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A Prepper Must-Have: Hands-Free Light

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When I say “hands-free light” I mean a miner/caver style headlamp or a clip-on cap light. I don’t mean a lantern or any equivalent. Lamps and lanterns have their place, just like the good ol’ portable spotlights and flashlights that also live in my house. However, when it comes to a portable light, it’s hard to beat something that leaves your hands free and moves around with your eyes. Their cost, usefulness, and weight make them an absolute must-have for preppers.

Different Types of Headlamps

There are two general types of headlamps. There’s the “miner” or “caving” style with a strap or two like this one:

LITOM Headlamp Flashlight with White/Red LED, IPX6 Waterproof Helmet Light

LITOM Headlamp Flashlight with White/Red LED, IPX6 Waterproof Helmet Light

Then there are the clip-on “cap light” types that rides on a hat brim like this one …

ThorFire Cap Hat Light 5-LED Headlamp Rotatable Ball Cap Visor light Clip-on Hat Light

ThorFire Cap Hat Light 5-LED Headlamp Rotatable Ball Cap Visor light Clip-on Hat Light

Both have some pro’s and con’s. Then there’s this guy, too, nearly a hybrid of the two:

ThorFire Cree LED Cap Light Headlamp 3 Modes Ball Hat Lamp Flashlight Adjustable Zoomable Headlamp 155 lumen

ThorFire Cree LED Cap Light Headlamp 3 Modes Ball Hat Lamp Flashlight Adjustable Zoomable Headlamp 155 lumen

With any headlamp, quality matters. That is sometimes to regularly reflected in price. Cheap stuff is … well, routinely cheap.

I can find good Rayovac and Browning models at HAM fests and flea markets for $5-10. Not only is the price spot-on or lower than online, there are regularly examples out, so you can get a feel for how sturdy clips are, how scratchy/smooth the band is, how heavy they are to wear, and how easy the controls are to handle before you buy.

Headlamp Shopping Consideration: Battery Type

Different models run off different types of batteries. Most take standard AA or AAA batteries or specialty coin/button cell batteries of various diameters and power, with some caving/miner’s style running off of a 9 volt.

There are a few that run off of A23’s and periodically a “matchstick” 4A/AAAA pops in one of our pockets. Those and the button cells are not exactly sitting on every shelf.

Even if they’re not going to be the victims of any crazy pre-disaster or mid-disaster runs, I’m not going to be able to grab any if I don’t already have them should a natural or manmade disaster bears down on us. They’re also not particularly inexpensive, although some of them have pretty incredible lifespans, especially in an LED light that gets used for a few hours during dark seasons, and I haven’t found chargers for them sitting on many shelves in my neck of the woods (or at all, ever).

The more powerful the headlamp – miner/caver headlamp or clip-on cap light – the faster it will burn up those batteries. In some cases, that’s mitigated by a light running off of 3-4 batteries instead of two, and that starts getting pretty heavy on heads that aren’t used to hardhats or helmets.

Headlamps that run off common batteries are easier to keep powered. Headlamps with battery packs opposite the light source distribute the weight and are a little more balanced, but aren’t particularly great if you have long hair.

Headlamps that run off common batteries are easier to keep powered. Headlamps with battery packs opposite the light source distribute the weight and are a little more balanced, but aren’t particularly great if you have long hair.

For a lot of my everyday purposes, I really like the slim, curving clip-on cap lights that use a button cell battery, even though it does use uncommon batteries. They’re lighter to wear and slimmer to stick in a pocket when I’m not wearing a hat.

However, for preparedness purposes and away-from-home headlamps, I stock up on the ones that run off one or two AAA batteries.

They’re still relatively lightweight, and AAA is a common size for us. I have plenty of chargers, and rechargeable and disposable batteries for them, to include some that stay in my truck with a mini solar window charger. That means I can afford more batteries and I have more options for battery sources, so I can keep them fed longer than if I relied on a less-common or specialty battery.

There’s also less aggravation involved when a battery gets replaced, and then a light immediately dies a hero’s death (or an inglorious one; we’re a family of klutzes).

For people who prepare for the worst, how much money and what percentage of a supply is invested in any given risk is something to consider. After all, our plans should always include a visit by Uncle Murphy.

