Woods & Mountains
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Lighting the Trail

Let your hiking fun shine on all night long
By Andy Bennett
Published: January 29, 2010
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As winter gives way to spring, and temperatures climb across the country, you might be feeling the itch to spend more and more time outdoors. Trouble is, the sun hasn’t had a chance to catch up to your schedule yet, and there don’t seem to be enough daylight hours to accommodate all the hiking you want to be doing.

Thankfully, the hiking industry has your back. There is a seemingly endless array of headlamps available that will help you shine a little light on that trail of yours and keep you from stumbling about in the dark. But with so many options, how do you choose?

Trail Type

Are you a hiker looking for the next great mountain to climb or cave to explore? Or are you a backpacker looking for something you can use to help you light a fire or find your way back to the cabin? Deciding what you’ll use the headlamp for is the first step. “The novice hiker should consider the frequency of use and the type of activities they intend on doing,” says Christian Mason, a headlamp specialist for Petzl America.

Generally, if you are using the light infrequently, you’ll be fine with an entry-level light, which generally has less light output but a longe  battery life.

If you hike at night a lot, you’ll want something that packs a punch, and preferably one that offers a wide-angle lens so you can adjust between flood lighting in short distances, and a focused beam of light for long distances.

If your hiking varies considerably (from pre-dawn to dusk and from short to long), you’ll want to consider a multi-mode headlamp, preferably one with multiple LEDs – which will help you maximize your battery life and your visibility.

Better Bulbs

Speaking of LEDs – If you’re a basic to moderately skilled hiker, you’ll most likely be picking a headlamp with LED lights. They are the most dominant lamp style in headlamps due to three factors: Energy efficiency, life span and toughness.

An LED drains batteries three to five times slower than an incandescent. Additionally an LED can last for up to 100,000 hours, whereas an incandescent may burn out after as few as 50 hours. Plus, LEDs don’t have any glass or filament, which means there’s nothing to break if (or when) you drop it.

But that doesn’t mean other types of bulbs don’t have their advantages too. Incandescent bulbs generally have a longer beam than LEDs, and some types are filled with a type of pressurized gas (like xenon, halogen or krypton) that prevents soot from building up on the bulb, which means it stays brighter longer.

That said, most experts agree that LEDs will soon outperform incandescent bulbs in every category – even brightness, so you’ll probably want to go with a headlamp packing the LED punch.

Pick a Color, Any Color

One of the first things you’ll want to consider is what color of light you’ll need.

“White LEDs are the prominent color choice for most outdoor enthusiasts. Red LEDs are also a popular secondary color option as they assist in preserving night vision,” says Keith Cozzens, Princeton Tec public relations manager.

White light is very bright and gives you the strongest and most intense view of your nighttime surroundings. But, swing your headlamp in the direction of your hiking partner, and he or she will likely stumble around for a bit, momentarily blinded.

Additionally, there are a variety of additional lens colors for different types of headlamps.

“Blue and green LEDs are ideal for low light conditions,” says Cozzens. “From hunting to camping and backpacking, having multiple color lighting options helps with being able to dial in the exact lighting needed for each particular situation.” Most lamps come in only one color, though some have multiple colors as an option (see photo, below).

Charge It Up

The last major factor to consider is battery life. Most entry-level models will have the batteries housed in the lamp unit itself, right on the forehead area. This is convenient, but it may cause the headlamp to slip down if you’re very active on the trails. Some models move the batteies to the back of your head, which balances out the weight between the lamp and the batteries.

Some headlamps utilize a remote battery pack that you can put in a backpack or pocket, or clip to your belt or gear. These types of headlamps may use multiple C-cells that would be far too heavy to wear on the head.

In cold climates, keeping the batteries warm is a big factor in improving headlamp performance. If it’s an option, replace alkaline batteries with lithium ones, as they stay warmer longer.

Use these tips, and you’ll find that it doesn’t matter what schedule the sun is on; you can hike as long as you’d like.

Andy Bennett has a hiking headlamp, which he uses primarily for household chores. He’s seen too many scary movies to hike at night.

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