Outdoor tech: head torches

By Dean Mellor 3 February 2016
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Head torches are the ideal mobile lighting solution when you need to keep your hands free.

THE IDEA OF A head torch is a simple one: to offer mobile lighting while leaving your hands free to perform tasks other than holding a torch. While head torches have been around for many years now, it’s only recently that improvements in LED (light emitting diode) technology have endowed head torches with exceptional lighting ability without heavy battery packs and excessive power requirements. This means that even compact head torches are able to produce a brilliant white light and offer quite amazing battery life.
There are many different sizes, styles and designs of head torches on the market, so before you head out and grab the first one you find there are several things to take into consideration.


The light output of head torches is measured in lumens, which is essentially the useable light output, or the measure of the total amount of visible light. While there are other methods of measuring light output, lumens is the most relevant in the case of torches because it relates to visible light; the more lumens, the brighter the light.

There are no specific regulations pertaining to the measurement of light output in lumens, however. “In the flashlight and the headlight world, lumens isn’t everything,” warns David Yates, Director Zen Imports, the Australian distributor of LED Lenser head torches. “If one light says 50 lumens and another light says 50 lumens, it doesn’t mean they’re exactly the same.”

Power options

Generally, the more lumens produced by a head torch, the more power it will consume, and therefore the more battery power it will need.

While many head torches will use standard alkaline batteries, others have rechargeable batteries (usually by way of a USB cable), and others offer a combination of both.

“Most headlights these days use alkaline AA or AAA batteries, and a different configuration of either one, two, three or four batteries,” says David Yates. “Some really lightweight headlamps, like the Neo from LED Lenser that’s designed for runners, uses one battery, so it’s very lightweight, but then there’s the H14 which uses four AAs, which is arguably the brightest headlamp in the world, but that’s obviously a lot heavier…”

Image: Marc Daviet

While lightweight head torches with only one or two batteries will usually have the light and power source contained at the front of the unit, larger, more powerful units will have a separate battery pack.

Of course, any electronic device that uses alkaline batteries can also use nickel-metal hydride (Ni-MH) rechargeable batteries, and these are a good alternative as they can be charged via a standard Ni-MH charger or, in the case of some models, while they’re still in the torch. “Petzl has some products that include a nickel-metal hydride battery that you recharge via USB,” says Greg Foord, Sales Manager for Spelean Australia, distributor of Petzl head torches.

Another power source is the lithium-ion battery, as employed on some LED Lenser models. “There are two types of lithium-ion batteries,” says David Yates. “LED Lenser has pioneered this new battery called lithium-iron; the iron component, it holds the charge longer and it’s got more capacity from the same size, and it’s a much more environmentally friendly battery.”

David explains that there’s a choice of charging options, too. “You can pull [the batteries] out and put them in a little cradle if you want to charge a separate battery, or just plug the micro-USB straight into the unit and it recharges.”

Alternatively, David says the lithium-iron battery can even be removed and replaced by standard alkaline batteries if there are no charging options available. “LED Lenser rechargeables, you can pull out the little square lithium battery inside and in place of that, if it runs out of juice, you can put four AAAs or four AAs in its place.” This is also the case with some other brands.

“The bigger the head torch gets the more output required, which then requires a larger battery which then puts the battery pack at the back of the head, or in some cases you can also buy an optional belt kit which you can then pop on your belt or in your hydration bag or backpack behind you,” explains Greg Foord.

Tailored light

“The first thing people should do when they’re looking for a headlamp is they should firstly ask why they want a headlamp over a handheld,” says David Yates. “Obviously so they can keep their hands free, but what type of activity they’re going to be doing. If they’re going to be working underneath a car there’s a different type of headlight you would use than opposed to doing the Oxfam [Trailwalker]… ”

David is referring to a head torch’s ability to focus the light in the most useable manner depending on the task at hand; whether it has a spread beam, a spot beam or a lens that can be adjusted to suit different requirements.

“One of the biggest advantages of an LED Lenser product [is] the fact that it’s got a patented lens that you can focus from a flood beam to a spot beam, so in essence a really wide light if you’re doing something up close like fishing or if you wanted to penetrate a long dark area like a cave, so you could do that with one product.”

One of the latest developments in head torches is adaptive lighting technology, where the light output is automatically adjusted according to ambient conditions.

“There’s a reactive mode in some of Petzl’s head torches [where light] essentially reflects back into a light sensor which [automatically] adjusts the light output accordingly,” explains Greg Foord. “If you’re reading a map you obviously don’t want to be blinded by a couple of hundred lumens, so it reduces the output back to anywhere between seven to 20 lumens if you’re reading a map, right in front of your face, and then as soon as you look away the sensor realises that it’s not getting any bounced back light, and it might then boost the light up to its maximum, from 170 to 200, 500 lumens, depending on the head torch.”

LED Lenser employs a similar system with a light sensor that the company calls Optisense. “Imagine the scenario where [the head torch is] on full beam… if you’re walking through a dark trail, then you want to look at your map, so you pull your map up and the reflection actually gets registered inside the sensor and the headlamp will automatically dim to the appropriate light,” says David yates.

Many head torches also offer different light-output settings so, when you don’t require full output, you can have the torch emitting 30 per cent of its capacity, for example. This technology not only allows you to tailor the light but also conserve battery power if needed.

Comfort and weight

Finding a head torch that you’ll find comfortable to wear, and one that isn’t too heavy, should have a big bearing on your purchase decision. “Comfort is very important,” says David Yates. “Obviously you’ll be wearing it on your head for a long period of time… so a lot of ergonomics go into the design of the fit… they’ve all got elastic straps that can be easily adjusted.”

Most head torches will also offer up and down adjustability so you can direct the light where it’s needed.

Another aspect to take into account is ease of use. When you’re looking at different models, ask questions like are the controls easily accessible, and are the buttons/switches big enough that they can be easily operated while wearing thick gloves, for example.

Design and toughness

You don’t want a head torch that’s going to break the first time you drop it, so look for a robust unit that looks like it will handle a beating, but not something that’s so heavily constructed it’ll end up being (literally) a pain in the neck to wear. 

As you’ll be using your head torch in the outdoors, it’s obviously going to need a fair amount of water resistance, which is measured with an IP rating on a scale of 0-8, where a rating of IPX0 means that there is basically no resistance to water ingress and a rating of IPX8 means that it can be completely submerged without water ingress. 

“Something with IPX8 would be completely submergible, designed for a diver,” says David Yates. “There are not many headlights that do that; I don’t know of any. But anything IPX4 and above is more than fine to use in heavy rain.”


Other than price, the final factor to take into account when buying a head torch is design. 

“Colour and style comes into it a lot,” says David Yates. “There are often a variety of colours to pick from, and LED Lenser is no exception.” 

Browse a few of the head torch manufacturer websites and you’ll be blown away by the range of designs and colours on offer.

Even if you’re not fussed by the colour of your next head torch, as we’ve outlined here in this feature there are still many things to take in to consideration when making a purchase decision: battery and charging options; lens adjustability; light output; water resistance; and comfort, to name a few.