The World’s Best Headlamp


It’s strange to think that it’s only about 20 years since the now-ubiquitous headlamp crossed over from the climbing world to offshore sailing. Prior to that, when we needed both hands (most of the time), we either fumbled around in the dark or jammed a huge heavy flashlight between our jaws, thereby insuring that our dentists’ children would go to the very best universities. Of course there were incandescent bulb pen-lights but they produced about as much light as an anaemic firefly.

Hands-Free Light

Then came the halogen bulbed headlamp…and there was hands-free light. Light that could reach the top spreaders on our 75-foot mast to check for a snag when grinding a reef out on a black night. Light that perfectly lit that tricky job that required both hands in a dingy engine room.

Short Battery Life

Of course the halogen bulb munched batteries like Kleenex, the whole thing was a bit cumbersome, and the bulbs died regularly. But hey, those of us with a mirror image of the word “MAG-LITE” permanently imprinted on the back of our throats did not complain. So what if we got personal Christmas cards from the president of Duracell every year? It was worth it.


Low cost LED headlamps arrived a few years later, which, together with the availability of long lasting rechargeable batteries, well and truly solved the short battery life problem. But at a cost: We were back to the anaemic firefly. Good luck seeing tell-tails with one of those.

The World’s Best Headlamp

And then, about three years ago, I discovered the world’s best headlamp, the Fenix HP10 LED. As far as I’m concerned, this thing is just about perfect:

  • The focused-cone of the light will pick out a tell-tail at 70-feet while the spread-cone lights the whole sail.
  • Four AA rechargeable batteries will keep it burning continuously at its brightest setting all night.
  • Despite the fact that I have dropped it at least, oh I don’t know, let’s say a bazillion times over three years, it still works.
  • It’s waterproof.
  • It’s comfortable and well-balanced.
  • The battery compartment closes with two substantial knurled screws instead of those infernal plastic clips that our smaller headlamps are cursed with.
  • The battery contacts are high quality and don’t seem to corrode or lose their spring.

Though the thing has two buttons and enough settings to confuse a technically savvy 12-year-old, let alone me, I just tend to leave it on full brightness.

Not only do we use the Fenix on deck at night, I have it on my head and on pretty much full time when I’m maintaining or fixing anything below. I can’t remember the last time I screwed around with a trouble light.

At just about US$60, these lights are not cheap, but they are worth it!

Of course, since it’s so great, Fenix have discontinued the HP10. But they now have an HP11 to replace it and my hope is that it is just as good, or maybe even better.

To Buy

USA Canada

(Sorry, Amazon UK does not seem to list them, but I’m sure there are other sources in Europe.)


What do you use to provide hands-free light? Please leave a comment.

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{ 20 comments… add one }

  • Dick Stevenson September 22, 2012, 10:56 am

    John, Thanks for the heads up. When I think of the amount of money I have spent on flashlights over the years…The hopes I have gotten stirred up… And the disappointment I have endured…. Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

  • Chris September 22, 2012, 7:45 pm

    Have had one of these for a bit. I second your positive assessment. I have had the straps catch on things when working in the machinery spaces, so I have a bill-less ball cap I put on over them.

  • John Lundin September 22, 2012, 9:07 pm

    We use (and love) Black Diamond headlamps that have a red light feature. That way you can fumble around on night shifts and not blind yourself or other crew members. BD probably designed it for playing cards in a tent on a remote mountain top, but they’re great for preserving night vision on the water.

    That said, the LED’s don’t really have the projection that you describe for these lights. I’m not sure if there’s an option out there that combines a few red LED’s with the focus of this Fenix.

  • Bob Hinden September 22, 2012, 10:10 pm

    I been pretty happy with some of Princeton Tec LED headlamps. The models with red filters.

    For example:

    I like the filters because I can turn them on at night get get red light immediately, vs many of the other models where you have to cycle through white before you get to red. Much better for not loosing your night vision.

  • Giancarlo September 23, 2012, 7:55 am

    if money is not an issue and you want a lot of lumen i will certenly go for the Lupine, super hight quality and price.(be carefull the very powerfull models put out alot of heat)

    Second of my favourite is the Surefire minimus,among the other features i really like the possibility to rotate the light housing up and down 90 degrees and stop blinding my wife and protecting the Led when at rest

    Last but not the least the feather light and portable Petzl e-lite,may be the most used on our boat


  • Paul Mills September 23, 2012, 11:19 am

    Ah,,,, the joy of small and lightweight headlamps. We have about 5 in our household and I love them, at home they are really good for dogwalking in the lane at night and getting in logs…. when the ‘ships boys’ have failed to do so during the day. On desert trips they are all that I bother to use, no more lanterns and heavy lamps – just a spot of light where you need it.

    I have had a couple of Energiser ones now for several years. I like the compactness and robustness, the 3 different light patterns/itensity – like comments above the red LED’s; but I especially like the fact that they cost less than £20 and seem to just last and last.

  • Jan Waldin September 24, 2012, 1:30 am

    We, too, are grateful devotees of Black Diamond headlamps. Well built, intuitive to operate, waterproof to IPX7, red LEDs (accessible without cycling through white) to save the off-watch from grumbling, easily dimable to save power, and light of weight, since they were developed for climbers.

