How to Choose a Headlamp for Trail Running and Ultrarunning
Running in the dark is a big part of being an ultramarathon runner. Either during events or during training runs that begin before sunrise and/or end after sunset, you’re going to find yourself on a trail in the dark. Carrying a light with the right combination of style, brightness, battery life, and other features is critical for safety and speed. Here’s a guide to choosing the best light for you, including headlamps, and waist lights.
Brightness matters. A lot. The less visual strain you experience, the more energy and confidence you can direct to moving along the route. Research suggests that mental and neurological fatigue are largely responsible for a decrease in muscle control and contractile strength. When runners can limit mental fatigue, physical endurance may improve. Less mental fatigue means having more brain power to devote to other functions, like navigating and assessing nutrition and often-changing weather and gear considerations.
A light’s brightness is expressed in lumens, which is a measure of the total quantity of visible light emitted by a source per unit time. A light source with more lumens is brighter, and most headlamps designed for trail running have a brightness between 200-1000 lumens.
Many headlamps have multiple brightness settings so runners can choose more or fewer lumens as needed. Keep in mind, using the brighter settings drains the batteries faster. Waist lights tend to put out fewer lumens than headlamps, but they are still effective because they’re closer to the ground and meant to illuminate the area directly in front of you.
Overall brightness is important, and so is how that light is directed into a beam. A wider beam distributes light over a broader area. However, the total area illuminated by the beam will be less bright. A narrower beam will create greater visibility within a narrower field. Also consider whether the light allows the user to switch between one or more beam types. For a camping headlight, fewer features may be necessary. In contrast, ultrarunners must use the light continuously for hours and in a wide range of conditions. As a result, you want a headlamp with at least 500 lumens in its brightest setting and at least two beam configurations, a dispersed beam pattern for wide coverage, and a more focused beam pattern that extends further out in front of you.
Weight & Durability:
The lightest running headlights on the market weight as little as 1.2 ounces. However, this weight savings usually results in fewer lumens, a shorter battery life and/or a less durable device. The heaviest headlamps designed with trail runners in mind weight approximately 16 ounces. Weight matters for headlamps because of how long you’ll be wearing it. Running for hours with even a small weight strapped to the front of your head applies torque to your neck and can lead to neck pain, headaches, and muscle fatigue. Training your neck is part of the reason to practice running at night with the headlight on before wearing it for hours during a race.
Waist lights may solve the problem of strapping a small weight to the front of your head, but they come with their own limitations. Headlamps illuminate whatever you turn your head toward, whereas waist lights are more difficult to redirect from straight in front of you. Waist lights may also be more prone to bouncing, which can be disorienting and uncomfortable.
Building products for durability affects weight. Lightweight equipment tends to be more fragile. Keep in mind, your lights many spend many hours in your running pack, exposed to heat, liquids, impacts, and a lot of jostling. It must be able to handle some amount of abuse and still work. It also should not be able to turn on accidently if it’s bumped by something in your vest or pack.
Functionality/Ease of Use:
You will not always use your headlamp or waist light in warm, dry summer night conditions. At some point you’ll be fumbling with it in a rainstorm or during chilly night while wearing moderate to heavy gloves, or even mittens. To save time and frustration, the light must be easy to put on, adjust the fit, and take off. Additionally, the controls for beam pattern and brightness should be simple and tactile so you can find them by feel if you’re not looking at the lamp. Ideally, practice putting on, setting up, adjusting, and removing your headlamp with one hand, as you may be carrying poles or a water bottle in your other hand.
Bright lights are great, but the brighter they burn the shorter they last. One of the most important things to look for on any headlamp or waist light is run time by brightness setting. It can be good to purchase a light with a higher maximum brightness because the middle or low lumen settings may be bright enough for 80-90% of your nighttime running. A light with a lower maximum brightness may be less expensive, but you’ll need rely more on its brightest setting, which drains the battery fastest.
The potential need to charge or replace batteries is a huge consideration when deciding on your lighting equipment. If your headlamp goes dark before sunrise, you’ll need to install a spare battery (or multiple) that you’re carrying, spend time recharging it at an aid station, or swap the light out for a spare at an aid station. You might also be able to charge it on the go with a battery pack, but to do that you’ll likely need to carry the light in your hand or on your waist rather than on your head.
Keep an eye on your brightness settings as you run. A common mistake is to turn on the brightest setting for a technical bit of trail and then forget to turn it down. Your eyes adjust to the darkness and to the amount of light you’re projecting. You’re trying to balance having enough light to run safely and yet using as little light as possible for the sake of your battery.
How well a headlight fits is also important. It’s one thing to put up with discomfort for an hour or two during some pre-dawn or post-sunset training sessions. But discomfort that’s bearable for a few hours is unbearable after several. The headband should distribute pressure evenly around the circumference of your head. You shouldn’t feel anything putting undo pressure on you, and it should stay in place when you are running. A headlamp that jostles even a little bit as you run will result in a shaky beam that is not only annoying but can lead to poor visibility and even vertigo. Again, spend time in training using your headlamp to be sure it fits will and won’t be add discomfort to your experience.
Cost & Reputable Brands:
We’re not here to sell you a particular brand of headlamp, but it’s important to realize there are lots of cheap headlamp options available, but this is an area where you’ll want to invest a bit more in quality. Choose brands and models that are well vetted and reviewed by reliable sources. A good proof of quality is observing what mid-pack runners use. Why mid-pack instead of elites? All runners experience the same duration of darkness, but mid-packers take longer between aid stations (battery challenge) and tend to run slower through technical trail sections. The latter can mean greater reliance on the brightest setting, which drains the battery faster.
Armed with these considerations, it’s time to spend some time reading reviews, trying on several options at your local sporting goods store, and talking with friends and trusted trail comrades. Although a great headlamp may not earn a lot of praise, a poor one can lead to frustration, add unnecessary fatigue, and even create a failure point in a race. So, choose wisely, test it out, and don’t be afraid to replace a light that’s not working for you.
By Darcie Murphy,
CTS Pro Ultramarathon Coach
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