Debunking Headlamp Brightness: Headlamp Lumens Explained

Headlamp packaging can be hard to decipher. It’s filled with different specs, numbers, and icons that just don’t make sense to the average consumer. When it comes to brightness, none of that stuff matters. The only thing that matters is lumens and run time.

  • Lumens: Lumens is the total amount of light coming out of your headlamp. More lumens equals a brighter headlamp and farther reach.
  • Run Time: Run time aka burn time is the amount of time your batteries will last at max brightness.

Does Headlamp Lumens Matter?

Lumens is the overall brightness of a headlamp. In a perfect world, everybody would just purchase whichever headlamp has the most lumens, but that’s just not how life works.

As headlamp brightness increases the overrall run time will decrease. To further complicate matters doubling your lumens won’t actually double your light output. Increasing from 100 to 200 lumens may only give you a 10% increase in overall light with a 50% decrease in battery life.

How are Lumens Tested?

In the past lumens were tested using the “Moonlight Protocol”. They would turn the headlamp onto full power and see how long it took to equal the brightness level of a full moon at 6ft. Obviously, that’s useless for the average hiker. Your headlamp needs to be brighter than the moon.

Thankfully, the leaders in the portable lighting industry decided to standardize the testing procedure. Probably to fight the growing knockoff industry coming out of China.

They started measuring total lumens, beam distance, durability and the total time to get down to 10% battery life. Headlamps that used to be rated at 60 hours had to drop their ratings down to 2-3 hours of useable battery life. That makes a huge difference.

Testing Problems

Standardized testing makes a huge difference, but there is one major problem with the current testing protocol. The way run time is tested places a huge disadvantage on high lumen headlamps. A 500 lumen headlamp at 10% still has 50 lumens which is still enough light to hike, run, etc.

Higher Headlamp Lumen Rating Doesn’t Mean Brighter Light!

When I first started looking at headlamps(I was getting into astrophotography) I thought that higher lumens always meant a brighter flashlight. I went out, bought the brightest light I could find with decent run time.

After a little bit of research, you quickly realize there’s no perfect headlamp out there. Two headlamps both rated at 500 lumens will have completely different beams. It’s entirely dependent on the design of the flashlight.

You can jam 500 lumens into a very tight beam and you’ll have a very bright narrow spotlight, but you won’t have any peripheral light coming out the sides. Or you could have a wide beam that doesn’t project nearly as far. It’s hard to find that happy medium.

High Lumens Equals Short Battery Life

With current technology, you can’t get a 1000+ lumen light with decent battery life. Most 1000+ lumen headlamps have a 2-hour battery life at max brightness. So you have to accept a compromise between total light output and battery life.

When a headlamp says it can pump out 1000 lumens of light with a runtime of 100 hours alarms should be going off in your head. Realistically you might get 100 hours out of the lowest brightness setting(less than 50 lumens), 20 hours on medium (80-100 lumens) and 2-3 hours on high(above 500 lumens).

To further complicate matters the total brightness level will significantly drop as the battery drains. If you’re pumping out 1000 lumens of light you can expect a 50% drop in the first 15 minutes. After 1hr you’re probably down to 200 total lumens with batteries on the final edge of their useable lifespan.

On lower brightness settings you’ll still see a drop off, but it’s gonna be over a larger time frame.

How Many Lumens For a Backpacking Headlamp?

Throughout the past 20 years I’ve tried/bought dozens of headlamps. I’ve tried generics, name-brands, house-brands and came to the conclusion that Lumen Ratings don’t mean much. Most companies are just downright lying about lumens and run time.

Hiking and backpacking headlamps typically range from 25-500 lumens. Check out the best selling headlamps on Amazon. Some of the lumen claims are absolutely insane.

Companies are claiming 12,000-lumen headlamps with a 100,000-hour battery life, which is absolutely ridiculous. Considering my boat’s hard-wired spotlight(it was like 400 bucks) is only rated at 2000 lumens there’s no way that’s possible.

Personally, I would completely ignore the advertised lumen rating on generic headlamps. You can only trust the big names in the outdoor industry like Black Diamond, Petzl, Princeton Tec, Silva, UltrAspire, Fenix and a few house brands.

What Headlamp Should I Buy For Backpacking?

Personally, I’m a huge fan of the Black Diamond lineup of headlamps. Black diamond makes extremely durable and bright headlamps at affordable price points. All of their lumen and runtime claims are independently tested and they just make a great product.

Black Diamond’s Storm 350 Lumen Headlamp is all the vast majority of people need. It’s affordable, waterproof/shockproof, ridiculously bright and has a 5-hour run time at max brightness or 150hr on Low(max brightness is completely unnecessary). Black Diamond’s Revolt Headlamp is less bright at 300 lumens, but it has USB charging and longer battery life. The top of the line Icon headlamp has 500 lumens with a 70-hour battery life.

I have a lot of experience with all three of these headlamps and they’re ridiculously bright. On high the Icon shines to (130m), Storm(100m) and Revolt(90m). When have you ever needed to see 130 meters ahead of you on the trail? It’s really nice for spotlighting wildlife, but I never turn my headlamp past the lowest brightness setting.

Who Makes The Brightest Headlamp?

Honestly, the vast majority of people will never need more than a 300-lumen headlamp. If you need a headlamp that’s ridiculously bright go with a top of the line Petzl, Fenix, Princeton Tec or Black Diamond Headlamp.

Once you get up over 500 lumens the overall battery run time starts to drop off fast. That being said, if you actually need to see 130+ meters you need to spend some serious cash.

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