Choosing the right headlight for running

Finding the right headlight for running can be a minefield with all the different terms, features and specs! To make it even harder, different brands will often quote different figures to make side-by-side comparison very difficult.

Depending on how tech-obsessed you are and what you need from your headlight (aka. “headlamp” or “headtorch”, it’s all the same thing), you can pick the right one for the job.

Step 1: Identify your requirements

Before you dive into tech specs and comparisons, know what you’re looking for.

Without a clear purpose, shopping for a headlight for running can just become an arms race for the brightest, lightest option winning the race to nowhere.

It may sound funny, but bigger isn’t always better for headlights. Sometimes it can be TOO bright, or with a battery that lasts TOO long.

Those extra benefits will always come at a cost – you may have got the brightest headlight on the market, but it’s probably also the bulkiest. So you have to carry extra weight on your head for a max brightness that you’ll rarely use!!!

Think of these prompt questions before diving in:

  1. How long is your longest run under a headlight? It is a 1-2 hour night run or an overnight ultramarathon?
  2. What conditions are you running in? A road run at night doesn’t need too much illumination as obstacles are pretty clear. Trails will demand more illumination though.
  3. What’s your preferred level of comfort? Happy to carry bulk for extra features or prefer a featherweight headlight?
  4. Are you going to be running in bad weather? If you run in rain, you’ll need a waterproof option. If you stay home when it’s raining, you won’t.
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Step 2: Match specs to your needs

Here’s a simple guide on what to look for when buying a headlight, matched up to your identified needs.

Brightness

Brightness will usually be expressed in lumens, although you may occasionally see it expressed in candlepower. To convert lumens to candlepower, just divide by 12.5 (ie. 12.5 lumens = 1 candlepower).

For road running, 200 lumens will be sufficient but 300 lumens would do a better job.

For trail running, you’ll need 150-200 lumens in good conditions and up to 400 lumens in difficult conditions (eg. very technical trail).

You’ll see that some headlights can punch out 1000 lumens. Great to impress your friends but otherwise it’s way too bright to run with. Very occasionally it’s handy to see a distant trail marker or junction.

Weight and balance

Weight is usually expressed in grams, with an imperial measure in ounces for US players. Just watch out for partial weights – you might see that a headlight only weighs 45g, with a side note that 45g doesn’t include headband or battery…

For the sake of comparison, always include all parts of the headlight when comparing weights. Most headbands weight around 20-30g and batteries can vary from 10g up to >50g for bulky battery packs.

When it comes to headlights for running, lighter is better. But often reduced weight will mean compromising on battery life and brightness. Simply put, smaller batteries and smaller LED housings will have smaller outputs.

Also note the distribution of weight. Is the housing and battery all front-mounted or is the battery pack at the rear? Does it have a headband only or headband with top strap (extra band that runs over the head) for extra stability?

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Sometimes a headlight for running only has a forehead component so your light and battery all sit at the front of the headlight. If that’s the case AND they don’t have a top strap, a well-fitted design weighing less than 80g is advisable. 

If they have a top strap, you can get away with up to 150g if it’s designed well. Look at whether the top strap just meets the lateral band (bit that goes around your head) or whether it directly links to the assembly and can help stabilise and support it.

If your battery pack is rear-mounted, the weight distribution is more balanced so you can get away with heavier designs and bigger battery packs (lasting longer). However some runners don’t like the extra weight and bulk of a rear-mounted battery, so personal preference comes into play here.

Battery type

The type of battery available in a headlight for running comes down to two simple options: rechargeable vs disposable (eg. AA/AAA, although you could use rechargeable AAA but more on that later).

Rechargeable battery packs (or lithium batteries like the 18650) are cheaper to use and can be topped up between runs to keep it full. They also tend to have bigger capacities than their AA/AAA equivalents, so they’ll last longer.

It gets a little tricky if you’re running overnight for an ultra, as an 8hr battery life means you run out of juice before the sun is up. You can’t sit and wait for it to recharge, so you either carry a spare rechargeable (expensive) or you carry a spare headlight (adds weight).

Disposable batteries can be changed mid run if they die (assuming you carry spares) and they tend to be cheaper to buy the headlight itself (but more expensive to use). To bring the operating cost down, you can use rechargeable AA/AAA but this will compromise your battery life.

Some rechargeable headlights get around the battery swap issue by being compatible with AAA batteries if their battery pack runs out, such as the Petzl Iko Core below. It’s a great compromise with those who love their night runs but occasionally needs an all-night battery life.

