head torch collection

What is the best head torch for running?

What is the best head torch for running? I’ve heard the question asked lots of times.

The answer is a bit harder to determine, a bit like asking which is the best car; whilst a Ferrari might be great for some things it’s not what you’d choose for taking the family on a camping holiday.  Go on any forum where the question is asked and you will have people swearing that their torch is the best and that everyone should buy the same model that they’ve got.  Well those people are wrong!!  What they actually mean is that think they have the best head torch for the type of running that they do. Whilst it might suit them it won’t suit the requirements of everyone. The person who says that their 100 lumen torch is perfectly adequate obviously doesn’t try to run down rocky, uneven ground at speed!

head torches for running

is your head torch a Ferrari or a camper van?

There is a huge range of head torches to choose from: cheap, dazzlingly bright Chinese imports, torches that automatically react to the ambient light levels, USB rechargeables, AAs, AAAs, 18650s, batteries in the head unit, batteries worn on the back of the head, batteries carried in an external pocket or waist belt, additional white, red and green LEDs, SOS mode, adjustable zoom, combined flood and spotlight…. the list goes on.

So rather than asking what is the best head torch you need to ask yourself some further questions.

What type of running will you do?

If you only intend to run at an easy pace on fairly even ground then you don’t need a very expensive or very bright torch. However if you’re planning long nights out on remote terrain then a more powerful torch with long battery life is essential.  If you are only going to be running for a couple of hours then again long battery life isn’t vital and so a torch with fewer batteries will suffice.  If you think you might progress to longer or more remote running it might be better to buy a torch that will be suitable for that rather than buying one that suits what you are currently doing and then finding that you need to upgrade.

Alpkit head torches

inexpensive torches for less challenging runs

Is brightness everything?

Some people mistakenly think that a brighter torch with more lumens is best; ever heard someone say “I got a cheap 1000 lumen torch off Ebay!”?  In some situations having a very powerful beam is important, for example when you need to see a long way into the distance, but if you’re night running rather than on a search and rescue exercise then the extra brightness can be overkill. What’s more it can dazzle other runners and dazzle yourself too if you are reading a map! Brighter torches need more powerful batteries which means extra weight, so your mega bright torch might weigh twice as much as your mate’s head torch which does just as good a job. In misty or foggy conditions a bright beam is actually worse than a dimmer one as the reflected light makes it harder to pick out features.

More important than brightness is the beam pattern. A bright, narrow beam is good for looking into the distance but doesn’t give a good spread of light. A wider, flood beam allows you to use your peripheral vision to see things rather than needing to turn your head and so is better for running, especially on technical ground.  A torch that lets you easily switch between spot and flood is a good option.

more expensive torches give a better spread of light

more expensive torches give a better spread of light

What features do you need?

Do you really need 8 different modes and brightness that is fully adjustable from bright to dim?  Is that red night vision mode really useful or is it just another setting that you need to cycle through before you get to the setting you want?  What about a rear light; some torches have a rear facing red LED which is great for leading a group, but not for leading a race!  Some torches can be turned off by infra red, you just wave your hand in front of them to switch them on and off.  That’s a great idea – until you scratch your forehead and accidentally plunge yourself into darkness!  Sometimes a simple on / off, bright / dim is all you need.

Will it be easy to carry?

A compact torch with batteries in the head unit will easily slip into a bumbag or even jacket pocket and can be put on in seconds. This makes it ideal for a twilight run when you don’t need to wear it at first but need it later in the run as it gets dark. That super bright torch with battery pack extension won’t be as comfortable to carry and your mates will have put their torches on and gone whilst you’re still trying to route the cable down the inside of your jacket and into your bum bag!

some torches have the option of carrying the battery off the head

some torches have the option of carrying the battery in a bum bag rather than on the head

Will it be easy to operate?

That might sound a bit daft but some head torches have tiny buttons. They’re easy to operate when you’re in the nice warm shop but what about when you’re out on the cold hillside with your thick gloves on. Will you still be able to feel the button then?  Most of the time you won’t need to change the mode whilst you’re on the run but sometimes you might want to turn the torch off to look at the stars or turn it to zoom to look for a field exit.  It can be really frustrating if you have to go through a sequence of clicks and holds to to do this, and then again to get back to the setting you were on.  Torches with lots of modes are fine, but sometimes less is more and simplicity wins.  Also have a look at the battery pack and imagine trying to change the batteries with gloves on or with cold hands.  Some can be very fiddly – not what you want to discover on a wet and windy night!

Will it fit your head?