Shopping Consideration: Light & Switch Array

I prefer the kind where the light options are one-click selectable instead of progressive click types, but I’m learning to look down and shade them with a palm before I touch them.

Some clip-on cap lights have progressive-click single-button controls that require running through various light intensities, colors and-or flashing sequences to turn them off. Some are available with one-click select-able settings.

Some clip-on cap lights have progressive-click single-button controls that require running through various light intensities, colors and-or flashing sequences to turn them off. Some are available with one-click select-able settings.

Why is this a factor?

Because it’s rude to blind people, horses, and dogs whose vision has adjusted, especially if you love them. Sometimes it’s only as annoying as living with somebody who doesn’t close cabinets or drawers, but sometimes it’s really a bad time to have your rods and cones flip-flop and your pupils tighten to a pinpoint.

Being able to just automatically go from a low light to “off” also has advantages at bedtime.

Some of us are sensitive to sudden light increases, even when we’re aware it’s coming. Closed eyes are not always barrier enough. When we’re done reading and ready for bed, but have to progress through three colors or 3-5 intensities of light to turn a lamp off, we have a real potential to wake ourselves back up or disturb loved ones or partners. That’s bad enough on a camping trip or for a short-term outage. It’s the kind of thing that can become a constant bur under the saddle and lead to tempers and serious discontent in high-stress situations.

Hands-free flashlights are supposed to be making our lives easier, not harder. It’s not an insurmountable problem (hence, learning to hold a hand over the LEDs); it’s just something to be aware of when we buy. If we’re forgetful or only have one good paw, maybe we make sure to buy the selective-setting versions with a separate on-off switch, or that we buy ours with just one light setting. Lots of options.

Headlamp Pro-Cons by Style

As I said, I really like the flatter clip-on styles over the caving/miner style of headlamp.

They fit in back pockets of jeans and coat pockets very easily and without snagging everything else in there in winter. They’re light enough to clip to my stove hood and to lampshades during outages, to a branch or fence wire while grilling, or to a pack strap sitting at a campsite, and to clip to my shirt or coat collar if I’m wearing a ski cap or bandana instead of a hat.

There are clip-on cap lights with single optics and that prop up or rotate for convenience. They lose some of the drawbacks of a miner style headlamp, but they can weigh just as much and drag a hat down – which is a real pain if you wear glasses.

There are clip-on cap lights with single optics and that prop up or rotate for convenience. They lose some of the drawbacks of a miner style headlamp, but they can weigh just as much and drag a hat down – which is a real pain if you wear glasses.

I’m also a chick, and the miner’s strap types snag my hair. That then gets in my way until I stop and re-band it. This is annoying when my hands are wrist-deep in raw meat, starchy potatoes, or garden soil.

When I’m wearing them without a hat, they rub my forehead uncomfortably. They’re a little bit heavier and a little bit bulkier, and you have to adjust multiple straps. They also give me one more length of strap to be snagging on things. Those annoyances add up when you’re already uncomfortable.

However, they, too, have their advantages.

There are some powerful cap lights available, but for the same price, there is usually a caver/miner style headlamp that penetrates further or illuminates a wider area.

There are some powerful cap lights available, but for the same price, there is usually a caver/miner style headlamp that penetrates further or illuminates a wider area.

I can find more powerful lights that penetrate deeper into space without extreme costs in the miner’s/caving style of headlamp. It’s kind of their wheelhouse, after all. I can think of a lot of situations where that added distance has a real advantage.

As with the clip-ons, I can find versions with variable light distance and area coverage, and with the miner’s style, I can sometimes find them Maglite style, where twisting a ring lets me condense to a narrow point or open up to a wider area. That’s pretty convenient sometimes, and the rings tend to hold up well to years of use.

I tend to find the caver’s and miner’s style sturdier and more resistant to boots and bouncing down stairs than the clip on’s, even when they’re a lower-grade camping model.

We call them “nighttime collars” for the pups because we sling them on before we turn the pack loose in low-light situations.

With a handy clothespin or a wire clothes hanger, they can be used in just as many places around the house as the cap lights. The strap has periodically gotten looped around my neck or arm, I can hook them around pack straps to keep track of those while setting up camp (and of the nephews and BSA kiddos in front of me when we’re running late into a site), and I can hang them on my rear-view mirror easily instead of clipping a light to the sun visor.

