Since I was a little boy, I always had a thing for flashlights. They give you independence, vanquish the darkness, and they’re just plain cool. However, I was never very much into headlamps, maybe because I didn’t really have access to them.
In 2004, I was working on a low-budget horror movie in the Mojave Desert. The entire crew camped on a ranch, most of us sleeping in tents and trailers for almost a month. It was a great adventure. The resulting film… well… that’s another story. It has a 2.3 rating on IMDB. Enough said.
The ranch was not lit at all, and as it was in prime rattlesnake country, you couldn’t take a step without knowing what’s ahead of you. As soon as it got dark, everybody was running around with flashlights. We encountered about ten rattlesnakes during that month, but nobody got hurt, other than two snakes (a crazy guy killed them when it was absolutely unnecessary).
Back then, headlamps weren’t around that much, only a single crew member had one, but I distinctly remember him telling me that this $10, weak thing from Big5 was his single best investment for this shoot. Then I quickly forgot about all this and happily went about the world with my regular flashlights.
Jump cut to 2010, when we were preparing for our second-ever backpacking trip. In the meantime, white LEDs became ubiquitous and replaced incandescent bulbs in most flashlights, bringing way better brightness and battery life. I had to go to Frys for unrelated reasons, and while looking at the flashlight section, I stumbled upon the headlamps. Suddenly I remembered that colleague of mine from the desert and decided to take a closer look.
After a few minutes of searching, the Led Lenser L7 stood out. It was by far the most appealing of the headlamps they had, mostly because of the price (around $50) and the fact that the brightness could be adjusted seamlessly. On a whim, I picked one up, not for myself, but for Em.
First, Em was a bit skeptical as well, but when we went on the said two-night trip, she just loved it. She urged me to get one for myself, too, and I did so as soon as we got back.
The headlamp is relatively simple. It has a single LED bulb in front with the on/off switch on top and a focus adjuster. The entire front tilts down 90°, stopping at a few intervals between – a very helpful feature in adjusting where the light goes.
Two elastic straps run alongside your temples, with the wire on the right side. In the back, there’s the battery compartment for three AAAs and the lever for adjusting the brightness. It weighs about 4.5 oz. with the Eneloop Pro rechargeable AAAs we usually use. Switching to Li-ions would save a few more grams.
The battery compartment is covered by a soft rubber shell, softening the feel against your head and also providing a somewhat waterproof cover. I dropped a flashlight in water twice, and moisture never entered the lamp housing or the battery compartment.
The straps can be adjusted pretty easily to almost any head size and the balance between the front and back elements is perfect. I’m usually pretty fussy about stuff on my head, even light hats and sunglasses become annoying quickly, but this headlamp never bothered me.
Also, the lamp comes with a neoprene pouch for storage. It’s neat and cute, but we never carry in the backcountry.
Well, there’s the main on/off switch, doing exactly what it’s supposed to. It’s a small button, but most of the time I don’t have a problem hitting it even with gloves on. It would not be possible with mitts or very thick gloves, though.
The focusing ability is very helpful. On its widest setting, the beam is about 70°, illuminating a very nice area right in front of me when needed (late night dinner). On narrow it’s maybe around 20°, making precision tasks easier. The beam is not completely round and homogenous, but it’s not terrible either. For its price and other specification, this is not a major problem at all.
At minimum brightness, the lamp puts out only about 17 lumens. Believe it or not, this is a lot. In a completely dark place, with my eyes adjusted, sometimes I even think it’s too bright. For sure it’s enough for eating in the dark or moving around camp (let’s say late night potty break). Used like this, a set of fully-charged batteries lasts forever. OK, not forever, but usually at least 14-16 nights in the backcountry the way we use them (more on that later).
On maximum, battery life diminishes greatly. I never tested how long it takes to kill my batteries, but it’s rated at 4 hours and I think that’s very optimistic. However, when you need it, it’s there. The 140 lumens light up the neighborhood (bushes and rocks) very, very well. Never point a full-on, focused beam at somebody’s face, it can seriously hurt their eyes.
