Jouni Laaksonen 8.4.2019
I have written to Finnish outdoor magazines for two decades. I’m not super fond of making gear tests, for I think equipment is not the most important or interesting thing about hiking. I rather more like the views, the peace, the feeling of being on your own and so on. I respect more the skills and abilities than the best possible gear.
However, there’s no denying modern materials and technologies naturally have made outdoor gear much more lightweight, better functioning, and whole new inventions have arrived within these twenty years.
So, I make gear tests every now and then. Right now I’m testing lightweight but comfortable air mattresses. No more about that: that test is not finished yet, and it will be published in magazine Erä, not here on my blog.
Rather I thought I’d talk more about the principles.
What do we test?
The outdoor magazines love gear tests, and there is usually one larger test in every issue. The magazine staff takes care there are tests in different fields along the year. If there was a test on big backpacks in the beginning of summer, there won’t be another in autumn, or the next year either. Also there’s probably not a test on day backpacks that autumn either, but there might be one the next year.
We freelance journalists suggest test ideas and sometimes they are accepted, and sometimes the editorial staff reminds us that there was this nearly similar test just two years ago, or something like that.
In general, the test can be done about almost whatever kind of gear: multi-tools, storm-resisting winter tents, lightweight summer tents, kettles, stoves, waterproof-breathable jackets, non-waterproof but windproof and very breathable jackets, hiking boots, compasses, satellite navigators, headlamps…
A headlamp is an essential tool in autumn, and even more in winter when the daylight time is short, and useful on many other occasions, too. Here it’s midwinter and we are waking up before the sun gets up.
Speaking of which, headlamp is the piece of equipment I’m going to use as my example here.
There are gear reviews also in blogs. I’ve seen in the blogosphere more often a review on one piece of equipment and not often gear test with something like ten different models/brands. My perspective is that of a gear test conducted for an outdoor magazine.
How do we decide what are the important factors?
A common procedure is to give points in several categories. These categories are weighed either evenly or, more commonly, according to what is thought to be fair.
An example is needed. I conducted a test on lightweight but efficient headlamps in 2014 for magazine Erä. Due to several decades of hiking in Finnish seasons, I knew very well what a backpacker likes to have in his/her headlamp in northern conditions.
So, I decided the important categories are
- lightweight and compact (25%)
- beam of light in meters (20%)
- good performance when used in close quarters, like reading a map or guestbook (20%)
- battery duration (15%)
- easy of use (10%)
- extra features (10%)
This is always a bit of a matter of taste. Another tester would perhaps have chosen slightly different categories, and he/she would probably have placed different importance for each category. That’s why it’s important to tell the reader what the key factors were, and why. A summarizing table is needed, too, for from that an experienced reader can see which gear is the best in those categories the reader holds most important.
I was not looking for example for a headlamp that can create the longest beam of light, but for the best overall headlamp for a hiker.
It’s not very often that you need a beam of hundreds of meters, but sometimes it is useful.
Most of the time you use a headlamp you need a shortish beam for walking or skiing, or an even dimmer beam suitable for pottering about in tent or hut.
It is nice to be able to see your tent 200 meters away in pitch dark, but if the same lamp cannot offer you a soft light for map reading, it’s pretty useless. Or if that huge beam lasts only for a short period and then battery runs out. And so on.
There was a big difference in the usefulness in close quarters. A bright and narrow beam is not nice for reading a map (left), whereas a large and soft beam is. The best headlamps offer both options, and more.
The manufacturers and importers offer many kinds of information, like weight of the product, length of beam, battery duration in hours and so on. Mostly these numbers are correct or nearly so, but we naturally weighed the lamps ourselves as well, and a colleague of mine, Hannu, conducted a series of tests measuring both the beam of the light and the battery duration.
This latter one is an interesting question. Should we just choose the mode producing longest beam of light and see how long the battery lasts using that? Or, should we choose the shortest beam, the battery saving mode, and see how long the battery lasts now?
Neither of these is useful in my opinion.
