Headlamp Lumens Explained | Do Lumens Matter?

[Page updated: 5 June 2022]


Lumens are a measure of the overall amount of light coming out of your headlamp. Years ago when I first started looking for wildlife in the forest, I thought I’d just buy the flashlight with the highest number of lumens, and that could last for the longest time.

Higher lumens rating does NOT MEAN brighter light!

That’s where technology stepped in to bop me on the head. There is currently no perfect headlamp out there that gives 1,000+ lumens of light in the perfect beam shape and size for 8 hours, as I’d like. So, we must accept a compromise.

But wait! First some more on lumens rating and headlamps.

I have had a couple of dozen headlamps over the years, and more than twenty flashlights. Lumen ratings don’t mean much because every light is different. What that means is, you can cram 400 lumens into a very tight, bright beam that measures 4-inches across in diameter across the circular light footprint when standing ten feet back from a wall.

Petzl Ultra Rush Headlamp Battery Life Chart
2019 Petzl Ultra Rush Lumens Chart

This will give you a great spotlight beam, but virtually nothing on the sides will be lit. Meaning, you can’t see anything outside of that bright center spotlight beam. A beam like this would be good for spotting deer or other wildlife really far away, but worthless for reading a book or looking at anything close to you or on the ground, outside of that tiny 4-inch diameter footprint of light.

Energizer Hard Case Rugged Headlamp max lumens rating - 325 lm.
A headlamp with 325 lumens could be very good for spotting wildlife in trees at night, or great for running. It all depends on the spread of the beam. Most headlamps have a mixed spotlight and flood beams so they are good for many uses.

Or, you could spread 400 lumens over a 10-foot diameter circle of light from 10 feet back, and you would have an entirely different light – capable of doing many different tasks than the first example. You could work in construction with such a beam. You could look for wildlife in trees or on the ground like I do. You could use it for hiking at night, and maybe even running at night, but you’d probably want a little tighter beam than 10 feet diameter. You could not spot deer with a wide “flood” beam like this.

If you spread a 400-lumen beam across an even wider area, as some headlamps do – you’ll have a light that isn’t good for much at all except maybe collecting bugs or cave exploring.

Fenix headlamps tend to have a very tight beam, and some of their headlamps have 900, 1000 lumens of light. These lights have very little floodlight coming out to light up the other area around the beam, so they’re useless for most people for most tasks.

The Petzl Company is the first to really concentrate on the shape and size of the beam, to match whatever you need it for. In fact, they actually added 2 different beams to their headlamps – a flood and a spotlight. Then they combine them for different beams you can blend into the right mix for what you need – as needed.

A Petzl NAO+ Plus headlamp is ideal for looking for wildlife at night in any setting. On the high reactive lighting setting, you can use it for riding your bicycle at night or running fast down a hilly trail. Or, you could put the beam on low reactive lighting and read a book in perfect comfort. Petzl has really the ideal light output for most people.

The Petzl ULTRA RUSH has 6 CREE LED bulbs in its headlamp. They all light up for all four power levels. This gives the same size and shaped beam, but at different powers to see different things more clearly. At high power (760 lumens), I cannot use it for looking for snakes or wildlife within 15 – 20 feet of me, it’s just much too bright. So I can knock down the brightness to 300 or 420 lumens and it’s perfect and lasts for 7 or 5 hours respectively.

If I need the 760 lumens, I can crank it on high and look at snakes 30 meters up in the trees. It’s really perfect for my needs. It might be perfect for you. Or, you might need something less powerful – and go with one of the new NAO+ Plus headlamps.

Lumens don’t say anything about the size, pattern (shape) of the beam, or even the color balance of the light.

All of these factors must be used in your decision to buy a headlamp. I think all of these factors are equally as important as the max lumens count for your headlamp. Imagine a very warm yellow-colored headlamp beam. Think that would appear as bright as pure white light the same color temperature as a flashbulb?

Recently I was contacted by a company in the USA who insists they have headlamps and flashlights that reflect a greater color gamut and could be much better for searching for wildlife in the forest. They’re sending them by mail and I’ll have a look and write up a review if they’re good.

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