Guide to - Head torch running.
Updated: Sep 17
Whether you're planning on training through the darker months or even tackling your first night-time event, here's some considerations when choosing your ideal head torch, and a few tips to help make you a more confident night runner!
HEAD TORCH BUYING - WHAT TO CONSIDER.
Strength - Light strength is usually measured in lumens and can range from 20-30 lumens on a cheap basic head torch, right up to the high hundreds and beyond for more expensive technical models. Anything around 100 lumen is perfectly fine for running on pavement or through parks where you can be confident of good footing and no unexpected surprises. For more uneven surfaces and technical trails you'll need to consider something brighter... something around 300 lumen or more depending on the individual.
Battery Life / Burn Time - It stands to reason that a stronger lamp will consume more power and burn through batteries faster, so your choice in head torch may depend on how long you tend to run during darkness. Remember when choosing a torch that the manufacturers stated burn time is an average, and often calculated during ideal conditions. In reality you will rarely achieve this figure.
Some models use the standard AA / AAA batteries which are readily available and can be easily replaced. (These are also available in a Lithium version - more power and improved cold weather performance - that may be better suited to your needs).
Other lamps use a rechargeable battery pack which offer a couple of benefits over AA / AAA batteries. You can charge it between each run, giving you the confidence that your batteries will outlast your legs. You also save on the expense of replacing batteries. Some head torches now offer the convenience of both battery set-ups. For example the Silva Trail Runner 4 ships with a rechargeable, removable battery pack AND a second pack that will accept AA batteries. You can easily swap between the 2 as needed.
Many torches will have multiple power settings which can help prolong your battery life. You're able to select a dimmer light as standard and boost to full brightness only when needed. Reactive lighting is also becoming more common, where the torch will emit the ideal brightness depending on surroundings and ambient light detected.
Waterproof Rating - Usually indicated as an IP (Ingress Protection) rating and consisting of 2 digits, the first shows dust protection, the second shows water protection. Head torches don't often have a dust rating so will show an X rather than a number. IPX4 for example would indicate no data for dust, and level 4 protection against water (resistant to splashing water, i.e. rain) IPX4 is a common rating but if torrential rain doesn't keep you indoors you should look for IPX6 (protection from powerful water jets), IPX7 (immersion to 1 meter) or even IPX8 (immersion up to 3 meters for extended duration).
Bulbs - LED's tend to be the bulb of choice for most manufacturers simply due to their flexibility and long life span. Multiple LEDs can be arranged in a unit to give any combination of beam width and spread. A single LED is often used to give a more focused beam and is usually brighter. You may sometimes find Halogen bulbs in some units. Whilst these may be brighter, they can need replacing and are more susceptible to damage if a lamp is dropped. Beam - More technical units may have various beam widths, spread and angle adjustments. Personally I look for a unit which has a permanent wide spread, and a separate setting giving focused light when needed.
Weight - This may or may not be a consideration for you. If you're only doing short easy runs then a heavier head torch may not pose any issues. However, if you intend on running longer distances, or over uneven terrain, you will soon start to feel those extra ounces. The weight distribution is important too. A large lamp with many batteries, all mounted at the front may make the unit bounce around as you run or feel unstable. Many manufacturers have taken to mounting the bulb at the front, and batteries at the rear or even in a waist pack to ensure a more evenly balance, lighter and more stable load.
This section goes hand-in-hand with....
Comfort / Fit - We each have different ideas of comfort. Check the material of the headband. Some are simple adjustable elastic straps that fit around the head. Others have a non-slip material on the inside of the band for more security. I prefer a 2nd strap over the top of the head which (for me) improves the stability and comfort. If you're not used to wearing a head torch it may irritate the skin for the first couple of runs so consider wearing a buff or thin beanie underneath. Make sure it easy to adjust too, even with gloved or cold hands.
Ease of use - Small fiddly buttons and complicated selections may seem ok in the comfort of your home with the instruction manual to hand, but out doors on a cold night you really need simple, easy to operate buttons (again, even with gloves / cold hands), and a straight forward mode selection - Off / Low / High is usually all we need
Safety - Look for a unit that has added safety features. A rear red light helps make you visible to those around you (car in streets, marshals on a course, cyclists in parks). A battery indicator is more of a convenience, but knowing when you battery is running low can help you make safe decisions on route selection.
BECOMING A CONFIDENT HEAD TORCH RUNNER.
Always test your head torch - play with all the features and get used to how it operates in the comfort of your own home. Practice switching it on / off and selecting modes while its on your head rather than in your hand.
Get the right fit - make sure you're happy with the fit and feel. Not too loose, not too tight. It should be stable with minimum bounce. If you run wearing a hat, make sure you use the same hat when adjusting the straps. Also, be comfortable with adjusting the strap on the fly. Straps can work loose and you may need to fiddle with it during the run.
