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Up to 1,500 lumens
Rechargeable 3,200mAh battery
TAYLOR: On top of being a runner, I just so happen to be a husband, dad, teacher, and coach. As such, there are rarely enough hours in a day to do everything that’s needed. But, of course, that’s the reality for many of us. So, we take to the fringes of the day to fit in our extracurriculars. Whether it’s pre or post-sunlit hours, most of my runs end up being completely dark. Being that I live in a small mountain town where we have no street lights and a veritable ark of wild animals, sourcing my own light is crucial to getting out the door.
I’m constantly searching for the perfect headlamp to support those low-light adventures. Over the years, one company has been able to refine and create new technology for us running folk better than all the rest: Petzl. Originally, the Actik Core wowed me with its lightweight feel and adaptable battery situation. Then, the Swift RL upped the ante with its higher-power light, adaptable lighting, and comfort. After that came the Iko Core with similar specs to the Actik Core but with a unique structured headband and new LED lighting system.
Now, I have a new headlamp to dig into. Combine tech from all of those options, and out the other side comes the Petzl Nao RL (which stands for Reactive Lighting). If you’re an ultra-running fan, you’ve likely seen this headlamp strapped around top pros like Francois D’Haene and Courtney Dauwalter. After a couple of months of reviewing, I can say that this headlamp is far more than just the hype surrounding it. Let’s dig in.
TAYLOR: This isn’t a traditional headlamp that toggles between powers, though it can do that if you want. Instead, the Petzl Nao RL has two distinct modes. One is the standard pick-your-power mode, while the other is called Reactive Lighting, which senses and adapts to lightning needs around you. The beam in both settings is wide, consistent, and clear, thanks to the mix of multiple LED lights at work, which isn’t always the case with headlamps. I’ve used some lights that were too dispersed, which hurt my ability to see, but I’ve also had lights that were too focused, blasting sunlight on a single spot but leaving the periphery in darkness. Thankfully, the Nao RL catches it all.
In standard mode, the lighting maintains a set brightness. Petzl’s max burn setting of 10 lumens is just bright enough for close-up lighting or slow movement, and it can run for a wicked 80 hours. The next standard level (five-hour burn time) of lighting at 250 lumens is great for a relaxed amble on any terrain. Because of the mixed beam setup, even a relatively small 250 lumens feels pretty bright. Max power in standard mode packs a strong 900 lumens that’s great for just about anything, though it’ll only run for two hours.
Petzl also built a red LED into its flexible setup, which is great for some peace of mind. I like to think of headlamps as both helping me see and helping me be seen, and the continuous pulsating red strobe literally had my back.
Petzl’s other lighting mode is called Reactive Lighting. This is actually a major reason for the interest in this headlamp, and it’s even in the name. It’s an optimizing technology that balances both battery life and brightness. Depending on your environmental light, the Nao RL automatically adjusts to the ideal brightness level. It’s a completely hands-free deal that’s easy to experience as the sun comes up. My daily runs almost always start in pitch blackness and end at dawn. As such, I don’t need or want a full-blast torch while I pick up the miles. As the sky lightened, the Nao RL dimmed, preserving my vision and also protecting the battery.
For example, setting the Nao RL on the standard level in RL mode provides anywhere from 30 to 550 lumens of light. My run might demand the full 550 to start but adjust toward lower lighting by the end because I simply needed less light. I don’t really have to worry about turning the light off, either, since the lower beam keeps me visible to others without blinding them.
When needed, the most impressive setting is the max power setting in RL mode. For an average burn of two hours, the Petzl Nao RL can blast a solar flare down the trail. It throws a glorious 1,500 lumens, which is insanely bright and offers confidence on any terrain. As mentioned, the mixed lighting setup makes sure that I get a full range of quality light both directly in front of me and reaching many feet beyond the edges of the trail. Again, as lightning needs changed, so did the level of lighting output, so I didn’t spend much time at the full 1,500 lumens.Shop Petzl Nao RL
TAYLOR: Headlamp batteries have come a long way, that’s for sure. The size-to-power ratio has increased drastically, and the Petzl Nao RL is a perfect example. Its Reactive Lighting setting extends the average battery beyond what I’d usually expect, and it does so without putting a hefty power bank on your forehead. Two hours of putting out 1,500 lumens is unheard of in a running headlamp this size, as is the ability to push 250 lumens for 10 hours. On the max burn setting, you can put out anywhere from 15-250 lumens for up to 64 hours — simply insane. The Petzl Nao RL is proof that both power and longevity can coexist.
The tricky variable is how long, exactly, it will last. Yes, the battery pack contains a meter showing battery life, but there’s no true gauge to tell how many lumens are being put out. If you toggle between powers, the math becomes even trickier to figure out how much light you have left. Oh, and cold weather made this even harder. Any temps under freezing seemed to drain the battery noticeably quicker, but I can’t really gauge how much quicker.
Thankfully, you have the option to purchase a backup battery or two for $69 apiece. Having another battery in rotation for races that take you through the night or long multi-day outings is simply a good idea, especially because the Nao RL can’t swap for any old battery like the Actik Core could.Shop Petzl Nao RL
TAYLOR: There are a few headlamps that can boast a similar power to the Nao RL, like the Fenix HM65R-T, and others that are similarly secure, like the Petzl Iko Core, but there’s no headlamp that can claim the same level of both lighting and fit simultaneously.
The Petzl Nao RL’s headband brings together the design of the Swift RL and the learnings from the Iko Core to maximize both comfort and function. It somehow manages to mitigate the bouncing that I usually feel from headlamps with rear battery packs, and it does so with a few careful tweaks. For one, the battery pack is much more compact than I’m used to. The uniquely thick band mixed with the helmet-like cage in the back also hugged my head securely. I didn’t need to ratchet this lamp to my head, even for technical downhills (the real test).
It doesn’t happen very often that a piece of gear takes best-in-class honors across all departments. The Petzl Nao RL happens to be one of those game-changing pieces of gear, though. From lighting to fit, this is the best headlamp available for runners. Whether you need it on the daily or through the night at your goal race, the Petzl Nao RL will deliver a top-of-the-line experience. I’d put money on it.
You can pick up the Petzl Nao RL for $169 at Running Warehouse (featuring free 2-day shipping and 90-day returns) using the buttons below.
Taylor Bodin is a trail and ultra runner living in Estes Park, Colo., with his wife and daughters. Trail running is pretty much the only hobby he can manage right now and loves it. Every so often, he will pop off a race or FKT attempt because competition is pure and the original motivator for him getting into running anyways. When not running, Taylor is a 1st grade teacher, running coach (track & field, Cross Country, and Trail/Ultra athletes), and volunteers at his church.More from Taylor