Which is better? It’s really just a matter of preference, and sometimes preference changes just by use. I have both, just like I own both firearms and airguns.

 Image/Images: There are a lot of times when it’s not just nice to have a light follow our eyes without holding it in our hands – it greatly effects our efficiency and speed.

Image/Images: There are a lot of times when it’s not just nice to have a light follow our eyes without holding it in our hands – it greatly effects our efficiency and speed.

Hands-Free Lights – A Must-Have? Really?

Yeah. Because it’s dark out there. Most of us never truly know how dark it can be, even when we’re rural dwellers and backpackers, because there’s so much ambient light in most of North America. One of the big adjustments for non-camping suburban and city folks is just how dark a rural area can be – even with its household lights from electronics and appliances.

Long-term outages and a grid-down situation will change that, and potentially remove most or all of those constant glows from our lives. So light sources belong on any must-have list.

Especially in the dark, it’s really nice to have a light while working with my hands. Yes, there are all kinds of lanterns. I have quite the variety. Lamps and lanterns have to be carried around. That takes a hand, or requires fetching them. Other light sources are fixed and I have to move to them with tasks. That’s limiting my efficiency one way or another.

Cooking is one of those times when a lamp doesn’t always cut it and it’s nice to have the light turn with our heads.

Cooking is one of those times when a lamp doesn’t always cut it and it’s nice to have the light turn with our heads.

When I’m sitting somewhere reading, playing cards, or cleaning a tool, a lantern works great.

When I’m moving around cleaning, cooking, filing animal nails and feet, going from the back to the front of my truck and somebody else’s vehicle miracling one of them to life, or doing chores in darkness, it’s really nice to have a light that moves with me and leaves me with both hands free.

When I’m walking the dogs, hauling game to a vehicle or home, or chipping/brushing/shoveling our vehicles free from winter’s grasp, a light that follows me around without adding much bulk, weight, or effort on my part is definitely worth the price of somebody’s fancy coffee or Big Mac meal.

Since headlamps are so affordable, and since they have the potential to increase my efficiency so much over having to cart a lamp or lantern around with me, since they take up so little room in storage for their backups and backup power sources, and since those power sources and chargers cross with so many other devices … for me, hands-free flashlights are absolutely a must-have item.

In bulk, if I’m a bartering type, because they’re just that useful in an outage and off-grid environments of all kinds.

17 Comments

  1. 1johnnyp

    July 23, 2016 at 11:11 pm

    Dear R. Ann Paris, I just read your article on head lamps and I thought is was very good. However, as I tried to rate your article, 5 out of 5, my PC sent a 0 out of 5 by accident. So, keep on writing and I’ll keep on reading. Johnny Foley

    • R. Ann

      July 24, 2016 at 6:49 am

      Thanks, Johnny.
      Don’t worry about the ratings thing – I’m happier knowing an article made somebody think or was useful than having a value tagged to it.

      I’ve written a number of things for TPJ, covering all kinds of topics from livestock feed resiliency to shotguns, food preservation to laundry options. If you’re interested, you can search them by the last name Parris or just scroll through.

      Love to have input, whether it’s yea/nay or “this made me think of this slightly related topic”.

      Cheers!
      -Rebecca Ann

  2. poloii fowgee

    July 24, 2016 at 8:10 am

    was expecting an entry like this. thanks also for discussing the battery types. 2 years back, i bought BD storm from my local store. build , quality, performance were good, so much for my excitement that i fail to notice it is a 4 AAA. now i switch to lower type which uses 2 AAA though not the high end model but works fine for general purposes in cases you really need a light. saves me a bit of space and weight.