Make sure your have plenty of battery life - if it's a rechargeable unit make sure it's fully charged. If you need to, carry spare batteries in a pocket or waist belt.
Do a test run (or several) on familiar streets, paths and trails before you venture further afield or tackle unknown terrain.
Run in a group - this allows you to utilise the light added by others in your group until you're more comfortable going it alone. You can allow the more experienced runners to lead, knowing they will give fair warning of any change in conditions (usually with a load shout, scream, swear). Just be sure not to shine your head torch directly at other's faces, and equally, don't stare at your friends dazzling light :) We offer the occasional evening runs where you can learn various trail running skills and pick up a load of tips & trick to improve your running experience - keep an eye on our Facebook page for details
Keep your head (and eyes) moving - peripheral vision may serve us well during a summer Parkrun but when running during low light we need to be more aware of our surroundings (and not just the floor). Adjust your head torch to illuminate the area your eyes are naturally drawn towards when running - often this is around 6-10 feet in front of you (depending on your running speed and confidence this may be closer or further away). Make sure you're not just illuminating the floor - road signs, branches, and other people can really catch you out if your eyes are always down.
Avoid reflective surfaces - shining your lamp directly at street signs, mirrored surfaces, and even reflective clothing will seriously hamper your night vision. You'll spend a good while trying to clear the stars from your eyes. Conversely, before starting your run it can be useful to close your eyes for a little while to allow the eyes time to adjust to total darkness.
Experience - there is no substitute for spending time outside, running in darkness and using your head torch. The more you do it, the easier it becomes. Your proprioception will improve and dealing with the low light conditions will become second nature.
STAY SAFE - Always let someone know where you're going. Carry a phone with you whenever possible. Avoid high traffic areas or streets with no footpaths. Stick to routes you are familiar with until you have built up some experience of night running. Wear reflective clothing and / or safety lights. Some examples can be found here
Head Torches - My Top Picks.
Best Budget (Under £50).
Alpkit Gamma III - £21.99
This has been my top pick for the last few years, and I'm still struggling to find a better value package than the Alpkit Gamma III. I love this wee lamp. It's powerful enough to use on all but the most gnarly trails yet light enough to forget you're wearing it. The rear mounted battery pack ensures it's well balanced and has an integrated red safety light. Its IPX4 rating means it can be worn in the rain but it's not waterproof. For me the only negatives are the lack of adjustment to the beam and the use of AAA batteries over a rechargeable battery.
ALSO CONSIDER - Petzl Actik (£31.44) For extra money you get a slightly brighter lamp and the option to use with the rechargeable Core system. Not everyone likes the front mounted battery pack either, but this is a solid choice for night runs.
Best Mid Range (£50-£100). 2020 has seen some great releases in this price bracket and although still solid lamps, neither of last years picks have made it back on to the list.
When I wrote the blog last year, this unit came a close second in high-end category, but the price drop since then makes it a clear champion for under £100. Weighing only 100g the Swift has varying power settings up to a massive 900 lumens. As well as using the Core rechargeable battery, it benefits from Petzl's reactive lighting system giving optimal light under all conditions and extending burn time. Having the battery mounted up front, I expected the unit to be front heavy but it's light weight and patented head band gave a really stable fit. With the added lock function to prevent inadvertent operation when stowed in a pack, this could be the affordable go anywhere do anything lamp we've been waiting for.
ALSO CONSIDER - Ledlenser H8R (£58.13 Amazon)
Best High-End (Over £100).
The NAO still holds top spot in the higher end price bracket. Fully loaded, with a price tag to match - If price isn't a factor then this could be an option for you. It's a little heavier than other models but is well balanced and the clever strap helps it stay secure. Petzl's own reactive lighting ensures you have the best combination of battery life and optimal lighting. You can select individual beams and power levels (up to 750 lumen) depending on your preference, or just let the lamp do all the work. The battery is removable so you can carry a spare on longer routes or multi-day adventures and the latest battery packs double as a safety light.
ALSO CONSIDER - Silva Cross Trail Ultra 6 (£164)
Worth a mention! Petzl have recently released their new IKO head torch. The patented mounting system allows this unit to be used as a head torch, can be mounted to a cycle helmet, and the stuff sack double as a diffuser so it can be hung (e.g. in a tent) and used as a lantern. At 500 lumen it has plenty of power and the IPX4 rating makes it useful regardless of weather. The low bulk and 79g weight make it ideal for fastpacking or longer distance running and the hybrid power system give you plenty of options / back ups.
Biolite have released some light weight power house head lamps at very reasonable prices. Unfortunately I've yet to get my hands on one to test but they look a promising option for trail runners