Again, it may sound obvious but we’ve got different shaped heads! It might be that the torch your mate loves has a battery pack on the back that just doesn’t suit the shape of your head or that your pony tail gets in the way.

will the torch be comfortable on your head?

will the torch be comfortable on your head?

Do you believe the hype?

If you read the manufacturer’s technical details you might think that your 200 lumen torch has a life of 20 hours on maximum setting. It might last for 20 hours but the chances are that 16 of them will be too dim to allow you to run. Some cheap imports claim to put out a huge amount of lumens, but how do you know that’s accurate?

Dare you trust a cheap import?

It’s true that you can pick up a very bright Cree LED torch for less than £20 on Ebay and many people have bought them and are happy with them.  But there are others who have had them pack up and even catch fire or explode whilst charging!  Are those UltraFire batteries that came with it really the genuine article or are are they fakes?  If it does stop working you’ll be out of pocket as you won’t be able to send it back but that might not be your only concern.  If the lights go out on a country lane close to home it’s not the end of the world, if you’re up a mountain in the middle of the night it’s more serious.  So depending on what you’re using it for you might want to think about paying a bit more for a torch from a reputable company.

Can you justify buying two?

Anyone from a cycling background will know that it’s perfectly acceptable to have more than one bike, even if they cost thousands of pounds each!  Likewise you might justify that you can own more than one head torch; a powerful one with long battery life for serious outings and a lighter one for less challenging runs and as your “back up” torch.

head torch collection

it’s ok to own more than one torch!

Personal Experience

I’ve tried lots of different head torches in different situations, from long night outings such as the High Peak Marathon, the Paddy Buckley round and the Charlie Ramsay Round to short fast training sessions in the dark.  I use a head torch whilst coaching on winter evenings and whilst leading off road night runs.  I’ve also tested different torches for various magazines and the thing I’ve found is that there isn’t a “best torch”.  There are torches that are really good for the type of running that I was doing at the time and torches that weren’t suited to that type of running.  Even the most expensive torches lack some features that could be useful.

night running on technical terrain

night running on technical terrain

The first torch I bought was too bulky, the second had poor battery life and let me down on a night race. Only now on my third purchase have I found what works best for me for the majority of the running that I do – but this won’t suit everybody – and even still I use other torches for other runs.

So there’s no such thing as the best head torch for running, just an ideal torch for the run that you are currently doing, but tomorrow’s run might be different!

fell running guide

Posted in Equipment, Fell running, Head Torches, Reviews, Trail Running and tagged , .

12 Comments

  1. I’ve used the two Alpkit models featured. I prefer the Gamma for road running or running in a group at night because of the rear red LED – you’re more easily spotted by a runner coming up behind. Having said that, the human eye’s response to red light isn’t as good as it is to white light.
    Another advantage of the Gamma is that it has front red & green LEDs as well as two white LEDs. White LEDs won’t work at low voltages whereas red & green will run happily on 2v – so if your batteries are on the way out you’ll have some illumination.
    In my (limited) experience I’ve found that a brighter light isn’t always a better light, glare from a searchlight can be a problem. A less bright light can be better, the eye doesn’t get overloaded with too many lumens.
    Oh, and the Alpkit ones are really well priced.
    An interesting article – thanks, it will give many food for thought!

  2. Dave – the Alpkit Arc torch has a good spread at close range plus a bright core at long range – really good balance of light, plus a quick change battery pack. Well impressed for the price. Worth checking out as a good back up to a Hope. John B

    • Hi John
      Yes I’ve tried the Arc and think it’s good value for money. I like the neat idea with the pre loaded battery pack. The main downside is battery life, it only lasted for a couple of hours on full so not ideal for a long outing.
      Dave

    • Hi Sara
      The R1 is quite heavy, especially if the battery pack is worn on the head. It is versatile as it can easily be attached to a bike or helmet and has long battery life but I prefer the Petzl Nao for running.

  3. I still use a Fenix HP11 that I bought a few years ago after recommendations from the FRA forum. It’s simple to use, powerful, runs off 4AA batteries (I use rechargeables), has a diffuser or spot beam if needed, and is waterproof. Bit bulky, but never been an issue for me. I’ve used it a lot and it’s still spot on.

    • That was the first head torch I bought for running. Good value but with 4xAAs on the head it’s a bit too bulky. I’ve actually worn it round my waist with a second torch on my head!

  4. Any chance you can tell me what the torch pictures next to the NAO is? I thought it was an LED lender or Coast but not sure.

    Thanks!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *