Modern front-mounted headtorches are neat and lightweight, yet pack enough power for most needs. Here we look in depth at five alternatives across the price spectrum.
The SWIFT RL offers an amazingly heavyweight power output in a light and compact package, says Rob Greenwood, while its Reactive Lighting helps preserve battery life. Is this all the headtorch you need?
When I was young I remember my parents packing their bags for the Karrimor Mountain Marathon. All of their kit looked so space age, even though it wasn't, even by the standards of the day. Since then stoves, sleeping bags, waterproofs and even base layers have all undergone various evolutions and revolutions, but few of these compare to the developments that have taken place in the wonderful world of the head torch. Whilst the Petzl Zoom was indeed a gloom-buster, something that a great many seem to get strangely reminiscent about, it did - lest we forget - rinse through batteries and blow out bulbs; it weighed a ton, and was laughably clunky. Many years later when I came to buying my own head torch, the LED revolution was underway and the Petzl Tikka was the obvious choice (and the market leader).
Since then there have been leaps and bounds of development, and we now have more choice of torches than ever before. You can go all out for lumens, or opt for a longer battery life; you can make it simple and lightweight, or dazzle yourself with a plethora of modes and settings; some torches have inbuilt USB-rechargeable batteries, while others even connect to your phone for programmable control.
Tech specs aside the end use is much the same: you put a headtorch on your head in order to see things in the dark. The trick is to filter from the vast array of models now available a torch that best meets your own particular needs.
With that in mind, where does the SWIFT RL fit in?
The Petzl SWIFT RL is undoubtedly a premium product. This is unlikely to dispel forum comments regarding pricing, but I'll say it anyway: it's not cheap, coming in at £95.
Is it worth the money? I'll cast my vote throughout the course of the review, but ultimately the decision will come down to whether or not the feature list matches your needs.
The SWIFT RL is suitable for a wide range of outdoor activities and could be classed as an all-rounder, with features that are useful across the board.
Coming in at 100g, it is surprisingly light for its size and ability. Of course you can get lighter, if that is a primary concern - Petzl's own ACTIK CORE comes in at 75g after all. However, for its reasonably modest extra weight the SWIFT RL massively outshines the ACTIK CORE and most other torches of its ilk, kicking out a whopping 900 lumens on max power compared to the ACTIK CORE's 450. Even Petzl's previous flagship powerhouse - the NAO+ - pales into insignificance against the beam of the SWIFT RL, looking a little odd on the shelves at 750 lumens (more on this later).
So let's return to the matter of intended use. If you're climbing, be that bouldering, sport climbing or trad climbing, the SWIFT RL and its Reactive Lighting (more on that later too) is perfect. For mountaineering, the only drawback is the SWIFT's burn time, which is fine for a single day but potentially quite limiting for multi-day use (unless you happen to have a charger or a spare battery). For night nav whilst hillwalking it is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the business (albeit with the same caveat as for mountaineering, i.e. it isn't ideal for multi-day use unless you have a charger or a spare battery), and the same goes for skiing and ski mountaineering.
The SWIFT's brightness and burn time is a little complex, and is best broken down into two categories: standard lighting and reactive lighting.
Standard lighting should need no introduction, because it's what we've all been used to for years: you turn on the head torch and that's that.
'RL' stands for Reactive Lighting, which essentially means that the torch adapts its beam depending on where you're shining it. At close quarters it dims, while if you're shining it far away it gets brighter to compensate. It doesn't do this by distance, it does it courtesy of the in-built sensor which detects the level of ambient light bouncing back at it. When I first heard about this technology at a trade show some years ago I remember being quite cynical, as it sounded like yet another largely unnecessary gimmick being added to a product where simplicity was ultimately key; however, times change, technology is refined, and I must admit that after several months of use I am a complete convert.
Reactive lighting seems to have reached a point in its development where it is so good that it is barely noticeable in use. In fact, upon going back to using my old ACTIK CORE I was blinded whilst looking at a map late one night, as I'd become so used to my headtorch adapting automatically that I'd failed to take the dazzle into account. This isn't where the benefit stops though, as its main advantage is that is provides a much more adaptable system as far as burn time is concerned, because it is able to deliver a far more nuanced beam than standard lighting, which just outputs 'x' amount of light, irrespective of where you're looking or what's going on. Because RL has the ability to dim and brighten depending on where you're looking it can preserve battery life when you don't need massive range, and then deliver maximal output when necessary.
Were there to be a downside to this it is that it makes testing the actual burn time pretty much impossible, because it completely depends on where you're looking. If you're looking down more your burn time will be higher (up to 50hrs on RL Max Power), but if you're staring a lot into the distance then it'll be way shorter (2hrs on RL Max Power). I've found the significance of this variation a little alarming, especially when trying to plan for something that requires a degree of certainty. For instance, I've long been plotting a Bob Graham Round, and for that I need a torch that is going to last through the night. If I was using the Reactive Lighting Standard (i.e. middle) setting then I would in theory get somewhere between 5-40hrs burn time. If it's the former, then it won't last the night; if it's the latter it'll last me nearly two days. As such, which of the two figures can I really rely on? The answer is difficult to give, other than to say that if I did end up using the SWIFT RL, which I suspect I will, then I would tilt the torch down so that it preserves the battery. In reality this is likely the case whilst running, and it's definitely the case whilst climbing, where you're likely to spend most of your time looking at the ground immediately front of you.
The beam itself is worth focussing on for a moment. Much though lumens are useful in establishing how bright a torch is, it is just as critical to know how the headtorch uses that light. The SWIFT RL balances the requirements of the climber, runner, skiier and mountaineer, with a good blend of flooding in the foreground and a strong, focussed beam giving you the distance too.
As a final word on the figures it's worth mentioning that Petzl's stats are independently tested using the ANSI Plato FL1 Protocol, along with brands such as Black Diamond. Over the years I've seen some crazy figures quoted for headtorches, so it is nice to see that there's an independent body trying to standardise the industry's claims.
Time and resources being finite, we generally make detailed comparisons between products only in our Group Tests; but it makes sense to do so here.
So let's look at two other models in the Petzl range that will be familiar to many: the Actik Core and the NAO+. Here's a quick breakdown of their performance, price and weight side by side.
Max Burn time
Max Burn Time
* the ACTIK does not feature Reactive Lighting, hence it isn't quite consistent with the SWIFT and NAO+ readings, but it does serve as a useful benchmark
Compared to the ACTIK
The ACTIK is undoubtedly a more basic torch, but as per our recent(ish) Compact Headtorch Group Test it is a strong performer both in terms of price and performance (and many users will prefer simplicity!). It has half the output of the SWIFT (450 vs. 900) and is unsurprisingly cheaper (£58 vs. £95), but strikingly its max output has the same burn time as the SWIFT RL's - or potentially even less when taking into account the latter's Reactive Lighting. Despite my early cynicism regarding RL I would now gravitate towards any torch with this technology. I'd say that it's worth every penny, thanks to the enhanced battery life alone.
That said, if the budget is a major concern then the ACTIK remains a very solid choice for the all-round user.
Compared to the NAO+
The NAO+ is Petzl's flagship headlamp, hence it is strange to see them side by side on the shelves with the NAO+ in its larger packaging quoting 750 lumens, compared to the SWIFT's more modest box quoting 900. It would appear a simple choice, and I must admit to wondering why anyone would ever purchase the NAO+ now that the SWIFT is on the market. But having used both I'm no longer so confident.
Yes, the NAO+ is more expensive, bulkier, heavier, and has less output; however, what it has in abundance is battery life - something that is not to be underestimated! This is a crucial factor, especially when you compare the various burn times to how long the night can actually be. In midwinter, depending on where you are in the UK (and how grey a day it is), you can realistically get a good 18hrs of darkness. Whilst the ACTIK and the SWIFT can indeed cope with this through reducing their output, that - some may say - would defeat the object of carrying such a bright headtorch. With the NAO+ there is no need to compromise, with a highly respectable 350 lumens being possible over a time frame of 15-25hrs. That's a get out of jail card on the winter mountains!
As if this weren't enough, there is the additional benefit of being able to customise your lighting modes further using the Petzl App (another gimmick which - when used - is actually quite good and not so gimmicky). You also get a flashing red light on the back, which is great when running in groups or on the road after dark.
In short, the NAO+ still holds its own in many settings, but if it comes down to price in the final analysis then the SWIFT RL may appeal due to its lower price tag.
The complexity of testing the exact timings of the SWIFT's burn time because of RL don't necessarily make this aspect of testing any easier, but having put the SWIFT's battery in the freezer overnight its power was seemingly unaffected (or, if it was, then it was barely noticeable). As such, this should allay the fears of anyone looking to use the SWIFT RL through the colder and more miserable months of the year (which just happen to be the darker months of the year too).
With its front-mounted battery the SWIFT is neater and more compact than torches (such as the NAO+) with a separate rear battery pack. The lack of a connecting cable also means there's one less thing to get damaged.
Users of Petzl's rechargeable CORE battery will be on familiar ground here. Due to its output the SWIFT RL requires a larger battery than its cousin the ACTIK, hence there is no compatibility between the two - something that may annoy some of our audience. However, when you think about the SWIFT's greater lumens and burn time, it's quite clear why. The SWIFT is providing a heavyweight amount of lighting within a lightweight and compact exterior.
As such, it will come as no surprise that the SWIFT, unlike the ACTIK, cannot also take AAA batteries. The reason for this is simple: the current battery pack offers a regulated output, meaning that you get a consistent beam over a prolonged time frame. If you were to add AAA batteries into the mix you would get a significant spike followed by an almost immediate drop in performance. The SWIFT needs something more stable and consistent.
The CORE Battery
The SWIFT Battery
The SWIFT battery takes six hours to charge, which is a reasonable amount of time - significant enough to require some planning if you are heading out. Clearly this is fine if you put it on to charge before heading to work, but less fine if you forget and hope to charge it after. It would be great if this time was lower, but perhaps it's no surprise.
One minor criticism is that the SWIFT battery is a bit awkward to remove, but given that the USB is readily accessible, and I don't actually have a spare battery to replace it with, this hasn't presented a major problem; however, if you were trying to fiddle with it wearing gloves, whilst battling with the elements on a mountainside, it could be quite awkward.
We've already run through the various modes in Brightness and Burn Time, so I'll avoid repeating myself on that front.
The SWIFT features a single button which cycles through the various modes: max burn time, standard, max power, and off. By holding the button down you can switch between Standard and Reactive Lighting, although I doubt you'll be doing this much due to the fact that there are very few drawbacks to RL (in fact, there's a whole lot of positives). Once turned off, there is a five light indicator letting you know the status of battery life, which is a useful feature given the complexity of calculating burn time.
One simple feature that is useful, especially for when the SWIFT is in storage, is the lock function. By shifting the button to one side you can lock the SWIFT so that it doesn't turn on. Whilst this is effective, it is a little fiddly with gloves on, so be warned.
The final thing that is absent is a red light mode. Whilst I have had this feature on a great many head torches I cannot think of a single occasion where I have actually used it. Yes, it's good for your night vision, but really - does anyone other than the SAS actually use it? Thoughts on the back of a postcard (or, better still, in the Forums…).
Were the SWIFT RL to have been included within our recent Compact Headtorch Group Test it would by no means have been the biggest, but it would have been the brightest by a significant margin (i.e. double that of its nearest competitor). Weight-wise it is similarly competitive, coming in at a remarkable 100g. When it comes to robustness, it certainly feels well made and there are no real moving parts to go wrong. The only possible drawback would be its IPX4 rating, meaning that it is weather resistant (as opposed to waterproof), but given that I've been out on some incredibly wet days with it and it's still working fine, I suspect this could be quite conservative.
Petzl have gone to town to make the SWIFT strap a little bit more supportive and slinky than that of the ACTIK, with a slimmer build around the sides, then a split at the back. This is to counteract the additional size of the front unit, which could have been more prone to jogging up and down due to being larger. That I haven't found bounce a problem may be testament to the effectiveness of that strap. Its only drawback is that it's not quite as good a fit when placed on helmets, but you can certainly still do it. If you thought that was all that could be said about straps you're wrong, because there is one final feature: it's reflective too (great for spotting your climbing partner, or for visibility whilst running on roads).
When you look at the stats the SWIFT looks too good to be true: it's compact, light, and has a ludicrous amount of lumens. The Reactive Lighting which I was initially cynical about has turned out to be a highly valuable feature, not just in terms of its usability, but also for preserving battery life. Given this strong set of features I would argue that the £95 price tag represents a good deal. Were there to be a drawback it is that it potentially fits in a slightly awkward middle ground in Petzl's lineup, costing a lot more than the ACTIK but offering less battery life than the NAO+ for those all-night outings. However it's still the best headtorch I've used, by a long way.
With 900 lumen brightness at only 100g, SWIFT RL is the most powerful of the Petzl compact headlamps. With REACTIVE LIGHTING® technology, a sensor analyzes the ambient light and automatically adjusts the brightness to user requirements. The headband is reflective for night visibility. Its two-part construction ensures excellent stability in dynamic and intense activities such as mountaineering, trail running and skiing. SWIFT RL is intuitive, with a single button for easy control of all lamp functions. It is rechargeable, with a five-level gauge for precise monitoring of the battery charge level.
For more info see petzl.com
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