I love the The Wirecutter. As a product reviewer and a review JUNKY, I can't get enough of that website. Every once in a while I somehow stumbled into a very serious review of a Miele Vacuum cleaner and read the whole thing. So, when they came out with reviews and comparisons of products near and dear to me, like illumination tools, I read them with excitement and gusto. Imagine my surprise when the author of the light section said he didn't think traditional flashlights were worth it and he recommended a headlamp instead. After reading this article I decided to put his wisdom to the test and I bought a headlamp (in fact, the exact one he recommended) and put it to a long term test. After two years of use, I think I have handle on the headlamp vs. flashlight issue.
The State of Headlamps
Evolutionary biologists will tell you that species that develop in isolation develop markedly different features and the flashlight market and headlamp market have been separated for years now. There are very few brands that successfully cross over. Surefire makes a headlamp but it's not really that competitive with traditional headlamp brand headlamps. The same goes for Fenix, and 47s. But headlamp first brands fair just as well when they try to make traditional flashlights. Some of the Princeton lights are absolute jokes, spec-wise, and when you compare prices, they look even worse.
There are really three categories of headlamps--mass market headlamps, caving headlamps, and diving headlamps. The last two are really worlds unto themselves and the prices tend to be nutty, so I am ignoring them in this article. Mass market headlamps, however, are no more expensive than a midrange flashlight, so I feel like they are a fair comparison.
Technologically, the best mass market headlamps have some real advantages over flashlights. First, a lot of headlamps are made with ultralight polymers. This is necessary for obvious reasons. Having handled them and some flashlights made with these materials I can tell you that they are just better suited as the body of an illumination tool. They aren't as blingy as titanium, but in terms of function they are better--lighter, more impact resistant, and a bit grippier (knurled metal helps, but smooth metal and smooth polymer are worlds different in terms of grip). Second, headlamps have better switching mechanisms. My Black Diamond headlamp has a touch sensitive plate. We know this is possible in flashlights (Surefire had two vaporware lights on display years ago at SHOT Show with this feature) but for some reason no major manufacturer has implemented it on a flashlight that made it to market. Finally a lot of headlamps have motion sensitive outputs. There were flashlights that did this (the SENS series from Nitecore), but they fell out of a favor a long time ago. In all, headlamps have a bit of unique tech not found in modern lights.
Using a Headlamp
In the year and half I have owned a headlamp, the aforementioned and highly recommended Black Diamond, I have used it quite a bit. I used the lamp when working in the dark mostly and I did take it on a few after dark hikes.
When working in the dark, the headlamp is amazing. I live in New England where winters are usually long, hard, and cold. New England, for some reason, is also the last bastion of oil heat. 99 times out of a 100 it has no impact on us. But, once in a while, the oil tank runs out or there is a bubble in the feed line. The oil tank in my house is under the foundation, but in its own separate room (it is just a stinky, dirty mess). So when the heat doesn't kick on, I have to go check the tank and the feed line. The reason is simple--if it's the oil tank company's fault and they missed a delivery they pay the fee for after hours delivery, if it's not then we pay and the fee is hefty. So I strap on the lamp, grab some gloves and a thick jacket and go into the oil tank room for a survey. Climbing in and out of the room isn't easy and I need both hands. The headlamp is perfect. I have also used the headlamp when shoveling snow before sunrise (that is an awesome way to wake up, BTW). Basically anytime I know I need my hands, I grab the headlamp.
It's also helpful on after dark winter hikes. When the snow and ice are everywhere, I like to have both hands free to help break a fall. In these scenarios I really, really like the headlamp, especially because of the motion sensitivity and the touch panel. It's much easier to navigate when I can look up and the light kicks into high. Most of the time I am staring at my feet and the light is in medium. Switching between the two automatically is great.
Comparing Headlamps and Flashlights
You work differently with a headlamp than you do with a flashlight and that difference reveals my big complaint with headlamps. Headlamps are great in that they give you your hands back, but they have one big flaw--you need to point your head at what you are illuminating. This sounds like a good thing, but in actuality, a lot of the time you are lighting things up, you just need a glance to figure out what something is. Being forced to crane your neck in that direction gets tiresome over time. The strap can also give you a headache over time. But, when you are doing detail work, a flashlight is not ideal. The "between the teeth" mode is something we have all done, but is always awkward. I'd just rather have both my hands.
Work flow aside, I'd far prefer the emitters in good flashlights to the weak sauce, tiny garbage you find in mainstream headlamps. I am not a lumens whore by any means, but I do like as many lumens as I can get. I also like good color rendering. Finally, moonlight lows are a requirement for me. None of these features can be found on a mainstream headlamp. If you want them you are venturing into the world of specialized headlamps and you better bring your wallet. All of the motion sensitivity and touch plate activation can't make up for the emitter problems.
Do you need a Headlamp?
The answer is an unqualified yes. In my life, where working in the dark is uncommon and night hikes are rare, I don't need one everyday, but when I do have work outside, the headlamp is tremendously helpful. I might only use it six times a year, but those six times are when something bad has happened and I don't want to mess around. If you can set aside money for food in storage, you can drop $35 on a good mainstream headlamp and be pleased knowing that if you need it is there. The start of this quest was the Wirecutter and I have to say that the flashlight recommendation if off base. For 95% of people 95% of the time a flashlight is better than a headlamp. In a specialized job or with a particular task, a headlamp works amazingly well, but it is not as generally useful as a flashlight. That said, everyone should have a headlamp in their house.
In the end, the Black Diamond failed to work over time. After about three years of ownership and multiple failures with battery corrosion, the entire unit just stopped working. I wasn't particularly tough on the unit and I can't imagine it holding up in a rugged outdoor environment, if sitting in my gear chest for a few years was enough to kill it. In the end, I'd opt for a flashlight that can work as headlamp. The H1R Nova is pretty darn good, as was the 47 Atom.
Both offer better performance, better durability, and are about the same amount of money.