That's a loaded question! Right next to the best shoes for running. Let me just say that a lot of headlamps will work for a lot of people. Here I will tell you what has worked for me.
I have been thinking and experimenting with headbands and flashlights for a few years now. My obsession (yes, you can call it that) started after Burning River 100 in 2013. I felt that my beloved headlamp was insufficient and was holding me back.
For the next 2 years I spent well over $2000 buying 30 or more flashlights and headlamps. Whenever someone recommended something, I bought it. Finally, I decided that the best lights for me are made by a small company called Zebralight. I will explain later which ones and why.
I then proceeded to sell all the extra flashlights on ebay. I only kept 10 (well, you know, like shoes you can never have too many flashlights… no, seriously, they are used for jobs other than running). In the selling process I lost a lot of money and probably made a few people happy, because I bought them new and sold them barely used but for less, minus ebay/paypal commissions. But I don’t care. I learned a lot about flashlights in the process.
What did I learn? Here is a summary:
- Having a good light at night is more important in trails than roads. You might not be able to run as fast in trails at night (especially alone) as you do in daylight, but with a good light you will run faster and feel safer.
- A brighter light is not necessarily better. Light distribution is more important than light intensity. Ideally, you need a combination of a wide beam, to light the ground in front of you and a more focused beam to see further away and to cast better shadows. It is difficult to satisfy this combination with only one light. One light will work but it is compromise, in my opinion. For best results, I recommend two lights.
- Light intensity and distribution are important but other factors like comfort, convenience, type of batteries, color of light, etc., are also important.
- Are you looking for the perfect $10 headlamp? Keep looking. While you can get away with inexpensive flashlights/headlamps in roads, trails are more demanding. Consider investing a bit more for a good quality unit. A good flashlight/headband can cost between $40 and $100. A lot of lights can satisfy your needs. The definition of the best is subjective.
How Did it All Start
I went for over 2 years running happily in trails and roads with just one headlamp. This was an Energizer “Hard Case Professional” LED headlamp with a strong spot light. I loved this headlamp! It balanced very well on my head (it has a 4x AA battery pack in the back) and the light was strong! I bought 5 units, for backups. It worked great on roads and trails. I was actually proud of how bright the light was, compared to other runners' lights.
I ran my first 100 mile race (BR100 in 2012) with a section in dark trails without a problem. I could hear other runners say that you need two lights. In addition to the one on the head you need a handheld flashlight. The reasoning behind this went as follows: The headlight lamp is close to the eyes and does not cast shadows well. So you need a 2nd light away from the sight of the eyes for better “depth perception”. To me, at that point, this was nonsense! I was happy with one light. (Little did I know....)
But in my second 100 miler (BR100, 2013) I realized that I had a problem: My light was mostly spot and, even though I could see right ahead of me, I could not see the surrounding areas of the trail very well. As a result, I slowed down and was mostly unable to run. At some point in the Perkins 5 mile loop I attempted to run and tripped and fell. After that, I mostly walked this trail. After this experience, I realized that my light was not working well and it was slowing me down. So I went on a quest, looking for the “perfect trail light”.
You know the rest… After a year of “research” (mostly me buying flashlights, but also some reading to see what others say), finally I found the ideal combination that works for me. I have tested this for two years now. Two winters ago I ran at night 2 times a week, every week, all alone in dark scary trails. I survived. My lights work perfectly. I am happy. Now, if someone says that they found the perfect headlamp, I just smile. I know I have what I need and really there are no innovations to improve it.
My Preferred Lights Now
After trial and error I found that I like to run with one headlight and one flashlight. I have 4 zebralights:
Battery Headlamp Flashlight
AA H52w SC52w
1865 H602w SC600w
Zebralight is a small Chinese company, fairly unknown (especially compared to Fenix, another Chinese company). Chinese make some of the best/expensive and worse/cheap LED flashlights in the world. Zebralight's models are I think some of the best, and definitely expensive. Zebralight products are as good as Fenix, waterproof, shockproof, all metal, very durable, perfect for the harsh trail environment. They are well-made but also very plain-looking with no bells and whistles.
The model numbers change often, but basically there are two sizes, a smaller one that uses one AA battery, and a larger one that uses one 1865 rechargeable lithium battery (lasts a lot longer), two types (headlamp, and flashlight, flashlight points straight, headlight to the side, otherwise they are similar) and they are all warm (the "w" in the end, this is how I like them - see below). They have nothing else special (no frosted glass, flood type, etc.) As of this writing, they cost $69 for the small units and $89 for the large. You can buy these directly from the company (in the USA). You will not find bargains elsewhere, unless if you buy them used on ebay, but these do not depreciate much.
