Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Top 3 Lightweight Lighting Options

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.


Zed said...

Hi. Two interesting options here, which I need to investigate.

I'm excluding the Photon because of a recent experience trying to use one to see what was under the Shelter Stone in the Cairngorms. It was hopeless and I ended up using my camera's flash.

The Photon has helped me guide the key into a door lock on dark nights but I would not want to walk with one - other than for illuminating a small portion of a map. But a Tikka would be better for that as it has a red LED.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, perfectly timed with Winter coming!

I have the Petzl elite, find it terribly weak, but now that I use the Petzl Myo I find myself wishing it had a lower 'low power' setting. Even at it's lowest setting it's nearly impossible to read with because the light is overwhelming. Guess I'll see if one of these guys fits that in-between spot :)

MG said...

The BD which I own has always felt cheaply made and unreliable to me. I don't trust it hence it never makes it into my pack. My petzl zipka is the one I now turn to consistently. An earlier one was stepped on by a friend while caving and crushed to pieces but still worked after a bit of ductape . Since then I've been a convert. A fresh set of batteries before I leave and I know I won't have to worry about it.

Jolly Green Giant said...

@ MD - Excellent point. I would argue the a lot of other lightweight equipment, there is a certain degree of tradeoff in some cases where the user has no choice but to exercise greater care. Much like a lightweight backpack can't be used as a seat or be slung around, this is a great example of something that needs to be kid-gloved too. As with many things, personal discretion.

Jake Willits said...

I was impressed with my bro's Petzl E-Lite. I use the Mammut S-lite, which is 48g including 1-AA battery. It's okay, though I dislike the control button. I do love that it uses a single AA battery though.

Jolly Green Giant said...

@ Jake - I carried the Petzl eLITE for about 2 years. One day I compared the high beam to the standard no-frills beam of the Photon. Guess what, the Photon was addition to be lighter, less expensive, and smaller. That was the last time I carried the eLITE. Give it a shot.

Added your blog to my blogroll. Thanks for stopping by.

MB said...

And did you compare the Petzl eLITE to the Black Diamond Ion in terms of brightness? According to the specs, it seems the eLITE should be brighter, no? Thanks for this post!

Jolly Green Giant said...

@ MD - Based on my super UNscientific findings, this is the order of brightness based on my experience and the lights mentioned in this entry (least bright to most bright):

eLITE, Photon, Ion, ITP A3 EOS Upgraded Edition

It could very well come to the distribution of light. The LD01, the light I gave up in favor of the ITP A3 EOS Upgraded Edition, is actually technically brighter. But I shined them together at distances appropriate for backpackers and the ITP A3 EOS Upgraded Edition won without a doubt.