The Things We Carry
"I Lift My Lamp …"
Headlamps to Dispel the Dark
By Tamia Nelson
March 22, 2011
I've always felt at home in the night. The wild world doesn't lapse into suspended animation when we slip into our sleeping bags at day's end. The hours of darkness are a busy time in the backcountry. Sit quietly at the water's edge in the proper season and chances are good that you'll hear — and sometimes see — frogs, ducks, and geese aplenty, not to mention beavers and muskrats, all of them going about their business, undisturbed by any clumsy, meddlesome primates with delusions of grandeur. If your hearing is good, you may even discern the subtle clicking of a bat's sonar as he swoops over your head to snatch up mosquitos, the same mosquitos that were drawn to you by the prospect of a blood meal. It's the ultimate gotcha moment.
Bottom line? The night is a happening place. And listening in on the comings and goings of nocturnal wildlife is one of the great pleasures of camping. When I can, I find my way around in the dark without any artificial light, hoping to disturb my wild neighbors as little as possible by my presence. But when the time comes for me to turn back toward camp for the evening rituals of toothbrushing, tidying up, and hitting the sack, I want something to …
Light Up the Night
I'm not alone. To be sure, only a few paddlers stay up late to listen in on the conversations of wild creatures, and most of us prefer to get our chores over and done with in daylight. But this isn't always possible. It's not unusual to be delayed in getting to camp by the need to double a strenuous portage, scout a long rapids, or fight headwind‑driven waves on an open‑water crossing. And even when all the chores are done before the sun goes down, there are still times when you'll need to dispel the dark. Say you like to read in bed for a few minutes before drifting off. You'll need a light. Or maybe you have to get up in the middle of a moonless night to empty your bladder after drinking that third cup of tea with dinner. You don't want to walk off a cliff on your way to the privy, do you? And what if a storm breaks just before dawn, threatening to bring your tent down around your ears? You'll have a hard time checking the guylines if you can't find them till you trip over them. Or suppose you just want to make an early start, getting up well before sunrise in order to put few miles under your keel by the time the Old Woman starts making a nuisance of herself. If so, and if you're on heavily traveled waters, prudence dictates that you show a light. In fact, the Rules require it, even if you think that yours is the only boat afloat at this hour. You might be wrong.
Of course, if you're paddling in the high Arctic in midsummer, the sun will keep you company round the clock. But paddlers in more temperate latitudes will need artificial light whatever the season, and canoeists and kayakers who like to make the most of the shoulders of the year — whitewater boaters and hunters among them — will find themselves coping with 12 hours or more of dark in every 24. Which is why, from my earliest days afield, I always carried a small flashlight in my pack — and on any trip longer than an afternoon jaunt I carried two, one in my pack and one in a pocket. Then, in camp, I kept a flashlight near the head of my sleeping bag, where I could reach it just by stretching out my arm. There's no point in having a light if you can't find it in the dark, after all.
At first, both of my flashlights were diminutive AA‑cell Mallorys of the sort that Colin Fletcher waxed lyrical about in The Complete Walker. (It didn't hurt that they bore the name of a famous mountaineer, either.) And Fletcher's encomium to the little Mallory was well‑deserved. It was cheap and light, yet it threw a bright enough beam for a long enough time — 2–4 hours with what were then state‑of‑the‑art alkaline cells — for me to travel safely for miles through a backcountry night. I learned this early on, while bushwhacking in the alpine fastnesses of the Pasayten Wilderness. I also learned that I could easily hold the little flashlight in my teeth, and that was a very good thing. Sometimes I needed both my hands to climb.
Still, good as they were, the Mallorys were far from perfect. They required frequent field repairs, and the spring contacts had the disconcerting habit of springing out when you split the case to replace dead batteries or fiddle with a stubborn switch. (That was the reason I always carried two on any overnight trip. I needed the second to give me light to fix the first by — or to find the parts that had dropped onto the ground.) Nor was the Mallory waterproof.
In short, although the Mallorys were better backcountry companions than any flashlight I'd used before, they left much to be desired, and gripping them between my teeth while I cooked or climbed got old in a hurry. But for a long time I just grumbled and coped. Then I started …
Using My Head
In other words, I bought a headlamp. And my first one, a Justrite, was a far cry from the featherweight Mallory:
This isn't it, by the way. Like all my Mallorys, my original Justrite headlamp eventually ended up in the trash. Which is a shame. Its metal battery case was a lot more pleasing to the eye — and a lot easier to open — than the plastic case of its replacement. The "improved" case is marginally lighter, though, and that is a good thing. Unlike the Mallorys, the Justrite is heavy and (comparatively) expensive. But it is also BRIGHT. It uses four D cells to the Mallory's two AAs. Moreover, the reflector can be focused, delivering anything from a soft, diffuse light to a brilliant, narrow beam. And because the battery compartment is separated from the headlamp proper, I can keep the batteries under my jacket on winter outings, greatly increasing their life and output.
