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(The Gear Loop) - There’s something undeniably exciting about being out there in the dead of night. The best head torches allow you to access this other realm, when your patch of the earth momentarily turns its back on the sun and gazes out bravely into the cold vastness of the cosmos.

A good head torch not only gives you the flexibility to access this magical realm when others have called it a day, they’re also an essential part of your outdoor safety net, alerting others to your presence and generally meaning you don't fall down big holes when stumbling to the campsite loo at night. 

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Whether you’re lighting up the road ahead while signaling your presence to cars on an evening run, enjoying a book from the comfort of your sleeping bag when wild camping, or setting out on a pre-dawn ascent of one of Britain’s mountains in the depths of winter, having a powerful light strapped to your head makes these adventures possible and frees up the hands to do, well, adventurous stuff. 

There’s a glut of choice out there these days, with everything from head torches created specifically to provide a stable light when out running to high intensity headlamps designed to show you the way ahead on a glacier after an alpine start. 

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For guidance on what features to look out for when choosing a head torch, see the bottom of this guide. Otherwise, here’s our quintet of the best head torches out there.

The best head torches for running, hiking, camping and more

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Petzl IKO Core

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For

  • Wonderfully comfortable
  • Lightweight
  • Versatile hybrid battery pack

Against

  • Not as bright as some
  • Limited beam settings

Petzl have thrown away the rulebook with the IKO Core, an innovative product from a brand renowned for high-quality equipment. The most obvious feature is the headband, which does away with the usual strap for a semi-rigid, ergonomic frame that wraps around your head, resulting in a wonderfully comfortable and evenly distributed unit.

The other immediately noticeable feature is the IKO’s battery pack, which sits in the back of your head. It’s a versatile beast, able to take either Petzl’s USB rechargeable CORE battery pack or three AAA batteries. There’s even a lock function, which means you can’t accidently turn the torch on when it’s in your jacket pocket or backpack.

Seven LEDs give you a maximum output of 500 lumens, which is bright enough for the vast majority of applications but not as bright as some products in this guide. When using AAA batteries, this maximum drops to 350 lumens.

You get the option of three brightness levels and flood or mixed beam settings. The IKO can maintain 500 lumens for 2.5 hours or for 9 hours on standard brightness.

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Nitecore HC65

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For

  • Very bright on maximum setting
  • Durable
  • Waterproof
  • Range of beam settings

Against

  • Relatively heavy
  • Arguably overkill for most applications

If you’re the kind of adventurer who sets out into challenging conditions in inhospitable places, you can’t go far wrong with the Nitecore HC65. It boasts a solid trio of selling points: it is wonderfully bright when cranked up to its maximum setting, it is extremely robust, built to last you many seasons, and it is waterproof, so won’t let you down in a deluge.

Let’s consider the HC65’s beam first. On its maximum setting, it gives you a whopping 1,000 lumens with a decent beam distance of 110 metres. There are five brightness levels, a red light mode (handy for when you don’t want to wake your tent mate or want to preserve your own night vision), plus strobe and SOS settings.

It can handle tough conditions and is IPX8 waterproof rated, which means it can be submerged to more than a metre. Its anodised aluminium alloy casing gives it its rugged looks and durability - this is a torch meant for serious use and abuse.

The torch takes CR123 batteries that can be recharged with a USB by unscrewing a little metal cap. The main downside is all of this makes it slightly heavier than some, so it’s not a head torch we’d recommend to runners. 

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LED Lenser MH11

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For

  • Very bright on maximum setting
  • Incredible beam range
  • Dizzying array of features
  • 7-year warranty

Against

  • Expensive
  • Not as waterproof as rivals

This premium product is Led Lenser’s flagship unit and is quite simply one of the best head torches out there. Featuring a maximum "Boost" brightness of 1000 lumens and an incredible beam range of 320 metres, this is a torch for serious night navigation.

The "Boost" mode only lasts for 10 seconds, but the MH11 also gives you an impressive 750 lumens for up to four hours, or 300 lumens for eight hours. Red, green and blue light settings, along with an SOS mode, round up a very comprehensive system.

The MH11 is chock full of innovative features. Its Optisense Technology detects ambient light and automatically adapts, meaning it gradually dims as dawn approaches. It is compatible with the Ledlenser Connect app too, letting you operate or change its settings from your phone.

Its lithium battery is fully rechargeable, while the torch’s body comes with a battery status indicator and there’s a lock mode that stops the torch from accidently turning on in your backpack.

