Best running head torches of 2023: light up the trail

A good running head torch will keep you running safely during the evening and dark winter days

three different running head torches

by Kate Milsom |
Updated on

One piece of kit you really can't do without when running in low visibility is a good-quality running head torch. Not just any running headtorch will do, you need one with a strong enough beam, that's wide enough to light up the trail ahead and around you, and can cope with an extended period on the go.

You might think you're an ace at a technical decent, but throw in low visibility conditions and you'll be glad you invested in a headtorch to light your way safely. Running in the winter is not always the most pleasant affair, especially when the days are short and you must rely on your torch to guide you home. A running headtorch is a vital bit of safety kit, giving you visibility and making you more visible to others on the road/trail and in case of emergency.

Don't forget to always charge your head torch to the max when venturing out on a run, and make sure it's fully functional. If you're heading out for an extended period of time or in an isolated area, it's worth taking a spare battery just in case yours fails. Jump to the bottom of this article for the key features to look out for in a running headlamp.

Best running head torches at a glance:

Best in Test: Petzl NAO RL – View on Cotswold Outdoor

Best Value: Ledlenser NEO5R – View on Amazon

Best for Sustainability: Silva Terra Scout H – View on Sportsshoes

Best for comfort: Silva Trail Runner Free H – View on Sportsshoes

man runs through field in dark with headtorch

Best head torches for running in detail:

Best in Test

petzl nao rlLFTO

The first thing that grabs you about the Petzl NAO RL running headtorch is the massive 1500 lumens on offer. That's double your average trail running torch. However, a closer look at the lamp uncovers that the 1500lm is only for the reactive lighting mode, on standard mode you still get a huge 900lm, with both of these max power outputs lasting for an impressive two hours.  

Lower settings, including 250lm and 550lm, last a lot longer and still provide higher lumen count than you could wish for, with an extended burn time. When you’re not running, the headtorch light can be stashed in the provided translucent pouch and strung up, acting as a lantern.

Fitting is easy straight from the box and it's comfortable to wear while running. The ergonomic head cradle set-up does a good job of distributing weight, with no bounce or heavy battery drag. It’s also easy to adjust via a drawstring at the back. Meanwhile the angle of the slim front light is easy to change on the move. 

The rear battery pack comes with two red light modes - constant or flashing - which I really liked. The modes do not affect the running time on the front light either and having a nice visible light gave me confidence when on the roads. A big tick there.

You would think with all this power you would be lugging a hefty weight around but at 145g it's just like wearing most standard lights. And the battery pack can be used as a charger itself for your phone or watch if needs be. 

The NAO’s various light modes are easy enough to run through when in use and can be locked into a specific setting if desired. The reactive lighting technology works by automatically adjusting to ambient light, doing the thinking for you when out on the trail.

As lights go, this is Petzl doing what they do best by leading the way in head torches. Granted, the NAO is not cheap, but if you are going to be out at night running on technical trails where you really need to see every twist and turn ahead, it’s hard to beat.

Review by Graham Sleightholme

Pros

  • Bright lumen count
  • Multi-purpose
  • Comfortable
  • Lightweight

Cons

  • Not cheap, but you get what you pay for

Best Value

Ledlenser NEO 5RLFTO
Price: $54.95

The Ledlenser NEO5R is a light and comfortable running headtorch, with a very reasonable price-tag. It’s designed to illuminate the trail both at your feet and several steps ahead.

Yes, the rear battery pack appears rather large on the Ledlenser lamps, but in reality the overall weight is minimal, the whole water-resistant ensemble coming in at mere 104g. Weight’s also distributed well across the headset, with the thin, reflective headband sitting comfortably across the forehead.  

The whole set-up is easy to adjust, including the lamp itself. The front torch has the ability to pan downward to provide a good view of the trail at your feet (or prevent blinding a fellow runner), as well as light up the terrain ahead of you to help you consider your next move. Unusually for a headtorch, Ledlenser also supplies a chest strap (sits same place as a chest HR monitor would) with the NEO5R, so you can decide whether to wear it on the head or across the body.  

While the NEO5R is billed as a 600 lumen torch, the standard mode sits at 300lm and is claimed to last for four hours at this strength. The 600lm only really comes into play as a momentary ‘boost’ to light up the distant trail when the need arises. The three normal modes - low, mid and standard - are accessible by a simple, one-handed press of the torch’s top button, with a double tap for boost. 

Overall, I like the NEO5R for its simplicity and efficiency. The rechargeable battery pack doubles up as a red rear light, and charging is simple via magnetic strips at the side. Our one niggle would be the lack of USB-C adapter needed to plug in and use the charger normally. 

Review by Kate Milsom

Pros

  • Affordable
  • Lightweight
  • Comfortable
  • Decent beam

Cons

  • Not as bright as others

Best for the environment

Silva Trail ScoutLFTO

Possibly the most stylish headlamp of the lot, the Silva Terra Scout H is made of hemp and 100% recycled plastics and designed for ‘everyday outdoor adventures’.