It was no contest, really. My Mallorys couldn't hold a candle to the Justrite for brightness and hands‑free convenience. But these virtues came at a price. I could tuck the little Mallory away in a pocket and not even know it was there. The Justrite, on the other hand, could double as an anchor for a boat much larger than my kayak. (That is, it could if it were waterproof. It isn't.) The upshot? The Mallorys kept their place in my pack, and I carried the Justrite only when I was sure I'd need it.
This compromise wasn't a great success. For one thing, I couldn't always predict when I'd need the extra light the Justrite provided. Which meant that I sometimes spent long, unnerving hours groping in the dark. But the odds improved when the Mini Maglite came on the scene. This aluminum AA‑cell flashlight was heavier than the Mallory, but the tiny "grain of wheat" bulb and small reflector were more efficient — not as bright as the Justrite, perhaps, but noticeably brighter than the Mallory. And the Maglite was reasonably waterproof. You could focus the beam, too. I was hooked, and for a while I fiddled with various ways to use the Maglite as a headlamp, tucking it under a sweatband or bandanna. These all worked, after a fashion. But they didn't work very well. I had to cock my head at odd angles to point the beam where I needed it, and the Maglite often slipped out from under whatever I was using to hold it on my head. So I kept looking for something better.
Then, just before the new century began, a revolution of sorts took place. Two revolutions, really. First, headlamps became mass‑market items. No longer did I have to search through climbing or forestry catalogs to find one. I could see them by the dozen in the local hardware store. And the second revolution? That was when the LED began to displace the incandescent bulb.
This little Coleman was a product of the first upheaval:
It's light (it uses two AA cells). It's waterproof. It's easy to get (and keep) on target. And you can focus the beam. It's bright, too, though not as bright as the Justrite. Plenty bright enough, however. I still use it. Occasionally. But my stock of spare bulbs is dwindling, and I won't bother replacing them. Why? Because today, …
LEDs Lead the Way
Light‑emitting diodes have it all. They're bright. They're light. They're efficient. Plus they last just about forever. Well, maybe not forever. But plenty long enough. I haven't had one burn out yet. Oh, yes… One more thing: They're cool, too — in every sense of the word. Farwell, who needs lots of light to get the most out of his one good eye, was an early adopter. I held back. I was happy with my Coleman. And Farwell's Petzl Tactikka Plus cost nearly four times as much. Here it is:
Despite the high price tag, there's a lot to like about it. The Tactikka Plus gets its power from three AAA cells. It has three brightness settings, in addition a strobe function, and when set to maximum, the beam is more than bright enough to walk a portage trail by, but — amphibious paddlers please note — it's not bright enough to use while riding a bike. Yet the dimmest setting ("economy" in catalogspeak) gives enough light to read by. Battery life is surprisingly good. Unless you'll be doing a lot of nighttime trail walking, a single set of fresh alkaline cells will probably see you through a weeklong trip, though you should always have a spare set, just in case. And you get a bonus of sorts: The flip‑up red filter allows you to read a map or chart and still retain some of your night vision. Drawbacks? They're few in number, but important. The weather seal is shoddy, the plastic body is fragile and subject to stress cracks (Farwell repaired one such crack with hot glue; it's holding), and the rather diffuse beam can't be adjusted.
Notwithstanding the Tactikka's several shortcomings, however, my resolve soon began to weaken. And in the end, I succumbed to the LED's siren song. (Freedom from the nuisance of bulb replacement won the day.) But I wanted something brighter than the Tactikka, and I wanted a tighter beam. I didn't have to search long. I found what I was looking for in the Princeton Tec EOS. It's second from the right in this picture:
The EOS ticks all my boxes. It's light, and it's weather‑sealed, too. The manufacturer claims it's waterproof to a depth of 1 meter. I haven't tested this, but I can attest to the fact that it's downpour‑proof, and in furtherance of this end, the case screws closed securely. That's a big improvement over the Tactikka's dodgy latch. (I can always tell when Farwell's replacing the Tactikka's batteries. There's no mistaking the volume and variety of the accompanying invective.)
Back to the EOS: It has three brightness settings in addition to a strobe function, and the brightest of these is very bright indeed. Bright enough to allow you to cycle (slowly) down a forest track for a predawn put‑in, hauling your boat in a trailer behind you. But plan on bringing plenty of spare cells if you do. At the highest setting, you'll only get an hour or two before the light starts to dim. Battery life will be much better at lower intensities, of course. A single set of three AAA alkalines should see you through a week of map reading and occasional trail walking, for example. And as the photos below demonstrate, directing the light where you want it to go is a piece of cake.
As you can tell, I'm a fan. There are better lights for reading in bed — the EOS' tight beam is a little narrow for that — but I've found nothing better for route‑finding, bushwhacking, cooking, night paddling, and cycling. The upshot? At last I have a light that does it all for me. But I still carry a backup. Just in case.
The ability to light up the night at will is one of our species' defining achievements. And nowhere is this more apparent than in camp, where the need to turn night into day is ever‑present. A flashlight can do the job, but it quickly becomes a nuisance when you tackle anything requiring two hands. What about you? Are you tired of holding your flashlight in your teeth? If so, you'll want to add a headlamp to your pack. Then you, too, will be able to lift up your lamp against the encroaching dark.
Copyright © 2011 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.