Anyone who is serious about personal readiness knows how important lighting is to your game plan. There are countless scenarios where having on demand lighting will make the difference between success and failure. Perhaps the power is out, or maybe you are venturing through remote places where the only on-demand lighting comes from the tools you brought with you or are able to fashion.
The good news is we do not want for good choices in flashlights: modern lights are bright, far more durable than their earliest incarnations and available at a performance-to-price point that will please even the pickiest prepper. The “Golden Age” of lights? I think so.
But you know what is even better than even a really high quality flashlight? An equally good headlamp! Headlamps provide the biggest fraction of a good handheld light’s performance in a system that is truly hands free; where you look, the light goes. I venture to say that a headlamp makes more sense than a flashlight in most situations.
In this article, we’ll be discussing the basics of headlamp selection and technology and looking at a variety of options to suit any purpose and fit any requirement. From tiny, emergency personal lighting solutions to forehead mounted searchlights. Read on to see what’s what in the world of hands-free lighting.
The Case for Headlamps
The need for on demand electric light is a given in any big or small survival scenario. Sure, you can set about a bunch of candles when a storm knocks out power or craft a torch to light the way while you hike out of a tough spot, but going the Indiana Jones route is not ideal, and definitely not the safest way.
Instead of burning wicks, burn batteries and summon light with the click of a switch. For most tasks where a flashlight would be a boon, a headlamp is even better because it allows you to keep both hands free instead of dedicating one to handling the light.
Imagine a scenario where you are trying to illuminate a work area around camp in the pitch black night in the woods. Perhaps another where you are desperately trying to apply first-aid to an injured companion in the moldering confines of an evacuated office building with no power.
Maybe it is simply reloading a pistol or rifle. All are situations where you’d do well to have both hands free, and more of your brain power freed up from secondary tasks, like operating and aiming a flashlight.
It does not take much imagination to start seeing the light on headlamps (heh, sorry) compared to flashlights. Yes, a flashlight is more convenient to carry on your body, quicker to deploy and activate and allows you quicker control over the switching of the light, and for all of those reasons you’ll never hear me decry a flashlight. Indeed you should have a small flashlight on your person as part of your EDC no matter who you are and where you go.
But, for serious survival and bug-out use a headlamp is superior. Your hands will be plenty busy with innumerable tasks, and managing a flashlight, even one with a lanyard, grip ring, or some other retention device will be an impediment to the task at hand.
As mentioned above, even if you can spare the hand to control it, aiming the light for best visual acuity is another task unto itself. With a headlamp, assuming it is on your head and properly aimed from the outset, all you need to do is click it on and then look at what you need to see.
From a cost perspective, headlamps make even more sense. Considering their form factor is smaller than most handhelds, and the fact they are worn on the head (i.e. attached to you) and suffer little risk of drops or severe impacts, the heavy use if plastics and other lightweight materials maintain strength while reducing costs.
Most headlamps we will feature show similar output and longevity performance to their handheld cousins in their same price range, but usually tender in quite a bit cheaper.
Don’t misunderstand, there are supremely awesome headlamps available from Surefire and other high-end makers that can set you back as much cash as a nice used pistol would, but those are exceptions, not norms.
Speaking of weight, most of the lights on our list are light and compact enough to be easily worn for extended periods with minimal discomfort and fussing over. This means you can rely on them to generally stay put, ready for instant use, so you can focus on the most important job of all: surviving!
Headlamp Types and Technology
We are positively drowning in choices today in the headlamp sector. That’s a good problem to have, for sure, but like all such things it makes choosing the right tool for the job a little trickier, what with a “just right” option for every, single nuanced scenario. Therefore knowing what features make the most difference is important.
Almost every headlamp on the market today makes use of now ubiquitous LED technology for the best possible combination of small size, high output, and long runtime, as well as overall durability. That being said, you will see headlamps fall into what I have classified as three broad categories of use and comprising 2 basic types of LED arrangement.
For the LED configurations, the two types are generally “flood” and “spot”, and at a glance one can easily tell apart one headlamp from another by the shape and style of the LED itself. Spot beams, characterized by an LED set well back into dish-shaped reflector, are designed to project useable light farther for better range. Lights of this type often have a centralized hotspot and softer but still useable corona or “spill” of light around that.