    • R. Ann

      July 24, 2016 at 11:33 am

      Thanks. Various types, weights and sizes of batteries and the availability and rechargable replacement are a couple of the things I routinely see missing in various handheld reviews and “buy this” articles. I’m wordy but sometimes it’s because of the “this, but this, but this” considerations.
      🙂
      Cheers!
      R. Ann

  3. christopher

    July 24, 2016 at 8:16 am

    Great
    article! I think for just general use, lights are fine but you have to be
    careful. I used LED headlamps for wilderness Search & Rescue
    in woods all the time, but in a grid down situation where you do not want
    people to know where you are, you’re not going to want to use lights a lot. In
    grid down situation, the darkness will be your friend & asset, embrace it!
    It will get real quiet & dark when all the power is out. You will hear a
    lot more than you will ever see. Remember, they won’t know your property like
    you do, which gives you the advantage in the dark. At night, you’re going to
    want to hunker down unless you’re on the move. If you’re on the move, you not
    going to want somebody seeing you. It’s not like you’re going to be clearing
    buildings like Military or PD. You have to be careful with headlamps due to; if
    I saw a light bouncing up and down on my property in grid down, I would aim
    within 1 ft. of the light. The chance of a team member accidently turning
    one on is too great also, unless you have a red lens to use with it. I agree with article is to keep the lights you have to use the same type of battery. This will keep your pack weight down. I have go-kit packs all with same lights & batts. As article states, with headlamps, every time you hear somebody talk in your group, you instinctively look at them and blind them ruining their night vision or your search dog. Even angling the headlamp down isn’t much better. Hearing people curse you in the dark doesn’t make you many friends! If you do purchase a headlamp, make sure it has the red-light filter lenses to avoid this. I always carried 3 lights in woods when searching,
    LED headlamp with red lens took 3 double A, 2 small Maglite’s both took 2
    double A’ both double A & red filters included. (Maglight-1 in pack &one vest so I could reach incase a limb knocked the headlamp off my head. this happens a lot in woods!) LED lights will extend your battery life and dropping a bulb type light will damage the filament, so convert your bulbs to LEDS when you can!

    • R. Ann

      July 24, 2016 at 11:40 am

      We use blue and red hankerchiefs, thin socks, and other things to help dim them down in look-at-me situations and keeping track of people’s kids (there’s a call I don’t ever want to make). I’ve got and sometimes use the red light covers in various flashlights, but I hate going back and forth. A rag comes off and goes back on fast, and has other applications (can’t help myself there sometimes). 🙂

      I feel the same way about headlamps in grid down that I do fixed flashlights on handguns and shotguns – and the way you do, apparently. You’ve been warned and come through fences, a locked door and likely dogs … follow the cone, a little low, a little left…

      Light discipline during a true grid down is a whole entire series. While a lot of people don’t realize how black black can be, there’s also a whole world that don’t realize how much of a beacon a 2′ fire or a 4″ lamp on a mountainside can be when there’s little or no ambient light competing with it.

      Cheers!
      R. Ann

  4. Huples

    July 24, 2016 at 9:05 am

    Read this after nights and not expecting much. Wow. Great article.

    I agree with all but I have two decent head lamps in a faraday cage that recharge via usb. Biolite stove and solar panel in the cage. Batteries are heavy and rot easily in humidity so I need to get spare recharging batteries.

    One thing is as well we need far less light than we think. Experiment with low and no light. Mostly I’ll be asleep or watching at night in shtf but a decent light is a life saver. Try trail running with no moon through a forest without great light! Impossible. I prefer hand held for that as I like to look just outside the light when running but many use head lights.

    • R. Ann

      July 24, 2016 at 11:44 am

      I can do some things with just ambient light, but it sure is hard to find a leak and fix it and find the right wrench by cloudy southern stars, and I sometimes like knowing how much water to stick in my supper. Plus, I don’t need the extra protein that much and prefer to know what’s spices and what’s moving in there. 🙂
      We have nice long summers and mild light for a while, but I was a backpacker and even then there are times that exhausted or not you want to read, or find a splinter, or repair gear.

      Thanks for the “not much to great”!
      🙂

  5. Illini Warrior

    July 24, 2016 at 10:36 am

    I don’t see near enough “personal” lites mentioned in prepper’s storage items … these clip on lites – book lites and even the very small battery operated lanterns have their purpose …. especially true if you have kids to keep entertained and moving around safely in a grid down home ….

