What’s the most important bit of kit you need for winter hillwalking? It’s a difficult question to answer. After all, it’s very easy to get distracted by shiny hardware, like ice axes and crampons, or to be tempted to splurge your hard-earned cash on an expensive down jacket, a super-rugged waterproof shell or a pair of burly B2 mountain boots.
Admittedly, all that gear will help to ensure you’re suitably equipped for cold conditions and tough terrain when winter rolls around. But if there’s one piece of kit that you should always, always remember to pack in your ’sack, it’s the humble headtorch. After all, you might be the world’s most accomplished mountaineer, but if you find yourself out in the hills after dark and can’t see anything, you’re still basically screwed.
Headtorches in winter
In winter, that scenario happens more often than you might think. Why? Because the daylight hours get shorter. The weather gets colder, wetter and more changeable. Conditions on the ground get tougher. All this inevitably tends to slow your progress, so a route that you might comfortably manage in a morning in high summer takes all day in winter – meaning that when dusk falls, you might need a little extra light to finish that final descent.
A headtorch is your illumination salvation. It’s a vital bit of safety kit, not least because it can also be a useful way of signalling to Mountain Rescue in an emergency. If you’re planning to wild camp in the frozen fells this winter, a dependable headtorch is a must. A couple of must dos: before venturing out, always make sure your headtorch works and that you’ve packed a set of spare batteries (or a fully juiced power bank and charging cable). And if it’s going to be a matter of life or death, then consider taking a lightweight spare or back-up headtorch.
What to look for in a headtorch
Brightness: The output of light from a source is measured in lumens. How many lumens should you need? For casual use around a campsite, 100 to 200 lumens is about right. With night time walking and navigation, you'll want to look at 200 to 500 lumens. Then for trail running, mountaineering, or skiing, you'll want to consider upwards of 500 lumens in order to get the clear illumination of a wide area in front of you.
Beam distance: This usually goes hand in hand with brightness - the brighter a head torch, often the greater its maximum distance. But a very long distance of hundreds of metres normally requires a focused beam. Consider how important this is for your outdoor pursuits.
Ruggedness: The ruggedness of a head torch is more or less determined by its IP (ingress protection) rating. The IP is followed by two digits - the first determining dust protection (scale of 0 to 6), the second against moisture (scale of 0 to 9). Head torches don't often have a first digit in their IP rating, and instead use an 'X'. This means they haven't been tested against dust protection, but this doesn't necessarily matter if the head torch has good moisture protection (IPX4 or more) because it should result in good dust-proofing too.
Battery: Naturally, you want as long a battery life from your head torch as possible. This does rely on the size of the battery, but also the settings the head torch has that may or may not allow you to turn down the brightness. A larger battery will result in a head torch being heavier too, which is worth remembering. Also, that brighter head torches likely require bigger batteries and will therefore be heavier.
Consider rechargeable versus standard batteries too. The former are very convenient but might require you to take a power bank with you.
Weight: This is mostly dependent on the battery size. So while a head torch with a bigger battery might be heavier, you'll get longer running time and/or brightness in return. And vice versa.
Light settings: Head torches that have a lot of lumens and several light settings are very versatile. But the design of the buttons on the headtorch is very important here. You want to be able to use them while wearing the head torch, and therefore to be intuitive. You may also want to be able to operate the buttons while wearing gloves.
Strap design: A headband is the easiest to fit and adjust, even when wearing a helmet. But head torches with an overhead strap offer a more stable fit and are therefore better for activities like trail running, even if they are more fiddly.
The best headtorches
Today, the choice of hillwalking headtorches is greater than ever. The widespread adoption of the Light Emitting Diode (LED) and the lithium-ion battery have both revolutionised headtorch design. They are now lighter, brighter, more robust and longer lasting than ever before.
Unfortunately, as these technologies have got cheaper, it’s also led to a proliferation of junk lights. In our experience, these might promise incredible functionality, but they invariably break, die or fail as soon as the weather closes in. That’s why we’ve picked out the best hillwalking headtorches from various tried and tested brands that promise durability and reliability. These, in addition to balancing size, weight and real-world performance.
Black Diamond Storm 500-R
Verdict: A powerful, technically advanced and highly weatherproof headtorch with impressive functionality and excellent all-round performance.
Pros: Light modes for map reading, very bright, great weatherproofing
Cons: Ergonomics take getting used to, hybrids can be more versatile
The powerful and multi-functional Storm 500-R is one of the brightest and best-equipped headlamps in the Black Diamond range.
It has an array of features, including a dimmable main spot beam with a piercing maximum output of 500 lumens. It also has a secondary white flood LED, plus red/green/blue light modes for map-reading and night vision use. There’s also a button lock to prevent accidental operation and a battery level indicator.
