Performance Headtorches Group Test

© UKC Gear

Headtorch technology has moved on a lot in recent years, and what was the performance powerhouse of yesteryear is now the mid-range model, such is the pace of development. The most obvious change is to the levels of brightness available. Each of the three torches on test here features 1000+ lumens of output, which is a mind-boggling level of light coming from something you wear on your head. However, it's not just the brightness that makes these modern torches stand out. Recent offerings are all remarkably lightweight and compact, and if used wisely (i.e. not maximum output, all the time) then they also have long-lasting battery life too.

L-R: Petzl NAO RL, Silva FREE 1200 S, Black Diamond Distance 1500  © UKC Gear
L-R: Petzl NAO RL, Silva FREE 1200 S, Black Diamond Distance 1500
© UKC Gear

 It's worth noting the word performance within the title, because the torches on test are at the top-end of what's currently available, and this is reflected in both their performance and their price. For the vast majority of users 1000+ lumens is an excessive amount of light, and £140-180 is a similarly excessive amount of money to spend. In many situations you might be perfectly OK with only half that output, and prefer something smaller and simpler. If you're reading this thinking that describes you then look at our Compact Headtorch Group Test.

If you're a runner, however, a biker, or a mountaineer, or indeed anyone in search of max brightness, then the three headtorches we're reviewing here represent the next level of light.

Overall Summary

Make and model



Price: £150

Best Suited For: Trail/Fell Running, Hillwalking

Brightness (Lumens): 1500, 800, 300 

Battery: 11.84 Wh

Pros: Extremely light, well balanced, and easy to use courtesy of reactive lighting

Cons: Lacks a light around the feet, feels a little less robust than the others on test

Weight: 144g

Black Diamond

Distance 1500

Price: £180

Best Suited For: Climbing/Mountaineering

Brightness (Lumens): 1500 (PowerTap - 10 secs only), 800, 300 

Battery: 11.1Wh

Pros: Bombproof, great floodlight

Cons: The warm light doesn't pick out detail in the ground as well as clean white light

Weight: 216g


FREE - 1200, 2000 and 3000

Price: £139.99 - £324.99

Best Suited For: Multi-Sport: Trail/Fell Running, Hillwalking, Bike, Ski Mountaineering

Modes (Lumens): 1200, 500, 80 

Battery: Various - XS = 14.4 Wh / S = 24.1 Wh / M = 36 Wh / L = 72 Wh

Pros: Unsurpassed light, ease of use, unique option to customise

Cons: Slightly chunkier/heavier design

Weight: 228g

Petzl NAO RL £150

The NAO+ has developed a reputation over the years for being both bombproof and brilliant. From a running perspective it was a superb all-rounder, with a solid set of credentials as far as both brightness and battery life were concerned. However, recent additions to Petzl's range - such as the IKO and SWIFT - have made the NAO+ look a little little dated and comparatively low-powered, so it was no surprise when Petzl announced the launch of the NAO RL. The NAO RL addressed both these issues, being significantly sleeker, much more minimalist, and a whole lot brighter. Other updates under the hood include more reactive 'reactive lighting', and a movement sensor. The latter doesn't seem to be getting talked about a lot, but does show the technical development that's going into performance headtorches these days.

In Use

I've primarily used the NAO RL for running, which is after all what it's designed for. I actually think that the updates from NAO+ to NAO RL have made it even better for runners, because that reduction in not just weight, but also material and surface area, makes it feel even lighter on the head. The NAO RL would also make a fantastic torch for hillwalkers who are looking for top end performance whilst navigating at night, or mountain leaders or mountain rescue teams who'd benefit from the extra level of light. When it comes to climbers, this is one area where I actually think that the reduction in weight might have worked against it, because whilst the NAO+ felt big and bombproof, the NAO RL doesn't. I'm not saying it's flimsy, because it seems well-made and has withstood a whole lot of use, but it isn't something I'd like to scrape and bash against rock repeatedly in either summer or winter.