    • R. Ann

      July 24, 2016 at 11:50 am

      Thanks. I feel the same.
      There’s several of those like the canning jars, baking soda, and some of the other items tossed to Pat that I don’t see, but end up using even for “well, crumbs” stubbed toes and daily emergencies, and that sure are handy to have in regular daily life.
      And sometimes they only focus just on tacticool or dire-death-WROL situations while ignoring the whole wide range of things that happen without a national free for all.
      One of the other ones I tossed to Pat was motion sensor solar lights. That’s a biggie for us even today for around the buildings, gate, and yard for comfort and safety. And in a pinch, they can get pulled inside to light up a puzzle or board game for us without having candles or oil lamps going right there with elbows and drinks.
      🙂

      Take care!
      R. Ann

  6. mb

    July 24, 2016 at 12:09 pm

    One thing not mentioned, but should be part of the security aspect, especially if guarding property or moving around covertly would be night vision goggles, and less useful because you could still be detected would be Infrared light emitter and detector. Night vision ain’t cheap and consumes mass quantities of power, but there is no substitute if you need to get from point A to point B without revealing your location.

  7. christopher

    July 24, 2016 at 1:26 pm

    a neat light I have is on “Keep Shooting .com” is the Swedish Military light. I love this thing for its simplicity, even though it has a filament bulb and uses C batts. at only 7 dollars its a good house flashlight. its not fancy, but has great features with red & green filters and blackout shade. you can use the on off switch for morse code or temp light if needed. I may replace with Dorcey 3amp led bulb.

  8. DaveP

    July 24, 2016 at 2:55 pm

    Headlamps are indeed a must have. Pro tip: get some clear safety glasses, as all of the bugs in your area will be attracted to that light, which is right on your face – a mouthfull of bug is double-yuck.

    • R. Ann

      July 25, 2016 at 6:50 am

      Yup – Been there right with you!
      It’s not big when we’re walking the dogs most of the time and in winter it’s not awful (ours get used a lot in winter), but I’ve had a few sticky nights working on a vehicle or in a campsite where they came like clouds.

      Bandana and safety glasses can be huge for ALLLLLL KINDS of days. 100% 🙂

      There are some chemistry style safety glasses now that have some air vents up above the brow and are impact resistant. They’re actually not too bad to wear at all, nice roll around the exterior and pliable stuff around the exterior. I promptly got two more once I was introduced to those so I had them. They work pretty well for blowing grit and yard work/saws but they’re the elastic band type, so one more thing around the head. Light to wear, though, and little to no rubbing, sliding and fogging even with glasses and even in the rain.

      Cheers!

  9. BobW

    July 24, 2016 at 7:34 pm

    One of our very first preps was Petzl headlights. Nothing fancy, and they had to be AAA powered. A little later, I picked up a three cree Gander headlight with the overhead strap.

    These suckers are useful far more than just sitting in the bugout bags. Working under vehicles, power outages, setting up camp late. So much easier than having a 9 yo hold a flashlight when you are trying to get to a hard to reach bolt.

    I imagine there are needs for higher powered units, but since we don’t do activities like cave exploration, I haven’t found a need yet.

    One poster commented about light discipline. This is where a different tool comes in handy. The old style Mini mag lights with the infernal bulbs that fail too regularly reduce lumens, don’t project that blinding white light, and can be fitted with a red-light filter in the bezel to dramatically reduce your light signature. The military uses them extensively. While I wouldn’t put one on the newer Mini mag LED lights, as I think the brilliant white projection is just too strong, it works very well with the bulb style units. Just remember to stock up on those stupid little bulbs.

    • R. Ann

      July 25, 2016 at 6:55 am

      “These suckers are useful far more than just sitting in the bugout bags.
      Working under vehicles, power outages, setting up camp late. So much
      easier than having a 9 yo hold a flashlight when you are trying to get
      to a hard to reach bolt.”
      x2 – Yup!

      There were several things that end up used a lot by us either seasonally or just ALLLLL the time, truly just daily life, little stubbed toes, bigger stubbed toes – that have all kinds of happy-joy-joy application for varying scales of preparedness once I started thinking about it, but I don’t see articles about them often at all, and when I do, it’s sometimes a single-product review, not a what-and-why-and-types intro.

      Glad this one has been so well received. Everybody who uses them has such different but similar takes on why we keep them handy, and what part of them resonates most over handheld flashlights or lamps.
      🙂
      Cheers!
      Rebecca Ann

  10. Digout

    September 29, 2016 at 9:06 am

    I question the use of LED lights. As LED’s are a semiconductor device. How will they stand up to an EMP/Nuclear explosion?

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