Once you are protected from the elements and are unlikely to drop dead from hypothermia in the near future I would suggest that the single most important piece of gear that you carry for winter walking is your headtorch. You can’t see your map or compass in the dark without one. You may have trouble finding landmarks or cliff edges without one. You may even find it damned hard to put your foot down safely on rough ground without one. If you are stuck it makes a good beacon and, being, by definition, a “hands free” device it makes everything from pitching a tent to taking a bearing to filling a water bottle much easier than a normal torch.
So! Headtorches. I am most definitely a bit of a fan and this article is really just about looking at some of the features you may want to look for and a bit about making sure it’s useful when you actually need it.
The Petzl Zoom headtorch was the biggest selling outdoor headlamp for over twenty years with a light output far below what would be considered essential nowadays.
Bigger isn’t always better.
Most modern headtorches measure the light output in Lumens. This is a measure of the light output of a source with reference to those wavelengths of light which are most visible to the human eye. In simple terms this means that the higher the number of lumens, the brighter the light as seen by a human. Once upon a time headtorches were rated by Watts but a headtorch which uses a lot of power, and therefore drains batteries faster doesn’t necessarily convert that power into a significant amount of visible light. Bear in mind that although a higher lumens rating will produce a brighter light this may not always mean that a torch produces a beam which reaches further into the night. The Illuminated distance is very dependent on how the beam is focused. For instance, the LedLenser Neo headtorch now produces 240 lumens. This light is very bright making for great personal visibility but the beam is unfocused and so lights up a broad area very well but won’t be much use for searching a remote hillside. It is popular around campsites and with walkers and runners who really want to be seen very easily on the road at night or who are not moving quickly over rough ground. Mountain walkers and trail runners however would generally prefer the SEO series from the same company. The basic model in the range is rated at “only” 100 lumens but because it has an adjustable focus, the beam can be narrowed and extended to give better penetration of the darkness which would allow you to see further ahead without having to slow down massively. Just make sure that you are comparing like with like.
This large headtorch is very bright but also bulky and heavy on the battery. Do you really need to be visible from space?
Assuming that all else is equal then the higher lumen rated torch will be brighter and will allow you to see further but don’t get carried away. The biggest, most powerful torch may be great for bragging rights down the pub but not everyone needs the top of the heap option. Two more basic ones are probably more practical than one super-de-doo high-power unit. The inevitable downside of extra power is that the battery life will be worse and, on a long trip, spares will be needed.
Thanks to the internet there are also a load of really dodgy lamps available online. Not certified for safety in Europe these are normally bought direct from manufacturers in the far East and are without a doubt far more dangerous than they are worth. They all sport eye catching power and are spuriously branded at an amazingly cheap price. The link below leads to the very informative British outdoor website Grough.co.uk and gives just one example of how they can go wrong. If you are lucky the light just fails.
Some torches have a “Low power indicator”, a small light which comes on when the light output is no longer sufficient. This usually means that the beam is useful to a distance of less than five, or in some cases, three metres. If this light is on then stop and change over sooner rather than later. There is plenty of warning so don’t be caught out. Get into the habit of checking the battery before setting off.
Aside from a battery warning indicator some torches will have other features which have their uses or otherwise. Personal preference, patience with the instruction manual and your reasons for using one all play a part in deciding which features matter to any particular individual.
Some have a red LED for reading at night without losing your night vision once the torch gets turned off again. This is handy for night navigation on clear nights, for astronomers, the military and adventure racers. The only negative is that the red light tends to wash out the contour lines on Irish and UK maps so extra care is needed to avoid “missing” steep slopes and drops.
Most headtorches have a flashing light feature to make you more visible in case of emergencies and hopefully you will find this an utter waste of time. I have never used it in the past and would be happy if it remained unused in the future.
Some units have programmable light output so that you can change the different light levels to suit your personal requirements. Life is too short for me to ever want to put this level of effort into any headlamp but if you are less of a Luddite than me and enjoy this kind of thing then great, it’s available.
Reactive lighting, which automatically adjusts the beam depending on how far away you are looking is becoming more common but these headtorches have been slow to catch on just because so many companies have made them so damned complicated and that just puts people off. On a cold, wet, windy hillside in the middle of the night I don’t want to have to reach for an instruction book.
It takes years of training and experience to apply duct tape this impressively.
Battery vs. rechargeable.
Whichever battery type you choose you should always have fully functioning spares with you. My preference is to tape my spares to the torch’s headband. A tip I stole from Declan Cunningham of the Dublin Wicklow Mountain Rescue Team. (Thanks Dec). This way they are always handy when required. I generally use lithium batteries as they are fully functioning in low temperatures and less liable to vampire drain. Having said that don’t keep the same set of spare batteries in your bag for six years and still expect them to work.
My preference is for single use batteries over rechargeables just because they are easier to get hold of when travelling and pretty much any AAA will do in an emergency. If you prefer to use a rechargeable style just make sure that you carry a spare and that both are ready to go before you leave home.
I would highly recommend that instead of carrying spare batteries in your rucksack you carry instead a spare headtorch. If you should need it then it is ready to go instantly with no messing about in the dark and the weight difference is minimal. If you need spares then there is a plausible chance that something is going wrong and the less faffing about you have to do the better.
These beanie hats incorporate a small four led headlamp which is good for increasing your visibility.
All quality headtorches are water resistant to some degree and the level of resistance is given an IP rating. IP (sometimes written IPX3) 3 or above is sufficient for any weather likely to be encountered on a normal hill day. An oddity of the system is that an IPX9 rated torch isn’t necessarily rated at IPX6 or whatever but in practical terms all good headtorches are sold on the understanding that they can cope with expected rainfall. One of my own torches has had a broken clip on the battery compartment for the last three years yet has still stayed dry.
Ultimately the choice of good headtorches is better than ever and there are few bad picks. Having one is way more important than having the best one and having a second is even better in times of need.
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Thanks for reading.