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Trailblazer – Casting Some Light On Headlamps

When it comes to choosing Headlamps, it seems there’s so much to think about. Just interpreting the jargon involved in lighting the night seems a challenge.

Linda Doke sheds some light on what’s out there and gives some practical tips on choosing, and using headlamps.

Whether you’re hunting for your first ever Headlamp or needing to upgrade your trusty old faithful, deciding on the best model can be mindboggling.  And even if you thought the one you invested in 12 months ago would suit you forever, lighting technology constantly improves and, before you know it, you’re shopping for the improved version.

Tips when choosing

First things first: think fit for purpose

What type of night running will you be doing?  Will you be running in a short distance night series, or in a 100 miler where you’ll be slogging through the night?  The answer will affect your purchase and the amount of money you can expect to spend.  For distances of up to 15 km, a lightweight, durable light with two simple settings is all you need.

If you’re equipping yourself for a longer distance night run...

…, or for an ultra, then ideally you want multiple brightness settings, with a beam pattern that enables you to see far enough ahead to navigate, yet still give enough spread of light to see the ground just in front of your feet and your immediate surroundings.  (Ed’s warning: TOO many brightness settings or beam choices can be confusing, particularly during the nth hour of an ultra.  Opt for simple!)


Not necessary.  Rainproof – essential.

How bright to go?

LEDs are measured in lumen.  Leave anything less than a 100 lumen for camping, braaiing and fixing your tyre at night.  Personally, I never run at night using less than 150 lumen.  Look for a good many lumen (200 – 250 is ideal for trail running) and optional strength settings and beam variances.

Charged or rechargeables?

Headlamp technology advances rapidly.  I’ve always sworn by lithium batteries – of all disposable batteries, they last the longest and are the most reliable.  but the latest headlamp designs come with a single Lithium-Ion rechargeable battery, which can either be recharged via USB (when you get home) or replaced with standard disposable batteries (if you’re out on the trail).

A battery pack or with the light itself?

Batteries add substantial weight to the headlamp, and having them in the front behind the light can make the housing front-heavy on your forehead.  Having a battery pack at the back of the head can be useful to balance weight on the headstrap.

Tips when using

Remember that the brightest...

… beam in existence won;t necessarily make the ideal running light.  Firstly, the battery pack required for such a light would feel like a brick on your head, and secondly, even the strongest beam cannot shine past the bushes in front of you.  Realistically, you’ll only need to see about 50m max ahead of you – far enough to spot the next marker and/or a turn in the trail ahead.  You really don’t need to light up a mountain range or the night sky!

Running with your light...

… at full setting might not be necessary.  The stronger the setting, the sooner your headlamp battery will drain.  Often one setting lower than full strength will give you more than enough light to safely run by.

Carry a small...

… keylight and have it within handy reach in your pack.  You’ll need it to see what you’re doing when you do replace your batteries.  Don’t get caught short – I’ve made this mistake!  The night is very dark when you can’t see your replacement batteries!

Running in the dark...

… by headlamp makes the trail ahead look two-dimensional.  For night-running in loose sandy conditions like a river bed or a desert, a second torch comes in handy to minimize the 2D effect.  Simply carry the second light in your hand or attach it to the waist belt of your pack – coming from a different angle from your main light, it will add depth to your vision, making dips in the sandy path ahead easier to judge for safer footing.

Don’t travel with...

… the batteries in your headlamp – many a trail runner has arrived at race start to find their headlamp batteries completely discharged after having illuminated the inside of their baggage during their flight/journey.

And finally, much as you love your headlamp, don’t forget to take a moment during your race to turn it off and appreciate the night sky (assuming it’s clear, that is).  Darkness is beautiful, and the still of the night when you’re in the middle of nowhere, (or when you feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere) is a special experience.  Breathe that in and add it to your trail memories.

SOURCE: Trailblazing Newspaper March 2017 Edition