Ever hiked at night? Some find it exhilarating, some find it scary. I suppose I've shared both emotions which seem to be heavily influenced by whether I'm solo or with others.
If you've hiked at night, or had a need for a functional light to help you set up your shelter, hang a bear bag, or otherwise navigate in a foreign place....and you're of the lightweight persuasion, this article is for you.
Right off the bat I'll preference this whole article is geared for lightweight backpackers which means I'll skip mentioning the wonderful products offered by Petzl and others. There are many outstanding headlamps on the market which can turn light into day, but I'm looking for "good enough" in a lightweight package. To me a good headlamp must cast a decent and functional beam with dispersion appropriate for hiking, it must be lightweight and allow me to be hands-free, it must be fairly durable in both construction and protection from outdoor elements, and it sure would be nice if both beam, intensity, and color could be adjusted. After a lot of study and practice, below are my top 3 suggestions - none of which are perfect, but all of which are intriguing. For comparison, the Petzl Tikka 2, a very popular mainstream headlamp, weighs 81 grams and costs around $40. The heaviest item on my list is 29 grams and costs $20.
First up, the Photon Micro-Light II ($12, 12g). Before being introduced to this light, I was very skeptical - standoffish in fact. It was simply too small, too lightweight, and too inexpensive...or so I thought. Since embracing it, despite always trying to find something better, I keep returning to it. Simply, it's just a great, lightweight, and functional option. It runs on a CR2032 battery which is very popular.
Second, the Black Diamond Ion ($20, 29g). This little light has been around for awhile and keeps getting improved. What I like about it is that it is a fully functional headlamp in the sense that it is meant to be worn as a headlamp instead of needing some gimmicky way to attach it like the other two lights mentioned herein. The mount allows for it to tilt up and down and it has two settings for low and high. I like that it comes in different colors. Like anything I pull out of my pack, I want it to be bright so I don't lose it. It runs on a 6-Volt battery, which although popular, may not always be available in trail towns.
Lastly, the ITP A3 EOS Upgraded Edition ($20, 26g). This replaced my Fenix LDo1, which superhiker Andew Skurka liked so much. The ITP A3 EOS Upgraded Edition won out in my book because it was lighter, far cheaper, more compact, came in bright colors, had more features, and had better distribution of light. Like other similar small flashlights of the same shape, I needed to rig it to something to wear it on my head. I used the headstrap for my Petzl eLITE which I've since retired and no longer recommend as there are just better options available.
Another thing I like about all three, for which the Photon doesn't have a choice as it only has one intensity, is that when I turn them on it defaults to the lowest setting. I get irritated when I pick up a light in the middle of the night and next thing I know I think I'm having a religious moment as my shelter becomes the lighthouse of the forest. It saves unnecessarily wasted battery too.
Originally when I thought of writing this article, I planned on offering a definitive response as to which one I thought was best. Several times I stood in my darkened basement or on a trail behind my house after the sun went down and I came to the decision that I really can't come to a one-option decision. Each light is wonderful in its own right and it really depends on user preferences. For example, some want several light modes, some want to see far, etc. So you can compare some of the more important features, I made the somewhat helpful chart below.
Some of you may be focused on Lumens, for which the ITP A3 EOS Upgraded Edition is the brightest, but keep in mind the beam would only last 55 minutes on this setting (80 lumens). Yet the Black Diamond Ion on its highest setting would last for 8 hours (12 lumens). The humble Photon Micro-Light II which only has one setting would last for 12 hours and it's the lightest and least expensive (4.5 lumens). So the question if this is a concern is how many lumens do you need to have to feel comfortable. To me, 4.5 is plenty for night hiking, but I'd also like for a higher setting to see things in the distance if needed and a lower setting for reading. It would also be nice to have a red beam to save my night vision, but none of these have this option (the Photon can be purchased separately in red beam as well as other colors). Regardless, you get the point and I encourage you to take a look at each of these lights as they are all truly wonderful options.