducing, whereas a whiter light, similar to that of kitchen lighting, is more likely to keep you awake.

Activity recommendations:

  • Reading in your tent – 20 lumens (yellow light to help you relax)
  • Hiking and Camping – 200 lumens
  • Urban Running – 200 lumens
  • Trail Running – 300 to 900 lumens 
  • Mountain Running – 500 to 900 lumens (white light to keep you alert)
  • Cycling – 900 lumens+

Battery Life

How long you need your battery to last for will depend on your activity. How long the battery lasts will depend on the size of the battery and the brightness setting. All batteries will decay over time, which means the brightness after several hours will be significantly lower than when you first switched it on. To reduce this decay and be mindful of the planet, always choose a rechargeable torch. The output will always be far superior, it’s efficiency in the cold will be better and you will save yourself money in the long run. There are some situations however, particularly if you are in a remote location for an extended period of time, when you need to use disposable batteries.Some torches have interchangeable batteries.

 

For most head torches with a battery that is of a functional size (i.e. not heavy) you will get roughly 2 hours at full brightness. The only way to get around this ,other than REACTIVE lighting as mentioned above, is to either take spare batteries or reduce the brightness. Some torches also come with a smartphone app allowing you to program the duration you need the light for and it will calculate resultant lumens.

 

Considering how long it takes to recharge your torch is also important. For bright torches, you will need to charge them for up to 9 hours at a time and for less bright torches, up to an hour. It’s extremely important that you only buy from reputable manufacturers. Lithium-ion batteries are highly volatile components and those made by non-approved companies have been known to explode. It’s also recommended you don’t charge batteries unattended.

 

To sum up, if you don’t need a super bright torch, compromise slightly on the brightness for one that is lighter and quicker to recharge.

Typical battery requirements:

  • Reading in your tent: A month worth of reading a couple of hours a night
  • Camping and hiking: A few hours each day for up to a week
  • Urban and Trail Running: Up to 2 hours
  • Mountain Running: 6.5 hours+

Durability

Head torches often get quite a beating! They get thrown in the bottom of a rucksack only to be used in horrendous rain and biting cold, yet are expected to be reliable. When you need a head torch, you really need it, so it’s important to look for a decent IP (ingress protection) rating. It should be IPX4 rated which means it can cope with all weather conditions. 

 

Other things to note is that connecting wires should remain intact and any elastic headbands remain elasticated to provide a solid build. Every head torch should also have a travel lock-function so that it doesn’t accidentally get switched on in your bag, which is not only a fire risk but also really annoying when you go to use it!

Comfort

In 1973, Petzl had the ingenious idea to purchase some knicker elastic from a lingerie store to mount the first wearable head torch! Since then, the advances of torch and battery have been huge, but the mounting principle has remained unchanged, keeping the torch attached securely and comfortably on your head.

 

Head torches weighing more than 200g are cumbersome and uncomfortable. Cyclists can use a much heavier battery for a brighter torch, as it can be mounted to their bike frame and they are not bouncing up and down like a runner would be. However, if you are wearing the torch on your head, you’ll need it to be light for comfort and stability. A stable torch should stay in position if you shake your head from left to right

 

Thinking about how you want the weight distributed on the torch is also important. If wearing it on your head, we recommend wearing something like a buff or hat underneath the torch for added comfort.Some torches also offer the ability of moving the battery to an inside pocket to keep the batteries warm in extreme cold through the use of an extension cable. There are also a few designs which allow a torch to be worn on a waist belt.

Typical requirements:

  • Back-up torch: <50g
  • Camping, Urban and Trail Running: <100g
  • Mountain Running: <200g + evenly distributed weight

Beam Pattern

Head torches are usually designed in 3 ways: one very powerful LED; a couple of relatively powerful LEDs; or several less powerful ones. Powerful LEDs are more capable of providing not just a bright light, but also a focussed beam that is great for looking into the distance. For torches with two LEDs, one usually provides the focus for distance and the other a wide beam for close-up. The multiple LEDs are less capable of focussing on the distance but they are a lot lighter. It’s important that there are no dull spots in the beam pattern as our brains try to compensate for them,which leads to tiredness, so often a mixed pattern is best (focussed and wide).

Typical requirements:

  • Camping and Hiking: Wide Beam
  • Urban and Trail Running: Mixed Beam (Focus and Wide)
  • Mountain Running: Mixed Beam (Focus and Wide) 

Cost

For most people, choosing a head torch will come down to cost. However, I hope you have realised by now that the most expensive isn’t always the best for your needs, nor is it the brightest. You need to find a good balance between weight, brightness and battery life that is most suited to the activities you’ll be doing. A torch for reading in your tent can cost less than £20 and there is no reason to spend more. If you are hiking and camping or urban running, you can get a brilliant head torch for less than £60, which will do everything you need and last a long time; mine is now 15 years old and still going strong! If you are running on trails though, we suggest you invest in a brighter torch for better comfort and safety. If you are heading for all night adventures, then moving towards the top end of the range will mean you can plan your adventures and never get caught in the dark.

Summary

Head torches don’t need to break the bank. Your decision should be based on what you will be using it for. Finding a comfortable lightweight torch is just as important as one that is bright, because if it gives you a headache, you won’t want to wear it!

 

At the end of the day a torch is an investment, ensuring you enjoy staying active safely. Getting a torch that is reliable, easy to use and bright enough for your needs, means that you can forget you are even wearing it and just enjoy getting outdoors!

Typical requirements summary:

  • Urban Running, Camping and Hiking: Up to 200lm and lasts on a low setting for using multiple times during 1 week, quick to charge, simple to use, ideally with a red light setting, low cost.
  • Trail Running: At least 300lm up to 900lm; lasts around 2 hours on max setting, mixed beam (focus and wide), comfortable weight distribution.
  • Mountain Running: At least 500lm up to 900lm; lasts around 6 hours, mixed beam (focus and wide), comfortable weight distribution with easy replacement of spare batteries.

Simon James - Founder

RUN THE WILD

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