For virtually any outdoors adventure, the right gear can give you an edge. But in few product categories does this ring as true as it does with lighting. For activities at night, an ill-performing headlamp, flashlight, or other source of illumination can literally leave you in danger and adrift in the dark.
I have been there. On Wyoming’s Grand Teton, climbing with a friend a few years ago, we got stranded high on a cliff at night. Our ultra-light headlamps were too dim to reveal how far our rope reached as we rappelled off an edge and into the night.
It was a dicey descent, though it taught me a lesson: Don’t skimp on lighting. In the world of gear, the right light for the job is something I now take seriously while planning any endeavor.
To the point, in preparation for a calendar that included several nighttime events this year, I upgraded my headlamp. The ULTRA BELT ACCU4 from Petzl shines an immense cloud of L.E.D. light into a dark woods. It’s rated at 350 lumens of brightness and has a jaw-dropping price tag to match its illuminating personality.
Indeed, with a price tag hovering over $400 at most online stores, the ULTRA verges on unaffordable. It costs a cool $500 at REI.com, but can be found for less around the Web.
The torch is also an unnecessary tool for most outdoors types and will be complete overkill for hiking or backpacking. Even for biking dark city paths or on the road, I rarely need to use the ULTRA’s high-beam setting.
But for a climber stranded high on Grand Teton and looking to see a rope end that’s dangling 180 feet below? The Petzl ULTRA is worth every penny.
My use this year has not been so extreme. But on overnight adventure races as well as nighttime orienteering events — two of my passions — the ULTRA has lit up the mountains and woods to an enviable degree.
To be sure, the Petzl light is not the brightest bulb in the industry. Special lights in the same price range made for mountain biking may be twice as bright. But the Petzl headlamp, which includes a battery pack on an extension cord, is uniquely designed for moving fast in the outdoors.
The light’s headband system is comfortable. A control knob offers three brightness settings, and it’s easy to toggle between the modes to get optimal output. At low power, the unit’s rechargeable battery is quoted to last more than 16 hours; at high mode, you get about two hours of use.
One gripe: Though the ULTRA’s cord is nearly four feet long, I find it slightly too short in some scenarios. I can stow the Petzl battery pack easily in a backpack if I am wearing a pack while using the headlamp. But when the battery is stashed in a pants pocket, there’s just barely enough cord to reach, especially if I have the headlamp on a helmet. I wish the cord was about a foot longer.
The light has six high-output LEDs set side by side. Its weight with the battery pack and cord is about 12 ounces. Overall, the headlamp is a bit heavy. And it’s way too expensive. But for scenarios where price is trumped by safety or needed speed in the woods at night, the ULTRA is a viable illumination option.
—Stephen Regenold is founder and editor of www.gearjunkie.com.