Thursday, August 2, 2012

Fenix HP10 (HP11) night blaster, the Sun on your head

For many years I used a Petzl Duo halogen/LED headlamp. It was in many ways the gold standard for cavers and rescue personnel, and it still the main headlamp you see permanently attached to rescuers helmets. The Duo Belt, same head unit but with a body mounted battery pack for extreme cold, was also used for winter explorers. The housing on the battery box of my Duo cracked after nearly a decade of use. It can be replaced, and I will probably do so at some point, but I took the demise of my Duo as a chance to look at more modern and compact options that were better suited for backpacking and climbing. The Duo wasn’t heavy, but it was a space hog. 2-3x the volume of more modern lamps.

I consider myself a night owl, if not somewhat nocturnal. If anything, the only time I really ever get up early is for hiking and paddling, though I often intentionally start out late in the day to time a sunset photo opportunity at a specific location. But because I’m pretty comfortable hiking, biking, running,  rock/ice climbing, skiing, (flatwater) paddling, and swimming at night -among other pursuits, I tend to not really concern myself with the time I start an adventure when I don’t have a particular reason to do so.

Because of my affinity to spend time in the dark, I really prefer to have a good headlamp that meets the following criteria.

  1. Uses AA batteries which are still the most common for multiple devices. Two way radios, GPS, camera strobes, DSLR battery grips, and the few remaining non rechargeable point and shoot cameras all take AA batteries. This means I only need to carry AA batteries and not multiple sizes (usually AAA is second most common). A second factor for AA batteries is the availability of AA Lithiums. These are not cheap, but they are easily found at any big box store and they work in extreme cold. they also negate the weight advantage of AAA vs AA (based on 3 AAA alkalines vs 4 AA lithiums).

  2. Has a seperate battery compartment and lamp housing for balance and comfort. True, while front mounted lamp/battery combos are usually smaller and lighter and you can lay down with them on, they aren’t as good for active pursuits. They tend to bounce and sway and usually lack a 3rd over the head top strap for security and stability. 

  3. Rugged and waterproof. My Petzl Duo was fully submersible down to several dozen feet, and while I never went snorkeling or diving or underwater caving with it, having piece of mind that a little rain or snow or even the unintended flipping of a canoe wouldn’t be the death of my light source is very important.

  4. DEDICATED POWER SWITCH AND MODE SWITCH. With all the good options for the first 3, this was and still is perhaps the hardest option to find and thus it’s in bold. One of the things I liked about my Petzl Duo was it’s simple two switch lever setup. Up/Down/Middle. Up and down were for either lamp (halogen or LED module), middle was for power off. In the middle setting the switch locked out so the headlamp couldn’t be accidentally turned on, and this was a feature that made the Duo a favorite of mine. The Duo lever switch worked extremely well with gloves and mittens. Unfortunately, most LED headlamp makers like to have just a single switch that controls all the various settings. So with many headlamps you have to cycle through 6 modes (or more) to get from power off back to power off. Ideally, in a dual switch setup, one switch controls power on/off and one controls output adjustment. 

  5. Power output. At least 100 lumens on high with a lower setting of 10-20 lumens.

  6. Battery life. Something that would last 3-4 days of intensive use at low to medium power.

  7. Beam quality. Lumens are one factor in quality of light output, but the type of LED bulb and it’s color balance, the reflector (collimator in LED tech), and the throw of the beam all make for better and worse beams.

  8. Cost. Under $100.

Once I ruled out all the headlamps that weren’t AA and didn’t have a dedicated power switch, I was left with really a very small sample. Among that sample was the Fenix HP10 (now replaced by the 277 Lumen HP11, which I also own) and it’s 225 lumens of night blasting, blindness inducing, pure white laser light. This lamp met all my criteria but was from a name I had not heard of before. After reading the reviews, and visiting the associated light enthusiast sites, where every feature is scrutined, tested, and the lamps are even disassembled, I placed an order for the Fenix HP10.

It turns out Fenix has a long history in handheld and tactical lighting. It also turns out that these aren’t over inflated specifications, but they are actually verified by enthusiast testing, complete with tear downs and inspection of the internal components. The burn times listed below were extremely accurate in testing, as was the Lumen output.

