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Headlamp Review – No 216 – November 2002

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Busting out a big beamHalogen headlamps are the kings of illumination

I received my first headlamp for my 12th birthday, direct from an army-surplus catalog. It was camouflage green, with a wild assortment of straps and a red lens, so as not to disrupt the user’s night vision — an important consideration when sneaking around the neighborhood late at night. Eight years later, I proudly busted out the surplus special during an epic ascent of Hallett Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. Upon seeing the sketchy relic, my partner asked, “What is that?” adding, “That thing better work: The next pitch is yours.” I left the belay in light rain and quickly became accustomed to the devilish red glow playing on the rock. Unfortunately, once the unit got wet the light assembly refused to point upward, instead rotating slowly until the beam was aimed at my feet. I had to readjust the lamp every five seconds; obviously, I needed an upgrade. Since then, I’ve been a headlamp connoisseur, seeking the right combination of fit, functionality, and illumination. Over the course of this past spring and summer, we tested four halogen-bulb-equipped headlamps. Why halogen? Halogen bulbs produce a much brighter light than standard incandescent bulbs. The difference in light output is so noticeable that once you use a halogen headlamp, it’s hard to go back to anything else. The first time I tried one, it felt like I had a spotlight strapped to my head. However, there is one drawback to halogen bulbs: They drain batteries about three times faster than standard incandescent rigs — fine on one-day outings where you can put in fresh batteries beforehand, but not as practical on multi-day climbs or expeditions. Luckily, a number of manufacturers have solved this problem by incorporating a Light Emitting Diode (LED) into their lamps, adjacent to the halogen bulb. LEDs are smaller than a pencil eraser and give off a pleasant diffuse light, all the while using a minimal amount of battery power. In fact, one LED will easily run for over 100 hours off of three fresh AA alkaline batteries. And while LEDs cast only a fraction of the light of halogen bulbs, they are great for close-in work like rack organization, cooking, and reading. Plus, an LED won’t need to be replaced for years. A halogen/LED light system means you can lead pitches and route-find with the bright halogen bulb, then switch on the LED for less illumination-dependent work to conserve batteries. In order to thoroughly test the review entries, we took them alpine climbing, cragging, and car camping. During testing, we checked to see how comfortable the straps and headlamp assembly felt on our bare heads, and examined each lamp’s compatibility with a helmet. An accessible spare bulb was also a primary consideration (ideally, the bulb should be tucked behind the light reflector or in the battery compartment for quick, mid-route change-outs). The on/off button and ease of battery replacement were also factors. Durability and weather resistance turned into a four-way tie, as all the models survived the trials with honors. As every manufacturer has a different system for assessing burn time (how long a fresh set of batteries will produce usable light), we loaded up each unit with new alkaline batteries (all lamps took between two and four AAs), turned them on, and started the stopwatch. When we began to have trouble with rudimentary route-finding (making out features on the rock at 10 feet away), we considered the batteries spent.

The Test Results

Black Diamond Super Nova, $70 Summary: When Black Diamond designed the Super Nova, they pulled out all of the technological stops. This headlamp is the only one with a dimming switch built into the glove-compatible on/off button that allows for three choices of power output — 30 percent, 50 percent, and 100 percent. I found that customizing the Super Nova’s brightness to match the task greatly extended battery life. Depending on how the settings are used, the batteries lasted between three and 10 hours. There’s even an LED with its own back-up energy source (a small, six-volt battery) for ultimate energy conservation. When the four AAs die, the 6v takes over and happily powers the LED for another 20 hours. The unit also boasts a voltage regulator to ensure steady light output, and a spare halogen bulb tucked into the battery compartment. The Super Nova has a low-profile design that feels good on a bare head or helmet, and tilting the lamp down to cover the on/off button ensures that the unit won’t turn on in your pack. Pros: Choice of power output, LED, hidden spare halogen bulb, on/off button protectable. Cons: Expensive. Overall grade: A

Petzl Duo LED, $70 Summary: Petzl has been making great headlamps for over 10 years and the Duo LED is no exception. This bombproof lamp houses both a halogen bulb and a cluster of three LEDs. Petzl also makes a five-LED unit, and will release an eight-LED model with multiple power-output options this fall. The combo delivers outstanding range from the halogen, and enough light from the multiple LEDs that I had no problem following pitches. The Duo LED is also the only lamp in this review with an adjustable beam. Focus the halogen with the lever on the lamp’s side for pinpointing rap stations, or conversely, widen the beam for general route-finding. Factor in the lockable on/off switch, glove compatibility (except for the on/off lock), a hidden spare halogen bulb, and you’ve got a headlamp for the serious user. The only drawbacks are weight — a difference you can feel when compared to lighter but less versatile lamps — and a high price tag. Pros: LED. Adjustable beam and spare halogen bulb in unit. On/off switch lock. Cons: Heavy. Expensive. Overall grade: A

Pika Gemini, $45 Summary: The Gemini is a no-nonsense, reliable headlamp featuring a cluster of four LEDs next to the halogen bulb. To further increase the Gemini’s versatility, Pika includes a small krypton bulb that plugs into the LED terminal, is considerably brighter than the LED cluster (it’s similar to an incandescent bulb), and lasts about 18 hours on fresh batteries. The on/off switch, which toggles between these two lighting options, can easily be manipulated with gloves on, and the power cord disconnects from the lamp to ensure that the light never comes on accidentally. The Gemini feels good on a bare head orhelmet, but the weight-conscious should note that, with its four AA batteries and beefy construction, it ties for heaviest unit tested. Changing batteries is the Gemini’s Achilles heel: A screw must be removed to open the battery case (a coin or a knifeblade piton works well), but it’s not something I would want to do midway up a route. Pros: Four LED cluster. Spare krypton bulb. Cons: Tricky battery replacement and no hidden spare bulb. Heavy. Overall grade: B

PrincetonTec Solo, $27 Summary: If you’re looking for a lightweight halogen headlamp for hiking back to the car after a long day out, look no further than the PrincetonTec Solo. This compact lamp was the lightest headlamp tested, but don’t let its small size fool you — it packs the same power as the bigger entries. Factor in its simple design and wide harness straps, and you’ve got a headlamp that’s comfortable, low-profile, and works great on a helmet or head. Turning the lamp on and off is a matter of simply rotating the glove-friendly, rubber-coated lens mount. The Solo comes with batteries, a fleece carrying bag, spare incandescent bulb, and both a wide and narrow pre-focused light reflector. However, switching out the reflectors is not something you would want to do at night in the field. The Solo’s shortcomings are its short burn time of three hours (it’s powered by two AA batteries) — making it more suitable for trail and camp use than climbing — and the lack of an LED. Pros: Lightweight and extremely water resistant. Inexpensive, with batteries included. Semi-adjustable beam and spare incandescent bulb. Cons: Short burn time. No hidden spare halogen bulb or LED. Overall grade: B-

More information

Black Diamond: 801-278-5533,

Petzl: 801-327-3805,

Pika: 801-485-1686,

PrincetonTec: 609-298-9331,