Considering a head torch? My musings on what makes a good one

Considering a head torch? My musings on what makes a good one

Originally posted on September 26, 2013 by Chris Baynham-Hughes

CAUTION: Now very old, but the broad strokes are still valid. There are just loads more out there on the market now… I currently rock a Petzl Nao 2 with belt kit, etc. but would love a Petzl Nao + when it comes out soon (max ~750 lumens), as long as the battery life is good; i.e., ~10 hours on ~300 lumens.

It’s that time of year again, the time where I face a choice of serious injury, heading to the roads or simply putting on my headtorch and getting out on the trails. It’s an easy choice. Since the advent of the ultra powerful head torch I have been a very happy man. Like Microspikes when the snow comes, a lightweight powerful head torch is a total game changer; it removes limits that were previously there and introduces a bucket load of fun in the process. Some of my most memorable and favourite runs have been with the head torch on. My trail run never gets boring as the light casts different shadows and you have to fully concentrate.

I’ve been asked a few times and have also answered a number of questions on forums when people have asked which torch to buy so I thought I would share a few things I’ve discovered on my head torch journey.

The purpose:

There are a surprising number of permutations when it comes to head torch design and as the purchaser you need to have a good idea as to what you want otherwise you can spend a lot more to get features you simply don’t need/ won’t use or you can go the other way and end up buying two head torches, the one you thought was right and then the one that was right – an expensive mistake.

For me the purpose broadly fits into one of three categories:

  1. Emergency/ mandatory kit
  2. Occasional training use
  3. Extending the season/ night ultras/ mountain challenges

Category 1 is really all about size and weight. Examples of usage would be a mountain marathon or an ultra where you really expect to be back before it goes dark. It’s difficult to beat the Petzl e-lite. I’ve used this on events from mountain marathon to Transvulcania (where I knew I’d only need light for an hour and that there would be lots of other people around during that hour).

Category 2 tends to be about budget. In this scenario you want a good enough torch, but you’re unlikely to get a great deal of value out of the more advanced features. In this scenario I believe the Alpkit Gamma at £15 is extremely difficult to beat. You can spend 4 times this and not get a drastically better torch.

Category 3 is where all the elements detailed below come in. Your budget and decisions in each element below will have a drastic impact on your running enjoyment, speed, injuries, season and finish line position. I’ll give feedback at the end as to the torches I’ve used and what I would be looking at if I was starting afresh, but first let’s crack into the elements you need to consider.

Budget:

Depending upon your budget there can either be a lot or a little to think about. If you are unsure of whether you’ll like running this way and thus don’t want to make what can be a hefty investment then it’s a very easy choice. For £15 the Alpkit Gammahttp://www.alpkit.com/shop/cart.php?target=product&product_id=16345&category_id=288 is pretty much impossible to beat in my view. I’ve used one on a Bob Graham support and was very impressed – for the money it had an excellent beam spread, brightness, comfort and isn’t too bad on the weight side.

Budget is the biggest stumbling block. Many people think a head torch seems like a good idea but aren’t sure if they would like it and simply aren’t expecting a torch to cost so much. In that case see above and buy the alpkit, in the £30 or less category it’s the winner – if you do decide it’s for you but want something better then at least it is an excellent back up.

If your budget extends further then hopefully my musings below will at least pull out the things you need to think about. When it comes to something like a head torch though, cheap is not always the best value. If your head torch isn’t quite bright enough then you will spend your time frustrated, potentially injured and will end up spending the money on the head torch you really wanted.

The beam:

Many torches will quote lumens these days or lux, but it’s the overall picture that you need. Where possible try it out in the shop or read reviews. You need to consider the brightness, but also the spread of the beam, distance and the focus. The way light is measured means that two torches with the same lumen rating can produce radically different results. For a serious running head torch I wouldn’t really consider less than 140 lumens and would really be looking for something closer to the 300+ mark. You’d only need to use full power when moving at real speed on technical terrain, but there will different light settings on the torch to allow a sufficient light and longer battery life. Not bright enough though and it will slow you down significantly and invite injury.

Too many lumens without control can also be just as big a problem. This is why Petzl brought out the Nao with its clever reactive lighting so if one is out and wants to read a map then one can see it as opposed to having to adjust down the light – a problem they had with the ‘ultra’ model. Some models now can be customised by connecting with your PC and adjusting the settings… is this an important feature or just something you will never actually use? You need to answer these questions and many more before you settle on a torch – if you don’t you could be spending for features you just won’t use.

Below are a number of stated lumen ratings for some of the more popular torches, this is by no means an exhaustive list.

