The Black Diamond Astro headlamp is Joe Jackson's top choice for the best all around budget headlamp.
The Black Diamond Astro headlamp is Joe Jackson's top choice for the best all around budget headlamp.

The Best Budget Headlamps

You don't need to spend a fortune to get a bright light with good features. Here are our top picks under $20.

The Black Diamond Astro headlamp is Joe Jackson's top choice for the best all around budget headlamp.

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For the past several months, I’ve been testing a bunch of headlamps in the $20 range. I think a well-built headlamp that costs about $20 is ideal for most outdoor activities, while more expensive headlamps often don’t add much value. For this test, I spent six months using eight of my favorite headlamps for backyard BBQs, ski tours, and nighttime egg tosses, then evaluated each one in Montana State University’s optics lab.

There, we looked at each headlamp’s ability to illuminate peripheral vision—the beam pattern—and the wavelength at which the headlamps produce light—the beam composition. Beam composition sounds techy, but it can make a big real-world difference. My favorite headlamp is the Black Diamond Astro, which is feature rich, had the best optics of any model I tested in this price range, and will last for an incredible 20 hours on its brightest setting. Other headlamps are brighter or have additional features, and a few are even cheaper, but the Astro is the best headlamp for most people, most of the time. Let me explain why. 

The Best Headlamp

(Daniel Ventura)

Black Diamond Astro ($15 and up) 

The Astro is a compact, 150-lumen headlamp that comes in four color options. In our testing, its battery lasted 20 hours on the highest setting. That was longer than many of its competitors lasted on their lowest settings. The Astro is dimmable, includes a strobe function, and has a lock mode (a feature I especially appreciate—it doesn’t matter how long your battery lasts if your headlamp turns on every time you throw it in your pack).

Most important, the Astro is simple to use. Clicking the elongated power button on top of the headlamp turns it on and off. Holding the button down causes the light to dim to its lowest setting; when it reaches that point, it will blink and return to the highest setting. Once you’ve found the setting you like, the headlamp will automatically reset to that brightness when you turn it back on. That may sound like a simple feature, but it was missing from most of the headlamps I tested, and it means no fussing with complicated controls or cycling through five modes every time you turn your lamp on. In real-world use, it makes a huge difference.

The Astro also had the best beam composition of any of the $20-range headlamps we tested. A brief primer on LEDs: Because they often generate light at wavelengths invisible to our eyes, most LEDs are “doped” to emit yellow-looking light that our eyes can use. According to Riley Logan, a Ph.D. student studying optics at Montana State University, the Astro was the most efficient $20 headlamp at producing light near the 550-nanometer wavelength, which our eyes see well. (For more on LED science, see “How We Tested Headlamps,” below.)

The Astro’s beam pattern was neck and neck with our second- and third-place picks in delivering peripheral vision, though it was still excellent at illuminating straight ahead, where you need it most. The biggest feature missing from the Astro is a red light. Red light doesn’t ruin your night vision, which makes it nice for reading at night, and it doesn’t attract mosquitoes. If having a red light is important to you, look at Black Diamond’s Storm, below. Still, the Astro’s price, battery life, light quality, and simplicity make it a clear winner. 

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Best for Reading at Night  

(Daniel Ventura)

Coast FL 19 ($25)

Coast’s 330-lumen FL19 is a powerful headlamp that produces lots of useable light. It remedies the one serious reservation I had about the Astro—it’s lack of a red light—and it went head to head with both the Astro and the more expensive Storm out in the real world. 

With a beam composition equal to the LED Lenser MH2 (below), the Coast FL produces plenty of useable yellow light, though not as much as the Astro. This translates into a slightly dimmer bulb. On the other hand, the Coast’s wide-angle flood setting creates lots of useful peripheral light, which is helpful for illuminating large areas.

Its battery lasted only about three hours on high, compared to the Astro’s 20 hours, but the red light makes a big difference when it comes to hanging around camp at night without blinding your friends.

