A Tale of Two Headlamps — Let There Be Ski Touring Light

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | August 1, 2018      

I’ve always wanted to work two memes into the same post title. Finally accomplished my dream!

Icon, helmet mounted.

Icon, helmet mounted.

Last winter I found myself attempting to night ski with about the same lumens as a wooden match. Okay on the uphill, but nighttime downhill skiing on all but the smoothest groom (with zero obstacles) is best done with a lamp that reaches in front of you like a train headlight. Mission this summer is to pick the headlamp that’s bright, with easy controls, lightweight, helmet mounted. Mandatory requirements: Around 450 lumens at brightest, and a divorced AA battery pack. Thus the faceoff here between Petzl Duo Z2 and Back Diamond Icon (Princeton Tec to come). Let’s have fun with direct comparisons in as many relevant ways I can think of.

Brightness: Due to different focus modes, comparing brightness is difficult. Duo claims 220 lumens (Lm) with dual LEDs in use, one spotlight and one broad, and 180 Lm for single spotlight mode that yields a third more battery life. A boost mode jumps up to 430 LM, but is rather useless as the LEDs only pump this for 5 seconds then cut out automatically. Icon claims a max of 500 Lm, but in wall illumination and night comparisons I found that, oddly, Duo at max continuous (not boost) and Icon at max were similar in a any practical sense. Also rather oddly, Icon claims a 70 hour battery life at full bright 500 lumens (!) while Duo claims at most 2:45. Some of this is confuses simply because a focused beam might throw farther than one of the same lumens that’s broader. But still, I found this battery life thing to be downright strange. Perhaps clearly indicating that the Icon would be much better for expedition or SAR use, when you could easily exceed a few hours of continuous max illumination.

Black Diamond Icon, the headbands are easily deleted for helmet mounting.

Black Diamond Icon, lightweight and bright, though the user interface frustrated me. The headbands are easily deleted for helmet mounting, cord extension and harness included for body mounding the battery pack.

User interface: Yes, instead of calling this “controls” I’m using the geeked out term “UI.” The UI design philosophy with both lamps involves placing all functions under one control switch. Both UIs are incredibly confusing and soon had me wanting to get a return label printed and put them on the next available UPS truck. I persevered, however, in the name of gear freaking. (Or, freaking gear?)

Icon is controlled with a tiny, slightly recessed button that’s impossible to use with mittens, difficult with gloves, and even a little mysterious for cold bare hands when out of eyesight (another control called the “Power Tap” also provides a few functions). In the continued vein of odd curiosities, the Icon control could be easily activated inside a backpack. According to the arcane instruction sheet, you press the switch 4 seconds to activate a lock function. For me, doing so only turned on the lamp, nothing more, and adding to the confusion sometimes a long press would turn on the red LED, and sometimes the bright LED. Aha, I thought, perhaps the lock function is only for when the Icon is switched on? I tried again but still got nothing but a mode change. So much for that.

Continuing the epochal Icon UI, with the instruction sheet propped in front of me on my desk, I attempted to learn two things: How to switch on and off, and how to simply activate max brightness. Instructions say turn it on with a 1 second press. Doing so gets me a dim red LED. I fiddle around, seems my “1 second” press was too short, I linger my finger, and finally, get a bright white light. Then, shucks, another test cycle and my lingering finger gets the dim red light again… Remember, this is all supposed to be done with the lamp mounted on helmet or head, presumably without a mirror telling you exactly what’s going on. Moving on, I tried the “Power Tap” function, involving a simple finger tap on the “tap zone,” said to bring up the brightest light. That was easier, but with other concerns such as performance with gloves or mittens.

Some of you might be more adept at this sort of thing than I — more lumens to you. As it is, I like the form factor of the Icon, so I’ll probably put some effort into memorizing the controls, though I’ll also continue searching for a simpler headlamp.

Clarification: Icon has a little thing on the side of the lamp housing called the “Power Tap,” which you tap with your finger for max bright. Mixed impressions on that. I don’t see the Power Tap being practical with big gloves in a snowstorm. Indeed, UI designers probably familiarity with this sort of thing, perhaps “whoops, we made the UI too confusing, let’s add another control…”

BD does a fairly good job of lampsplaining in the following vid (the memory feature is probably the worst culprit in confusion) — but I’d still prefer the Icon to simply be simpler.

Petzl Duo.

Petzl Duo is quite heavy, said to be extremely durable. The optional double-stick helmet mount (shown here) is super nice.

Moving to the Petzl Duo Z2 controls. The good part is you get a fat knob on the right side of the unit, easily operated with gloves and marginally with mittens. This is obvious as the headlight switch in a 1969 Chevrolet. But not as simple. With the Chevy you pull the switch all the way out for full headlights, part way out for running lights only, then twist it left and right to control dome and dash lights. Pure, unmitigated UI genius. A 2-year-old can figure it out in as many minutes (though his feet might not reach the dimmer switch on the floor).

Clearly, the Duo control is intended to make for easy manipulation with thick gloves. Beyond a simple toggle switch, it’s probably the most tactile control I’ve seen on a headlamp in a long time. Yet in similar fashion to the Icon, the Duo requires various sequences of switch rotation “bumps” to invoke various modes. I found these to be no easier than the Icon, perhaps even tougher as the enclosed printed instructions made no sense to me. Experimentation showed me the control knob seemed to increase brightness as I rotated clockwise in short bumps, with a 2-second hold to turn on or off.

