Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Using a head torch for night time trail running

I was up and ready to go for a decent run at 5am yesterday morning but decided bed was more appealing as it was raining (shame on me). To make up for it I went out in the evening for a night time trail run through the national park.

This is nothing unusual as I frequently run at night as it is good training for most ultra events, and I find it more exciting being miles from anyone with nothing but the local wildlife to keep me company. Last night was no exception when I had run into bush turkeys and countless cane toads.

When running at night I like to wait until the last possible minute to put on my head torch, giving my night vision a chance to kick in, as on moonlight nights I have managed without the torch all together (which is far more exhilarating). Typically when I run into a tree or trip over I decide that’s the point to put on the torch. I was nearly decapitated last night by a tree vine dangling across the trail.

At that point I put on my Petzl Tikka Plus headlamp torch which is an excellent piece of kit.  It’s about the size of a matchbox, and weighs about the same taking 3xAAA batteries. I’ve had it a couple of years and it cost about $50. It sits very comfortably on my head with an elasticated adjustable strap, and even when on loosely, it doesn’t bounce at all when running (probably because it’s so light). There are other torches which have the batteries separate to the lamp. With those you can have them balancing out with lamp on the front of your head and the batteries to the rear to reduce bounce, but this is unnecessary with the Tikka.

It has 4 LED lights which are incredibly powerful and so gentle on the batteries lasting for over 30 hours without fading. That’s what it said on the packet; I’ve never had them fade as I always put new batteries in before a race, and haven’t worn the batteries out in my training between races to find out their real limits.

The light is adjustable so that you can tilt it up and down, which neatly clicks between positions simply by pushing the light up and down. It also has 4 light modes, a flashing mode and three levels of brightness. On “full beam” it’s like daylight, but I prefer to run with it on its lowest intensity as it still gives plenty of light to run by, but also preserves the batteries (just in case).

Tips for running with a head torch:
By definition the head torch will be shining outwards from a point close to your eyes, and hence it is very difficult to discern shadows of any potential obstacles. Any shadow cast by the obstacle will not be seen as the light source is the same as the point of view. This can be particularly dangerous when running on trails where the surface is of a similar colour such as sandy gravel and there is very little contrast between surfaces. 

When running on roads this isn’t usually a problem as the typical hazards are things like curb stones, or potholes which generally are a different colour and more easily seen.

To combat this problem I use a second hand held torch which I hold near waist level. This casts a strong shadow highlighting any hazards.  I have seen other runners just having a single head torch style worn on their belt as it removes the problem described above. It does however create other problems as the torch will only light what is in front of you, and not necessarily what you are looking at. I find this really important as I like to look around as I run, looking further ahead to prepare for any obstacles or turns in the trail, as well as being able to see whatever it may be rustling in the bushes around me!

Running with the head torch in the rain creates further challenges. The light from the torch reflects off every rain drop passing your face, which hinders night vision adaption and kind of partially blinds you. This is made worse when there is low cloud, or in a very humid atmosphere, as the moisture shines brighter than the surroundings.

To combat this I tried wearing a cap above the torch, and while it did help this issue and provided a reasonable view ahead, the reflection of the light from the underside of the peak of the cap had the same effect. However by wearing the torch over the cap, the rain stayed out of my eyes, the reflected light was only from the rain away from my face and I could see a clear corridor of light ahead of me, and my night vision was preserved. Oddly the 2-3 feet on the ground in front of me were in complete darkness, but it did not affect my running so clever is the human brain!

As with anything related to ultra running it really comes down to experimentation and finding out what really works for you. Hope fully these pointers will help.

Happy running

“What counts in battle is what you do when the pain sets in.” – John Short

Training 19-9-2010 (26.7km trail)
Training 20-9-2010 (32.4km trail/street)


  1. Thanks for the tips! My 50 miler will be starting in complete darkness...and night trail running is something I have never done and do not particularly look forward to. I guess I should do a little experimenting before race day. :)

  2. Good timing! I'm running home from work tonight with the headtorch and there is some possible rain forecast. Thanks for reminding me to bring a handheld and my cap

  3. Thanks for that, i have a similar headlamp. Great point about low hanging branches!

  4. Thanks Chad.
    You learn things pretty quick when you get a smack in the head!

  5. I missed those days when I used to go on trail running. I have bought this kind of head light and it was the most useful purchase I have done for my trail running. I will definitely plan again once I get free from Btec Level 3 Business Assignments.

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  8. I badly missed those days when I used to go on running. I guess these head torch lights are very useful, especially if you want to run in the evening or at night. I will purchase this light as soon as possible because I find it very useful and easy to carry.
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