At first I was using the larger units that use the 1865 battery. But I gradually switched to the smaller AA/CR123 units for most of my runs. If I had to start again, I would just stick with the AA lights and carry extra batteries in case I need to run all night long.
For the small headlamp I use a "Nite Ize" headband instead of the standard Zebralight band that came with it. You can buy these for less than $7 with free shipping on ebay. I find this headband stiffer and better fitting with no movement in my head. It also comes in different colors:
I will explain later (towards the end) how I set these units. First, some general comments and opinions.
Trails vs. Roads
Trails, especially technical (single-lane) trails, with lots of roots and rocks, are very demanding. Horse trails are better. Roads are a piece of cake. Any light will work on roads. The main function of the light on roads is that cars see you. For roads, just about any headlamp will work. Plus, something flashing, like the Nathan StrobeLight (~$10) is very helpful. This light is bright, has a spring-loaded clip (will attach to just about anything) and it is simple (only three modes, all lights on, all lights flashing, off – I use the flashing mode). Do not confuse this with another Nathan light with many modes and a clip without spring that will break.
As a test of how well your lights work when running on roads, pay attention to the reaction of cars coming towards you at night. If they slow down and switch lanes, then you are perfectly visible. (Sometimes they even stop.... I bet the drivers are wondering what is this thing coming towards them… a bike? a motorcycle? a car? For your own safety, keep them wondering!)
Running Alone vs. With Group
Have in mind that when you run with a group, you are seeing not only your light but the lights of the other runners, so the trail is usually well lit. Plus, you have company and running feels more fun and less scary. This is true also if you are racing with a pacer. Having another runner with a light is better than being alone. To try your lights only, go for a run alone.
If you are training for a race, try to reproduce the conditions of the race. While training for my first 100 mile race, we did a night train run. There was a new to me trail that I enjoyed. At race time, this “nice” trail was a nightmare. I walked the entire thing! That’s when I realized that when you are tired, trails that seem easy running at daylight when you are relatively rested, become a lot harder at night when you are tired.
Having a good light will make things a bit better, but night trail running is inherently difficult. Darkness slows runners and demands more attention. You will never run as fast in the dark as in during the day. A good light should give you the confidence to run faster in the dark.
Brighter is Always Better – or NOT?
What is a good light? A good light is a brighter light, right? Not necessarily. “A very bright light will make a trail look like daylight, right?” Actually, no. No light will make the trail look like daylight, for two reasons: 1) Location (direction) and 2) size of the light. Let me explain:
You are carrying the light on your body so it always comes from you. It cannot come from the sides or from the top, like sunlight. The light also moves as you move. This is very unnatural (the sun does not move when you move). The size of the light source is very small, compared to, say, the sky, which is what illuminates the trail during daylight. So, your trail light is a small light source which casts strong shadows and these shadows are always away from you and are moving as you move.
People mention that a single headlight messes up with your stereoscopic perception. This is 100% correct. You might notice it when you run through grass where the shadows of the grass blades look strange. A light positioned between your eyes casts unnatural shadows that actually have reversed depth. Natural light will never come from between your eyes. This reversed depth just looks strange and confusing.
Furthermore, a very bright focused (“spot”) light can actually be a problem, making you lose dark adaptation. Our eyes adapt to the dark so we can see better at low light. A bright spot right in front of you will make you lose this dark adaptation and not be able to see well past this spot. So, a light that is too bright will be a problem.
The bottom line is that it is impossible to achieve the quality of daylight using lights that you carry on you. Light intensity is important, but light distribution is more important. Even though you cannot reproduce natural daylight, you can make things better, as I discuss below.
Light Distribution – Flood vs. Spot
Light from flashlights can be classified in two groups, depending on how the light is distributed:
- Flood: The light covers a wide area.
- Spot: The light is focused to a spot.
Most flashlights/headbands throw a beam of light that is combination of the two. Typically, there is a hot spot at the center of the beam with some bright light surrounding it (corona, spill). Depending on the size of the hotspot and the brightness of the surrounding light, the light is classified as “floody” or “spotty”.
