Rob's Blog Archive

December 30, 2012

Evolution of the Headlamp










It’s mid-winter.  We’re not Alaska, but the sun is out for only eight hours each day---nights are twice that.  Still, particularly with snow on the ground and in the trees, a good headlamp lets me do whatever strikes my fancy.  Night skiing on anything that resembles a groomed trail, either snowmobile or X-C skiing, isn’t an issue.  I’m sure I’ve done more sledding during the night than I have during the day.  Even scooping the yard by the light of a headlamp is a breeze.  I suppose route finding for climbing or backcountry skiing at night might be a little tricky, but even that is probably doable.  My cache of headlamps continues to grow every year. 

Life wasn’t always this good.

During ancient times, B. G. T. (Before Gore-Tex), the most common backpacking lights were small flashlights.  These were shaped specifically so you could hold them in your mouth.  This usually resulted in the illuminator drooling on everything.  Climbers did have and use headlamps, but these were generally big and heavy. 

Life changed a little when lithium batteries showed up.  These were half the weight of alkaline batteries and lasted longer, particularly in cold weather.  A few headlamps used them, but we’d often had to modify others for this purpose.   Unfortunately, the reason they were lighter was you needed half of the number of batteries --- they were 3.0 V rather than 1.5 V.  “Dummy” batteries, glorified wires, were out there but the market wasn’t large enough to make these or dropping the voltage down to 1.5 V profitable. 

The market that did grow, however, was for straight up headlamps.  Watching even a good friend drool into dinner after a week of backpacking with only sporadic toothbrushing, not to mention the discomfort being the drooler himself compared to simply wearing a headlamp, resulted in change.  By the mid-eighties, headlamps using AA and/or AAA batteries were everywhere, and were easily better than the drool inducing flashlights. 

Things remained stagnant for a bit at that point.  Good, but stagnant.  I still haven’t thrown out the better headlamps I have from the “late incandescent” period.  I’d add that among these are fluorescent headlamps and these remain the headlamps with the least divergence so they produce great illumination at a distance and the best through a snowstorm.   

Still, like so many other things that changed during the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, headlamps were affected by the solid state revolution.  A lot.  And the improvement here is ongoing.   LED headlamps.  No changing light bulbs---Try doing that with a bunch of antsy dogs banging against their lines and straining the grip of the snowhooks meant to hold them in place---it’s also wilderness dark and you do have to work bare handed at -20 F (Note: prior to leaving the factory, all headlamp bulbs take an oath to subscribe to Murphy’s Law, particularly the part that says “and at the worst possible time”).  Mushers love the no bulb change thing.  The actual ability of LED headlamps to light up the world started weak, but there are now lots of lumens available.  The only technical issue that remains is to produce a beam that is no more divergent than those with fluorescent bulbs and milled parabolic lenses. 

At this time, my favorite headlamp is one with a plate of LED’s and an adjustable Fresnel lens.  With the flick of my wrist it goes from a great light for kennel chores like feeding and scooping, to a light that worked fine for a sixteen dog string---my lead dogs being 70’ or so in front of me---in everything but heavy snow.  My milled aluminum/fluorescent lamp remains my choice for heavy snow and a string of fourteen or more dogs, but I’d guess that its replacement is in the near future.

So, perhaps with those first good incandescent headlamps running on small batteries, but for sure with the modern LED models, we are in a golden age.  I’m guessing we’ll eventually take these for granted, but we’re not quite there yet.  Living this far north, it still is a man and his headlamp---and a pretty cool one at that.

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