Petzl NAO RL  © UKC Gear
Petzl NAO RL
© UKC Gear

Petzl's R1 Battery  © UKC Gear
Petzl's R1 Battery
© UKC Gear


The modes are cycled through with a click of the single button. The button isn't the biggest, and it's recessed, which makes it tricky to press with cold hands or big gloves.

It cycles through low-medium-high-off which I like, as starting on low means you don't get dazzled. I'm less convinced about it going off, because it'd be much more useful to cycle back through to low, so that there's never a break in the light. You can lock the NAO RL by holding down the button for five seconds, which is useful when you want to put it into your bag without it accidentally switching on.

Looking absolutely out of it at the end of the Montane Cheviot Goat  © Montane
Looking absolutely out of it at the end of the Montane Cheviot Goat
© Montane

Beam and Brightness

The NAO RL features the best spotlight on test, with a distinct beam that lights up a long distance. Whilst it does have a good amount of flood, it's actually quite minimalist compared to the other two on test, and you really notice this whilst switching between the three models. Compared to the Silva FREE (in particular) it feels like you lack a lot of light underneath your feet, although both share that same crystal clear white light, which really brings out the detail in the ground - something that the warm light of the Black Diamond Distance fails to do so effectively.

The button isn't the largest and this, coupled with the fact its recessed, is a drawback in terms of usage  © UKC Gear
The button isn't the largest and this, coupled with the fact its recessed, is a drawback in terms of usage
© UKC Gear

The innovative cradle, coupled with the most minimalist back/battery on test  © UKC Gear
The innovative cradle, coupled with the most minimalist back/battery on test
© UKC Gear

The NAO RL features two different modes: reactive lighting and standard lighting. Let's focus primarily on reactive lighting, because we assume that this is what most people will want from this particular model. Some people love reactive lighting, others don't see the point, but I really rate it - not just for the battery life, but also because it makes life really easy, especially whilst map reading or looking at your watch, situations in which it's all too easy to dazzle yourself.

It's worth noting that reactive lighting has become more reactive in the NAO RL, a development with cons as well as pros. The strength is that you can really feel it closing in when you look down and reaching out when you look up, but the weakness is that it reacts to certain things more sensitively than it did previously. The only times I've been annoyed by it are during extremely heavy rain or when it's cold enough for my breath to mist, both of which interfere with the sensor, as the light reflects off of the rain/mist, causing the lamp to dim. However if that does become an issue then all you have to do is switch it into non-reactive mode, which can be done by holding down the button whilst it's on.

There's also a built-in movement sensor, so if you're moving quicker it doesn't go down as low, under the assumption that you'll need that extra light as a result of the speed you're travelling. I wouldn't have noticed this feature if I hadn't been told about it, but it's worth highlighting.

There are three different settings (low-medium-high) within each mode. What does each one mean in terms of output? Due to the nature of Reactive Lighting the figures are a little complicated, because it's constantly changing - hence impossible to pin down an exact set of figures. To save myself writing out exactly what those figures are, here's a table outlining brightness, distance and burn-time:

In my opinion Petzl have got the balance between the different modes right. The lowest setting is enough for the vast majority of the time. It's fine for running on broad tracks or trails, or more technical terrain whilst you're going slowly uphill. The times where I've boosted it to the middle setting have tended to be when I've been running quicker, or downhill. The highest setting tends to be reserved for when I'm looking for a specific feature whilst navigating in the night, or when I need all the light I can get on a particularly fast, technical descent.

If you do deplete the battery then there's a minimalist 10 lumens which will last you 2hrs. Whilst it's not pretty, it'll get you off the hill, and is (without doubt) better than nothing.

Battery and Burn-Time

The NAO RL features a 11.84 Wh/3200mAH battery. This is USB-C compatible, and charges within 3.5hrs.

At max power, on maximum distance (Petzl quote 200m) you'll get just 2 hours of burn time out of this torch; but while that doesn't sound amazing, you're unlikely to want that much output for so long. At the opposite end of the output, this torch will keep going for, well, days. 