A note for the tech-savvy: this is an unregulated flashlight.
A note for the not-so-tech-savvy: regulated flashlights have additional circuitry to make sure the same amount of power flows to the bulb all the time. This is because many batteries, especially alkalines, experience a drop in power output way before the battery is depleted, causing serious dimming. However, most rechargeable and Li-ion batteries do not experience this problem at all (or only a bit), so this feature is not an absolute must, especially as far as I’m concerned.
In real-life usage, with the Ni-MHs we’re using, the light output drops a bit at around 95% of battery life, giving me fair warning that I need a fresh power source.
The generation of H7s we bought back in 2010 had a serious flaw: at the point where the wire was leaving the battery compartment, the attachment was weak in the spot where it constantly moved up and down. The wire broke after about a year and a half of use. Mine broke right before we were about to leave in the dark for the summit of Mt. Whitney (we solved that problem), and Em’s broke a few months later. However, Led Lenser has a great warrant program and they exchanged both lamps for the newer version which has a coil in the wire at the exit point. We’ve had these new lamps for almost 5 years with a total of at least 150 nights of camping (more than half of this backcountry) and they’re in great shape. Switches work, wires are intact, straps are not frayed.
The H7 is not even manufactured anymore (thought they can still be bought), the new model is the H7.2, looking a bit different, but I never tried that so there’s nothing I can say.
There’s one main issue I’d like to mention: there’s no safety switch to make sure the lamp doesn’t turn when not in use or packed away. The power button is in a very exposed place (for good reason), and it’s easy to have dead batteries by evening if the lamp is just tossed into some compartment of the backpack.
To counter this, we came up with a low-tech solution: I cut a small piece nylon for each lamp, and in the morning, when packing up, we insert it between the battery and the connector. For the material, I chose an old checkbook cover, mainly because it’s thin, durable, and also bright blue – meaning it’s easy to find if we drop it. “Safe-ing” the lamps takes about 30 seconds and removing the safety takes about 10. Also, the removal can be done in complete darkness if practiced a few times. We’ve been employing this method since the very beginning and never had problems with depleted batteries.
Another minor gripe could be that there’s no red-light mode, but that would add unnecessary weight and complexity. I like them just the way they are.
I know everybody has a different way of living after dark, so I’ll try to describe how we’re using them. This way all the above, especially the info about the battery life, will hopefully make more sense.
So first of all, we’re pretty nocturnal. We like the dark and we don’t mind being still fully active after the stars come out. I know this will sound stupid to most backpackers, but more often than not, we have dinner in the dark. We usually get to camp way before the evening and we eat something right then and there, but then we like enjoying the sunset and we really like hiking around in the dark, so almost always we walk around a little bit to see the stars, explore the night view from some nearby rock, take pictures by moonlight, etc. We try not to use the headlamps unless absolutely necessary, and even then only on the lowest setting. As I mentioned before, that’s completely adequate for cooking and eating dinner.
We use the high beam only if there’s a good reason, like looking at what’s rustling in the bushes (bear?) or trying to find an item we lost. One time in Yosemite, alte at night, we spent over an hour looking all around the campsite for our salt and then we found it in the tent.
We also like hiking at night. In most situations, I have the light somewhere between lowest and midway. However, if the moonlight is strong enough and the terrain allows it, we don’t use the lamps at all. For us, hiking by moonlight is one of the most sublime experiences of the backcountry. Of course, caution is advised, route finding is much more difficult and even a relatively well-kept trail can be much more treacherous. The view and the serenity is more than worth it, though.
Fantastic headlamp. Light, durable, waterproof, great on battery life. Sometimes I get so used to having a light on my head that when back in civilization, I instinctively reach up and try to turn it on if I find a corner to be illuminated.