Lighting the Trail
By: Donald Buraglio
BioLite HeadLamp 750
BioLite entered the headlamp category as a means of supporting its humanitarian mission to provide energy resources for impoverished families in Africa and Southeast Asia. Their first two models, the HeadLamp 200 and 330, featured a sleek, minimalist design and lightweight materials. The new 750 version combines those same design elements but pumps up the brightness to a max of 750 lumens, and utilizes a rear battery compartment to provide a larger power source. The 3D SlimFit construction integrates the front lamp casing directly into the moisture-wicking headband, which is very effective at keeping a low profile of the front lamp with a secure fit that eliminates any bouncing. The flip side is that it has a slightly limited range of motion, as we often found ourselves wanting one more ratchet click forward.
The front bulb has five different burn modes, with a steady-state max brightness of 500 lumens attained by a “press-and-hold” scrolling mechanism through various levels. There’s a memory feature that recalls your last brightness setting after the lamp is turned off, and a constant mode that allows you to override the normal auto-regulating process if you want to maximize your light for a shorter period of time. From any brightness level, you can flash up to 750 lumens by pressing a large burst mode button on the rear casing. This is one of our favorite features for downhill technical terrain, as the burst lasts for a full 30 seconds and is easy to access when you’re being careful with footing. A second button on the back controls a rear red light, which has its own dimmer or strobe function when turned on. A nice (and simple) innovation is the inclusion of an extra long micro USB charger cord, which allows you to keep the lamp charged from an external battery pack in your waist belt or hydration vest. For its first entry into the high-performance headlamp category, BioLite has created an impressively functional, feature-rich and comfortable product that is comparable to longstanding favorites.
Petzl IKO CORE
If Inspector Gadget invented a headlamp, it would be something like the IKO CORE, which is the most innovative product in our test group. The IKO (rhymes with psycho) has a unique design that functions very well as a running headlamp, with the best brightness-to-weight ratio in this review and the most evenly balanced weight distribution. Instead of an elastic headband, semi-rigid hydrophobic AirFit arms connect the rear battery pack to the front lamp, creating minimal surface area contact on the head, and the whole structure is tightened and loosened with a simple pullcord in back. Once the fit was established, we had several runs where we forgot we were wearing a headlamp at all. The standard lamp setting combines a flood light with a farther-reaching spot beam, and 500 lumens provide a wide and uniform field of vision through the use of seven LED bulbs. A CORE rechargeable lamp is included, and the IKO is also compatible with alkaline batteries. Unlike the Black Diamond Sprinter 275, the IKO’s max brightness is less with alkalines (350 lumens) than the standard CORE (500).
Now for the fun parts. The IKO CORE is a shape-shifter unlike any lamp we’ve ever seen. The semi-rigid headband is fully flexible, and the front lamp can connect with the rear battery casing to provide attachment points for wrapping and securing around objects. The AirFit structure expands large enough for the lamp to be worn over a helmet, or it can hang lightly around the neck as a stable reading light. The IKO can stand upright to be a directional floor lamp, and it comes with a translucent storage pouch that attaches for use as a soft glow lantern. The only drawback in our testing is that the IKO doesn’t collapse down as compactly as traditional elastic-band headlamps for storage. However, its versatile utilization makes it well worth the space in a pack for a general use that is equally suitable for evening trail runs as it is for using as a camp tool when you reach your destination.
Black Diamond Sprinter 275
The Sprinter lamp entered the Black Diamond lineup several years ago as a minimalist option for road runners who needed just enough light for safety – but as it has evolved over the years, its lumen capacity has increased enough to make it functional for trail use as well. This year’s version gets a massive 37% increase in brightness over its predecessor, thanks to a new, USB rechargeable 1800 battery. Another development is that the new Sprinter is a dual fuel lamp, compatible with three AAA alkaline batteries in addition to the rechargeable option. Using alkaline batteries increases the maximum brightness even further, from 275 up to 290. Most impressively, the improved power and functionality of this updated model comes with a less than 10% increase in overall weight, which is generally unnoticeable.
A top strap is included with the Sprinter, but we detached it early on because the overall lightness and secure fit of the lamp made it unnecessary. The new elastic headband has laser cut perforations for excellent breathability, and the bulk of the rear battery case is barely noticeable. You only have one choice of beam type, a spot/flood hybrid that can be easily adjusted for brightness by holding the front button to scroll up and down through each level. Once you set your desired brightness, a memory feature allows you to turn the light off and on again at the same level without reverting to a default setting. Additionally, a PowerTap function instantly bumps you to maximum brightness from your current setting and back, simply by tapping the side casing. On the maximum brightness setting of the front beam, the Sprinter burns for four full hours, so it is ideal for long pre-dawn efforts and its low profile fits into your vest easily when the sun comes up.
Kogalla Ra Single Pack 2
Initially developed and launched through a Kickstarter campaign, the Kogalla Ra is a true disruptor in the trail lighting category. It’s also the reason we’re not calling this a headlamp review, because the ideal place for wearing this system is across your waist or attached to your race vest. The Ra lighting system consists of five ultrabright LEDs that combine to produce up to 800 lumens, and the bulbs are crafted to provide a uniform 120-degree spread of light across your field of vision. The effect is quite remarkable, with almost daylight-quality brightness in your immediate vicinity – and when worn at waist level, the Ra eliminates shadows from roots and rocks, and restores your normal visual depth perception. We were amazed at how much faster we could run in dark conditions thanks to the added visual confidence the RA provides. However, the LEDs are intentionally not designed for extended forward projection, and you can’t position the light in a specific location with a quick turn of the head (the “What’s that noise in the bushes?” maneuver), so our recommendation is to combine the Ra system with a head-mounted lamp that provides greater forward and directional vision.
The biggest decision you’ll make with the Ra system is where and how to mount it. Fortunately, the lights come with a full accessory pack that give you multiple options. In the box is a D-ring strap with rigging points for clips or paracord, and a magnetic sheet that can be inserted into a pocket or pouch with the lights on the exterior side. Most likely, you’ll end up using the included roll of Velcro to create customized attachment points to a belt or vest. The Velcro option works best with vests that have traditional straps, but we’ve also attached the Ra to shock cord-style straps like on Salomon’s race vests. A long power cord connects the lighting component to the battery pack, so it’s easy to store the power source out of the way. Once everything is set up, the Ra is very easy to use, with a large single push button that controls power and brightness. The lighting system is remarkably built with 20 different settings for brightness, and the burn time on each setting depends on what battery pack you use. There are three battery sizes to choose from, and with increased burn time there’s an associated increase in size and weight. The mid-level BatPack2 we tested gives a nice balance of all-night brightness without being excessively burdensome.