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When it comes to camping and backpacking, a headlamp is one of the most critical pieces of gear to help you navigate at night. We believe that a headlamp is more useful than a handheld flashlight because it frees up your hands for camp chores.
The best headlamp for travel in general, even if not camping, I believe also would fall in this list because I focus on properties like weight, brightness, and usability.
I decided to sort headlamps into 3 main categories. You should base your purchase on your usage, which mostly depends on how much runtime you need until reaching another power source to recharge.
I do follow two important rules when choosing these lights:
- The light should use a single battery (AA or 18650). 3xAAA headlamps are common, but only because it’s the cheapest way to build a headlamp since they don’t require fancy voltage boosters. (LED’s require more than 3v to turn on, so 3 x 1.5v AAA = 4.5 volts). Trying to replace 3 AAA batteries at night in the dark though, and identifying which side is positive or negative would be a real hassle
- I want a headlamp that has removable batteries. While custom lithium batteries may be slightly lighter, they eventually will be disposable as the battery loses its capacity in 4-5 years. They also can’t be instantly recharged by popping in a new battery.
- Lighter weight 1 x AA headlamps if you need 7-10 hours of runtime on medium
- Slightly heavier 18650 headlamps for 50-70 hours of runtime on medium
Thrunite TH20 ($$)
- Battery configuration 1 x AA or 1 x 14500
- Weight: 96g (with battery)
- Cree XP-L V6 LED
- Max brightness: 520 lumens with a 14500 / 250 with AA
- IPX8 waterproof
Brightness runtimes with an AA battery:
- Firefly (0.3 lumens, 14 days）
- Infinity Low (1.6 lumens, 21 hours）
- Infinity High (230 lumens, 95 minutes )
- Turbo (250 lumens, 93 minutes)
The Thrunite TH20 is recommended because it is an affordable headlamp that can produce a lot of light, and is built like a tank. It supports both 1xAA and 1×14500 battery configurations. With dual battery support, it means you can travel and easily swap in AA batteries that can be found around the world, or use powerful lithium ion 14500 batteries when you want more brightness.
One particularly unique feature of this headlamp is that the user interface is “ramping”, which means that there are not pre-set levels of brightness, but rather an infinite amount of brightnesses that you can choose from by pressing and holding the button to ramp it up. It will remember the last brightness level you were at though, so you don’t constantly have to ramp up to that level.
Fenix HL23 ($$)
Fenix is a very popular name when it comes to high quality headlamps. Compared to the Thrunite listed above, this headlamp isn’t as bright and doesn’t have the 14500 support, but it is lightweight and easy to use.
- Battery configuration 1 x AA
- Weight: 52g (without battery)
- Cree XP-G2 LED
- Max brightness: 150 lumens
- IP68 waterproofing
The combination of the highly efficient Cree XP-G2 LED with an AA battery provides a good simple headlamp for travel, camping, and backpacking. It is the lightest of the replaceable battery headlamps on this list. The XP-G2 LED provides a nice combination of flood and throw. 150 lumens is more than enough light for most tasks and won’t kill your battery.
The 18650, for those not familiar, is a modern battery that has the highest energy density out of any commercial battery. For the same weight, it will be about 2.5x more efficient than AA batteries. Headlamps using this battery can reach 70 hours or more on medium modes.
The upside is that you’ll get amazing runtime and brightness. The downside is that headlamps in this category will be slightly heavier than 1xAA lights because the battery itself weighs an additional 15oz or so, and the body of the light can be heavier. You’ll also have to recharge with custom chargers and can’t easily swap in batteries while traveling. (Vape shops might be your best bet)
Wowtac A2S ($$ with battery)
This first choice is listed because it’s easily available on Amazon via Prime, and comes with a USB rechargeable battery so no separate charger is needed. The neutral white option is very bright, and can run for a long time.
- Battery configuration 1 x 18650 (included with USB charging)
- Weight: 3.8oz (without battery which will be about 1.6oz)
- Cree XPL V6
- Max brightness: 1050 lumens
- IPX7 waterproofing
While slightly heavier than the Skilhunt H03 listed below, this headlamp is easily bought via amazon prime and is cheaper because it includes a battery with charger. A great choice for someone’s first foray into 18650 lights.
Skilhunt H03 ($$)
The Skilhunt H03 is the lightest 18650 headlamp on the market, weighing only 44g without battery or headband. We love this headlamp for its user interface and brightness.
- Battery configuration: 1 x 18650
- Weight: 44g without headband, about 130g with headband+battery
- Cree XM-L2 U4
- Max brightness: 1200 lumens
The combination of a long running 18650 battery and the efficient Cree LED makes this a great travel light. At 44g, the body of this headlamp weighs less than most AA lights! The Cree XM-L2 U4 is slightly older than some newer LED’s, but we love it because it’s a great floody light which is ideal for camping, backpacking, and travel, and it is also highly efficient.
The user interface provides lots of modes for your brightness needs, but the mode I think is the most incredible is 20 lumens for 75 hours.
What are the downsides of this light? One is that to get the best price, you’ll need to order it from China (gearbest), but it’s worth the wait since it will save you 50% on the light.
You’ll also need to provide your own 18650 battery and charger. We recommend the Sanyo NCR18650GA 3500mAh battery, and a small charger like the Xtar Ant MC1 Plus or Liitokala 100 for around $5. You could also look into the Xtar PB2 power bank for maximum versatility while traveling.