However, the niftiest feature is Black Diamond’s ‘powertap’ function. With this, you can instantly switch from your chosen light setting to maximum power (and back again) by simply tapping the side of the headlamp. This is great for night navigation when you want to check what’s down the trail before returning quickly to your saved brightness setting.
The Storm is reasonably light and compact, with a soft and comfortable low-profile headband made from recycled fabric. It’s powered by a built-in, high-capacity lithium battery that gives great burn times, and is charged via a micro-USB port in the side of the light unit.
If we’re being fussy
The two-button-plus-powertap method of operation takes some getting used to. The built-in battery also means it lacks the versatility of some hybrid rivals that allow either a rechargeable battery pack or AAAs.
Max power 500 lumens for 7 hours | Max burn time 350 hours at 6 lumens | Max beam distance 120m | Batteries built-in 2400mAh rechargeable lithium-ion | Weight 100g | Ingress protection rating IP67 (waterproof – will withstand immersion for 30 minutes in up to 1m of water)
Verdict: A solid and straightforward all-rounder at a good price, the Qark is lightweight, comfortable and powerful. Its only major drawbacks are its limited functionality and relatively short burn times.
Pros: Good value, lightweight, comfortable
Cons: Not as tough as some, no battery level indicator
This headtorch undercuts many rivals in terms of both performance and price. Despite being the cheapest model here, it has the second-brightest maximum light output, boasting an impressive 580 lumens.
It’s straightforward to operate too, with a single button controlling all functions – just press to cycle through low, medium and high-power from the main white LED, plus red light and red strobe modes from the secondary LED. A rotating bezel allows you to adjust the spread and distance of the main beam, from spot to flood. This design feature does add a little bulk, but it’s extremely useful on the trail or in camp.
The headlamp’s overall weight tips the scales at under 100g, and once properly adjusted the three-point strap feels secure, with minimal bounce. Usefully, it also has hybrid battery compatibility, so it can be powered by either 3x AAAs or the supplied rechargeable battery pack, which can be removed from the battery compartment and charged via a micro-USB port.
This is a solid performer for year-round camping, hiking and backpacking.
If we’re being fussy
The light unit is made of a cheap-looking, hard plastic. The battery pack has a lower capacity than most rivals. There’s no dimming function and no battery level indicator, so you can sometimes be plunged into darkness without warning.
Max power 580 lumens for 2.5 hours | Max burn time 18 hours at 30 lumens | Max beam distance 150m | Batteries 3x AAA or 1x 800mAh rechargeable battery | Weight 95g | Ingress protection rating IPX6 (protected from high pressure water stream from any direction)
Silva TerraScout H
Verdict: Though not as powerful or as fully-featured as some, this is still a practical headtorch that is lightweight, compact and easy to use, while also highly sustainable and versatile.
Pros: Sustainably made, lightweight, easy to operate, comfortable
Cons: No dimming function or SOS strobe
Product sustainability is becoming more important in the outdoor industry, and increasingly this includes kit as well as clothing. Swedish brand Silva’s new Terra Scout H headtorch uses recycled plastic and a hemp headband to give a carbon footprint reduction of 90% compared to the previous model.
It’s also very lightweight and comfy, thanks to a soft, wide strap and an extremely slim, compact design. However, it’s still pretty powerful, with dual white LEDs that provide combined spot and flood lighting plus a secondary red LED for night vision use. The maximum output is a creditable 350 lumens, and Silva’s Intelligent Light technology delivers a good balance of beam spread and penetration.
Operations are simple and straightforward via one big button on top of the headlamp, but you also get a battery level indicator and hybrid technology that enables the unit to run on either AAAs or the supplied rechargeable battery pack. Unlike most others, the battery pack has a USB-C port rather than the older micro-USB tech too, enabling faster charging.
If we’re being fussy
There’s no dimming option, no lock mode and no flashing beacon or SOS strobe. It can be tricky to remove the rechargeable battery pack from its compartment too, as it’s such a tight fit.
Max power 350 lumens for 3 hours | Max burn time 25 hours at 50 lumens | Max beam distance 65m | Batteries 3x AAA or 1250mAh rechargeable battery | Weight 75g | Ingress protection rating IPX5 (protected from low pressure water stream from any direction)
Petzl Actik Core
Verdict: A versatile performer with all the hallmarks of a Petzl headtorch: simplicity, durability and reliability – but you can get a bit more for your money from rival brands.
Pros: Pleasantly simple, durable, 360-degree swivel bracket
Cons: So-so weatherproofing, better value found elsewhere
The Actik is one of Petzl’s best-selling headlamps, but it’s been completely redesigned for winter 2022.
