Run in the Dark? 5 Bright Tips to Pick a Running Headlamp

Need a running headlamp to log some miles after dark? 

You know...

😴Maybe the only time you can fit in a run is late at night after the kids are in bed.

⌚Maybe your preferred running schedule is in the wee-hours of the morning, before sunrise, when it's still dark outside.

🏃‍♂️Or maybe you're signed up for a 24-hour race, ultramarathon, or long-distance relay where you'll be running through the night.

If you're logging miles in the dark, you need a running headlamp to light the way.

Here's what you need to know...

Old-school flashlights aren't meant for trail running at night

The first time Evan Jensen went trail running after dark was along the Clackamas River Trail in Estacada, Ore. Old-school flashlights not recommended.

Run all night...in the dark...through the forest. Sound a little crazy?

Twelve years ago, I'd never done it before.

So I asked my friend Mike Brennan to go for a nighttime test run with me on the Clackamas River Trail in Oregon.

  • Clackamas River Trail (closed). It's been closed for two years ever since the Riverside Fire burned 138,000+ acres in the Mount Hood National Forest. But may reopen later this month...fingers crossed.

Newbies running at night

I'm pretty sure my friend Mike hadn't done a trail run at night before either. 

But he was crazy enough to go with me.

Even better, if a cougar, bear, wolf, or Bigfoot came out of nowhere, all I'd have to do is outrun Mike. LOL.

  • We started out near the Indian Henry Campground Trailhead, just as the last flicker of sunset disappeared.
  • And it didn't take long to realize our newbie-night-trail-running lights equipped with incandescent bulbs weren't exactly the brightest.

So what kind of lights were we using?

Honestly, neither of us had good running headlamps. 

  • Just a couple of headlamps and handheld flashlights from a big box retailer.
  • They were good enough to see the trail. 
  • One handheld had a swivel head, so it was easy to run with.
  • But we had to run slower at times when dense forest blocked out any glimmer of moonlight.

Truth: At the time, I didn't realize there were brighter running headlamps and halogen-style lights for trail running as bright as high beams on a car.

From here to there with dim lights

We climbed our way up the trail heading north, within earshot of the Clackamas River.

Every now and then the forest canopy would open up, revealing a starry night and moonlit sky.

Once we stopped, turned out all our lights, and just let the magic of the night sky, the stillness sink in.

  • We talked.
  • We laughed.
  • We maneuvered past a few fallen trees.
  • We bushwhacked our way through an overgrown section of trail already drenched in dew.

And eventually, we popped out at the other end of the trail near Fish Creek...lights already dim from weak bulbs and batteries.

That was my first official night trail run. It was awesome.

  • But I knew if I was going to do this ultrarunning thing, I'd need brighter lights to go the distance. 
  • Fortunately, bright running headlamps were pretty easy to find.
Midnight run in Sandy, Ore., with the Olympia EX550 Running Headlamp.

3 running headlamps I've used + 1 more

Not long after that first night trail run with my friend, I ran the Cascade Crest 100-Mile Ultra.

And to be honest, I was ill-prepared in more ways than one, including the running headlamp I used.

Fortunately, I subscribe to the mantra "Relentless Forward Motion" and just went in search of a better running headlamp.

Here's the running headlamps I've used over the last 12 years...

  • Price: I bought this at a big box retailer for about $15. 
  • Lumens: I learned the hard way 360 lumen isn't bright enough for running through dense forest at night under a canopy of clouds. 
  • Function: But this is a functional running headlamp for early-morning or night runs in an urban or suburban environment. 
  • Battery Life: Uses AAA batteries. When the metal connection points started coming loose, I used some folded-up tin-foil to keep it going. Lasts about 4 hours in brightest mode.
  • Price: I bought this on Amazon a couple years ago for about $60 (looks like it's unavailable now). 
  • Lumens: This 550 lumen headlamp was a major upgrade from the Energizer for trail running. 
  • Function: The top part of the head strap helps stabilize the light while running. Ran some late-night trail runs with this, plus Cascade Crest 100 and Mountain Lakes 100. It's heavier than many running headlamps.
  • Battery Life: Battery life is longer, and the light output is much brighter than the Energizer. FYI...there's little to no warning when the batteries are about to die. Goes dim for a bit, then you're in the dark. Batteries last about 3 hours in brightest mode. Uses two CR123A lithium rechargeable batteries (separate charger required).
  • Price: Received this as a gift after giving my family a few "hints." Cost $79.95 on Amazon.
  • Lumens: 950 lumens on the brightest setting. It's so bright, there's even messaging on the packaging that says shining directly into eyes could be harmful. Very bright for hard-to-see trail in the middle of the night.
  • Function: Super comfortable and adjustable headband with top piece for stability. Convenient rechargeable USB battery with charging port on the headlamp. Side button easy to use, even with gloves on. Ran Orcas Island 100 and more Mountain Lakes 100 finishes with this.
  • Battery Life: The battery runs down in less than 2 hours on the brightest setting. But even on the 2nd and 3rd setting this was still brighter than the Energizer. Battery lasted me about 5 hours on medium setting. Uses a single 2600mAh rechargeable battery.
  • Fun fact: This headlamp was super helpful for fixing a leaky pipe under the house, too.

