Being able to see where you are going and being visible to other road users is critical for that early morning or winter commute to work. Here are the top considerations to help you choose the right headlamp for city commuting.
Essential steps in choosing the right headlamp
- 100 to 200-lumen output (brightness) recommended. Grab a brightness-adjustable 200 plus lumen headlamp if you do the occasional trail run
- Choose a battery type that suits you, single-use, rechargeable or USB rechargeable
- Choose a headlamp that has a runtime of at least 20 hours
- For running, other than having a few brightness settings and having some water resistance, additional features such as strobe and red lights are unnecessary
- Stick to well-proven brands, Petzl, Black Diamond or Fenix
- Look for IPX6 rating minimum, IPX7 as a preferred water resistance standard
Running to work in the dark
Runners are generally moving more slowly than cyclists. Seeing where you are going is more important than being seen. The right headlamp, along with a good choice of running gear with visibility strips helps make your presence known to other road users. Driveways and intersections are the riskiest part of a running commute.
Headlamps recommended for cyclists are not always the best running choice. Headlamps for cyclists tend to emphasise on lumens (brightness) and battery life at higher outputs, and this makes the headlamps recommended too heavy for runners.
What makes a good headlamp for running
For runners a lightweight headlamp is vital. Unlike cycling, the additional weight will make the headlamp bounce and feel very heavy over time. As the strap goes around the head, fitting the strap tightly to compensate for a heavy headlamp can take some getting used to.
Wearing the headlamp over a winter running hat is a top tip. This makes wearing the headlamp more comfortable for running, prevents salt from sweat of damaging and stinking up the strap, and avoids headlamp marks on your forehead when you roll into the office!
Brightness, often usually measured in lumens. Lumens is a standard measure of the light output in all directions. Higher lumens typically means higher energy use, so a 400-lumen headlamp with need will use more power than a 200-lumen headlamp.
The means a higher output headlamp will either have shorter runtime (sometimes called burn time) or use more substantial heavier batteries.
How many lumens do you need for a running headlamp?
100 to 140 lumens is the right sweet spot for a running headlamp. The output is more than sufficient to see and be seen. 100 to 200-lumen headlamps tend to be of higher quality than lower lumen headlamps. A headlamp with this output has the optimal balance between light output, weight and battery life.
For more diversity, or if you hit the occasional trail run choose a headlamp towards 200+ lumens on a headlamp with adjustable output can be a smart move.
Avoid the massively promoted 900+ lumen headlamps, they are cumbersome, heavy, overkill and often very cheaply made.
Running headlamps, battery life and battery types
At the suggested output of 100 to 200 lumens battery life, often referred to as burntime or runtime, is unlikely to be a problem in all but the cheapest (read avoid!) headlamps.
Aim for a runtime of at least 20 hours to avoid constant battery swapping or needing to recharge after every run. A headlamp that needs constant charging is a headache and will let you down when most needed.
Headlamps have a range of battery and charging options. Choosing a battery option that suits your routine reduces hassle.
Unless you very occasionally use the headlamp, we suggested avoiding single-use batteries. Constant replacing is costly and also increases risk over breaking or damaging the headlamp over time.
For a very occasionally used headlamp, single-use batteries have the advantage of holding their charge for many years.
Rechargeable Ni-MH (nickel-metal hydride)
Possible the most common type of battery used. Ni-MH cells have the advantage of coming in standard sizes (typically AA and AAA for headlamps). NI-MH are typically rechargeable 300-1000 times.
Ni-MH batteries are relatively cheap as are battery chargers, and we love EneLoop Ni-MH batteries for their output, reliability and longevity.
Ni-Mh batteries have less output voltage for a given size compared to good single-use cells. However, generally, there is no noticeable difference in using Ni-Mh rechargeables in place of single-use (alkaline) batteries. Your wallet and the environment will thank you for choosing Ni-MH.
Ni-MH rechargeables are a better battery for use in headlamps than the older Ni-Cd. But make sure you have (or buy a charging station for Ni-MH).
USB rechargeable headlamps
Most manufacturers offer at least one USB rechargeable model. These are fitted with Lithium-Ion batteries.
USB rechargeable headlamps tend to be lighter weight and more compact than those using AA or AAA cells. We often find the USB charging point in the headlamp is a weak spot on most headlamps and over time corrosion occurs in the connector.
As the battery is sealed into the lamp, it isn’t possible to throw in some spare batteries if just in case, or if you forget to charge the headlamp. That said, with care USB rechargeable lights can be a great option.
For more than you could ever want to know about batteries, check out Green Batteries guide.
Petzl has introduced its Hybrid Concept battery option across a number of their headlamps. Hybrid< Concept allows both the use of a propriety rechargeable battery pack or standard AAA batteries. Read more about Hybrid Concept and the Petzl Actik and Actik Core headlamps for running or cycling in the City.
What is the best beam type for a running headlamp?
Headlamps beams are often described as ‘spot’, ‘flood’ or adjustable. Spot is a highly focussed beam of light, flood as a largely unfocused light that is intended to light a whole area. In practice headlamps Spot headlamps exhibit some flood characteristics. The reflectors and lens setup determine the light characteristics.
For commute running a headlamp with a tight focus is a good choice. This focuses most of the light directly into a spot ahead of you. Essentially wherever you point your eyes the main beam of the headlamp will illuminate.
For trail running, a light with a slightly softer (or wider) beam is useful to avoid some of the ‘tunnel vision’ that a highly focused beam can create. Some headlamps come with adjustable beams, depending on budget, this can be one of the extra features that are useful for running.
Another advantage of a highly focussed beam is that the light can be used to ‘tag’ a hazard. If you spot a car reversing out of a driveway, your instinct will be to look towards the driver. With a headlamp, the light will also tag the driver, often making them aware of your presence. DON’T RELY ON BEING SEEN IN ANY INSTANCE!
What headlamp features are useful for a runner
Many headlamps are advertised with a number of added features to try to distinguish them from the bunch. Features that are useful for a running headlamp are:
Having the ability to tilt the main beam of light at a specific distance in front of you is a deal-breaker. Having a great light that focuses 100 metres out in front is of little use to a runner. Having an adjustable tilt allows you to place the light and headband where it is most comfortable, while still allowing you to adjust where the light hits the ground in front.
While not essential, an adjustable beam can let you use the light to the perfect mix of laser pointer focus and general area illumination. A highly focussed beam of light can induce a disorientating tunnel-vision in some people, so having an opportunity to adjust your new toy can avoid a return to sender.
Choosing a headlamp with at least a high-low setting is a good idea. The low setting is great when you are in a highly lit or highly pedestrianised area. The low output mode can also help you limp home with some light if you skipped recharging!
Runners tend to have little need for a ‘high-output’/turbo mode which some headlamps advertise as a feature. This high-output mode essentially puts the headlamps into its highest output setting for several seconds (to save battery and avoid overheating the LED). We usually find this setting gimmicky and rarely used beyond the first hour of unpacking a new headlamp.
Water or dust resistance
An IPX7 rated headlamp will be a reliable friend. IPX7 is a higher standard of water resistance than IPX6. IPX6 essentially means a headlamp is ok for use in rain. IPX7 is a higher standard which allows for submersion at 1 metre for up to 30 minutes.
We’re not suggesting you go for a swim with your headlamp. The higher IPX7 rating means that the weak spots in terms of water resistance are better designed and sealed than lower-rated headlamps. Battery compartments are the usual weak-spot for both water ingress and breakage. If the higher IPX7 rating means this weak-spot has had more thoughtful design its well worth it!