Friday, June 20, 2014

Hiking With The Ten Essentials, #4: Illumination

Hiking With The Ten Essentials: #4 - Headlamp/Flashlight

Anytime you're heading into the backcountry, you need to bring a light source with you. Stuff happens. Even though you're sure you'll be out long before dusk, when you find yourself navigating trails in the dark because you got unexpectedly lost, you'll wish you'd bothered to bring a flashlight or headlamp. There are lightweight and quality models that can be had very inexpensively. There is no excuse to be without some form of illumination. Also, DON'T FORGET SPARE BATTERIES. Your illumination device will do you no good without a power source. I strongly recommend a headlamp for reasons I'll list below. Here are the very basics of illumination and a couple of recommendations…

Just get a headlamp. You'll be glad you did. They might look or feel a little nerdy if you haven't used them before, but your vanity will quickly be overridden by their convenience. First and foremost, they offer hands-free use. They are also very lightweight and compact. For general use, I also STRONGLY advise getting an LED model. They are rugged and have very long battery life. Lastly I would steer clear of cheaper models found in box box stores (such as Coleman or Energizer.) In my experience, these are not as durable as those models designed by companies explicitly dedicated to outdoor or professional pursuits such as Princeton Tec (my favorite), Black Diamond, or Petzl to name a few.

Things to consider in headlamps
  • Lumens - This is the brightness level. The higher the number the brighter. Higher lumens drain batteries faster, however. Most models have differing levels of output such as low, medium, or high to save battery life. You probably don't want to go lower than 50 lumens as a max output.
  • Beam Type - This is either Flood or Spot. A flood is a wider, broader beam that is more dispersed while a spot light is more focused and intense in one area. Many models offer both. I personally prefer a spot if forced to choose.
  • Throw or Beam Distance - This measures how far the beam will cast, usually measured in meters. For general use, this is not as important as other factors (though it never hurts to be able to see further.)
  • Waterproofing - Headlamps can have different levels of waterproofing or water resistance. Consider how often you might be in wet conditions and buy accordingly.
  • Red Light/Night Mode - I actually LOVE this feature. The headlamp I use most does not have this, and I miss it. Many models have a separate red LED bulb this is good for minimal illumination of only your immediate surroundings (such as inside your tent.) There are times you may not want to draw attention to yourself (midnight bathroom breaks when camping, for instance) or when you don't want to disturb others. In those cases, it is nice to have this feature.
Here are a couple of models I have some experience with, so I can comfortably recommend them. BY NO MEANS are these the two "best" models - there are dozens of great models out there. These are just two I've familiar with and trust at fair price points.


hiking backpacking camping headlamp
Princeton Tec EOS - This is the model I use most often (seen in the pic above.) I believe I found mine on ebay for $30 new. The model I have is 70 Lumens, but the newest versions are more powerful (you can still get the 70 lumen model more affordably as I write this.)
Pros: Durable, waterproof and submersible up to 1 meter, powerful long throw, light weight, fairly compact
Cons: No night mode
Where to buy: Amazon ($32 as of this writing), Moosejaw ($35 as of this writing), and many other outlets. Check ebay for best prices.

affordable backpacking hiking headlamp
Princeton Tec Byte - I wanted to include a model that could be had for $20 or less. A close friend uses this, and she loves it.
Pros: Affordable, light, compact, durable, has night mode
Cons: Only water resistant, not submersible
Where to buy: REI ($20 as I write), Amazon (also $20)

I'm not going to say much about flashlights, because I think headlamps are far superior. That said, many of the same features of headlamps also apply to flashlights (lumens, beam type, etc.) I will say, however, that I always carry a cheap, small, LED flashlight on my keychain. I like having redundancy for essential items, particularly when backpacking. I also like that my keychain flashlight and my headlamp use the same type of batteries, AAA, so I don't need to keep up with differing battery types.

I have carried this inexpensive Rayovac LED keychain flashlight every single day on my keychain for at least a couple of years, and it has never had a failure or mishap. It cost me under $5 at a big box store. It has been dropped, gotten very wet (though maybe not submerged), and a single AAA battery seems to last forever. I took off the clunky chain and just used a tiny round keychain I found elsewhere. This might be one of the best values in my entire "kit" of outdoor supplies. Found at big box retailers.

candle lantern and battery lantern
I'm not going to go into much detail about lanterns here, because I believe they are much less appropriate to this topic. There are, however, many great and useful lantern designs out there, and even a clever headlamp/lantern design from the always innovative Snow Peak as well as lantern/flashlight hybrids. For lanterns, I like Black Diamond designs above all others (but I rarely use a lantern.)  I consider lanterns more appropriate to camping and backpacking than they are as essential items to bring on a hike. For those that really like to keep things simple, you can also check out portable candle lanterns. Again, these might be great around camp, but candle lanterns are especially impractical for navigating after dark.

Go get yourself a nice headlamp and some spare batteries. I've also found my little keychain flashlight to be a great backup (and something I use almost daily).

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