With a max lumen output of 350 for a claimed three hours, this little lamp packs a decent punch in the visibility department, especially for such an affordable price-point. The minimum 50lm mode is good for being seen on the trail, but we'd only use the brighter 350lm for running in low light conditions and not technical trail, there's also a red light mode available.

The slim rechargeable battery can also be switched out for your standard AAAs, which is a great option for race-settings where you have to take spares. In terms of functionality, the Terra Scout H is simple and easy to use, with the large on/off button located at the top and a tilt mechanism allowing you to change the angle of the beam.

Review by Kate Milsom

Pros

  • Lightweight
  • Easy to use and comfy
  • Sustainable materials
  • Affordable price

Cons

  • Not as bright as others
  • Less beam options than others

Recommended

Alpkit Qark on a rockLive For The Outdoors
Price: £39.99

alpkit.com

The Alpkit Qark head torch offers a compelling combination of affordability and performance, delivering an impressive 580 lumens at a budget-friendly price. Its single-button operation allows easy cycling through various modes, including low, medium, and high-power white LED, as well as red light and red strobe modes.

The rotating bezel facilitates beam adjustment from spot to flood, enhancing versatility on the trail. Weighing under 100g and featuring a secure three-point strap, it provides comfort and stability. With hybrid battery compatibility (3x AAAs or a rechargeable pack), it suits diverse power preferences.

However, the light unit's plastic feels cheap, the battery pack has a lower capacity, and the absence of a dimming function and battery level indicator may lead to unexpected darkness. Overall, it proves a reliable choice for year-round outdoor activities.

Reviewed by James Forest

Pros

  • Good value
  • Lightweight
  • Comfortable

Cons

  • Not as tough as some
  • No battery level indicator

Best for comfort

Silva Trail Runner Free HLFTO

The Silva Runner Free H is a good-looking running headtorch with some interesting features to make it stand out from the crowd. The elasticated headband is nice and wide, and once adjusted, won’t go anywhere as you run.

The integrated power cable from the battery pack to the torch is contained within the headband and lies nice and flat. That’s a really good bit of ergonomic design and a big tick from me.

Another bit of creativity is the option to remove the 55g battery (half the overall weight) from the headband, with an optional extension cable thus allowing for it to be placed in a bag or coat pocket if you prefer. I also liked the light’s ability to rotate around 100 degrees, which allows for a wide range of vision and is highly practical.

The battery pack itself comes with the option to switch out with another brand or to regular batteries, should you need. Within the battery itself is a switch for the rear light, which offers solid or flash settings. You do need to take the torch off to switch on this function, but it only takes several seconds.

The light itself is 400 lumens on maximum setting, which lasts for two hours, as well as 200lm on medium and 50lm for the lowest setting, extending the usage time. The two bulbs spread the light via a flood beam and a spotlight beam, which works well in practice, I also found the light on max power fine for running trail, but the lower settings don’t really cut it.

Overall, I think this the Silver Trail Runner Free H is a great looking torch and I like that Silva are pushing on with new advances, but the price per Lumen is a little disappointing. I would expect 600lm or more for the RRP of £99. 

Review by Graham Sleightholme

Pros

  • Adaptive
  • Lightweight
  • Comfortable

Cons

  • High price for the lumens

Recommended

Pawel Baranowski

This is a basic running headlamp. And we say this with joy! No buttons, no double presses, triple presses, long presses… Just a four-position knob that rotates to deliver four modes of operation: off, bright 100lm, brighter 300lm, even brighter 900lm. That’s it.

Decathlon cites the Ontrail’s burn time as between 3.5 – 9h (note that the last hour of battery time dims down to 100lm). We’ve completed an overnight run (at 100lm) using this lamp and it lasted all eight hours of darkness without any issues.

Comfortable to wear, the weight of the tilt lamp at the front is balanced with the battery at the back, which is a bit on the chunky side. The back battery pack sports four LEDs showing battery charge levels (presumably one LED equals 25% charge). Charging is via a micro-USB cable (supplied). Overall, the Ontrail is a great entry-level lamp with no unnecessary features.

Pros

  • Super easy to use
  • Decent burn time
  • Bright enough - 900lm if you need it

Cons

  • Micro-USB port for charging (con for those USB-C only users)

Best lightweight option

Biolite 325LFTO

At a mere 50g in weight and with a maximum output of 325 lumens, the slim BioLite Headlamp 325 offers a versatile package for running and hiking. The 325 produces both white and red light in dim and strobe modes, the stronger option being my go-to for off-roading in the dark.

