The nights are beginning to draw in and that means that descents after the sun has set aren’t too far away and the nights at camp are going to be long and dark. It’s about now your headtorch moves from the bottom of your pack to the front of your lid pocket and becomes a go-to bit of kit instead of emergency kit.
Years ago we were stuck with huge halogen lamps and their matching weighty battery packs but LED technology has changed all that. Weight and bulk immediately dropped to handy pocket size and over the past few years bulb power and battery life have increased giving us a fantastic range of lighting that makes everything from reading a book in your tent to mountain biking down a hillside at midnight easier than ever.
The range of headtorches is huge, there’s plenty of brands to look at and they’ve all got models ranging from ultra-bright lamps that make night ascents more accessible to tiny lightweight models perfect for after-hours trails or jogging.
Lots of things will help you decide the best model for you, lumens-the measure of brightness, model size and weight, battery life, lighting options such as an additional red led which is a great tool for preserving your night vision and there’ comfort and price which are always important. I know headtorches are usually in plastic bubble packs in the stores, but trying it on is always a good idea if it’s going to be strapped across your forehead for hours at a time.
I’ve been testing a wide range of models on big hill days and overnighters as well as trips into my attic but most usefully I’ve been using them for regular nocturnal wildlife surveys which has given me great consistency in how to judge the performance over repeated hill routes where myself and my fellow volunteer ranger have been finding out just how many lumens it takes to stun an owl and frighten a fox as well as navigating over pathless hillside in the small hours.
I’ve avoided looking too closely at battery life as it’s impossible to record accurately on the hill without using control batteries and stop watches, but as a rule I’ve found that the manufacturers are maybe all just a little optimistic on how long the power will last, but not enough to make a difference to torch choice.
All the torches have multiple settings which includes an emergency flashing mode unless stated otherwise.
All the torches have a degree of water resistance compatible with outdoor use.
Here we have bigger torches with battery housings at the back of your head. Does fancier design with more weight and more bulk mean better light?
Although the Intensity 80 has a central strap to give over-the-head support it’s not heavy or bulky so feels comfortable on a bare head. Power comes from 3xAAA batteries and light is supplied by a large single LED and two smaller LEDs which operate separately with the small LEDs having a flash mode. The rear battery box has an independatly controlled red LED which also has a flashing mode, great for night visibility in a group and roadside safety. The unusual element here is an infra-red sensor on the front which switches the large LED on and off when it’s the torch has already been switched on by the main push button – which although small has a reassuring click to its operation. When on main beam you simply wave a hand over the torch up to around a foot away from the lens and it will switch on or off until you wave at it again. It works well but looking at a map too close or peering into your rucksack can also operate it, so you’ll either adjust to it or it’ll drive you daft. The useful main beam and price make it attractive.
A little heavier with a large battery compartment which sports an independently controlled red LED with a flashing setting available. It’s still comfortable enough as the inner facing battery access for your 3xAA’s is rubberised and the headband is silky smooth. The business end is barrel shaped with a rubberised button and rotates with a positive ratchet feel to your favourite angle. The light comes from one large central LED and two flanking not quite so large LEDs, they definitely aren’t small as the light they throw out is very usable on the move with all the lower settings fine for tent use. The main beam is fantastic, very bright and clear with a good distance to it, the X-Shot is perfect for mountain use where the bigger torches make ascent and descent so much easier. There’s also a handy battery level check function.
The Nao could be the cleverest torch in the review, it doesn’t just light your way it thinks as well. At its most basic the Nao is an incredibly bright headtorch which is fantastic on the darkest winter ascent and also useful on a late night mountain bike ride. The strap is very different, a mix of ribbon, cord and elastic which looks like a crumpled science project but is very comfortable to wear for extended periods. Beyond that is a lot of tech and although the Nao can be used as a regular on/off hi/low torch putting into reactive mode changes the way the torch operates as a sensor next to the twin LEDs react to the light it sees and adjusts the output of the torch to suit. The best example of this in action is to raise a map up to have a look at it and the torch instantly turns itself right down so you don’t dazzle yourself. It works well but there’s so much brightness on offer the temptation I have is to have it on full output all the time and charge up the hill which just eats the battery. The Nao charges via a USB cable which is great for charging in the car when I’m hillbound but two AAA’s can slot into the battery housing to keep you mobile if recharging isn’t an option. Free software lets you programme power usage in the Nao’s computer brain if you want to but this all comes at a hefty price.
The Apex is getting heavy at 270g but with the extra over-the-head strap and a rubber pad on the rear battery box wearer comfort is still good. The battery box holds 4xAA batteries giving you the bext chance of keeping the light burning given the brightness on tap. Four small LEDs are split by a single large LED which are operated by separate button which are on the underside of the housing so are operated by your thumb which I like and think is probably easier in a general sense. The settings are bright, really bright and flashing so this is a brilliant torch for being on the move on foot or wheels at any speed, the main beam throws light far up the hill ahead of you but feels a little too much stuck in a one man tent on the lowest setting. It feels very robust and reliable and although it’s getting pricey, you get performance to match.