Battery life

This can be deceptive as you’ll often see a headlight for running advertised with its brightest lumens and the battery life on its lowest setting. So “1000 lumens and 300 hours battery life” is actually 1000 lumens for 3 hours or 8 lumens (reading light) for 300 hours.

Generally speaking, longer run times are better but you’ll often need to compromise by carrying a heavier battery.

If you’re only using it for 60-90min night running sessions, it won’t matter too much.

For longer runs or more difficult conditions, compare lights with their run times at similar lumens that match your likely use. If you intend to run with around 200 lumens, compare battery life at their nearest power to that brightness.

Power settings

This refers to your control of brightness. Cheaper headlights have on/off only but a better quality headlight for running will have high/mid/low power or variable brightness.

Get one with different power settings (not just on/off) as you’ll need to adjust it for different conditions and look at the lumens for each setting to ensure it has one setting that roughly matches your preferred brightness.

Some headlights have an extra bright “max/high” setting but then they drop down to a low brightness “mid” setting (eg. 800 lumens on high and only 120 lumens on mid).

For any headlight for running, you’ll want a power setting around 150-400 lumens as your go-to option.

In the case of variable brightness, like the Led Lenser H7R.2, you have a dial and can micro-adjust the brightness with 10-12 levels. Super useful but it comes at the cost of a bulkier rear housing.

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Beam

This refers to how wide the light projects from the housing. You’ll see this rated in degrees (so a 140 degree beam angles 70 degrees each side of the middle) or simply referred to as spot (narrow) and flood (wide) beams.

Some brands of headlight for running have fully adjustable beams, like the Led Lenser H7R.2 mentioned above. Very useful feature but again, it comes with a slightly bulkier housing to accommodate it.

Other brands, like the Fenix HM65R below, use two separate globes to offer a narrow “spot” beam and a wider “flood” beam. You can use both lights at the same time to offer the best of both worlds.

Other brands have fixed beams that usually offers a flood-type beam with a moderately broad angle, making them OK as a headlight for running but not ideal for varied conditions.

Our coaches’ recommendations

As mentioned above, you need to find the right headlight for your purpose. Our coaches train at night for 2-3 hours and occasionally run overnight ultramarathons – these are their favourite two headlights, used by 80% of our coaches.

Petzl Iko Core headtorch

Petzl Iko Core headlight

Petzl is known for its innovation in headlights – the Iko Core packs in features++ and at just 79g!

Super lightweight, IPX4 and with 500 lumens of brightness to illuminate the road or trail easily. You’ll get 2.5hrs of battery at 500 lumens or 9hrs at 100 lumens and it has spot and flood beam options.

It comes with a rechargeable lithium battery pack, and you can use AAA batteries as a back up or buy a spare battery pack (~$30) to double its life for racing.

For around $80 USD, it’s a great investment.

Choosing the right headlight for running

Fenix HM65R headlight

This is my personal favorite! Weatherproof (IP68) and not too heavy at around 118g, it handles all conditions.

It has a 1000 lumen spot and a 400 lumen flood beam. Best of all, the flood beam is a beautiful yellow light to cast a natural light on the trail.

The 400 lumen setting on either globe lasts a whopping 22 hours, and it’s USB-C rechargeable (although I carry a spare 18650 battery for hot swapping mid-race).

Priced at around $90 USD, it’s the best combo of features on the market (in my opinion).

Choosing the right headlight for running

LED Lenser H7R.2

One of the most fully featured headlights on the market! The LED Lenser H7R.2 will not disappoint.

Offering IPX6 weatherproof, a focusable beam and a rotary dial to adjust brightness, it can be configured exactly as the situation demands.

Its 300 lumens of brightness are literally magnified by its focus system to punch into the night. Its rechargeable battery gives 4 hours of 300 lumens and can be swapped for AAA batteries as a back up.

The weight is on the heavy side at 165g but it’s nicely balanced with the rear-mounted battery pack.

Priced around $100 USD, it’s perfect for those who want to adjust every detail to match their environment.

Choosing the right headlight for running

LED Lenser MH10

OK this headlight has everything, literally!

LED Lenser have created a headlight with a bright 600 lumens, focusable beam, rechargeable battery (18650), IPX4 and a long battery life (600 lumens for 10 hours).

For added safety it has a rear red light, making it perfect for night road running.

The only compromise is the weight at 158g, but with the rear-mounted battery pack, it still feels perfectly balanced.

Priced around $100 USD, it’s the only headlight you’ll need for every outdoor situation.


Disclaimer for Choosing the right headlight for running

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