Flood beams often appear as a flat panel or even exposed LED’s set flush with the headlamp’s housing. Units of this type will typically project a wide angle, even field of light that maximizes peripheral awareness up close, but will not work as well (or at all) for illuminating distant subjects of interest.
Note that many headlamps incorporate both beam types, either through separate spot and flood beams, or by way of a focusable lens. Additional features that are commonly encountered and may be useful are alternate color LED’s, typically red or green, dimmable or multi-mode output for controlling the amount of light projected, strobe mode, SOS mode, and others.
Which is Best for You?
It depends on what you need your headlamp to do and how often. Spot models are excellent for seeing farther ahead of you, useful for deliberate navigation, spotting distant landmarks, self-defense, and getting more detail and information about your “target” from further away. They are not as nice up close, where their general lack of spill can constrain your awareness of what is around you and hamper tasks that are not simple, small affairs.
Flood beams excel where spots fall short, giving you excellent awareness of what is around you and off to either side, but they lack the reach and intensity afforded by a deep-dish reflector. Spot beams are good for general navigation, close-in tasks like cooking, cleaning, applying first-aid, etc.
So the obvious answer to the question is “both,” and you can certainly do that as many models will do both at least passably well. If you must have a specialized solution, my personal choice is for a flood beam headlamp as most times you will be making use of it for arm’s-length tasks. I always carry flashlights configured with a spot beam to ensure I have light that can reach out should I need it.
The Best Survival Headlamps
Below you will find a list of some of the best headlamps on the market. Prices will vary but there are models to that will fit every budget.
The Best All-Around Headlamp
Nitecore’s headlamps are well regarded as offering excellent performance for modest prices, making them real values in this crowded segment. The HC65 is constructed of aluminum, something of a rarity for headlamps, and weighs in at a hefty 6 oz, necessitating an over-the-head strap on its headband.
In return you get a beastly 1,000 lumen output spot beam that boasts of a range over 100 yards. Far from being just a scorching head-mounted helicopter searchlight, this well-made and better thought-out light has 7 selectable brightness levels plus four utility modes (including CRI for near-sunlight color fidelity) in addition to red LED’s for preserving your night vision.
Even better, this is a “dual fuel” headlamp: it is rechargeable via the included USB cable and 18650 battery or it can accept a pair of CR123A’s. Nitecore’s flagship offering is versatile, powerful, easy to use and rugged. A winner!
Best Inexpensive Headlamp
Streamlight needs no introduction when it comes to lighting tools, and one of their more recent offerings does nothing to tarnish their reputation. Compared to larger, heavier headlamps, the Bandit may seem small and uninteresting, but its clean form hides a rugged and capable light for close range work.
The Bandit is constructed of polymer, and at a feathery light 1.7 ounces with the mount, it will not weight you down or slip off your head, even when jostled.
As mentioned, the Bandit is a flood lamp suitable for close-in work notable for its extremely wide spill. Even so, it sports an impressive 180 lumen high-low output, and green mode for preserving night vision. An included adapter allows you to clip the light to a hat if you do not wish to use the headband. Power is provided via recharging cable.
Perhaps best of all this mighty little light streets around $20, making it a great value, either as a primary or backup light.
Best Multi-Use Headlamp
For preppers who must, must have multi-purpose gear, check out this sweet model from Fenix. Fenix has made a name for themselves by offering quality lights that typically boast of very high output for fair prices. The HM50R continues on those design hallmarks.
This headlamp is notable for its capability to be used as is, or by detaching the light from its flexible rubber mount and performing well as a handheld. The form factor in the hand in reminiscent of the old military crook-neck flashlights, with the beam being projected perpendicular to the body of the light.
The HM50 does not offer any alternate colors, but has four selectable outputs by way of its single activation switch, including an ultra-low 4 lumen mode which brags of a 148 hour runtime. Perfect for really long forays so long as you can make do with a bare minimum of light.
The HM50R is another dual-fuel offering, running on a single rechargeable 16430 or CR123A battery.
Best Headlamp for Any Lighting Requirement
If you want a headlamp to cover any particular lighting requirement, or perhaps you are relying heavy on visual signaling and marking with your group, check out the Storm by Black Diamond. There is hardly another headlamp that can match its variety of color and modes, which is made even nicer by its very modest price.