The MH11 is not submersible but will withstand all but the most horrendous precipitation. One downside is that its wealth of features don’t come cheap. However, the MH11 does come with a 7-year warranty, which makes it a decent investment and gives you peace of mind. After all, sometimes when you buy cheap, you buy twice.

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Silva Trail Runner Free H

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For

  • Specifically designed for runners
  • Lightweight and comfortable
  • Versatile hybrid battery pack
  • Rear safety light

Against

  • Water resistant but not waterproof
  • Not as bright as some

The Silva Trail Runner Free H is a very comfortable, featherweight head torch designed for fast and light adventures. Everything has clearly been thought through with the requirements of runners in mind. One such innovative touch is the red rear safety light, which makes you easily visible to motorists, essential when running dark country lanes.

The Trail Runner Free H features "Silva Intelligent Light" a double beam comprising a long reach spotlight and a close floodlight. This combination is ideal for joggers and results in less head movement and a more balanced experience on the roads and trails.

In terms of brightness, you’ve got 400 lumens max with a beam distance of 80 metres. This is perfectly suitable for running but other models are preferable for serious winter adventures or alpine mountaineering.

The hybrid battery pack takes both AAA batteries and Silva’s USB rechargeable unit. Every opportunity to shave off grams has been taken, leading to an ultralight product that still fulfils your needs with aplomb. It’s obviously not as robust as more heavy-duty products and is IPX5 rated in terms of its ability to repel water. This means it will fend off a downpour but won’t survive a dunking. 

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Black Diamond Spot 325

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For

  • Waterproof
  • Various beam settings
  • Comfortable and lightweight
  • Great value

Against

  • Not rechargeable
  • Not as bright as some of the competition

The Spot 325 is designed as an all-purpose head torch but, for us, its reliability and lightweight qualities make it perfect for evening runs. For such a low-profile unit, it has myriad beam settings, including a useful strobe mode for added visibility on those gloomy country lanes and a red light to conserve your own night vision. It gives you 325 lumens as a maximum, which gives you plenty to illuminate your run but admittedly isn’t as bright as some.

The unit takes three AAA batteries, which give you four hours on its maximum setting or eight hours on medium. If you’re taking the Spot 325 on an expedition, make sure you bring spares, as there’s no recharge option here. However, you needn’t fear that it will cut out in a deluge. It is IPX8 waterproof rated, meaning it can take a dunking in excess of one metre.

In summary, the Spot 325 is a small but well-featured head torch and it gives you a lot of bang for your buck. It’s comfortable, waterproof and holds its own in a multitude of environments.

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What to look for when buying a head torch

Battery

The rise of portable power packs and USB technology means that most brands now manufacture head torches with rechargeable battery packs. However, hybrid packs that give you the option of both rechargeable and traditional AAA batteries are also now commonplace. While a rechargeable battery pack is great, if it runs out on you in the middle of the night in a blizzard, you’re a bit stuck. After all, you can’t wear and charge a head torch at the same time. In this case, it’s good to be able to revert to old fashioned, reliable AAAs.

Brightness and burn time

A torch’s brightness is measured in lumens. The more lumens, the brighter the light but also the quicker your batteries will run out. The time it takes for a unit to go from fully charged to dead is known as the burn time. These days, the best head torches feature a number of brightness levels, with an intense maximum setting for when you need to see further and more clearly and lower settings that still allow you to see your immediate surroundings but don’t romp through the battery life with speedy abandon.

Beam settings

As well as adjustable brightness levels, the best head torches also come with various beam settings. Many torches allow you to switch between a flood setting or a spot setting, depending on whether you’re wanting to cast a light far and wide (flood), or whether you want to focus in with a narrow beam (spot). When conversing around the campfire or in your tent, your buddies will thank you for a wide flood setting rather than a focussed spotlight shining into their eyes.

Many torches feature a red light mode, which gives you a less intense beam when you just want to work in close proximity. This preserves your own night vision and, like the flood setting, has the added bonus of not blinding your tent mates. Some torches go further, boasting multiple colour settings. Finally, some head torches offer a strobe mode, ideal for example when you want to make yourself more obvious to traffic, and an SOS mode, which automatically sends out a distress signal in the event of an emergency.

Other features

There are loads of other innovative features out there and head torches are becoming more specialised all the time. From torches that adjust their intensity based on the amount of ambient light to an extra red light at the back of your head to signal your presence to traffic. One feature to keep an eye out for is a lock for when your torch is stashed in your backpack or pocket. Many flat batteries have been caused by this infuriating occurrence and having a tool to avoid this is a real boon.

Writing by Alex Foxfield.