As with brightness it's hard as a user or a reviewer to convey burn time accurately with Reactive Lighting, because it all depends on where you've been looking. If you're constantly looking upwards, out into the distance, then your beam will be brighter and your battery will drain faster; but if you're looking downwards, towards either the map or the ground, then it'll be dimmer, giving you a longer burn time. This is worth bearing in mind whilst you're out and about, as you can consciously angle your lamp up or down in a proactive effort to save battery.

Perhaps the ultimate test I have so far given this torch was throughout the 2023 Spine Challenger South, where I used the NAO RL. For the vast majority of time I had it on its lowest setting, occasionally cranking it up when I needed to do some more intricate navigating, and despite carrying a spare battery the one I had lasted me the whole night - that's 16 hours of darkness.

Another level of damp on the Montane Spine Challenger South
© Penny Orr

Comfort and Wearability 

Considering how minimalist the NAO RL's cradle is it's remarkably comfortable and extremely stable (second only to the Silva FREE). The fact that it's as light as it is, and that its weight is well balanced between front and back, means that there's very little bounce, which is a clear advantage for running. The adjustment is very quick and simple too, and once adjusted isn't something I've had to go back and re-adjust.

Additional Features

Another update from the NAO+ is the rear/red light, which used to be automatic, and therefore impossible to turn off. The NAO RL's rear light can not only be turned on/off, depending on how obvious you want to be from behind, but also has two modes: standard and flashing.

There is an external cable coming out for the battery, which may be of interest in cold weather, although I've been impressed by how well the battery lasts in cold conditions. Keeping it warm will always be a benefit to burn-time.

The NAO RL has an IPX4 rating, which classifies it as being 'weather resistant'. This is actually the lowest category of the various headtorches featured in this group test, but having used it in aquatic conditions I haven't had any issues with water getting in, despite my best efforts!


The NAO RL makes the NAO+ look like an antique in terms of its performance. It's light, incredibly well balanced, has a decent beam, amazing battery life, and all-in-all is hard to find fault with. We like its white light and spot, but feel it could do with a little more flood if we're being picky (but suspect you'd only notice if you'd compared it directly with the Silva FREE). For some users, namely climbers, the one possible downside compared to its predecessor is that it's so stripped down that it feels like it might be a little less durable, although it's worth nothing that we've been trying to break it since we received it over a year ago and it's stood up to the test thus far.

View website

Black Diamond Distance 1500 £180

Black Diamond have always had a reputation for building bombproof headtorches, and the Distance 1500 is no exception. It's got a sturdy feel about it and is the only torch on test which qualifies as being waterproof, courtesy of its IPX67 rating. However, the quirk of the Distance 1500 is that whilst it's been designed with trail running in mind, this is - ironically - an activity we feel it is actually a bit less suited to. Instead, we think it lends itself far more towards hillwalking, climbing and mountaineering, where its broad spread of warm light and durable design would be a benefit.

In Use

Of the torches on test, this is the one we'd take climbing and mountaineering or recommend to mountain leaders and mountain rescue, as a result of its durability. It's got a more robust feel than the other two, both in terms of protection to the lamp itself and a click/lock to the battery that means it's not going to fall out the moment it's pressed up against some rock. The broad beam, with its warm, golden light, comes into its own when cast up onto a crag, but whilst running fails to pick up the detail that the bright white light of the NAO RL and FREE 1200 do.

Black Diamond Distance 1500  © UKC Gear
Black Diamond Distance 1500
© UKC Gear

The Distance 1500's battery  © UKC Gear
The Distance 1500's battery
© UKC Gear

Beam and Brightness

The Distance 1500 features a really good flood of light, filling the widest area of any of the torches on test. The light it emits is of a noticeably warmer hue than either of the others, with a distinctly golden tone. Whilst this may feel nice on a cold climb, we find it doesn't pick out the detail quite as well as a clearer, whiter light, something you notice when moving quickly - in other words, not ideal for running.

It is worth noting that the 1500 in its name is potentially a bit misleading, since in standard use the brightness actually ranges from 300 to 800 lumens, with the option of boosting up to 1500 only for 10 seconds at a time with the PowerTap function. PowerTap is something that's grown on me, but I'm still divided on whether it might simply be better to have its own distinct mode (more on that below).