As you can see they vary greatly, as does the price and many other aspects of the torch, so let’s look at another consideration…

Weight

For me this is the key element to balance with the cost and the brightness. Like the time-cost-quality triangle we live to in work, head torches for me are a balance between cost, brightness and weight. At ~12.5% of your body weight, your head is heavy enough, you don’t need a head torch weighing you down and you simply won’t use it if it is heavy. However low weight always comes with a compromise and in general that means battery life… but it doesn’t have to.

There are ways to reduce the weight on the head without compromising on the battery life. I’ll talk about why that is in the next section, but sticking to the weight question it’s less about how heavy it is and more about where the weight is placed. It’s easy to try a head torch on and think the weight is fine, but once you’ve run with it for 30 minutes you may very well change your tune.

Personally I look to minimise the weight on my head, thus I always look for a torch that either comes with or can be converted to have a belt kit. In general a belt kit will simply be a longer wire and a clip, but some do actually come with elasticated belts to put on; e.g., The Silva range generally takes this approach and on the X-Trail torch I have it works very well. Put simply I won’t buy a head torch for serious running without a belt kit, but if you are only ever going to pop out for a 30-45 minute run or are on a particularly tight budget then it might not be necessary for you.

Fixings

The belt kit issue brings me onto fixings in general. A number of the torches on the market come with multiple fixings out of the box (e.g., Hope & Silva products) and others you can buy them separately (e.g., Petzl) these will allow you to multiply the use of your torch. The most obvious applications are a bike mount and a helmet mount. If you wish to use your torch for multiple applications then this is certainly something you should look further into. So now you’re not just looking where the battery is mounted, but also what else you can mount your torch to.

A second aspect of the fixings is how it attaches to your head – comfort is really key in this respect. If you have to pull it tight to stop it bouncing then forget it. Pressure on your temples/ generally around your head will only lead to a headache. If it doesn’t have a strap over the top of the head then beware, unless it is very light then it will bounce. The Petzl Nao fixings use string which if I’m honest I just don’t like; without the optional top strap I find it uncomfortable, but the 10mm strap across the top removes a great deal of the pressure.

When it comes to fixings it the small things that make the big differences. All the elasticated straps on the Silva torches have a silicone gripper on them which just keeps them in place. Simple, easy, minimal weight addition… what’s not to like.

Battery life & Flexibility

Battery life is really vital – understatement? But at the same time you’ve really got to think about your application. No point in paying for super long battery life is you’re only ever going to run up to 90 minutes on a morning training session. Those of you looking to use it for an ultra you need to think about what happens when it runs out. Batteries are heavy to carry and thus so are spares. Remember most Ultras stipulate spare batteries on their mandatory kit list. So check out the battery situation before you buy any torch.

Spare rechargeable batteries can also be incredibly expensive. The Petzl Nao is pretty clever in this respect as removing the rechargeable battery results in two pins popping out so you can put AAA batteries in it. Since I carry spare AAA batteries for my GPS (Foretrex 401) anyway this means I’m sorted for the “spare batteries” required kit.

You can often find aftermarket/ unofficial batteries, but don’t buy them unless there are a lot of reviews saying they work well – differing voltages/ battery quality can damage equipment and sometime you won’t get all the features; e.g., an typical aftermarket battery for the Nao will not display how charged it is, but to be honest I don’t really care about that as in training I’m never too far from my home that I can’t get back on part beam and if I’m going out for an ultra I’d make sure that I’ve got it fully charged.

Where you place the battery will have a huge impact on the life. The biggest battery killer is the cold. Anybody that has taken their camera out with them skiing and wondered why the fully charged battery won’t even switch on the camera will know what I’m talking about here. Think about when you are going to use the torch – realistically it is in the winter so it’s going to be cold. If the battery is on your head then it is fully exposed to the cold. Using a belt kit can drastically improve the life of your battery by keeping it in an insulated pocket or next to your body under your clothes. Can you tell I’m a fan of the belt kit yet?

Odds and ends

Other aspects to consider are:

  • How waterproof it is – something you’d expect to come as standard and to be fair it does on the good brands; e.g. Petzl. Check for an IP rating explanation of the IP code can be foundhere:
  • Ease of use – think big gloved hands trying to operate it; small fiddly controls are not a bonus!
  • The build quality, durability and the guarantee offered – of a torch is also essential. Naturally it is difficult to tell this from looking or even just touching it, so look for the duration of the guarantee and Google reviews of the torch to see if there is a consistent complaint about the quality or their customer service – naturally there is a bias towards people going on and venting about how hard done by they have been

My first proper running head torch was the MYO XP Belt. It failed after I’d owned it for ~2 years although I’d not used it much. I had no receipt as it had been bought as a present for me. I contacted Petzl and turned out I was covered by a 3 year guarantee and they would use the manufactured date stamped on the torch so I didn’t need the receipt. The torch no longer existed so I was offered the more expensive and next one up… but it didn’t have a belt kit. In the end I was able to take it to a retailer (Cotswold) and get the money off a new Nao. I was a very happy man and couldn’t fault the outstanding service. So you may pay a little more, but you get what you pay for when the manufacturer is prepared to back the quality of their kit like that.