The lamp unit is smoothly integrated into the adjustable headband, which sits comfortably against the head and wicks moisture well. It’s also reflective to boost visibility. It’s good to see a wide range for the lamp’s tilt, illuminating both the floor at your feet and the trail ahead.

There is a built-in rechargeable battery, with the micro-USB port integrated into the side of the lamp, with a rubber casing to help prevent water ingress. The whole lamp has an IPX4 waterproof rating, which should mean it’s resistant to water splashes from any direction, or more practically speaking rain (just make sure you seal it properly).  

The 325 takes under three hours to charge and will emit light at full brightness for roughly the same amount of time. Of course, battery will be dependent on a number of factors like ambient temperature, brightness and modes used.

The mounting feels a bit cheap and flimsy, but the lamp stays in position when moving about. It feels comfortable on the head and is so light you soon forget it is there. I’d recommend the 325 for shorter runs, hiking, camping and as a backup light on longer excursions.

Review by Pawel Baranowski

Pros

  • Affordable
  • Lightweight
  • Functional

Cons

  • Not super durable
  • Not as powerful as others

Recommended

Ledlenser NEO9RLFTO

Another pick from Ledlenser, the NEO9R produces up to 1200lm with three light options to suit your running conditions.

I set about charging the headlamp straight away, having to make an additional purchase of a USB-C plug adaptor in order to charge it (annoying). Though I did like the ease of the magnetic charge system. Setting up the headlamp was easy enough, the adjustment of the reflective straps being relatively simple.

Once comfortable, the mere weight of the battery (180g) sitting on my head was pretty noticeable. The different light modes created by the three LED lights are accessible by a click of the button set into the top of the torch, which provides flood and spot optic lenses specifically for running. The lamp has a practical tilt, but it’s worth bearing in mind that there is only one beam pattern.

It’s easy to flick through from 20lm, which is only really useful to be seen, to 200lm, which gave enough visibility when out in open terrain. As soon as I approached more technical terrain, another press and I was given 600lm, which gave me 120m of beam for an estimation of 12 hours. Suddenly the battery weight makes perfect sense, that’s seriously impressive.

Plus, a double tap of the switch provides a boost of 1200lm, that’s more than a car headlamp! At times, this proved useful, but not wholly necessary for normal trail running.  

What did impress me with this was the rear light, a mandatory item to have in some races. This light isn’t adjustable, so stays on blinking mode the entire time the torch is on.

A unique feature to the lamp is that it can also be worn as a chest strap, with an extra length of strap included. This is where you’ll have to forego the HR monitor if you wear one, as the two don’t sit well together. Without this, the torch sits well across the chest, though I found that the battery pack does cause some bounce when running.  

Review by Terry Rogers

Pros

  • Different beam strengths
  • Great battery life
  • Comfortable
  • Good value

Cons

  • One beam mode
  • No light option for between 200lm and 600lm

Recommended

Silva Trail Speed 5RLFTO

Silva bills the Trail Speed 5R as the ‘ultimate headlamp for runners who want to optimise every gram’. Let’s first look at weight, then. The 5R comes in at an overall 178g, with the rechargeable battery pack by itself weighing 85g. That’s a fair bit heavier than BioLite’s lamps for instance, but there’s a reason for that. 

With trail and speed literally in the name, I was expecting big things from this headlamp. The ‘anti-slip’ headband itself is wide and sits comfortably to the head. Attached to the band is the light and large battery, with a wire attaching the two. The battery itself is fairly weighty, which I found pulled the band down slightly when running. It does sit securely to the head though, via a lightweight cradle. 

The 5R features Silva’s Intelligent Light technology, which is designed to combine long-reach and close lighting to provide both near and far visibility. I liked the functionality of the front lamp itself, which is formed in a circular shape with a silky smooth downwards tilt mechanism. To the side of this sits the large and functional power button. 

The three light modes on offer: 80lm, 450lm, 1200lm, provide options for all different conditions. I’d stick to the 450lm for most runs, with the max output coming in useful for technical or particularly dark sections. In all, the Trail Speed packs a neat punch and has a lot to offer for a powerful, rechargeable running headlamp. Just be sure to not touch the light casing while in use, it gets extremely hot!

Review by Kate Milsom

Pros

  • Comfortable headband
  • Strong and bright beam
  • Powerful battery

Cons

  • A little heavy
  • On the pricier side

Recommended

Instantly noticeable when first donning the Petzl Iko Core was the ergonomic, ultra thin, and supportive headband, which makes it feel barely noticeable on the head. Unlike a normal elastic headband torch, the design also means there is no sweaty head, an absolute plus for any runner.  

The Iko Core has an ultralight torch with a rechargeable battery pack, weighing in at an amazing family-pack-of-Doritos light 79g. The battery placement and light makes it very balanced and it doesn't move about during exercise, yet another tick there. Meanwhile, the light itself has a swivel adjustment to move the light up and down, which works pretty well, allowing me to focus on the trails. 