Specs for the Fenix HP10 are impressive: IPX-8 waterproof (certified for continuous submersion under operation), beam outputs of 7 lumens (210hrs), 50 lumen's (22hrs), 120 lumens (7.5hrs) 225 lumens (limited to 3 minute burst to prevent overheating but can run consecutively without problems, expect about 3 hours of continuous run time). Emergency warning flasher (44hrs), strobe (5hrs), and S.O.S (50hrs) settings. The bulb is a Cree XR-E (Q5) with a scratch/shatter resistant anti reflective optical grade glass lens, surrounded by an aluminum housing with cooling fins. The body and battery box is polycarbonate for a total weight of 117g without batteries. 177g with 4 AA L91 Lithium.

Pros: met all the above criteria plus a compact lamp housing, metal heat fins allow the 225 lumen burst mode to run continuously (even if it does revert to 120 after 3 minutes, simply press the button to reactivate 225), amazing light output at over 200 lumens, tight beam, accesories like an area lamp diffuser, and a hiking/close task diffuser. Flat back mounts well to a bike helmet or climbing helmet, headband can be removed. Housing doubles as a power lock. 

Cons: tight beam (just a little too tight), need for a snap fit accessory diffuser, no physical power lock but the housing doubles as passive lock when in upright position, small buttons are difficult to use with gloves, impossible to use with mittens. Straps are small and flat back (on lamp housing) isn't super comfy on a bare head when hiking for hours in the dark (worn with a hat I never notice the back). 

First, at the risk of ending the suspense, let me just say that this headlamp is so good, I will really just cover the minor cons and how to fix them to make for a near perfect headlamp.

As far as the cons, the only one that really can’t be fixed is the size of the buttons. Unfortunately, this is pretty common on the new compact LED headlamps and really can’t be fixed.

Another con is that the beam is very focused and thus has very little spill. It is almost a bit too hot (focused) at the center and can be distracting for close quarters task, and this includes hiking on rugged terrain where you are watching your step. However, with the snap on diffuser, the light is nice and even.

With the diffuser attached there are some pros and cons. First, it’s a press fit flip up diffuser. It is fairly secure but if you were thrashing through brush, or in the close quarters of a cave or swimming in the water, it could possibly pop off. Also because it flips, it can create downward glare onto the face/eyes of the user. The solution is fairly simple 1) make the edges of the diffuser opaque (paint, nail polish, etc) 2) push the lamp housing a little further up on the forehead. 3) attach some sort of blinder below the lens 4) simply wear a brimmed hat and problem solved. The snap on diffuser isn’t all bad. You can buy a few spares and paint them various colors. Red for night vision or sneaking around huts after quiet hours. Green for reading maps in the dark.

The second problem with the diffuser, is that while the undiffused beam on low (7 lumens) is actually bright enough to hike with, it really needs to be bumped up to the second setting (50 lumens) once you go diffused. I should note, most consumer headlamps high beam is about 40-60 lumens, this is level 2 on the HP10.

The tight throw and low spill of the beam can be easily fixed with a layer or two of screen protectors from a cell phone or even Scotch tape. Ideally, the old style resistive (stylus based) protectors that aren’t quite clear are best. I added two layers of Invisishield and the beam almost doubled in diameter, if I could find my old “Write Right” protectors from my PDA days, I could do even better. This simple fix makes the snap on diffuser virtually unecessary and enables the HP10 to be used on low beam most of the time while on the trail.

**Since I initially wrote this review, I lost my initial diffuser but I ordered 3 more to paint red and green. Yet, I haven’t replaced the clear one. I decided to solve the beam tightness with clear screen protectors alone and have it perfect for my needs.

A neat feature of many Fenix lamps, including the HP10, is a snap on area light diffuser. This wide area globe can be found for under $10. However, if you have a spare 35mm film canister in your house, it should snap right on the housing. On low beam this is great for reading in a tent, but on 50 lumen setting it can light up a campsite. It’s about as bright as a 60 watt bulb when hung from a overhead line.

Wondering what the strobe setting is good for? Well, if you and a few other hiking mates have HP10’s with globe diffusers, you can each color them and set up a disco in the backcountry. What better way to end a hard day of hiking than with a little clubbing to the beat of nature.

How does the HP10 compare to the competition:

The short answer is there really isn’t a headlamp that completely matches it. It’s brighter, burns longer, more rugged than anything else on the market. Here is the best the competition offers under $100.

Petzl Myo RXP ($75-90): It’s maximum of 160 lumen boost mode isn’t quite the HP10’s 225 blinding lumens, but it’s more than enough based on the rare times I have even needed 120 lumens. With only 95 hours of burn time at low power (8 lumens) using the 3 AA battery pack, the RXP doesn’t quite offer the long term lighting of the HP10.

