An increasing number of runners are using head torches as they discover the joy of running at night. Experienced fell and trail runners have always known the benefits of using a lightweight running head torch, either because an event they were doing involved some running in the dark, or as a safety item to have in their bum bag or backpack, in case they were out for longer than expected on a particular outing.
A head torch gives a hands-free option, with the light source coming from just above your line of vision to clearly illumine the terrain ahead. Now recreational road runners are discovering the benefits of head torches, both in being able to see well on a poorly lit or unlit route, and be able to be seen by other road users.
How to go about choosing the right torch with all the key features is a little bewildering for first-time users, so here are 8 key tips to guide you through head torch jargon and help you decide.
1. Battery Life
All torches give an average "Battery life". Remember this is just an average. Most torches have more than one setting and will use battery quicker if the brightest setting is used all the time. This will obviously depend where and how often you run in the dark.
Battery life can be saved by intelligent use of the settings, e.g. switching to a dimmer beam if your eyes have adjusted to a certain light level, and remembering to switch your light off on an early morning run as it gets light. (Also remembering to switch off when you get home in the dark!).
Some torches have an indicator light to let you know when your battery is running low. The entry level and Active lamps like the Petzl Tikkina and the Tikka+ and the PETZL Actik have replaceable batteries. A separate USB chargeable unit can be purchased as an extra to use instead of batteries.
The latest Performance torches such as the REACTIK and the REACTIK+, which use reactive lighting, use rechargeable units (see tip 8 below).
LED bulbs (light emitting diodes) are probably the most practical bulbs in the majority of head torches. Some use a single LED, some use multiple LEDs. 2-3 LEDs can make for a wider beam, but a single focussed beam can sometimes be brighter.
Halogen and tungsten bulbs are also used, and although these can be brighter, they need replacing with time and like house bulbs, can break if the torch is dropped! LEDs on average last up to 5,000 hours, (that's a lot of running miles!) but they do also shine dimmer as the battery life fades.
Light strength is measured in lumens. Simply put, a lumen is a measure of the total "amount" of visible light in a defined beam or angle. The higher the lumens the brighter the light. All head torches should display the approximate lumens.
Basic head torches for most normal conditions have a range of 30 and 100 lumens. It depends where you are running, and in some cases how well and how quickly you adapt to night time conditions when running.
The more technical torches like the Reactik range or the Nao have up to 300 lumens power.
The beam range of a head torch is the useful distance you can see on various settings. How long a beam range you need will also depend on where you are running.
If you are running in an urban setting, just needing some extra light to see or be seen, you will need less beam than if you are running around your local park early on a winter's morning, or undertaking a fairly technical training run, preparing for an upcoming trail race with night time sections.
5. Ease of Use
Make sure you can operate the buttons and modes easily. Not surprisingly, the autumn and winter months are when torches are used most, so make sure you can use the key button with a glove too!
With so many modern lightweight materials, weight is not really an issue. The lightest all-inclusive torches come in at around 30g, up to the more technical models with separate battery packs that weigh in at just under 200g. Where and how long you will be running in the dark will in some ways determine the torch and the weight.
All head torches come with an elastic strap that is adjustable, so make sure you can adjust the tension (with or without a hat on) so that it is comfortable as well as secure.
8. Reactive Lighting
To quote what Petzl, the leading French manufacturer who have pioneered this technology, say on this. “Beyond Power... Intelligence! The ultra-powerful headlamps from the performance line adapt their lighting automatically and instantly to the ambient light. Ideal for dynamic, high-commitment activities: trail running, technical mountaineering, ski touring... Reactive Lighting.”
Basically Petzl have developed a sensor in the torch that adapts the beam pattern and brightness of the headlamp instantly and automatically to your current surroundings. This means that under street lights the beam and intensity of the lamp is lower but away from urban lighting or even moving from open ground into a wooded area, the beam and intensity automatically brightens.
Most reactive lighting torch batteries are rechargeable with a USB cable. The settings can be tweaked beforehand on a PC if necessary to optimize the battery life dependant on the run you are planning. They have become the “go to” torches for most runners who compete in outdoor night time events, or who train regularly in the dark on trails in the winter.
The latest Reactik + has a Bluetooth facility. You can download the MY PETZL app to your mobile phone and customize your settings. It allows you to check battery life and change the torches settings from your phone via Bluetooth Smart.
9. Top Tip for Running at Night
OK, for those of you counting this is the 9th tip! When you begin your run, or when you are about to put on your head torch as it gets dark, just close your eyes for 30-60 seconds. This helps allow the eyes to adjust to the change in light levels.
Until you have become accomplished and built up some experience of running at night, stick to routes you are familiar with or run with others who are familiar with any terrain you will be running on. While it is good to explore, NEVER compromise your safety.
This is a fun and informative video from PETZL, possibly the leading head torch manufacturer, on running at night: