All about the lumens and some real world use

Somehow flashlights, headlamps, and lanterns have become the new knife collecting.

Specifically, the “lumens arms race” that seems to intrigue many people.

Headlamps are a seemingly practical item that people can go down the rabbit hole and spend lots of money, time, discussion, and space for items that we don’t need overall in that quantity.

I can’t say too much as my collection of cookbooks and related literature can attest.  I can easily find most of these recipes and vignettes online or save space in Kindle format.

Among the books: My roots, an all-purpose classic, and a “Song of Ice and Fire Cookbook” that is a seriously good one.

But I  find some books provide a needed tactile experience. Flipping the pages, seeing the right recipe, reading the prose of the author and hearing her voice. And placing the book on the table as I make a batch of something that directly links to my personal past and beyond.  And Wikipedia and Da Google might contain some of the accurate info. But a curated collection is sometimes just easier to read.

And since I stubbornly hold on to print books, many of which electronic resources can easily replace, I don’t begrudge people their particular hobby. If people want to collect headlamps and compare them, I salute them.  These light aficionados do some deep dives into what works, is useful, and sometimes even affordable. From these deep dives, we can take some useful info.

But trying to take those deep dive-gear geek-wonkery hobbies and apply it to the real world creates some (much!) confusion if not leavened with some real-world experience.

In the backpacking world, collecting the gear becomes the hobby itself to the point where people who have an encyclopedic knowledge of equipment publish many articles and videos, put up their spreadsheet with juiced up stats, and the “experts” use raw numbers as what is “the best.”   And repeat the cycle among their acolytes.

And headlamps are no different. A simple item. You strap it on your head, you turn the light on, and you see.

Easy-peasy. Mac-n-cheesy.

Except there are many different types of headlamps with various features (USB? Battery? redlight capability? Weight?). And there is the lumen rating with LED lights that catch the eye of many  Simply put, the higher the lumens, the brighter a light.  And the packaging of many headlamps and flashlights prominently feature the lumens.

Except since we are metrics fixtured, we tend to assume the larger the number, the better an item must be overall.  But, a bigger number might be too much for your use or there is a trade-off in battery power lifespan for a lighter headlamp, and there is often no simple way to relating the lumen rating to real-world use and application — Esp. for backcountry use.

There is some useful info from other sources.

Chart comparing lightbulbs with their lumen equivalent. From Lumens.com

Since most backpackers and campers aren’t toting light bulbs into the backcountry, we’ll need a little more info for backcountry use.

Doing a more in-depth dive myself, I did find a useful and concise post from Candle Power Forums that most of the other users agree with overall.  Remember, the deep dive gear geeks do some excellent research. 🙂

~5-10 is enough in darkness, and keep you from tripping over things.
~10-20 is plenty for most indoor tasks
>=60-80 is plenty for most real world outdoor use

The post is referencing lumen ratings.

But the post is over a decade old. And items listed in the thread don’t necessarily get used by most backcountry users.

I do best with rules of thumb myself and real-world examples vs. tech specs not used outside of a lab…or kitchen table. 😉

So here’s my attempt at making some useful baselines based on Googling, researching, and compiling from other sources.

I made a chart using common items most people are familiar with overall, their rating in lumens (or the equivalent) and the typical use.  Frankly, I did not know how to relate lumens in a practical sense overall until I compiled this table. This table provides a useful snapshot comparison for me. Maybe it will help you, too.

The Devil Duck sporting a classic Petzl Tikka in Escalante National Monument back in 2003.

Some common backpacking and camping lights, the lumen rating, and their use.

LIGHT LUMEN RATING OR EQUIVALENT AT MAX SETTING WEIGHT  IN OZ. (approx) PRICE NOTES ON USE
Maglite AAA Solitaire (original incandescent) ~2 1 $6 The light many people used at their first “lightweight” headlamp back in the day. Including myself. The new LED version is ~45 lumens vs the incandescent.
Photon II Keychain Light (white) ~5 .50 $10 The popular keychain light or similar. Typically for an emergency or if you need a quick light in camp at night. Not for extended light beyond finding a cookpot and using a stove.
Single candle ~13 Varies Varies Another baseline comparison.
Older-style, incandescent  D Cell Flashlight ~20 Don’t even want to know Varies Probably forgotten about in a basement or old storage area. With alkaline batteries that are dead; no doubt.
EMER G Luci light ~25 2.5  $15 A 4 oz candle lantern equivalent replacement that is useful for winter backpacking.
UCO Candle Lantern, 8 oz candle ~30 11  $20 The venerable candle lantern useful for winter backpacking and emergencies
Smartphone LED flashlight ~50 Varies Varies Many people use the flashlight app on a phone as their main flashlight. 
Luci Light Lux (frosted) ~65 4.5 $20 A warm glowing light I am finding increasingly useful for winter camping or in general.
Luci Light Orginal (clear) ~75 4.5 $15 A bit brighter than the above, but a little harsher.
Fenix LD02 ~100 1 $30 A compact LED light reminiscent of a Mini-mag light Solitaire, but much brighter.
Compact and lightweight “Tikka type” USB headlamp. ~115 2 $15 A lightweight USB headlamp following the lead set by the Petzl headlamps ~20 years ago.  About $15, 2 oz, and half the lumens vs. the current Tikka. But it might be all you need.
Generic “Tikka type” USB headlamp ~160 2.75 $15 A discount store brand or similar flight or ~$15 and branded differently but otherwise the same.  Obviously patterned after the classic Tikka below. Red light, different modes, USB rechargeable. USB headlamps are now mainstream Solar and USB are replacing batteries for camping, hiking, and even household lanterns and flashlights.
Petzl Tikka ~200 3 $30 The classic LED headlamp. And updated over the years.  Dependable, rugged, and ~$30 not even that expensive. A baseline for LED headlamps even if there are lighter, less expensive, more full-featured, or more powerful headlamps available currently. This headlamp set the standard in many ways. And why I included it.
Black Diamond Revolt ~300 3.5 $45 A waterproof headlamp that is popular with people performing more technical activities such as rappelling, mountaineering, or SAR at night or low light conditions esp. in adverse weather.
Nitecore NU25 ~360 .9 $37 A sub 1oz headlamp, when the headband is replaced,  with multiple settings and red light, too. A favorite among UL backpackers.
Coleman, two mantles Dual Fuel Lantern ~850 Let me know!  $90 Another classic example I am including for comparison as most people are familiar with it and the type of light it puts out. Note the light output is equivalent to about a 60W bulb in the first table above.

Note: The table above is for comparison purposes using common examples most people are familiar with overall. They are not necessarily suggestions.

The takeaways from all this info?

  • If you are an absolute minimalist, the Photon II still has its adherents esp. in thru-hiking circles on popular trails.
  • For general backpacking use, ~50 lumens works well.  Meaning going to the bathroom, cooking dinner, seeing around the camp,  etc. Other than the occasional coin (watch) battery headlamp found at checkout stands, most headlamps currently sold are ~100+ lumens plus at this point.
  • Occasional night hiking on non-technical terrain or extended time performing complex tasks in camp at night? Get an ~100 lumens headlamp. Even the $10 headlamps are at this capacity in 2019.
  • Technical terrain at night or low light?  An ~200 lumens light or more seems ideal.

Of course, more than lumens works into the equation for overall use. Weight, price, tightness and focus of the beam, battery consumption, features, the extent of light over an area,  weatherproofness, and so on all factor into what might work for you.

My advice is to find the general lumens you need overall and look into specific lights that fit your overall needs concerning the features I just mentioned. Then look at the specific reviews in more detail.

What works for backpacking might not be useful as a general-purpose camp light. Or maybe you don’t need the brightest, lightest, and most expensive option; a general-purpose headlamp is good enough.  And so on.

But, remember, it’s just a light. Any modern headlamp will be just fine for most general backpacking use. 🙂

My suggestions and personal use?

I rarely use battery-powered lights anymore since I’d rather not futz with batteries. My lanterns are solar-charged, and I use USB headlamps. Even on a long trip, there are ways to charge up headlamps. When I do use batteries, I use lithium batteries since they last longer. I also like headlamps with a red light to preserve my night vision and like adjustable settings. I don’t always need the brightest light.

If I had to pick just one headlamp for most people, I’d suggest a generic Tikka type USB headlamp. Mine weighs 2.75 oz, has more than enough lumens for most uses, has an articulating light, the battery lasts long enough,  multiple brightness modes,  red-light settings, and only costs $15.  I don’t know if it is “the best,” but it is a good “Jack of all trades” headlamp that works for winter, camping, backpacking, and even night hiking.

If you want something backpacking focused, the Nitecore NU25 might tempt you with its high output, various settings, USB recharging, and very light specs.

Otherwise:

  • I don’t use a Photon II on my keychain kit anymore. I switched to a rechargeable Fenix UC02. Review to follow at some point.
  • I purchased a Fenix LD02 a few years back. Since I am not a visor or ball cap wearer when backpacking, did not work for me. It is now in my car emergency kit. 
  • My general camping or road tripping headlamp is a Tikka type USB headlamp.
  • I use the Poor person’s generic NU25. It works well enough for my needs. Admittedly, the NU25 is more versatile and better made. Maybe someday I’ll buy one.
  • I’ve have owned an Energizer Tikka-type battery powered one for years; more lumens than the classic Tikka if with fewer lumens than the current Tikka model. The Energizer oldie is by the door at home on a hook with spare keys. Handy in case the power cuts out.  Looks like there is a newer version that costs $12 and comes with batteries. It is an almost direct clone of the current Tikka model.
  • And, as mentioned, I use Luci Lights for winter primarily. Works well for emergency preparedness, too.

These suggestions are just guidelines and not absolutes as always. What might work for me and my needs might not work for you.

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6 Replies to “All about the lumens and some real world use”

      1. Yes, there is are a number of debates and “science” about this. The explanation behind green makes sense to me. Either way, at the intensity most people use red, it is likely decreasing their night vision much more than a dimmed white or green light.

        So I use the smaller NU20 (white only) and the dimmest setting when I need to preserve night vision. I have very little issue adjusting.

        1. No disagreement about the intensity. Luckily my lights have dimmer red settings and I find it works. I personally don’t like white LED at night unless I need more illumination, as I find it too harsh. It is why I use the “frosted” Luci light for camp and winter and the red light when backpacking overall. Definitely a case of YMMV!

  1. Thanks Paul for a practical write up of lighting for the backpacker and camper. Myself, I like a flashlight I can wear on a string around my neck at night. Never a problem finding it in the dark even if I haven’t found my glasses yet.

    1. More than one way to do something, for sure! As usual, this article is not about specific gear, but “types.” Knowing something puts out 50 lumens does not work for me. Knowing that an older headlamp I use puts out 50 lumens gives me a baseline to work with overall. All makes sense to me, anyway.

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