Although Petzl claims the RXP has much longer burn life than the Fenix, it is largely misleading. Petzl was able to boost the RXP battery life largely due to the regulated (voltage controlled) processor in the headlamp. That control merely means that the light eventually gets dimmer at any given setting until depleting the batteries. For example At 50 lumens (which both the HP10 and RXP have a setting for) the RXP claims 56 hours to the HP10s meager 22. This appears an impressive feat, however, the RXP produces 51 lumens for 3 hours while the HP10 produces 50 lumens for 22 hours. By 10 hours, when the HP10 is pumping out 50 lumens of pure white light, the RXP is down to 8 lumens. A positive for the RXP is that you can select the 3 power modes you wish to use. For example, the HP10 is preset to 7, 50, 120 and 225 and cannot be changed. The RXP allows the user to set 3 levels from the following Lumen outputs: 8, 13, 17, 25, 34, 51, 59, 71, 85, 140. I would probably opt for 8, 25, and 59 (160 Lumen boost is always available regardless of preset outputs). However, even at 25 Lumens, the RXP only has a 10 hour burn time before it drops to about 10 Lumens. So the HP10 burns longer at 50 Lumens than the RXP at 25 Lumens.

On the positive, the RXP has a proper built in diffuser that works the same as the HP10 without the press fit issues. I should note that the RXP diffuser has a different issue than the HP10 diffuser. Rather than glare from the diffuser, the RXP cast a shadow. The RXP is also not waterproof, it is only IPX-4 (protected against splashing water). IPX-4 is probably plenty for hikers, but a good thunderstorm and some tropical storm force wind could potentially test this level of sealing.

Like the Fenix HP10, the Petzl Myo RXP offers a power switch and a level switch.

Black Diamond: Sadly, BD Equipment, one of my favorite companies, offers nothing comparable in power or features.  I believe it's current brightest headlamp is now around 100 lumens. Also, BD refuses to seperate the power and level buttons, prefering to stick to a single button for all functions. Until they can clear up their UI/poor design nightmares, I'd steer clear of BD headlamps.

Princeton Tech Apex ($60): The Apex offers IPX-7 waterproofing, which means it can be submerged and operated at 1m for 30 minutes. With 200 Lumens maximum power it is very close to the blinding nightime faux Sun of the HP10. Like the Petzl RXP, the Princeton tech is electronically regulated. However, Princeton Tec is more upfront with it’s burn times. Unlike the Fenix or the Petzl the Princeton Tec Apex uses multiple LED bulbs to control light and power consumption. The lower power settings use 4 wide angle low powerLEDs for wide area lighting, eliminating the need for a diffuser lens. The power output from these LEDs is 12 lumens (14hrs), 40 Lumens (8hrs), 85 Lumens (8hrs), 200 Lumens (0.5hrs). From the numbers you can see that while the 4 low power LEDs eliminate the pesky diffuser, they don’t offer much benefit in terms of power savings. Like the other units, the Princeton Tec does burn for longer than it’s stated times but at lower power output. Maximum burn time for the Apex is 150 hours on low power.


I’ve been a Petzl fan for many years, perhaps even to the level of being a fanboy, I would have probably not have hesitated to by the RXP had it been available when I bought the Fenix HP10. However, because the RXP uses 3 AA batteries, rather than 4, it sacrifices significant burn time and perhaps power output. Beyond that issue, the RXP suffers from diffuser issues itself and it lacks the waterproofness. So it comes down to Petzl’s name or Fenix specs. I have always liked Princeton Tec’s specs and price points, but I’ve heard negative things about their headlamps durability. I also am not convinced eliminating the diffuser hassle is worth the tradeoff of the extra power consumption of the 4 LEDs. Assuming you don’t care about burn times, the Apex is a worthy option.

Competition is what drives innovation and Petzl and Princeton Tec now have another competitor in the marketplace. All the above headlamps are excellent, but for the $45 I paid and the versatility of the HP10, I do not think there is a better lamp on the market. 


Look for my review of the HP11, while I haven’t spent a lot of time with it, I can say it’s nearly as good as the HP10, improved in many ways, not as good in others. But it gives you 277 lumens for about the same price ($50-70) and equally good battery life.

Off for a trail run with the night Sun.