What is one of the most important things I always make sure to have with me when I’m on a hiking, skiing, or climbing adventure? That’s easy—a trusty headlamp I can rely on to guide my way until the sun takes its first glance on the landscape, or help get me to where I’m going when my time management skills fall short and I’m racing against nightfall. Whether or not my after-dark travels in the backcountry are planned, I am always appreciative of the ability to see beyond the tip of my nose. With that said, I have also waited helplessly as my light source grows dimmer with no hope of revitalization until I get home to those batteries I glanced at but neglected to grab. Based on my headlamp experiences—both good and bad, I have learned (sometimes the hard way) some key points of consideration.
Your light source will only be as powerful as the energy it runs off of. I am one of those people who use something until it can absolutely not be used anymore. When it comes to battery-powered devices that often means licking the battery terminals to improve conductivity for the final burst of juice. Dealing with headlamps, this isn’t a great plan of attack. Too many times I have switched one on before a night-ski, noted that the strength of the beam was okay but not great, and decided it would hold out for an hour or so. Wrong. Once your headlamp becomes even slightly less powerful the downward spiral to darkness is fast. Add in some below-freezing temperatures and those batteries you tested in the warmth of your house and figured would work “okay” die in a matter of minutes. So if your headlamp is powered by AAA batteries (which many are), think ahead and throw a couple spares in a pocket inside of your jacket. Forget that handy zippered pouch in the top of your pack because cold batteries often just don’t work. When you get into the pricier and more techie range, headlamps tend to have rechargeable built-in battery packs. These models often last a long time on a single charge but be careful, if your light starts to fade halfway through a trip, those AAA’s your buddy offers up are about as useful as pocket change.
As I continue to break or lose headlamps on a far too regular basis, I’ve noticed that quality headlamps at reasonable prices are increasingly difficult to come by. I have danced between big name manufacturers such as Petzl, Princeton Tec, and Black Diamond, trying to find a low-cost, quality option that will last for more than a couple of months. In my experience, to get something that will endure, has a strong beam, and utilizes battery power efficiently, it takes an investment of $30 or more. The $20 options don’t seem to perform or hold up and the $65 and up options come with all the bells and whistles that simply aren’t necessary for most of us.
If the wide range in quality and price isn’t enough to flummox you, walk into any outdoor store and you will find an entire wall devoted to headlamps. On top of the sheer volume of options, manufacturer labels boast high lumens, extra-long beams, or days of battery life at full output. As it turns out, these often confusing specs aren’t that useful or accurate in the real world. So what’s the best way to end up with a reliable headlamp? Forget the packaging at the store and do some homework beforehand. You can find gear reviews all over the internet. Better yet, do it the old fashioned way and ask your ski buddies. They will have all kinds of opinions on what features you need, why you need them, with a touch of personal bias thrown in.
So if you find yourself in need of a new headlamp for some after-hours skiing this winter, take these final thoughts:
- If your night-time routes traverse rolling fields and wide-open tracks, and you’re out there in search of beauty and solitude rather than high speeds, you probably don’t need a top-of-the-line lamp. A solid beam with 1 or 2 intensity settings should work just fine.
- If you wake up early in the morning to climb to the top of Smuggs to get a run in before the lifts open, just make sure your light works. On those early morning jaunts you may be sharing the trail with groomers, snowmobilers, and other mountain workers. So while you may be able to see in the early morning light without a headlamp, it’s important that everyone else notices you.
- And if you’re someone who seeks the added thrill of darkness when attempting some more difficult terrain…know what you’re getting yourself into. A very bright light that you can rely on to stay strong can mean a world of difference when you’re at the top, ski-tips pointed into the black abyss of a trail you were so confident on in the daylight.