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Best for Spotlighting

(Daniel Ventura)

Ledlenser MH2 ($25) 

Ledlenser’s MH2 only puts out 100 lumens, but the company uses a lens and reflector combo that gets the most out of that modest power. The lens and reflector strategy—most headlamps use just one or the other—focuses the beam and helps keep it narrow, creating a razor-sharp ray of light that was better at illuminating far-away objects than the other similarly priced headlamps.

In our egg-toss test, MH2’s excellent spotlight let me illuminate a moving egg from 200 feet away. However, the beam was actually so tight that it was tough to track the egg in the air. (Why an egg toss? It seemed like an efficient way to test spotlight capabilities in a way people might actually use a headlamp, say for catching a tossed can of beer. The idea was to test how well the headlamps would pick up a small, fast-moving object, and how well they illuminate things from far away. Sure, we could’ve used tennis balls, but where’s the fun in that?) In real-life use, the narrow, strong beam should make it much easier to see distant objects, as long as they’re not moving very fast.

Surprisingly, the MH2 was also outstanding at lighting a large area in its wide-angle setting. And our lab test ranked its beam composition second to the Coast FL 19, meaning that it produces a lot of yellow light. The MH2 is also water-resistant to the IPV6 standard, making it a solid choice if you expect to get it wet and don’t want to pay $30 more for the waterproof Storm. Where the MH2 lost was battery life: at max power, it only lasts ten hours, half as long as the Astro.

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Best for Wet Weather

(Daniel Ventura)

Black Diamond Storm ($50)

If it wasn’t for the relatively high price tag, the Storm would have been my favorite headlamp of the test. It dominated our functional lighting tests, thanks to a quad- and double-LED system that produces 350 lumens. The beam is not only powerful but also wide enough to offer a large field of view. During the nighttime egg toss, this meant I could both spot the egg with my partner from 200 feet away and track it through its entire flight. Unlike the Astro, the Storm also has a red-light setting.

The Storm is also completely waterproof, something I’ve come to appreciate as a Northwest-based river-sports lover who often recreates in heavy rain and wet snow. I’d recommend the Storm if you think there’s a chance your headlamp might fall into a stream while you filter water (I have done this) or if you might pack your electronics into the same drybag that’s carrying your bag of wine (I’ve done this as well). I just don’t think the Storm’s extra features quite justify the $50 price tag: in real-world use, the differences between the Storm and the Astro are minor.

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Other Headlamps I Liked

(Daniel Ventura)

Princeton Tec Remix ($40)

The Remix was extremely user-friendly, with its large button and ability to toggle between functions by rotating a knob on the side of the unit, rather than pressing a button repeatedly. Like the Tikkina, below, it was great in everyday use. But it wasn’t as bright as several of the other headlamps in the test, and it costs twice as much as the Astro.

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(Daniel Ventura)

Petzl Tikkina ($20)

The Tikkina is a straightforward headlamp with decent battery life and a middle-of-the-road 150-lumen output. Perhaps its best feature is compatibility with Petzl’s rechargeable Core battery, which is sold separately for $30. But other headlamps produced more yellow light, and the Astro was able to pick up the moving egg at twice the distance.

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Petzl Nao+ ($200) 

I can’t think of many reasons to spend $200 on a headlamp, but I was curious how the Petzl Nao+ would compare to headlamps that are ten times cheaper. The Nao+, an ultrapowerful 750-lumen headlamp, is famous for its technical chops, including an ability to adjust its light output in real time, and a companion app that lets users manage light settings. I thought it might be unfair to put the $20 headlamps up against the Nao+, but by the end of the test it felt, frankly, unfair to the Nao+. The Nao+ indeed pumps out lots of light, but on it’s most useful setting—high—it ran out of battery within just a few hours. That could be OK for people who need a secondary light for something like bike commuting, but it won’t cut it for everyday use.

After months of tinkering with simple headlamps geared toward user-friendliness, the Nao+ felt terribly overbuilt. If you are the type of person who likes to calibrate your headlamp’s efficiency using an app on your phone, then sure, get the Nao+. If your main concern is washing dishes at camp and finding your tent without toppling into a river, stick with the others on this list.