    We keep a Storm model by each bunk — compact and so light I forget I am wearing it, with 3 integral AAA’s behind the bulb and no battery pack to hang up on your watch cap or hood. The 100 lumens are plenty to reach the masthead. Though the batteries seem to last forever (particularly with judicious use of the dimmer) there is a battery status indicator, and access to the battery compartment is with one knurled knob that has a handy slot for your thumbnail. This is my go-to light on deck at night and working in the nether regions of the boat anytime.

    But I confess I couldn’t resist the new ICON model that came out just recently, which I think has the combination of features John Lundin may be looking for. 200 lumens, a spotlight with good focus, a flood/reading light option and dimable red and white LEDs. It is powered by 4 AA’s in a back-of-the-head pack, which you can open with gloves on in the dark. Enough to bathe the deck in daylight and fry the telltales on our S&S 34.


  • Tom T September 24, 2012, 9:56 am

    For everyday use I have a Petzl rechargeable headlamp that can plug into a USB port. It is an older (cheaper) model of this:

    The sailboat has two USB ports on the electrical panel, solely for charging ipads, cell phones, etc. For fun I also have this, which can charge all of the same, and is another layer of charging security for the navigation software on the ipad:

    My sailboat is dimly lit and I use a headlamp to cook on winter nights and making coffee early morning. I feel like I am camping out even though I am a stone’s throw from Manhattan.

  • James Stevens September 24, 2012, 2:57 pm

    Sorry to be negative, but after reading the peer reviews on Amazon, comparing to my own experience with Chinese flashlights, I’ll stick with the Maglite LED, the model made in the USA! My first Maglite is perfect after 28 years, even if relegated to home use because it does not have the built in LED technology. Both the multi cell and the mini are absolutely reliable. For a head lamp, I have long used a UKvizion 3AAA eLED, also made in the USA.

  • John September 25, 2012, 9:36 am

    Hi All,

    Thanks very much for all the additional choices. Your comments, as usual, add a lot of value.

  • Bill Balme October 15, 2012, 10:11 am

    Went out and bought the Fenix light – love it! Thanks for the recommendation.

    Only drawback is that the headband doesn’t hold it’s position well – so I have to tighten it every time I put it on – might tack it in place with a stitch and hope I don’t lose any more hair!

    • John October 15, 2012, 11:43 am

      Hi Bill,

      Glad it worked out.

      Oh dear, I don’t have that problem with the headband. Could this mean that I have a fat head and don’t need any adjustment?

  • pedr turner October 15, 2012, 6:11 pm

    We have used the petzl zipka headlamps for years.
    The compact,retractable headband (cable) makes it possible to always have it in a pocket when needed. We use them on the boats
    (2) commercial fishing in Alaska in summer and cruising in the Western Carribean in winter.

  • Mike March 30, 2014, 11:26 am

    No doubt a good headlamp, but hardly the “world’s best”. A third of the 37 headlamps reviewed have overall higher rankings in this exhaustive comparison:
    …especially if you want a headlamp that doesn’t have a separate battery box. Among other things, note that the IPX 7 rating = waterproof to 3 meters. (IPX 4 is “splashproof”)

    • John March 30, 2014, 12:50 pm

      Hi Mike,

      How about “The World’s Best Headlamp For Me”? These things are very subjective.

  • Duncan October 15, 2015, 6:24 pm

    I’ve had 2 Princeton Tec headlamps (both over 40 US dollars) and both only lasted a couple of months of light use before the switch mechanism failed to switch the unit off or on. I’ve been using headlamps for 40 years in climbing and sailing activities. I’ll never buy anything made by Princeton Tec ever…they have quality control problems.

  • Dick Stevenson October 16, 2015, 3:17 am

    Hi Duncan,
    Sorry about your failed headlamps. Fenix are superb for work on (and working) a boat and I would not part with mine, but our Petzel headlamps are far lighter and cheaper, have useful operational options and have lasted for many years (maybe decades by now). We use ours for travel, reading in bed at night (not to disturb my wife) and numerous other activities where the far heavier Fenix does not work out so well.
    My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

  • Dick Stevenson October 16, 2015, 5:06 pm

    An addendum to my earlier email today:
    Another reason to have a headlamp such as a Petzel as well as a Fenix is that, when your Fenix goes S, you have back-up.
    This afternoon, my Fenix HP11 just went dead. Fiddling, I got it to light for brief seconds and it would go dead again, Batteries changed, contacts cleaned, all to no avail. Bulb reported to be good for 50,000 hrs and has not been knocked about, but that is still my best bet.
    Any ideas???
    Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy
    Ps. I now see that problems are referred to China, so much as I like this light, it might not be replaced…

    • John October 17, 2015, 8:13 am

      Hi Dick,

      Now that’s sad to hear. And after the checks you have done, probably not a lot more to do.

      If you find a comparable replacement, please let us know.

  • Dick Stevenson October 21, 2015, 6:25 am

    An FYI.
    After a number of back and forth’s with to China with a quite responsive rep, I am told the HP11 is discontinued and no longer serviceable outside of China where the rep suggested I send it. I will see what the costs are when I return to the US.
    Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy


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