The new model has sleek and angular looks with an integrated rubber bumper to help protect the LED array from impacts and scratches. A phosphorescent element inside the light unit also glows in the dark, making it easier to find your headtorch in a dim tent. A new bracket design enables it to swivel through 360°, which not only gives class-leading angle adjustment but also makes for easy access to the rear battery compartment.
It can run off 3x AAAs or Petzl’s CORE rechargeable battery packs. Performance wise, the Aktik puts out up to 450 lumens, with three brightness settings plus red light and strobe modes. There’s also a charge indicator and a lock function to prevent accidental operation.
In use, it’s reasonably light and comfortable, with a simple but effective headband. A nice added extra is that it comes with a translucent storage sack. This enables you to hang it as a lantern, creating a soft, diffuse light for your tent.
If we’re being fussy
While we like the new look, the older model of the Actik was slightly lighter than this new version. There’s no dimming function and it has a lower water-resistance rating than most of its rivals too.
Max power 450 lumens for 2 hours | Max burn time 100 hours at 7 lumens | Max beam distance 90m | Batteries 3x AAA or 1x rechargeable battery | Weight 98g | Ingress protection rating IPX4 (splashproof)
GP XPLOR Compact PHR17
Verdict: A lightweight and compact yet powerful and practical headtorch that is particularly well suited to ‘fast and light’ mountain missions.
Pros: Very lightweight, comfortable and breathable headband,
Cons: Could be easier to use, average beam distance
This is the lightest and most compact headtorch here, which is all the more impressive considering it has a very bright maximum output of 500 lumens. It also has the most comfortable and robust headband, with a perforated strap that wicks away sweat. And it’s very weather-resistant too. All those qualities make this a good choice for fast-moving mountain adventures.
The two-button design enables a wide range of features – the main LED has three brightness levels, with a secondary warm white floodlight and red night vision mode. The main beam balances a good spread of light with reasonable penetration.
There are also flashing SOS and beacon modes, plus a button lock feature and a charge indicator.
The built-in lithium battery provides up to 100 hours of runtime and is rechargeable with a USB-C cable, ensuring quick charging times. Since GP is a battery specialist, this lamp also has in-built protection against over-charging and supports pass-through charging. Therefore, you can still safely use the headtorch as a lantern even when it is plugged in to a power bank – ideal for use in your tent.
If we’re being fussy
Operation isn’t the most intuitive. The built-in battery means it lacks the versatility of hybrid rivals that can also run on AAAs. And the light unit has a limited range of tilt adjustment.
Max power 500 lumens for 3 hours | Max burn time 100 hours at 5 lumens | Max beam distance 85m | Batteries Built-in 1600mAh rechargeable lithium-ion | Weight 60g | Ingress protection rating IPX6 (protected from high pressure water stream from any direction)
BioLite HeadLamp 750
Verdict: An extremely powerful and highly advanced headtorch with a vast array of features. But it’s not cheap and might be overkill for many users.
Pros: Very powerful, feature-packed, long run time, pass-through charging
Cons: Overkill for some, relatively heavy
Compared to the others on test, this is a beast, but it’s also the most powerful, with the biggest battery. And despite its relative bulk and weight, it’s extremely comfy. The design positions the battery at the back of the head, so it feels well balanced. It's great for trail running, hillwalking and backpacking.
The rear unit also has integrated red LEDs – ideal for visibility on night runs or hikes that involve stretches of road walking. The front light unit has red night vision, white spot, flood, combo and SOS strobe modes, all activated with a single button. Spot, flood and combo settings can all be dimmed to your preferred brightness level.
If you need maximum visibility, a button on the rear unit gives you a 30-second burst of 750 lumens, basically turning night into day. You also get a battery level indicator, button lock, emergency reserve lighting and constant or regulated light modes.
Finally, the HeadLamp 750 supports pass-through charging, so you can charge it in use. This means you can plug the extended 1m charging cable into the micro-USB port on the underside of the rear battery unit and connect the other end to a portable power bank in your pack, massively extending your headtorch’s runtime.
If we’re being fussy
It’s relatively heavy and bulky. That 750-lumen headline figure is only achieved in 30-second bursts. The front light unit only adjusts to four positions. And it isn’t as weatherproof as some of its rivals.
Max power 500 lumens for 7 hours (750 lumens in 30-sec boost mode) | Max burn time 150 hours at 5 lumens | Max beam distance 130m | Batteries Built-in 3000mAh rechargeable lithium-ion battery | Weight 150g | Ingress protection rating IPX4 (splashproof)