Personal experience/ recommendations

If I were buying again I would continue to stick to the primary brands that have a track record with head torches. Petzl’s record is difficult to doubt, and Silva have a long standing reputation too. That said there are some outstanding torches on the market from other brands, I just haven’t any experience of them. I can’t give a full run down of the torches on the market as I’ve not tried them all (happy to do so if somebody wants to send them to me for free :)). The ones I have used in anger though are as follows:

  • Silva X-Trail

Out of the box I was very impressed. Originally retailing at £100 I got it free with a subscription to outdoor fitness – what a deal! The torch itself came with a helmet mount, bike mount and head mount. It also came with a belt kit (battery pack on an elasticated silicone gripped belt). The torch itself packs 145 lumens and a 75m beam. It’s rated to IPX6 which is more than enough for the British weather and accidental drops! It claims a max 30 hour battery life and that is accurate.

The beam is good, it’s comfortable, the belt battery pack works well (although my wife complains that it would ride up whilst she was wearing it, I’ve not had any issues). I’ve been spoilt a little by using more powerful torches so I do prefer a little more light, but for a regular training torch and back up for a primary head torch it’s pretty damn good. The added extras provided (fixings, etc) save the user a lot of money if you want all these things – personally I’ve not used them but I like the option :). I wouldn’t pay £100 for it as technology has moved on, but it has given me huge confidence in the Silva brand as it’s a very well thought out and well built head torch. The link above has it for less than £63 which makes it an option if that’s as far as the budget goes.

  • Petzl MYO XP Belt

My first real running head torch. Very similar to the X-Trail although it didn’t come with the additional fixings and the lumen rating was a mere 85. It was £45 though which made it very good value for money and certainly fitting into category 2 well. Again, for me it now doesn’t pack enough punch and technology has moved on but if you can pick it up as a bargain on ebay it’s a very good category 2 torch.

  • Petzl MYO RXP

The step on from the XP saw a big change in power at 140 lumens. It’s light enough to use, but it doesn’t come with a belt kit and you can’t buy one for it either as far as I’m aware. For this reason it’s not one that I’d buy. For me it is worth the extra money to get the right torch and I personally don’t see this as a serious contender for a category 3 torch. A quick Google shows you can pick it up for ~£60 so it’s a pretty good value torch if the belt kit is not something you need or want and you’re going to use it primarily as a category 2 torch.

  • Petzl Nao

A great torch. A little too clever for its own good, but it provides plenty of light and excellent beam spread and a very well designed robust piece of kit. The big draw of the Nao is the “reactive lighting” function. Essentially it has a light sensor which will reduce the power of the beam  automatically to suit conditions – this saves the battery and ensures certain activities; e.g., reading a map, are possible without fiddling with the settings.

The Nao allows you to plug it into your PC and adjust the brightness outputs – I’ve never actually done this as I find the factory settings are idea, but if I were going on a particular event then I might choose to reset the lower setting to enable me to manage the battery life better. On the torch itself you can override the reactive lighting if you wish; this is handy when running with other people as otherwise their lights can affect your beam. It’s also important when running on the road as you suddenly disappear to the driver as their headlights switch off your torch… like I say, it is a little too clever for its own good.

The build quality is superb and the battery housing is very well designed (as mentioned above). It’s an IPX4 rated torch, but I’m reasonably confident that is an understatement and I’ve used it in pretty foul conditions without any issues.

On balance though, I do think it’s a little expensive all things considered. Having to spend an additional £20 for the belt kit extension pack means it loses out a bit on value for money. I’m also not a huge fan of the head fixings with the string. Using the belt kit makes a big difference, but I also use the head strap otherwise I find too much pressure on my temples. These grumbles aside it is an excellent piece of kit.

So what would I look at if I were buying right now?

Well, I’m probably going to miss a host of great torches and I’d welcome people to add comments about torches from LED Lenser, Hope and other makes that they use. The reason why I’ll probably miss them is because once I find something I am happy with I stop looking so I don’t end up tempted to change something that already does the job I need it to do. That said I have been so impressed with the overall package from Silva I would look very closely at the Runner. A whopping 550 lumens is a very attractive draw. If they have packed in all the elements of the X-Trail but with the increased beam then it’ll be a front runner in the ~£100 bracket: £99 here:

Whatever you choose I’m confident that you won’t regret getting into running with a head torch. The trail never looks the same and it’s great to ensure focus is maintained. I often catch myself with a huge involuntary grin on my face and have been known to let out a “whoop”… just don’t tell anyone 🙂

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