Monday, 31 October 2016 08:09

A guide to Petzl head torches for runners

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As the nights draw in and the temperatures start to drop, as runners we start to look forward to muddy trails and crisp morning runs. Here MyOutdoors Trail Running Team reviewer Giles Thurston checks out the range of options from the most well known and popular brand, Petzl.

For the majority of us with busy lives this also means we're having to dig through the drawers and find our head torches, as the longer nights mean many of our runs will have to take place in the hours of darkness.

Go to many internet forums and head torches will be up there with shoes and running vests as a topic of much debate. There are a wide range of options out there and the choice can be bewildering, especially with the new intelligent or programmable lights hitting the market from manufacturers such as Petzl.

Comfort is an obvious first place to start when choosing a torch, dictated largely by the weight of the device and strap configuration. The next consideration is the amount of light it will put out, which will depend on the type of running you do. The light requirements of an urban runner are of course different to someone running through the night in a mountain environment. This choice then ties nicely into the third consideration, battery life and type (chargeable or replacement), again dictated by the type of running and racing you undertake.

Over the years I've used a wide range of head torches for both mountaineering and running. As an ultra runner, who spends a lot of my time running off road at night, I thought I'd give you a quick whistle stop tour of some of my favourite torches on the market at the moment. As you'll expect there is no one torch to meet every requirement, hence the reason I have so many but hopefully if you're in the market for something new you'll find something that fits your requirements in this list.

Petzl Myo

petzl myo 01

With the drive towards chargeable and intelligent light units, the Myo stands apart from the majority of other units I use as a more traditional torch. By that I mean it takes standard batteries and you manually adjust the light power using a switch. This is no bad thing, as we all know technology can be flaky at times.
For many races, especially multi day events, having something simple that works and you can easily replace the batteries in, is a great asset and these are the occasions when I use this torch.

As torches go its lightweight and compact, with the bulk of the weight coming from the batteries themselves. Its light enough that you can wear it comfortably on your head just using the single head band, with a third strap to go over the top of your head available in the box should you wish.

petzl myo 03

Operation is dead simple, with a single switch you press to turn on and continue to press to cycle through the different power levels and finally off. There are three power levels available, plus a flashing mode to attract attention. Personally I run comfortably on a dark trail using the lowest power setting but it's comforting to know you have the others there should you need them.

The switch itself is pretty small and can be tricky to feel with bulky gloves on. It does protrude nicely from the top of the device, so you can quickly find it and you don't need to be super accurate to get it to work. A nice touch is that when you fold the lamp back into its housing the switch is protected within it, meaning you can't accidentally turn it on in your pack. A horror I am guessing many of us have experienced in the past.

While not the most powerful light here on test, it still gives out 370 lumens on its most powerful setting, which is plenty for most needs. The lamp also includes a diffuser which you can flip down to have a spot light or up to have a wider softer light. The former is great when you're trying to look into the distance to spot a navigation point or check the field for cows, the later is perfectly adequate for running with, giving a good range of light so you can pick out tree roots etc.

So in summary, this is a great device if you're looking for a lightweight compact unit, without all the modern bells and whistles and which you can easily switch out batteries, great for multi day events.

Petzl Tikka RXP

petzl tikka 01

Over the years I have used many of the incarnations of the Petzl Tikka range and have always found them great compact head torches, which are easy to wear and use.

With the RXP variant, Petzl brought its intelligent light features or Reactive Lighting as it calls it to the device, where it automatically adjusts the power of the light thrown out to match your current situation. It does this by analysing the amount of light thrown back into the device. Stare up a mountain side and the light will crank out maximum power. Look down or look at a map and the light will almost instantly cut the power back and switch from a spot to a more diffused setting.

This makes it more comfortable to wear and easier to use, no more blinding yourself with the map. You simply put it on, set the light setting you want and leave it to it.The other benefit of this functionality is battery life. By constantly adjusting the power used Petzl says you can extend the battery life considerably, something that's important when you're using a device that is USB chargeable by default.

Petzl Tikka batery and unit

Out of the box the device is reminiscent of its Tikka heritage, with both the battery and the lamp on the front in a single unit, supported by a head band. The unit is larger than previous versions, due to the additional lamps and sensors within it. While this may have impacted the stability, Petzl cleverly included an additional small strap into the design to provide extra grip to the back of your head.

Petzl tikka back of strap

As with all Tikka's once the device is on you just forget its there. Personally I found the buttons a little confusing and always struggle to fire the device up. A long press will result in a flash but no light and I then have to press it again to get some light from the device. You can press the same button again to cycle between the light modes and another button available on the side to switch between the intelligent light and constant light functions.

I've found the use of two buttons has made it quite confusing, compounded by the fact there is no visual indicator of which light mode you are in. I've been on a number of runs where I've thought I was in the reactive light mode to only find out I was in the constant light mode. Some of this may well have been down to operator error but compared to the other torches I'm writing about here, I've found this one far and away the most complicated and frustrating to use.

That said the torch itself gives out great light for its size, up to 215 lumens in its most powerful setting. You can plug the unit into your computer and programme the power settings to meet your personal requirements. If battery life is more important then you can drop the power levels to extend this. If light is the most important you can push this up by paying with reduced battery life.