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What Should I Know Before Buying a Headlamp?

In my years of headlamp testing, I’ve discovered a huge range of quality among $20 headlamps. There’s a lot of garbage out there. But for $20, you should be able to find the following features.

A Decent Splash Rating

All the headlamps in this test met the IPX4 rating, and several, like the Ledlenser MH2 and Black Diamond Storm, actually exceeded it. Headlamps with a rating of IPX4 might not survive a plop in the drink, but they should be fine in a light rainstorm.

A Multilevel Beam 

Even if you want your headlamp to have enough lumens to blind a charging animal, chances are your tent partner will want you to use the dim setting when you search for your toothbrush. Offering both high and low settings is mandatory, and a medium option is nice.

A Battery Life of 20 Hours

Nobody likes lugging around boxes of extra batteries, especially on trips where weight is at a premium. The Astro’s 20-hour run time on high was exceptional, but all headlamps should run for that long on their medium or low settings.

A Comfortable Fit

Oversize headlamps—and heavy ones with thin straps—are classic signs that what you’re buying isn’t well made. Before you buy a headlamp, try it on, and make sure it’s comfortable, easy to adjust, and doesn’t move when you do.

A Primer on LED Lights

Not all LEDs (light-emitting diodes) are the same. White light is composed of many different wavelengths, with each wavelength corresponding to a color. Our eyes have evolved with sunlight as a main light source and are thus most responsive to sun-colored (roughly yellow) light about 550 nanometers in wavelength.

Unfortunately, most LEDs naturally emit light in the 400-to-450-nanometer range, which corresponds to blue, purple, and violet. While these are beautiful colors, the average human eye is much less sensitive to them.

For LEDs to produce light our eyes can use, they must be doped with a combination of specific chemicals that alter their color temperature. Not every headlamp we tested was doped effectively, and several were much brighter in the purple range than in the yellow range. That means they use energy to produce light that our eyes can’t see. Basically, it’s a waste. LED coloring is not a spec you’ll see listed on packaging, but we tested for it in the lab.

How We Picked the Best Headlamps

I’ve lost track of the number of headlamps I’ve tested for Outside over the past six years, but it’s well into the dozens. I’ve also interviewed half a dozen lighting experts and engineers over that same time period. For this test, I chose eight headlamps to run through a battery of tests.

We aimed to focus the test on headlamps in the $20 range, which I think hit a sweet spot in the market. Less expensive options don’t last long enough, and more expensive models often complicate what should be simple devices for little obvious gain.

Still, I wanted to compare my favorite $20 headlamps to the $50 Black Diamond Storm and the $200 Petzl Nao+ as representatives for the medium and high ends of the headlamp market. In fact, prior to this test, the Storm was my personal all-time-favorite headlamp.

Thanks to Riley Logan at Montana State University, I was also able to get an in-depth look at what wavelengths of light the headlamps were producing, as well as how they produced light at distance. We mounted each headlamp on a custom bracket and placed an optical sensor ten feet from the lens level with the center of the beam. Logan measured the strength of each headlamp’s beam head-on, and at ten and fifty degrees off axis. This method served two purposes: The first was to test how well the headlamps could illuminate peripheral vision. The second was to test beam composition.

Of course, we also tested these headlamps in the real world, including cooking at night, ski touring, and taking out trash. For more head-to-head results, we took all the headlamps to a park for an egg toss. The rules: throw the egg, catch the egg, and back up until you can’t see the egg well enough to catch it. Headlamps with lower lumens or wider beams started to fail at about 70 feet. At 100 feet, only Black Diamond’s Astro and Storm and the Coast FL19 and Ledlenser MH2 remained, so our testers doubled the distance to 200 feet. While no tester was able to successfully catch an egg at 200 feet (it was more of an egg assault at that point), they did note whether the little white projectiles were visible at that distance.

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