The V3 is another torch with an over-the-head strap but it feels quite light strapped on and I can wear it happily without it as the other straps are nicely wide and soft. The torch has a refreshingly clean and simple look and feel to it, the 3xAAAs that power it are access by prising off the rubber battery cover and at the front end at first glance all there is to play with is a single thumb-operated button. The button flips through dim, boost, flashing and off with dim still being quite bright for tent use for me, but these bigger torches are all made for being out and about and the V3 does that very well with a good main bean projection. The hidden and once again cleverly simple function is a sliding lens in front of the single big LED which changes the lighting pattern from flood to spot with all the graduations inbetween. This is great on the move, no buttons to find, no clicks to count, even with a Buffalo DP mitt on I could change the setting easily. Suprabeam have trimmed the V3 down and there’s just what you need at a decent price, there’s even a wee a padded carry case with it.
Batteries at the front, enough light for the mountains at night and simpler designs. These are you go-to headtorches.
The chunky housing carries 3xAAA batteries, one large and two small LEDs and sits snug and comfortable on my forehead. The large dimpled rubber button flicks through settings from bright and penetrating enough to navigate midnight mountains to subtle enough for reading a book in my sleeping bag. It’s light, flexible, simple, usable and you just can’t argue with it for the price.
The CHT15 was the real surprise in the test. It’s a great little torch with details that should make some of the bigger names blush. The 3xAAA batteries fit into a little removable cartridge that makes battery changes easy, there’s a battery indicator, a big easy to use rubber button and the torch lights the “right way” starting with red, then blue, low flood and through to full spot which is plenty powerful for mountain use. This initial red means you can flick it on in the tent at night, find what you’re rummaging for in the dark and not lose your night vision to a bright white light. Good price too.
The SEO7R looks to follows the norm with 3xAAA batteries ready fitted to power it but in the box there’s also a single-piece USB-rechargable battery and charger included. The single large LED starts on maximum which is a perfect beam for mountain manoeuvres, bright with a huge reach but it dims right down to book reading levels before it gets to its SOS flash mode. A long press on the button gets you a single LED too which is perfect. The button itself is on the baseplate so doesn’t move with the light, this took a little getting used to initially but I like it a lot now and the light moves up and down easily with a grooved plastic housing that’s easy to grip with gloves. The focus can be moved from flood to spot with a twist of the lens bezel in front of the LED which moves it in and out, it works very well if being just a little fiddly with gloves on. The price is getting high but the performance is keeping up with it.
The Tikka RXP takes the reactive lighting function from the Nao reviewed above and marries it to the compact all-rounder format of the Tikka series. You can switch from regular operation which gives you the full range from red tent friendly LED to the big night navigating 215 lumen main beam to the cyber setting where the sensor will move the output up and down according to conditions, hopefully saving both battery power and your eyesight. A button on the side swaps modes and a button on the top controls light settings, both buttons are small but textured so still easy enough to find. The rechargeable battery is access through rubber door on the top and again, you can charge this via USB in the car or from a solar charger. The head strap on the RXP is brilliant, wide and contoured at the front with a small adjustable cradle at the back. It’s very comfortable, very stable and very light.
The Remix has an excellent feature which proved vital when on wildlife surveys where blinding wildlife wasn’t the priority and that’s a trio of red LED’s which go from regular bright to very bright – bright enough to navigate pathless hill terrain with confidence. The single large white LED doesn’t disappoint either and is bright enough for both hill use and camp use. The trio of AAA batteries are very fiddly to fit the correct way but the housing is easy to move on its one-sided swivel attachment with a large rubber button that works well with thick gloves. The Remix doesn’t have a flashing setting but if you keep the button pressed, which doesn’t take too much pressure the light flashes between red and white which I imagine would attract attention from someone.
Tiny torches to slip into a pocket, never leave home without one.
The Indigo is the little brother, or sister, of the Viper reviewed above. It fits in the palm of your hand, burns brightly from 2xAAA batteries, has an easy to use rubber button and it costs a tenner. If anything makes night time trails accessible it’s the Indigo.
The Neo has the looks of a fitness freak’s accessory about it and rightly so, it’s perfect for runners but just as useful at a slower pace too. It’s light and very well balanced with the 3xAAA batteries placed at the back. The fron housing is small and very comfortable, slipping under a peaked cap or jacket hood if the weather takes a nasty turn. The switching options include turning a rear red LED on and off and it’s easier to take the Neo off to see what front/rear setting your own that try to remember the amount of click you’ve made. Will do anything from trail runs to walking home at night and being seen by traffic.
The advice was always “Carry spare batteries!”, I always used to wonder how I would change my batteries in the dark but I carried them in their ever more decaying packaging until they finally got wet and ruined or got lost. The e+LITE changed that, I carried one instead of spare batteries from the day they came out. Bright enough to walk by, red LED to preserve night vision, flashing modes for emergency and small enough to carry inside your glove on the move never mind lose in your pocket. This newer version is even simpler with the zip-away headband. Vital kit, simple as that.
The Ninox has a similar format to the Princeton Tec Remix but has a higher output and a regular flashing mode. A similar trial and error battery fitting is present here but the switch more than makes up for it being the easiest to operate in the whole test as it’s a positive feeling click located under the rubber end cap of the barrel housing, even with the thickest mitts, this is a cinch to work. The headband has a silicone stripe on the inside to help hold the torch in place and the beam is very usable on the hills, very bright with good range. There’s no red LED but there is a proper flashing mode, all in a tiny package.
I have seen the light and the news is that the future’s bright. There’s not a bad purchasing choice to be made in this test, just think about what you need in terms of output, make sure it fits your head and your budget comfortably and get ready to head out into the night. The best way to see your headtorch is as a tool, not emergency kit, get your money’s worth out of your kit this winter.