Ultralight Head-Torches and Torches Compared
I was looking at new shiny things in a local Outdoors store and realized that when you buy a head-torch it doesn't actually give you very much useful information on the front of the packet. What's more all the torches tend to boast about the brightness with fresh batteries and not so much about what it will be like a few hours down the line. A head-torch that uses 3x AAA batteries may weigh more than one that uses two button cells but after an hour of running one will still be trucking and the other might be struggling.
Here then is a review of some common models with actual lighting shots taken at night in the countryside in realistic conditions. I've used a time-exposure to capture the ambient light levels and the difference the torch makes. To keep things fair the camera is mounted on one tripod and the torch under test is mounted on a separate tripod off to the side. I tried to get the best beam pattern out of each torch before clamping it in place. Everything is shot with the same exposure and so pictures are comparable. Each set of shots also starts with an unlit scene so that you can see the ambient light levels.
I think I'll let the pictures speak for themselves and then talk about runtimes and practical stuff last.
Petzl Tikka Plus 2 (83g / 50 Lumens)
This picture shows the peak performance of this little torch. The Low Beam setting is quite usable for walking and around the campsite. The really interesting one is the single Red LED which has a rather good beam for protecting your night vision. Obviously for walking you are more likely to angle the low beam closer to your feet but in this picture I wanted to show how much throw it has.
The big difference between the Plus and the Plus 2 is that the Plus 2 can take Lithium batteries and the Plus cannot.
The torch has a single bright Super-LED and a single separate Red LED.
Petzl say that the max beam will drop from 35m to 26m in half an hour and be down to 15m within 10 hours and down to 5m within 30 hours so in reality you have 10+ hours of useful light. The packet gives a run-time of 140 hours but that number means the thing may still be usable to see your feet. The thing that you care about is that after 10 hours it's going to look more like an e+Lite.
Petzl TacTikka Plus (78g / 40 Lumens)
Here you can see that the full beam is not as powerful as the Tikka Plus 2 but the other two beams are perhaps more usable. The interesting one here is using the red lens cover. It's not a very efficient way to generate red light and it shows; the single LED of the Tikka Plus 2 is more than a match for it.
According to the Petzl the usable light will be down to 13m after 12 hours. Basically, more than half the light will be gone. From the picture you could see that losing half of it would still leave quite a lot (technically it's a drop from 40 to 20 lumens). To give an idea of what this will look like take a look at the full beam on the Petzl e+Lite (below) which is 16 Lumens which means that you could actually do a full night hike on a single set of fresh batteries and be comfortable.
Petzl E+LITE (27g / 16 Lumens MAX)
This little beauty has three White LEDs that can be used in two modes and one Red LED which provides a usable light. When you look at the pictures they do seem quite impressive for such a small unit. The problem is the burn time. This thing uses two button cells and it uses them quite hard. In practice this torch makes a nice little torch for use at a campsite OR it can be used for maybe one unscheduled emergency walk-out.
I've carried it on a number of long hikes and am quite happy with it for lowland use. I don't think I'd want to plan to use it for a night walk because of the short burn times but for an unplanned one it's quite usable. Likewise the Red LED mode is quite usable as well.
According to Petzl the main beam will survive less than half an hour before it's down from 19m to 12m. Low beam is better, dropping from 11m to 10m in the same time if it's the only mode used. After 10 hours it's down to a 5m beam of not very bright light. So all that weight saving comes at quite a price - you get half the light for a fraction of the time. The two lights above are still giving you a 15m+ of usable beam after 10 hours. There is a weight saving of 50g but there's also a performance penalty.
Ring Cyba-Lite Micro Keyring Torch (11g)
As you can see it's got a usable amount of light (on a not-quite-fresh battery). It's fine around camp and could get you out of a hole in an emergency but you'd be foolish to plan a night-hike with it....
I've no idea how long it will last for or how bright it is in Lumens, clearly it's more than 1 and less than 10.
Anonymous 9 LED 3xAAA Torch (66g)
For some reason I found myself needing to buy a torch on a non-walking holiday and I spotted this one in a bargain bucket for £2 or something. It has 9 white LEDs and runs of 3x AAA batteries just like most head-torches. I thought this cheap piece of kit would be worth throwing in with all this specialist equipment to see how it fares. As you can see it works really well.
I've no idea what the burn time is and I've no idea how the LEDs are wired but there's no sign of more than one mode and so I think it's going to be a simple device with maybe 10's of hours of burn time. It is rubberised and splash-proof but of course shows now sign of certification.
This picture shows each torch in its best light with fresh batteries on full beam. After half an hour the picture would look a little different - a lot less bright - the three 'real' torches would still be OK but the e+Lite and the Keyring would start to struggle a little. After 10 hours the 'real' torches would be down to maybe less than half their original light and the e+Lite would be perhaps looking more like the Cybalite-Micro does.
So when you look at these pictures the question is not really "Is this a good light" the question is "Is this light twice as good as it needs to be". That would give you a better picture.
The comparisons are also a little unfair in another way. The e+Lite and the keyring torch are not designed for backpacking. One is a fully certified emergency light and the other is a keyring torch. Both the e+Lite and the keyring torch are fine around the campsite. The e+ Lite has done me a week as a camp-site torch for instance.
Given the total weight difference between the ring torch and the heaviest head-torch is 72g you have to think carefully about the weight saving that is available. The 50g difference also gives you a huge difference in capability. 50g is one small mouthful of water.
The interesting thing for me is the anonymous torch that I've put in the test. It's not as convenient to use as a head-torch but it does provide lots of light at a great price. I think it is viable for backpacking on a budget.