In an extreme flood light, there is no reflector to focus the beam so the light is spread over a wide area. Usually the housing of the “light bulb” (or LED) determines the coverage of a flood light. Certain Zebralights cast a light that covers 120 degrees (very wide). Some flashlights have adjustable focus or achieve more flood quality of light by using a diffuser in front of the light. In some flashlights this is an option (the diffuser flips up or down or it can be removed.)
What kind of light is better for a trail, floody or spotty? If I had to have one or the other, I would prefer flood light. Here are the advantages/disadvantages of each type, from my personal experience:
Flood Light: (+) Illuminates a wide area, including right in front of you. It is generally easier on the eyes. (-) Low intensity (light output is distributed over a larger area), monotonous (cannot see obstacles very well because it does not cast strong shadows.
Spot Light: (+) Forms stronger shadows which makes obstacles (roots, rocks) more apparent, brighter. (-) Illuminates a small area and could potentially be too bright.
To measure light output, flashlights and headlamps use lumens. More lumens = more light. More light does not necessarily means more intense light, because it depends on how the light is distributed. Some runners are proud to own flashlights rated at 1000 lumens. From my experience, 100 lumens are plenty in a dark trail. The darker the trail, the less light you need (sounds wrong, but think about it).
The Ideal Headlamp
Everyone is looking for the perfect headlamp. I don’t think that such a thing exists. I am convinced that the best light for trails comes from a combination of two lights: 1) Flood to illuminate the path in front of you, a very wide area, 2) Spot to illuminate the trail far away and add more shadows and details.
Some headlamps attempt to satisfy both these requirements by offering two lamps in one unit, one for flood and one for spot. An example of that is the Fenix HP25. One problem with this is this particular unit is that the spot is very tight and bright and right in the middle of the flood light. Ideally the spot should be larger and cast further.
Even if a headlamp offered the perfect blend of flood and spot and the ability to control how far the spot is cast, I will still make a case for having a hand-held flash light, in addition to the headlamp.
So, here is how I see the prefect trail light:
- A headlamp (worn on the head or also clipped on the waist) that casts a strong wide beam.
- A hand-held flashlight aimed ahead of the flood, with such intensity and positioning that it blends seamlessly with the spill light from the spot.
I have run with this combination. To see how well it works, I often block the flood light or turn off the flash light and I am convinced that I would not be happy with either situation. The combination of the two lights works perfectly. If I had to keep one of the two, I would most probably keep the flood light (head lamp). But flood light is monotonous and makes the eyes tired. Adding spot creates some shadows and extends your vision further, giving you a better feeling of the trail. A dark trail can be a scary place to be. Having the ability to see things further away, in addition to right in front of you, makes it easier and more comfortable to run.
The case for a Handheld Flashlight
I used to scorn at the idea of carrying a flashlight, in addition to the headlamp, but now I am a firm believer. Here is a list of advantages:
- Better light from the combination of the two.
- The flashlight can be aimed anywhere independently (far ahead, closer, to the sides, etc) Since it is a spot light, it has large throw and you can see things far away. When I run, I often change, the direction of the light, usually the distance in front, depending on the trail. This keeps me both “informed” and somehow entertained.
- If one unit dies unexpectedly, you have another light to finish your run. Also, if you need to change batteries in one light, you have the other one to help you by providing the light so you can see. If you ever found yourself in the middle of a totally dark trail at night without light, then you know how it feels. It happened to me once. I only had a flip phone and used that light to guide me. It was a nightmare. My iphone now with an LED built-in and a flashlight app, would make a decent backup, but, still….
- Safety: Modern LED flashlights have “turbo” output modes with very intense light or “strobe” modes. You could easily “blind” or discourage an attacker, human or animal.
Holding a flashlight is a problem for some runners. How do you hold it? As you run, your hands move up and down, making the light move too, which can be an issue. Personally, I put the flashlight between my fingers and the water bottle that I hold on my right hand. This hand does not move as much as my other “free” hand.
Light Color – Warm or Cold?
The color of the light is something that most runners overlook or make the wrong choice. Many higher quality flashlights offer two options (in Zebralight terminology): 1) Daylight white, 2) Natural white, which is warmer.
The daylight white looks brighter to the eye for the same light intensity. So I always went for the daylight white. Until I wanted to buy a unit from Zebralight that only came in warmer “natural white”. I reluctantly bought it and then tried it one night around Fall time. Oh.My.God! This light made the colors of the leaves come out alive! The reds and orange and yellow colors were so beautiful! I could not believe it. What a great experience!
