It's time to shine a little light onto your travels.
With all the grace and stealth of a bull in a china shop, I made my way out the tiny doorway of our tree house and across the even tinier landing to our outdoor washroom. The steps were slick with rain, the walls were full of shadows, and the air was thick with the grating call of the coqui frog. But I noticed none of this as my eyes nervously darted back and forth, sweeping the area for the rumored wild pig who called the property home. We were warned to make sure he didn't get into the kitchen hut (HOW??!?!) and I was convinced that a pig smart enough to infiltrate the kitchen could easily secure a foothold in the outhouse to plan an ambush.
I had traveled for years without a headlamp, and then traveled years more with one that stayed in the bottom of my pack. And then, over the course of 72 hours in Hawaii, it more than earned its keep. Here's what you need to know when you buy one - and why I'll never go without mine again.
I'm happy to report that I never did catch a glimpse of the wild pig (although I'm convinced he was lurking nearby). But I was thrilled that I could give the washroom a thorough sweep for oversized insects and other enemies before entering. And in the thick haze of jet lag, I was glad I wasn't stumbling around with my precious, pricey iPhone to provide light. Throw in a late night visit to Volcanoes National Park to check out the lava and my dusty, trusty headlamp was finally earning its keep!
A headlamp was one of those things I picked up because I felt it made me look like a REAL traveler - as good a reason to spend money as any, I suppose! I picked up the Energizer Trail Finder LED for about $15 at my local outdoors store. I kept it in the little 'just in case' section of my pack and hoped to never use it. I figured it was like a first aid kit - a smart thing to have and nothing more. But the tables have turned and my time in Hawaii has left me wanting more travel experiences where I actually need to use it!
So why can't you just use your smart phone, or even a regular flashlight? Why do you need a headlamp when you travel? First, for many activities a headlamp gives you a huge advantage by letting you have two free hands. Very helpful when you're trying to simultaneously go to the bathroom and keep the door firmly shut against the theoretical invading hoard of wild pigs!
Using a headlamp instead of your phone will help you conserve your phone's valuable battery life. Using a headlamp will help keep your phone safe. Hiking a dark trail, going to an outhouse, starting a campfire - you don't want to have your phone out and in danger! And headlamps are lighter and smaller than most flashlights, but still provide just as much power.
There are likely a lot of people who think that any kind of travel which requires a headlamp doesn't sound like a much of a vacation! And they're not wrong - treehouses (and outhouses) and rampaging wild pigs are not for everyone. I'm not even sure they're for me! But there are a lot of safe, clean, comfortable travel experiences where a headlamp still might come in handy.
Headlamps are invaluable for taking part in the evening programs of National Parks. Or walking down to the dock at dawn to enjoy a cottage sunrise. Or making your way to the launch point of your morning hot air balloon ride. You don't have to be a camper to need a headlamp!
For evaluating multi-purpose, good value gear for the everyday traveler and mild adventurer, I suggest a different set of evaluation criteria other than beam length, lumens, and trail finding capability. First and foremost, the most important consideration is weight. The main reason I love my headlamp is that it only weighs 1.6 ounces - having no batteries rules! Traditional models usually weigh 4 ounces or more.
(This article isn't intended for an audience of hard core campers. I'm not reviewing headlamps for the purposes of night hiking or trail finding or mountain climbing. Travelers engaged in more more technical activities will find this review chart from the Outdoor Gear Lab to be helpful. )
Secondly, read the fine print to see how long your headlamp will last. You want something reliable and a good value for the money. I've seen products advertised as having anywhere from 5 to 80 hours of light! My headlamp has a life of about 10 hours and given how intermittently I use it, I suspect it will last me a long, long time and the price point to replace it is just right.
Third, it's important that your headlamp is comfortable to wear and easy to use. Look for adjustable straps, non-slip padding, and easy press buttons. Some other factors to consider include an adjustable high/low beam (nice to avoid blinding your hostel roommates), water resistance, and price.
Is a headlamp an absolutely essential piece of gear? No. Is it a fantastic tool that can prove tremendously helpful in your travels? Absolutely yes! And I'm happy to report that they are affordable, lightweight, and comfortable - now there's no excuse not to set up that campfire or head out to that National Park! As for late night sprints to an outhouse in wild pig territory - well, that takes both a headlamp AND some nerve!
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