The Distance 1500 features two buttons, one larger than the other, but neither particularly prominent. With gloves/mitts, or even cold hands, they can be tricky to operate - particularly the smaller one (although we have tended not to use that very often anyway). This is one thing that mitigates slightly against it for cold weather mountaineering.

The button is too small and doesn't stick out far enough - plus they're quite close together  © UKC Gear
The button is too small and doesn't stick out far enough - plus they're quite close together
© UKC Gear

Unlike the other models which all have distinct modes (i.e. high, medium, low, off) the Distance 1500 features a flexible form of delivery, whereby you hold down the larger of the two buttons whilst it cycles smoothly between bright to dim, then a flicker, then from dim back to bright again. The theory is that you can get the exact level of light that you want, but in practise I'm less convinced, as it's hard to know where in the cycle you are at any point in time - a faff factor we have mentioned when reviewing BD torches before. We'd much prefer a less nuanced, but quicker and clearer choice of just three outputs - high, medium or low - over this smooth sliding scale.

Black Diamond Distance 1500  © UKC Gear
Black Diamond Distance 1500
© UKC Gear

The smaller of the two buttons cycles between different modes, namely spot, spot/flood and red light. The spot mode isn't one I've personally found a use for, aside from around camp, but even then I'd usually use it on standard (spot/flood) mode, and bring the brightness down. Red mode is something that I've always been a bit indifferent about, but we know - from having expressed that indifference in previous reviews I've written - that there are people out there who do use it.

The PowerTap works with a quick nudge on either side of the torch. It's pretty quick, simple and works well - even with gloves on. It's great when you're looking at up at a route figuring where to go or trying to navigate at night, in search of a specific landmark, when with just a nudge you can throw out a long-distance beam. My only reservation is whether or not it would have been better simply making it into another mode, so rather than having the PowerTap you just had another click to turn the torch up manually to its highest output, which would last for as long as you wanted, not just ten seconds.

Battery and Burn Time

As always, burn time is quite complex. The table below outlines the figures in their simplest form, but it neglects to mention the PowerTap, which - if you're using it regularly - is going to be a big drain on the battery. Overall, what we can definitely say is that the battery in this torch has a smaller capacity than those in its Silva and Petzl rivals, and all things being equal in terms of the output you're choosing to use, this will have a bearing on burn time.

Distance 1500 Burn Time

Comfort and Wearability 

Aside from the colour of the light the main reason we have not got on with the Distance 1500 whilst running is due to the fact it's quite smooth and slippery. The cradle at the back which houses the battery doesn't have any foam or rubber overlay, which means it tends to slide down lower, and lower, and lower, until the elastic is resting on your ears (which is quite uncomfortable). The solution to this is to wear the additional top strap, and that does solve the issue, but it'd have been nice not to have an issue to solve by having it work without.

Additional Features

The Distance 1500 is the only torch on test to feature a red light as a front end option (as opposed to just as a rear light, which it also features). However, Black Diamond have gone two steps further by also offering a green and a blue light. Whilst we're sure there are some people out there who'll use these, we fail to see the purpose of them.


The Distance 1500 is not our favourite from a running perspective, since it lacks the massive output and the clean white light of the other two models on test. But it is without doubt the one we'd use for climbing and mountaineering, because it's easily bright enough for these activities, and it's also suitably robust, waterproof and built to last. Whilst the operation isn't the easiest, it's something you'd get used to. We had initial reservations about the Power Tap function, and we're still wondering if a fixed full-power mode might in fact have been better. However we have grown to appreciate it for what it is - a useful 10 second burst of as much light as you could ever need.

Silva FREE - 1200, 2000 and 3000 £139.99 - £324.99

Silva have produced something quite unique with the FREE, with the world's first modular headtorch. The ability to mix and match lamps of varying brightness with batteries of varying capacity, means that you can tailor it to what you need, not what the manufacturer dictates. The fact there are options to attach it not just to your head, but also to your bike's handlebars or a ski/bike helmet, means that it extends beyond the boundaries of walking and running. This will be a blessing to some, and an unnecessary extra for others. Putting the novelty of the tech to one side, what Silva have done - first and foremost - is to create a bright and brilliant torch, with a fantastic white light and an unsurpassed blend of flood and spot.

n.b. throughout this review we'll mostly be referring to the Silva FREE 1200 XS, as that's the nearest equivalent to the others, but we'll also draw on our experiences of the 2000 and 3000, because the fact that these options are available either as extras or alternatives makes it quite an attractive proposition for the all-round outdoor enthusiast.

En route up Fairbrook Naze whilst doing the Kinder Trigs  © Matt Harmon
En route up Fairbrook Naze whilst doing the Kinder Trigs
© Matt Harmon

In Use

Whilst the other two torches on test are quite specialist the Silva FREE is a generalist, not just capable - but excelling - at a wide range of activities. Ironically though, the secret to its success doesn't come completely down to its customisable nature. This is a bonus, but by no means the be-all and end-all. What makes the FREE stand out above the rest is the quality of its light. The clear white light used is second to none and the flood it provides is unsurpassed. The NAO RL just pips it to the post in terms of the reach of its spot, but the strength of the FREE comes from the sheer quantity of light everywhere else, which is on another level. The fact it's got this, coupled with a wide variety of lamp/battery options, only makes it more appealing, irrespective of whether you're a runner, rider, skier, or someone who's looking for high output use in other environments (mountain leader, mountain rescue etc...). What's the catch? Well it is a bit heavier and chunkier than the others, which is indeed an off-putting factor. But then we come back to the quality of the light, which more than makes up for this in our eyes. If there was an activity we'd avoid it's climbing/mountaineering, as the interchangeable lamp/batteries don't lock into place, and we'd be worried about the risk of knocking them out whilst udging up against rock.

Beam and Brightness

The FREE provides what is without doubt the best beam on test, with a broad flood in the foreground so that you can see where your feet (or wheels/skis) are going, blended perfectly with a powerful spot so that you can see what's coming up. The crystal clear white light is super sharp, bringing out detail in the ground below (unlike the warmer light of the Distance 1500, which feels like it loses a lot as a result of its golden hue).

Each of the various FREE lamps feature three levels of brightness, although the exact amount of brightness depends on the model you've got. Changing between these levels is easy courtesy of the brilliantly big button, which is the best in test in terms of usability with gloves, cold hands etc. One minor downside is simply that it starts on its brightest mode (high-medium-low), which due to how bright the beam is, really can blind you. I'd much rather it started on its dimmest mode, then allowed you to click through to the brightest. On the flipside, something Silva have thought through is that they don't have an off mode within their cycle, so you just keep spinning through the modes, meaning that there's no interruption to the light. In order to turn off the lamp, press and hold the button for 3 seconds.

The best (and biggest) button on test  © UKC Gear
The best (and biggest) button on test
© UKC Gear

The one thing we'd say about the figures that Silva quote is that they seem to be quite conservative, particularly around the lowest setting. On the 1200 this is - in theory - a meagre 80 lumens, but in reality it feels much more like 250-300. It certainly isn't under-performing compared to either of the other torches on lowest mode, which it should be if their figures are to be believed.

If you're after more light than the 1200 can offer then 2000 and 3000 lumen lamps are also available. These really do represent the next level, with both being exceptionally bright and also remarkably light. They are likely to be of most interest to mountain bikers and mountain rescue who'll benefit from the bigger, brighter and broader beam. The 2000, in particular, features a noticeably more prominent spot, whereas the 3000 is just brighter in every way, shape and form, bringing daylight into the nighttime environment!

The Very Big and the Very Small (Batteries)  © UKC Gear
The Very Big and the Very Small (Batteries)
© UKC Gear

The Light, Bright and the Beautiful  © UKC Gear
The Light, Bright and the Beautiful
© UKC Gear

Battery and Burn-Time

Everyone wants lots of burn-time, but no one wants to carry any extra weight, so it's a matter of where you find a balance between the two. The answer to which battery is best for you largely depends on what you're doing. For hillwalkers and runners it'll likely be the XS battery, as this provides the best 'on head' experience. S is borderline in this respect and once you get onto M, L or XL you're going to need to have them stashed somewhere separate like a pack or pocket, courtesy of the extension cable.