After that I became a firm believe of “natural” warmer color balance. I also find that this light is more comfortable to the eyes. It is late, it is dark and the eyes are used to warmer colors of tungsten bulbs. Daylight white is unnatural at night.
The worst light is the one that comes from very inexpensive LED lights: Bluish. Sorry, but I cannot stand that. Once I tried warm, I am not going back. (But I still use a white flashlight to illuminate my ebay product photography).
Finally, if you have a warmer light and you want to make it colder, you can use a bluish gel over it. And you also turn a colder light to warmer by using an orange gel over it. You can buy these gels on line (I have bought large sheets from BHphotovideo). They are also used for photography.
Zebralight – Standard of Flood?
Some zebralights come with either a frosted glass, or without a reflector so they cast a very wide (flood) beam. At first I liked these and used them for my headlamp. At some point I tried the standard headlamp and I actually prefer it. The Zebralight headlamps and flashlights cast a wide beam by design. I do not think that you need a wider light for the trails.
Tip: If you have a standard light, you can make it wider but sticking a piece of “frosted” tape on the glass. This will diffuse the light just like the frosted glass and it is fully reversible.
AA or 18650 Batteries?
Zebralights come in two versions: Smaller that use one AA battery (or a CR123 battery, but this is phased out and replaced by the AA) or one 18650 lithium rechargeable battery. Everyone knows what AA batteries are but few people know the CR123 or 18650. There is no need to be afraid of these batteries. Even if you use AA batteries, I recommend using rechargeable batteries.
Now I use the AA/CR123 units because they are smaller and do my job. I also have the 18650 units that I would use if I had to run all night. During one all night group training run, my 18650 unit only consumed 1/3 of the battery, so these units can last all night long. I am not sure if the AA units can last all night long. But I can always bring a spare battery.
About 18650 batteries: Please, do not buy cheap $1 Chinese batteries. It is tempting and you think all batteries are the same, but they are not! You do not want the batteries to die during the run. Spend at least $10 per battery to buy a good brand like Tenergy or Fenix. About AA batteries: There are a lot of good rechargeable AA batteries in the market, like the Sanyo Eneloop.
Remember: Cold weather reduces battery capacity! Always charge your batteries before an important run. And be aware of how long one battery charge lasts. There is nothing worse than running out of light in the middle of a run.
To charge my rechargeable batteries I use a Fenix charger (ARE-C2, only $40 and it will charge anything, including standard AA rechargeable batteries)
One of the reasons I like the zebralights is that they are very small and pack a lot of light. Here is how small the AA/CR123 headlamp is. It has no external battery holder. It is a complete light. When turned at the maximum intensity (mostly to impress my friends) they all comment how it looks like a car headlight or a train coming.
At first I hated the Zebralight interface. One switch (only) controls everything. Now I am used it to it and I find it brilliant. Much better than Fenix or other flashlights. For a while I experimented with continuous intensity variable lights but the zebralights have enough light intensity levels to keep anyone happy.
Here is what I remember by heart (some features might be missing from earlier models):
- There are thee intensity levels, let’s say H, M, L. Each level has two sub-levels, low and high. You can switch sub-levels by double-clicking the switch quickly. So you have 6 intensity levels at your disposal at any time.
- A quick click turns the light on at the setting it was left the last time. A slow click (click and hold for a second) turns it on at the lowest level (useful in some non-running occasions). Holding the switch down circles through the different intensity levels. Release the button at the intensity level you want.
- Pressing the switch 4 times quickly shows you the battery life left. The flashlight responds with a series of light flashes. Four (4) flashes means 75-100% charged. Three (3) flashes means 50-75%, Two (2) flashes means 25-50%, one (1) flash means 0-25% charge left, or get ready because this battery is dying. I would not start a run with only 2 blinks.
- Finally, clicking the switch 3 times brings the strobe mode. This could be useful for emergencies or to alert a distracted driver at night. No one can ignore you if you emit a very bright flashing light!
I found that the intensity level that I like for dark night running is the Medium Low. At first this does not sound like much light but it is all I need and the battery lasts for a long time. (Tip for most flashlights: Avoid the brightest setting which most likely consumes the battery very fast.)
You can learn more about the Zebralight interface by reading the instructions (always a good idea!) or googling it (you can find videos too and extensive reviews).
Let me close by saying that there are a lot of good running flashlights and headlights out there. I like this particular kind but you might hate it. Like many other things, it is a matter of preference. I hope that you learned something from my experience.