Sunday 3 December 2017

Head torches For Runners: What you need to know, buyers guide 2018

Head torch buyers guide for runners. 

So the dark winter nights and early morning conditions have hit for us runners, maybe you're even one of these crazy ones who runs all night in ultra running events, maybe not yet but that's your plan. Whatever the case I'm going to walk you through everything you need to know about buying a head torch for running. 

I've been running ultras for 7 years now and before that I did a lot of climbing and camping and bits of hiking and general outdoor activities so I've always had a use for head torches. Running specific torches are the focus in this article though.

Like anything there are a wide range of specifications and prices for various intentions. If you're going to be running mainly on the pavements but want something just to alert pedestrians or road users of your presence then a smaller one will do. Likewise if it's an emergency or back up torch.
If you are looking to actually run off road or in poorly lit areas, the brighter the better. If you're after some of the more gnarly trail and ultra running events around the world then it's definitely not worth skimping on a torch.You can pay between £10 and £200 plus.

Personally I've used the Petzl Myo Rxp since 2011 which has been great although I'm now looking to upgrade and whilst I'm searching out myself, here's my experience and how I'm choosing.
Head torch brightness is the first thing to think about, if you buy one that's cheap and not bright enough for your intended use then your running in the dark will be greatly impaired. 

All About Brightness

The brightness is measured in LUMENS. MORE LUMENS = BRIGHTER
BEWARE when buying torches the manufacturers normally quote the MAXIMUM brightness, not necessarily the useable brightness. Eg my torch has a boost mode for if you want a couple of seconds of really bright light to look into the distance @380 lumens but when you are actually using it in it's normal bright mode, it's 270 lumens. When I bought this it was fairly high end. Now there is a range of more powerful. Some torches now state the distance that they can 'see' again it might help you compare one to another

Roughly the cheaper torches are about 100 lumens or less. Anything much below 100 lumens wont be much use once you get off the pavements.
My torch is about 270 lumens ...which has done most of my big ultras (more than 20x 100 mile races through the night and normally in the mountains) along with countless training runs in the dark on trails
Now you can get torches claiming THOUSANDS of lumens but they are of course going to be a bit bigger and heavier. In summary light use 100 as a minimum but for trail runners aim for 250 plus. If you want the best like for example the Lesnar XE019R you can get 1000 lumens on the normal mode.

Battery Type Pros and Cons

USB or AA/AAAs The issues I have with the USB battery packs is that they aren't easy to replace. If for example mid race your battery pack fails it's unlikely that anyone at a checkpoint will have your specific USB battery pack just lying around. This means you will probably need to buy a spare. If you're going through more than one night especially in 12 -15 hours on a winter night there's an issue becuase the Lesnar one mentioned above, only lasts 8 hours on it's highest useable mode, you could run it at low power mode for 20 hours of course, but then it's only at 200 lumens. They are a little heavier and bulkier than a few AA batteries too although we're talking grams. Some races compulsory equipment says you need a spare battery for your torch, one way around this would be to carry an additional smaller torch perhaps but then again more weight and more expense. If doing something like the Spine Race or a non stop race covering multiple nights you either need a way of charging the battery packs or numerous batteries. Cold weather can drain batteries surprisingly quickly too such as in the mountains at night so expected battery life might not be achieved.

The pros of a USB battery pack... you can sometimes use them to charge other items such as a watch or something else that uses USB power. In theory recharging saves you having to buy batteries all the time. I have seen a couple of races with charging stations at checkpoints but are you really going to hang around for half an hour at a checkpoint to charge up mid race?

Normal batteries are usually cheap and easy to find anywhere in the world, it's easy to carry a few spare sets and change them during races. I prefer this although a lot of the newer torches are edging towards USB integrated battery packs. Either way consider the battery life and your intended use.

Comfort, Fit and Adjustability

Nearly every torch I've seen has some adjustment method, usually an elastic headband around your head and sometimes over the top also like the Hope torch above. My spare backup torch the Petzl Zipka has a tiny wire on a reel which still holds the lightweight head torch in place well but as it's a small light and lower lumen torch it's not great for off road running at any great speed. Usually you can adjust the angle of the torch too to point it either closer to your feet or further away without having to run with your head tilted in an uncomfortable position. Some of the smaller cheaper ones don't have this function meaning you need to lift or lower your head which isn't good.
Torches have  different modes, usually a 'Boost' option for a couple of seconds of extra bright light for when you are looking for a route marker or sign post and perhaps need to scan at a distance
High/Medium/Low mode for normal running, I generally run in high mode all the time if it's technical but if I get to an easier smooth trail for a few miles I might flick into low to conserve battery life.
Red light for map reading, it reduces the glare when you're looking close up, saves you from getting the light reflecting back into your eyes too much like when a car has it's full beam coming toward you.
Flashing mode I have used this when I've been cycling or when I've been trying to signal to someone but a constant light is better for when you're actually using the torch to see where you're going.
Adaptive lighting, some of the more recent releases have an adaptive mode like the Petzl Nao as you look ahead in the distance it senses this and focuses the beam more like a spot light, whereas if you look down and close, it spreads the beam to make a wider area light up, I've tried this one out and it was a bit annoying although most likely due to me not being used to it and perhaps takes a few runs to get used to.

Weight and Size

The bigger brighter torches are usually a little bit bulkier and heavier, in races that start early morning and I'm likely only to be running maybe the final hour or two in the dark, I would rather not carry such a bulky torch all day. The weight range goes from the tiny emergency E light upto nearly 500g maybe more for a bigger torch (including the battery weight) not a massive amount of weight in your backpack but if you're trying to get the weight of your kit down you should consider this too.

Durability and Weather Resistance

Most electronic products are tested and given an IP rating from manufacturers. It stands  for Ingress Protection, basically how well sealed and protected the unit is. There are two digits EG IP67
the first digit is protection against solids like dust and dirt and the second is against water. The higher number the better. This Silva torch is given a a 7 in the water resistance meaning it can be immersed in water upto 1m deep for upto 30 mins! The chart for the ratings is here if you are really interested or very bored.


Best of the best Lesnar XE019R but comes at a cost. 2000 lumens on boost
Best for light use on roads and backup light Petzl Zipka 100 lumens
Best under £30 Silva Ninox (72% off sale at time of writing) 200 lumens
Best lightweight and bright Silva Trail Speed X 500 lumens
My actual torch for the past years Petzl Myo Rxp 270 lumens
Mutli use Hope can be bought with a bike attachment for multi users.

Check out others in some popular shops

But what about the £10 torches on eBay??!!
Whilst they sound unbelievably powerful... 35000 lumens? They don't include battery packs often and I wouldn't be overly keen on relying on such a torch for durability. I don't fancy it short circuiting and setting fire whilst it's on my head either, if you want to risk it then please do let me know how you get on. I'd personally stick with a reputable brand, as the saying goes you get what you pay for.

Other Ideas?

Why not just use a hand torch? 
Not a good plan, keep your hands free for opening gates and the likes, also if you have it in one hand then your running gait will likely be lob sided and un natural. A bit like carrying a water bottle all the time. 

Knuckle lights? Really?
I won a pair and gave them a try, your hands are always full though and they were poorly made. Don't bother, get a head torch.

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