Two selectable white LED’s push up to 350 lumens and are both flanked by single red, green and blue LED’s. Each of those are both dimmable and strobe capable to offer a nearly bewildering variety of modes in just one headlamp.
The control layout does take some getting used to, but has dedicated switching for a quick swap between full power and dim output. And this is one tough little light, water-resistant at 3 ft for up to 30 minutes and specially designed to protect the control system from shock.
That being said unless you decide to headbutt a grizzly bear or marauder you are unlikely to risk dropping this jewel; the Black Diamond headbands are famously comfortable.
A perk, or flaw depending on your preferences, is that this lamp is powered by 4 common AAA batteries.
Best Minimalist Headlamp
Petzl is another long-runner in the headlamp game and for those who want a headlamp to cover the basics and little else while remaining frighteningly durable, the e+LITE is just the ticket. This tiny light stows in a waterproof capsule with its batteries for up to 10 years. Small enough to stash anywhere and so light it may float away at only 1 oz., this headlamp is just the ticket for those who want to save as much weight and space as possible.
On the surface, this is the worst light of the bunch: a measly 50 lumen max output. One white and one red LED. Strobe. Dimmer. Yawn. Except what this mighty mite lacks in raw, optic-nerve melting brightness is made up by sheer functionality and ruggedness.
While it is only worth anything at close range, the light provided is more than enough to navigate, read and cook by. The e+LITE also claims a 95 hour run time on two equally flat and small CR2032 batteries.
The light’s biggest selling point is its sheer imperviousness to the elements: Petzl’s mini-lamp lays claim to being completely waterproof, shock-resistant and functional from -22° to 140° F.
Lastly, its control lever is smartly configured, with an off position at either end, a lock position to prevent inadvertent activation, and the option to start the light on red mode for low profile movement or just preserving night vision.
In the latest iteration, a survival whistle is mounted to the headband, providing another tool for a savvy prepper. A tremendous value and excellent performer, as long as you do not need gobs and gobs of light.
Best Heavy-Duty Headlamp
You knew they would make an appearance on this list eventually. Say what you want about their hate-the-poor pricing, Surefire undoubtedly makes the toughest personal lighting solutions on planet earth, and their remorseless refinement and R&D make that a reality.
The smaller of their two headlamps, the Minimus, is a wonder of engineering, both reliable and superb in its control layout… If you have the money to afford it.
The Minimus offers a marvelously clear and even flood beam from 5 to 300 lumens at the click of a switch. The intensity of the light is adjusted by a knob for the purpose with 13 distinct positions. When you turn the light off and back on, it remembers the last setting you had it on. You can hold the activation button for four seconds to activate SOS mode whether the light is off or on. Simple.
The Minimus is made from alloy, features a tethered battery door holding in a single CR123A battery, and features a snap on red lens for use in order to preserve night vision. Frankly, the snap on cover seems like a gimmick with so many other lights having built-in red or green LED’s these days, and I have little doubt it will be lost or simply buried in your BOB when needed.
Nonetheless, Surefire’s headlamps are ultra-tough, feature great switching and are very bright. All Surefire hallmarks.
Best Mega-Output Headlamp
The big bro to the Minimus, the Maximus features all the user-friendliness and switching features of the smaller offering, but pushes out a scorching 1,000 lumens on demand. Even so, the Maximus can be dialed down all the way to 1 puny lumen if desired.
Unlike the Minimus, the Maximus is rechargeable by way of standard wall plug or 12v car adaptor. An onboard battery indicator shows the remaining charge. Even with all of that power, the Maximus weighs only a modest 5 oz.
Not everyone needs that kind of light, and the recharge-only fueling may be a turnoff for some preppers, but if you can overcome its high price tag and few quirks there is hardly another headlamp that can do what it does.
Best Tactical Headlamp
Another Streamlight, this one geared toward the military professional and tactically savvy survivor. If you plan on utilizing a helmet, this light is a solid choice, though it can be worn as a standalone headlamp if desired.
The Sidewinder Compact II is specially designed the user to install or uninstall the light from the mount with no risk of inadvertent activation, a “light accidental discharge” or “light AD” that can potentially compromise tactical situations and get people killed. It also features a detented, rotating body that can provide nearly infinite adjustment to get the light exactly where you need it.
Importantly, it features IR LED’s for use with night vision devices in conjunction with white, red and blue as standard for a variety of nighttime tasks.
The selector switch is a pull-to-activate type which is very positive to operate, even if it does require a little practice. The domed activation button is however very easy to operate even with gloves on or with cold-numbed hands.
The light itself is nearly indestructible as befitting a light of military heritage, constructed of super-tough nylon and an unbreakable polycarbonate lens. If you know you’ll be getting into the mix after an emergency and you want a light to work in a tactical environment, the Sidewinder Compact II is a great choice.
Best Variable Beam Headlamp
Sometimes, you don’t know exactly what you want or what you’ll be facing. Maybe a spot beam would be best, or maybe a flood beam. Why not both in one elegant package? Enter the 200 lumen Ledlenser MH6 which is sure to please anyone who has used a classic twist-to-focus Maglite or similar light.
Unlike the spotty, crappy reflectors on those venerable flashlights and others like them, the MH6 has a great reflector which produces an even, crisp field of light no matter how you focus it. From a 100+ meter spot beam to a wide angle flood beam, a twist of the nicely finished bezel ring is all it takes to get the pattern you want.
Multi-mode switching is standard, with high, low and defensive (high-frequency) strobe standard. The secondary low power mode is user adjustable for intensity, so you can set the secondary output of the light to meet your specific needs. A single red LED provides an odd, tightly-focused spot beam of red light and can be set to a blinking rescue setting.
The MH6 is a lightweight 3.3 oz., uses an included lithium ion rechargeable battery or three AAA batteries for power and is available at most sellers for around $50. Quite a bargain for such an adaptable light.
Best Cheap Headlamp
Sometimes you just need a light. No fancy features, no night vision modes, no strobe, any of that. From one of the world’s most trusted names in batteries comes a new contender for cheap headlamps.
Energizer’s HDA32E features a modest 100 lumen flood beam that is ideal for most administrative tasks around the house, trail or campsite and does so at an unbeatable price.
There is very little to this headlamp: high, low, off. All controlled by one switch. That’s it. Made from a sturdy plastic shell designed to resist bumps and short drops, and powered by 3 common AAA batteries, this little headlamp is not designed to summit Everest, invade a neighboring country or anything else. What it is designed to do, provide light with a tap, it does very well.
However that low cost comes at a price all its own: run time is nothing to write home over, it is not water resistant and the maximum range of the beam is only 35 meters, though it is tough to gather useful detail significantly closer than that. If you are very serious about survival gear performance you might feel limited by this simple headlamp.
But if you are buying a bevy of lights for your family or group, or just want an inexpensive backup to a nicer, more capable unit, the HDA32E should just the ticket.
Best Headlamp for Hazardous Environments
Some preppers may be worried about the risks of explosive vapors from chemical spills, gas leaks, and other similar disasters. If that describes you, you likely already know how easily any electrical equipment can provide the spark to cause a deadly explosion, and you’ll need special purpose gear to prevent that from happening.
Nightstick will have you covered on lighting needs with their XPP-5452G headlamp. What this light lacks in options and output it makes up for with certifications: this gem is cETLus, ATEX and IECEx listed as “Intrinsically Safe”, meaning it poses no risk of creating an explosion wherever explosive gases and dust may be present in the atmosphere, either above or below ground.
Considering operations in those environments take on a whole new level of stress where one false move could mean a flash and then death, the Nightstick headlamp has a 180 lumen high and 90 lumen low beam, nothing more, all controlled by a single button.
The lamp itself a high-vis safety green color for easy identification, and is dust and waterproof so you will not be worried about babying this one in any environment. It is powered by 3 AAA batteries, so finding spares will not be an issue.
Most of us will not be too concerned with explosive atmosphere hazards, but if they are a credible threat for you, this model is one of the few that is rated for such work.
Headlamps offer significant advantages over handheld flashlights for most users in emergency situations. Choosing the right light with the right set of features is important to get the most from any light, but especially a headlamp.
The ability to keep your hands free is priceless, and once you find the light that serves you best, you’ll wonder how you ever got along without it.
Charles Yor is an advocate of low-profile preparation, readiness as a virtue and avoiding trouble before it starts. He has enjoyed a long career in personal security implementation throughout the lower 48 of the United States.