  • XS - 14.4 Wh
  • S - 24.1 Wh
  • M - 36 Wh
  • L - 72 Wh

There are several reasons why it's a good idea to keep your battery stored elsewhere, beyond the fact it'll make the torch more comfortable, and the main one is that by keeping your battery warm it'll perform a whole lot better than if it were cold. Silva are the only brand that provide the data on the difference temperature makes, and the difference is (perhaps unsuprisingly) pretty significant. There are two extension cables available and we'll go into more details about this in Other Features. Suffice to say we'd highly recommend using one, particularly if you're operating in cold climates.

Comfort and Wearability 

The FREE feels secure from the moment you put it on. It's absolutely solid and super stable, in spite of the fact that it's a bit heavier than the others. Whilst there is a top band available, we have not felt the need to use it with the XS battery, as it is fine without. If you were using a bigger battery, and keeping it head mounted, then it might become more necessary, but we'd prefer to use the extension cable if that were the case, as it's much nicer to run with the weight off your head.

Inside the headband there's a silicone strip which helps to keep it in place. I've seen reports elsewhere that some people find this a bit grabby on their hair, but I haven't found this - and neither has anyone else I've met. The back of the torch, around the battery pack, is padded with extra foam that gives a good blend of comfort and security.

If there was one downside it's that it isn't the quickest or easiest headband to adjust, and feeding the elastic through is quite awkward, and needs to be re-done, as it tends to loosen over time.

Running along the boggy Kinder plateau at dawn  © Matt Harmon
Running along the boggy Kinder plateau at dawn
© Matt Harmon

Additional Features

It's hard to know where to begin, because with the FREE there are - perhaps unsurprisingly - a host of additional features to suit the needs of the various multi-sport users.

For those operating in colder climates, or who prefer to store a battery within a pack or pocket, the extension cables are a must. Two lengths are available - 40cm and 130cm. I've personally found the 40cm a little too short, and the 130cm a little too long, although its easy enough to adjust. I think a 60-80cm would have been perfect.

For the multi-sport users there are many accessories for cyclists, with the handlebar mount that's quick and easy to fit, coupled with a neat storage solution for your battery, which fits on the top bar of your bike. If you prefer not to attach your headlight to your bike itself then there's a helmet mount available too, so you've got the ability to choose between the two (or have both, for the ultimate luxury). The helmet mount would also work for ski mountaineers, who need brightness, whilst being able to store the battery somewhere nice and warm.

On the back of the FREE are two red lights on either side of the battery, which give good all-round exposure. There's three modes - on, off and flashing.


In terms of light alone, the FREE 1200 feels unrivalled in terms of its output, which is ironic given that - on paper - it's actually the least powerful on test. The reality is a brilliant flood of light that's second to none, with a brilliantly integrated spot that leaves no area untouched. It also happens to be the best value, with the cheapest price and the biggest battery. Whilst it's heavier than the others, it has a secure fit on the head, and the fact you can customise it and carry the battery elsewhere makes it all the more appealing. The number of  accessories and add-ons, both in terms of the lamps, batteries, and multi-sport attachments, mean that this is going to be popular with a wide range of users who are looking for a high performance headtorch. The FREE really is something a bit different - and we mean that very much in a good way.

2 Feb

Disappointed you didn't get your usual Spice Girls references in when discussing headtorches.

Maybe I should have included them in the summary, although I can't remember which was which - or if the analogy even worked 😂

This lumen craze has gone too far. And for some even 1000+ isn’t enough. One of my friends has a Silva head torch for orienteering. It’s 10000 lumen. Ten thousand! It makes a day out of a night in the forest. Everyone else are blinded.

10,000 lumens is an unfathomable amount of light...

2 Feb

Second time I did the High Peak Marathon one friend upgraded their Petzl Zoom with a halogen bulb and none of us could get our heads around how bright it was. How times have changed.......

More Comments

Loading Notifications...
Facebook Twitter Copy Email