If you want to do some serious price shopping for a running headlamp, and you don't need one right away, try eBay like this:

  • Go to: www.ebay.com
  • Search: headlamp lumen (enter a number) 
  • Example: headlamp 950 lumen

Then sift through the results. 

You'll find some low-priced headlamps with a high lumen count. But you might have to wait 4-6 weeks for overseas shipping. 

I've bought a few other running headlamps and handheld flashlights this way that I've used for running at night.

Early-morning trail run in the Mount Hood National Forest with the Fenix HL60R Running Headlamp.

Light the way: 5 tips to choose a running headlamp

If you're looking for a running headlamp to do some night running or racing, a good headlamp will make a big difference.

In my early days of running at night, I didn't have a good running headlamp.

For a while, I ran with a headlamp and a handheld flashlight just to create enough light to see the trail enough to run.

Fortunately, there's a lot of great headlamps available to light the way when you're running at night...

Need a running headlamp? Here's what to look for:

1. Lumens

Lumens = the brightness of the light.

In my experience, 300 lumen or less isn't sufficient for trail running at night.

It's OK for road running in a city or neighborhood with some street lighting. But it's not enough to see the ground to safely run a trail.

Tip: Look for a running headlamp that's 500 lumen or brighter.

2. The battery

Here's another potential deal breaker when it comes to choosing a running headlamp...The battery.

  • Battery life: You might have a really bright running headlamp, but if it drains the battery in record time, you could be stuck in the dark mid-run. It happened to me once during the Mountain Lakes 100-mile ultra. Fortunately I had extra batteries and a handheld flashlight.
  • Battery price. Many running headlamps use 2-3 AAA batteries. They might not last as long as rechargeable lithium ion batteries, but also don't cost as much. Some running headlamps use batteries that can cost up to $20 to replace.
  • Rechargeable. If you go with a rechargeable running headlamp, make sure you understand how it works. Some require removing the battery and using a wall charger. Fortunately, many running headlamps are available that are rechargeable via USB. You can even use a battery bank with a USB port to charge a running headlamp.

3. Comfort

You don't want to keep fussing with running headlamp when you're trying to run at night or navigate a trail.

It needs to be comfortable. And it needs adjustable straps to get the fit just right.

Top strap recommended: Some running headlamps only include a single adjustable strap that goes around your forehead. IMO...headlamps with an additional top strap provide stability and better fit to keep the headlamp from bouncing around when you run.

Brain squeeze prevention: If you're running in the dark for hours (at the Mountain Lakes 100 I was in the dark for about 10 hours), you might start to feel like your running headlamp is giving you a brain squeeze. Try wearing a beanie or headband, and place the headlamp over it.

4. Waterproof / water resistant

If you live and run in a dry or desert region, you might not have to worry about running in the rain.

But in the Pacific Northwest, it rains about half of the year.

Waterproof and water resistant running headlamps tend to have more rugged casing and rubber washers to protect the interior of the headlamp and prevent water and moisture from getting in.

5. Buttons and features

Every running headlamp's buttons, settings and features are a little different.

Most LED headlamps have a couple of settings or brightness options (which can help prolong battery life)

But you want to make sure the buttons work for you.

  • Are the settings easy to remember?
  • Are there multiple buttons and switches?
  • How do the buttons hold up with extended use?
  • Can you use the buttons with gloves on?

Tip: One of the reasons the Fenix HL60R Running Headlamp works well for me...it has a single side-button that controls all the settings and I can use it even with mittens on.

Early-morning run in Gresham, Ore. with view of Mt. Hood at sunrise.

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Evan Jensen 454
Ambassador
SANDY, Oregon

I help RUNNERS reduce injuries, fix running form, run longer & faster by strength training without running ragged. I'm a NASM-certified personal trainer, and hold the record for the most finishes at the Mountain Lakes 100-Mile Ultra in Oregon.

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