Of course it would be very easy to create a table with 20 headlamps showing these numbers, but what would that table tell for the reader? Lamp A has a super dim mode (usable only inside a wilderness hut when you don’t want to disturb others who sleep) which gives dim light for 336 hours. Lamp B has different modes, but even the dimmest one produces a beam with which you can walk in a pitch dark forest. Lamp B gives light for 20 hours. The numbers 336 vs. 20 cannot be compared at all.
No, in my opinion the useful battery duration is found out when we find such a mode in each headlamp that produces a beam of about 30 or 40 meters. That’s enough for most of outdoor use, like walking in dark forest, or skiing in dark on even surface, and the same beam can be used in camp, and so on.
A beam of something like 30 or 40 meters is adequate to most walking, skiing and snowshoeing activities.
So, this is what we did. Hannu set up a measuring field and we found out the proper mode for each lamp. We left the lamps on and checked every hour if the lamps still give a beam of 40 meters. If a lamp could not produce that long a beam any more, it was out.
This gave interesting, and comparable results. However, this was not enough. In Finland we like to backpack also through the winter. If you go for a week long backpacking tour in December or January, you’ll probably meet below -30°C temperatures. During the test months there was a nice -30°C weather one weekend at my home. I set a small test area outside, on my yard, and left the lamps on, with that 40 meters beam.
Before the modern led technology (and probably battery technology is also to be praised) freezing temperatures caused a quick battery loss, if the battery was exposed to cold. The models having a separate battery hanging from your neck, next to your skin, under shirts and jacket, were the best ones for winter backpackers.
To my surprise this is not the case any more. Also the models having batteries on your head, in the lamp part of the headlamp, did very well! Well, not all of them, but the best ones.
We then combined the results of Hannu’s measurements and mine, and gave a total score for battery duration.
Aside these laboratory-like measurements a very important part of the test was to use every lamp a lot. I live in countryside, far away from streetlights, so a headlamp is needed for almost every chore during evenings on our yard. Small headlamps are nice items to be tested, as it’s easy to take several lamps with you to hikes, and use a different lamp on consecutive days. And you can also give one test lamp to every one of your hiking companions to be used on that hike – and then ask for opinions.
In other categories it was easier to see what were the best lamps in each category.
- The more lightweight and compact, the better.
- The longer beam, the better, in that category. Sometimes you need a long beam, even if not often.
- To my surprise there was a lot of variation in close quarters use. With some models reading a map was almost impossible, as the dimmest beam was way too bright. And on the other hand, some manufacturers had created a special mode for close quarters, a wide even beam that was comfortable for eyes. Good for them!
- The easier to use, the better. By the way, it is surprising and somewhat annoying even, how many different functions the lamp manufacturers can produce with just one single button! Push a short push, or long, or two pushes close to each other… An important feature is that you can lock the lamp so that it cannot accidentally switch on on your backpack. Many models have this feature, but not all.
- And there are a huge number of special modes in many headlamps nowadays. There may be red light, blinking light, back of the head light, automatic adjustment of the beam (reactive light), switching on/off without touching the lamp, different kinds of water resistance, rechargeable battery pack or disposable batteries, or possibility for both of these options, and so on. Not many of these are very important for a basic hiker, but then there are special fields of outdoor use where just that feature may be vital.
Armytek Wizard Pro was the most durable lamp in the test, at least according to IP Code (and we found nothing against that assumption). IP68 means the lamp is both dust tight (number 6 tells that) and completely waterproof, even when immersed in water (number 8 tells that). IPX4, which means the lamp is waterproof against water splashing from any direction is usually enough for a hiker, but a higher number certainly doesn’t do any harm.
I’ll continue on this subject next week. I’ll tell what models were the top five in our test, and as I bought four out of five of these top test lamps to my own use I can now tell whether they are okay after five more years of heavy use. That’s something you cannot test in a six month or a year long test period.
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A short notice on how Hiking in Finland is getting on. I’ve now seen all of the layout, but there’s still some proofreading and adjustments to be done. There will be 304 pages in the book, which is a bit more than was planned…. There are more full page pics than I dared to hope for, which is great! 🙂