Petzl tikka lisa using software

Personally speaking I have found this a little gimmicky and have left the Tikka in its factory settings. Once I get past the confusion with the buttons I find it delivers perfect light for running, giving a nice wide beam to light up the trail and around you.
Looking at battery life, I've found I can get 8 hours out of the Tikka RXP and more if necessary depending on the power levels used. I’ve even spoken to one runner who'd managed to get his Tikka RXP through two full nights in a mountain trail race using just a single battery. On a low reactive power setting I’m sure but still quite an achievement. The torch comes with a USB rechargeable battery, which can be replaced with either another rechargeable pack or one which takes AAA like the Tikka's of old.

Finally Petzl have just released a new version of this torch which introduces Bluetooth technology. This allows you to adjust the reactive light settings directly from an app on your smartphone. While I've not sure I’d use this functionality personally, I can see that if you like to regularly adjust the light settings on your torches this will be a more flexible solution and something to consider when making your purchase.

So in summary the Tikka RXP's compact design and light weight makes it's extremely comfortable to wear and stow in your pack. I’ve found the controls are both fiddly and a little confusing and while the light levels are great, I tend to use this device primarily for commuting or summer races where I’m not expecting to use it very often. For an in depth review of the Tikka RXP check out our Running Editor's review.

Petzl Nao

petzl nao 01

The Nao was the first Petzl programmable device with reactive light technology. The light it delivers is fantastic and seamlessly shifts between low and high power, flood and beam as you move your head around. The fit is extremely comfortable and once on you forget its there. It’s not overly heavy as well, which adds to the comfort while wearing it and also when carrying it in your pack.

As with the Tikka RXP, you can plug the battery pack into your computer and adjust the reactive light settings to really get the most out of the battery. I did this the first time I got the light but to be honest found the application pretty confusing and in practice the standard light settings of high, medium and low worked well for me.

Petzl Tikka OS

Battery wise, well its USB chargeable and on this years Lakeland 100 I managed to get 8 hours of use out of a single battery using the low power setting. When I say low, there was ample light to run with at this level, as the high power setting feels almost like daylight when it pushes out the 575 lumens of light it has at its disposable.

You can use AAA batteries in the unit as an alternative to the rechargeable battery if you wish but these can be fiddly to fit and will also turn the headtorch into a more traditional unit, with the reactive light feature disabled. This does however give you some flexibility and an option for carrying spare batteries. Personally I prefer a spare USB battery, which adds to the cost but can be changed in a matter of seconds by feel alone once you are used to it. 

The controls are really simple, all operated through a single large rocker switch on the side of the lamp, which can easily be operated with gloves and requires a simple flick to switch between lights modes. A longer flick will switch between reactive and constant light modes and a reverse turn will lock the device, great for when its in your pack to preserve the battery.

The reactive light works well on the whole, although it can get itself a little confused with fog or steam from your breath which is a little annoying but not dangerous. Following immediately behind runners with reflective clothing can also cause the light to flicker, again a side effect of the technology which is designed to maximise your battery life and give you the light you need at the time you need it.

So in summary, the Nao delivers amazing light performance in a lightweight compact package which is extremely easy to use. It is a device I really enjoy using and is the first torch I reach for when heading out for a long running adventure off-road in the dark. The one sticking point for many though is the price and its not cheap, with a RRP of over £100, although you can pick it up for less if you shop around. Is it worth it? I'd say definitely if you run on trails at night and for the comfort and light it gives.

Petzl eLite

petzl elite 01

Tiny and only pushing out 26 lumens, many would ask why you'd want such a torch as a runner. While yes its not something you could practically run with on anything other than smooth trail, as an emergency light to get you out of a sticky situation, such as your main head torch failing, its the perfect tool.

Head torches need batteries and will eventually run out of juice, especially on longer races through one or more nights. If these are the kind of races you do then at some point you will be fumbling around in the dark trying to change the battery and eLite is perfect for assisting you here. At only 27 grams its barely noticeable in your pack or pocket and unless you're fanatical about the weight you carry its a no brainier to add to your kit in my opinion.


As we said at the start, there are lots of different options on the market, with the choices between the models quite bewildering. As you will have noticed by now my personal preferences are all models from Petzl but other notable mentions are the head torches from LED Lenser, Silva, Alpkit and Black Diamond which are also worthy of consideration.

The four head torches we’ve looked are my personal favourites and head torches I'd have no hesitation in recommending to others, dependant upon their intended use.

The Petzl eLite is a perfect emergency solution, so small and light its difficult to see why you wouldn't have this in your pocket when heading out for a long run in the dark.

The Petzl Myo is a no nonsense solution, ideal if you are unsure when you will next be near a power source and need to rely on traditional batteries.

Finally both the Petzl Tikka RXP and Nao have the latest reactive light technology and deliver amazing results out on the trail. The Tikka RXP is a superb lightweight package and if you can deal with the annoyances of the interface is probably the perfect solution for the trail runner looking to head out into the night.

My personal favourite though remains the Nao. Yes its expensive and yes I'd have concerns using it for more than two nights without a bucket load of spare batteries. However if you can stretch the budget to one or pick-up a good deal online you won't be disappointed. It’s so comfortable to wear you will forget its there and the light it gives out is amazing and makes night time running over rough ground a total joy.

The ideal solution is to try before you buy, so if you can beg or borrow a light from a friend then do so. If you can't then hopefully this article has given you some ideas on options you could consider and will help you in your search.