Does a Good Headlamp Beat a Good Flashlight?
Tony Sculimbrene 02.23.16
I love the The Wirecutter. As a product reviewer and a review junky, I can’t get enough of that website. Every once in a while I somehow stumble into a very serious review of a Miele Vacuum cleaner and read the whole thing. So, when they come out with reviews and comparisons of products near and dear to me, like illumination tools, I read them with excitement and gusto. Imagine my surprise when the author of the light section said he didn’t think traditional flashlights were worth it and he recommended a headlamp instead.
After reading this article I decided to put his wisdom to the test by buying the exact headlamp he recommended — the Black Diamond Spot — and trying it out for a while. After more than a year of use, I think I have handle on the headlamp vs. flashlight issue.
The State of Headlamps
Evolutionary biologists will tell you that species that develop in isolation develop markedly different features, and the flashlight market and headlamp market have been separated for years now. There are very few brands that successfully cross over. Surefire makes a headlamp but it’s not really that competitive with headlamps from traditional headlamp brands. The same goes for Fenix and 47s. But headlamp-first brands fair just as poorly when they try to make traditional flashlights. Some of the Princeton lights are absolute jokes, spec-wise, and when you compare prices, they look even worse.
There are really three categories of headlamps–mass market headlamps, caving headlamps, and diving headlamps. The last two are really worlds unto themselves, and the prices and features tend to be nutty, so I am ignoring them in this article. Mass market headlamps, however, are no more expensive than a midrange flashlight, so I feel like they are a fair comparison.
Technologically, the best mass market headlamps have some real advantages over flashlights.
First, a lot of headlamps are made with ultralight polymers. This is necessary for obvious reasons. Having handled them and some flashlights made with these materials I can tell you that these polymers are just better suited as the body of an illumination tool. They aren’t as blingy as titanium, but in terms of function they are better–lighter, more impact resistant, and a bit grippier (knurled metal helps, but smooth metal and smooth polymer are worlds different in terms of grip).
Second, headlamps have better switching mechanisms; for instance, my Black Diamond headlamp has a touch sensitive plate.
Finally, a lot of headlamps have motion sensitive outputs. There were flashlights that did this (the SENS series from Nitecore), but they fell out of a favor a long time ago.
In all, other than their crappy emitters, headlamps are bit more high tech than modern lights.
Using a Headlamp
In the year and half I have owned a headlamp, the aforementioned and highly recommended Black Diamond, I have used it quite a bit. I used the lamp when working in the dark mostly, and I did take it on a few after dark hikes.
When working in the dark, the headlamp is amazing. I live in New England where winters are usually long, hard, and cold. It’s also the case that, for some reason, New England is the last bastion of oil heat. 99 times out of a 100 the fact that we heat with oil has no impact on us. But, once in a while, the oil tank runs out or there is a bubble in the feed line.
The oil tank in my house is under the foundation, but in its own separate room (it is just a stinky, dirty mess). So when the heat doesn’t kick on, I have to go check the tank and the feed line. The reason is simple–if it’s the oil tank company’s fault and they missed a delivery, then they pay the fee for after hours delivery; but if it’s not their fault then we pay and the fee is hefty. So I strap on the lamp, grab some gloves and a thick jacket, and go into the oil tank room for a survey. Climbing in and out of the room isn’t easy, and I need both hands. The headlamp is perfect for this, especially with its tilting feature.
The device is also helpful on after dark winter hikes. When the snow and ice are everywhere, I like to have both hands free to help break a fall. In these scenarios I really, really like the headlamp, especially because of the motion sensitivity and the touch panel. The Black Diamond Spot lacks the motion sensor, but other headlamps I’ve used have it and it’s much easier to navigate when I can look up and the light kicks into high. Most of the time I am staring at my feet and the light is in medium. Switching between the two automatically is great.
Comparing Headlamps and Flashlights
You work differently with a headlamp than you do with a flashlight, and that difference reveals my big complaint with headlamps. Headlamps are great in that they give you your hands back, but they have one big flaw–you need to point your head at what you are illuminating. This sounds like a good thing, but in actuality when you are lighting things up you often just need a glance to figure out what something is. Being forced to crane your neck in the direction that you need the light to go in gets tiresome over time.
The strap can also give you a headache if you wear it long enough.
But when you’re doing detail work in the dark, a flashlight is not ideal. The “between the teeth” mode is something we’ve all done, but is always awkward. I’d just rather have both my hands.
Work flow aside, I far prefer the emitters in good flashlights to the weak sauce, tiny garbage you find in mainstream headlamps. Nothing comes close to the 10mm emitter on the new EDC Surefires.
Do you need a Headlamp?
The answer is an unqualified “yes”. In my life, where working in the dark is uncommon and night hikes are rare, I don’t need one everyday, but when I do have to work outside, the headlamp is tremendously helpful. I might only use it six times a year, but those six times are when something bad has happened and I don’t want to mess around.
If you can set aside money for food in storage, you can drop $35 on a good mainstream headlamp and be pleased knowing that if you need it is there. The start of this quest was the Wirecutter, and I have to say that the flashlight guy there is crazy. For 95% of people 95% of the time a flashlight is better than a headlamp, but his specialized existence makes that hard to see (ironic given that we are talking about illumination tools, right?). That said, everyone should have a headlamp in their house. The Wirecutter was right about the Spot itself–it is a very good headlamp compared to others I have used.