The ‘AirFit’ headtorch is easy to adjust with a pull cord, with a simple button set under the light enabling the user to move through the three light settings of 6lm, 100lm, and 500lm. The strongest is great at picking out rocks and roots on the dark trail, and lasts for a decent 2.5h.

It's water resistant and can be worn on the head, around the neck or even mounted on a tent in the special storage pouch that turns it into a lantern, making it multifunctional. There’s no backlight, but the headband does offer some reflective rear detailing.

Review by Natasha Breen

Pros

  • Comfortable
  • Lightweight
  • Can use with normal batteries
  • Multifunctional

Cons

  • Not as bright as other torches
  • Short life in full power mode
  • No rear light

How we test running head torches

runners with head torches
A head torch is essential for running in the dark safely ©Andrew McCandlish

Running head torches are a technical bit of running safety kit, not to mention highly practical. So when it came to testing these head torches, we made sure to may close attention to their claimed modes, lumen output, and type of battery used. Most headlamps on test are rechargeable, while many have a good standard of waterproofing (see IP rating) which we made sure to verify.

We took a close look at the weight of each torch, using our own independent scales, we were able to confirm whether a torch's weight significantly impacted its comfort and performance. Most of all, we took each head torch out on the trails, tracks, fields, fells and roads to test their ability to light up the way and keep us safe and aware while running. In doing so, we could confirm battery life and how user-friendly each torch is to form our final opinions and recommendations.

Our head torch testers are a group of seasoned trail runners who love getting out on the trails year round, rain or shine, daylight or by torch light. Testers include experienced gear reviewers and writers Kate Milsom, Terry Rogers, Pawel Baranowski, and Graham Sleightholme.

How many lumens do I need for a running head torch?

How bright a running head torch should be depends on the light levels and complexity of terrain where you’ll be running. If you’re running on streets and dimly lit paths, you won’t need as strong of a head torch. A lower strength light should have a longer battery time and not take as long to charge. Look for a headlamp with a minimum of 150 lumens and up to 400lm, this should be plenty for your uses.

However, if you’re after a running head torch that can light up dark trails and illuminate technical terrains where you really need to be able to see every root and rock, then you should consider investing in a powerful headlamp. A headlamp of at least 400lm, will light up those dark patches. Our best on test headlamp is the Petzl Nao RL with a whopping 1500lm, with our best affordable lamp still offering a decent 500lm, take a look at the reviews above for more info.

Running head torch: key features

man lok sat watch with headtorch on

Light beam

Light output is measured in lumens (see below). A headtorch may have different light functions such as strobe, floodlight, wide, or flashing, and some will allow you to scroll through these to choose the right mode for your run conditions.

Lumens (lm)

The lumen is the unit of measure for the strength of a light beam. In general, 80-100lm is suitable for camping, whereas hikers will want at least 200lm and runners 200+. Ideally, a minimum of 350lm will help keep your vision clear and you safe while navigating the dark trails. Many lights have stronger beams at 500lm or more for running, just make sure that the burn time will run long enough for you to make the most of it!

Burn time

This is how long the battery will last on certain light outputs. The higher the lumen and thus stronger the beam, the less time the torch will typically burn before it needs to be recharged. You want a burn time to be at least double your intended run time, in case you run into any difficulties.

Tilt

The ability to swivel the light beam down during technical sections or when you want to avoid blinding a passer-by is a must, while you’ll also want to be able to swiftly tilt the beam upwards during ascents and to see the trail ahead.

Battery

Your headtorch will likely come with a rechargeable battery, either with USB-C, USB or a brand-specific charger. It’s worth considering whether you need a lamp that can take your standard AAs though, as some race situations require you to take spare batteries and for this you’ll need a hybrid torch.

Headband

Torch headbands come in all shapes and sizes and there’s not necessarily a rule for what works best, it really is a matter of build quality. In general, thick headbands can sit more comfortably across the head as the pressure is spread more evenly. But we’ve also see thin, hardly-there headbands that feel to lightweight they’re a pleasure to wear and feel just as secure. It’s a matter of personal preference. Look for silicone grippers or some form of friction or a balanced cradle design that helps hold the structure in place on the head.

Waterproofing

It’s a good idea to get a headtorch with a decent level of waterproofing if you’re going to be wearing it in all weathers and getting sweaty. Most will be at least weather-resistant, IP54, while some will be water-resistant, IPX4, and others will be waterproof, IPX5.

Weight

This is an important one. A headtorch shouldn’t feel heavy on your head, dig in uncomfortably, or even slide down. Going for a light headtorch will make your run much more enjoyable. The absolute max we’d recommend for headtorch weight is 200g, but if you can get sub 150g even better, and under 100g you’re on to a winner. It can be hard to find a powerful torch with long-last batter that’s also light, so it’s about striking the right balance for your needs.

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