Duo is 348 grams, Icon at 226 grams — a startling and neck bending difference in two fairly similar lamps. The Petzl is overall more bulky, even the 4 cell battery case is significantly larger than that of the Icon. I have no idea why all this extra flesh is necessary, my first guess was that the Duo must be super waterproofed, but it’s apparently IP67 rated just as the Icon, meaning both can go to 1 meter deep for 30 minutes. Next guess, Duo appears to have a much larger cooling area than Icon.

Third guess: Duo has a feature called “Face2Face” that dims the lamp when up against another Duo, as when you’re face-to-face with someone. I’m not convinced on that, as in our world it’s random we’ll be encountering others with the same model headlamp. Better to simply practice good headlamp manners, that way when you’ve got your Duo on bright mode, you won’t have to stop and think about whether another person has the same lamp. (This is a serious concern, as these super bright LED headlamps may damage eyes, or temporarily blind someone.) Fourth guess: Duo is built with beefy multi-purpose mounting brackets that fit accessory brackets from Petzl, such as an option for mounting on helmet. Fifth guess: Perhaps the design language of this item is “I am beefy.”

To be fair, I did ask a Petzl representative about the obvious bulk of the Duo. Their word was that it’s indeed super strong, industrial grade equipment.

Battery life:
Didn’t someone once write: “When the going gets weird, the weird carry bigger batteries?” What’s weird here is the Duo, at a claimed 120 lumens, lasts 6:45 hours, while the Icon says you’ll get 100 hours at claimed 90 lumens! Overall, when comparing the two lamp’s battery charts as best I could, Icon seems to have better battery life. But the only way I can see really resolving this is to use both lamps for fairly lengthy periods of normal activity, and see what we get out of the same type of batteries.

I did read that the Icon is “regulated,” meaning it reduces output when battery voltage drops to a pre-set. Perhaps the claimed Icon battery life includes triggering this feature, which would explain the stated performance (for example, Icon specs state it’ll go 70 hours at 500 Lm!). Near as I can tell, the Duo is not regulated, meaning whatever setting you choose will suck the batteries dry, with the lamp as bright as possible the entire time. Both regulated and unregulated would clearly have pros and cons. From a safety standpoint, or engaging in activities far from spare batteries, regulated would perhaps be better.

Battery pack mounting:
Icon comes with a battery case body-mount and cord extender. On Petzl website see no such accessories for the Duo. I prefer my entire headlamp assembly to be on my head, so the lack of this accessory is not an issue for me (though the noticeable weight of the Duo is a concern for tired neck muscles, and an extension would be useful).

We tend to avoid stating prices here at WildSnow, but in this case felt doing so is important.
Duo, $249.00
Icon, MSRP $100.00 but presently marked down to around $75.00 at backcountry.com and several other etailers.
— Thus one has to ask, what in the world do you get for hundreds of dollars more in the Petzl. Most certainly it could be more durable, that might be a big factor for SAR and commercial applications. Likewise, it’s rated for explosive environments. The accessory mounting plates are nice, but more money.

I prefer the large control knob on the Petzl, but as skimo racer Max Tam told me about the Icon he’s been using for the Elk Mountains Traverse:

“I removed all of the straps from the BD Icon headlamp and Gorilla taped the remaining mount to the front of the helmet. Goggles move easily from face, over the headlamp and rest just above the headlamp. Battery pack was stored against the body with the included cord extender. This system functions very well but requires taping everything in place. I have used a lot of BD headlamps in recent years so am used to their controls. For races like the Grand Traverse I adjust it a lot to save battery and avoid blinding myself on long climbs. For sprint races I leave it on full power the whole time.”

Conclusion: For caving or SAR type use, the Duo might be good due to its probable durability. More, some of you might like the idea of the Petzl helmet mount — we certainly did. For basic ski touring, I prefer the Icon due to its light weight and oddly superior battery life. (BTW, you might wonder why I didn’t lab test the battery life. I’ll continue to attempt, but doing so is difficult for a variety of reasons, e.g., confusing user interfaces and being sure lamp output is similar.)


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32 Responses to “A Tale of Two Headlamps — Let There Be Ski Touring Light”

  1. VtVolk August 1st, 2018 9:39 am

    I’m an admitted light geek, and have a long (mostly good) history with BD lamps. I chuckled at your UI issues, as I’ve totally been there! There’s nothing worse than somehow accidentally switching into strobe mode, then having to battle the button to get it back–seemingly always in driving snow, on sketchy footing, with frozen hands, etc.

    I do a lot of night touring, and the Icon is a great lamp for the climb, alpine starts, etc., but none of these are bright enough for full-speed descending. I carry a 1600 lumen mountain bike light in my pack that goes on at the top via stick-on GoPro mount on my helmet with battery pack on my body. My regular headlamp goes in a pocket as an emergency backup.

  2. Lou Dawson 2 August 1st, 2018 10:45 am

    Thanks Vt, good to get some confirmation! Agree that even 500 Lm can be marginal for downhill skiing, Lisa and I don’t ski particularly fast so that level seems to work, though she does use that brighter lamp I blogged about a while back. I’m ok with around 450 Lm.


  3. Lou Dawson 2 August 1st, 2018 10:47 am

    In olden times, we taped the lamp wire to a big battery, wired an on-off switch, and that was it. Perhaps that gave me too many expectations (smile). Lou

  4. Pavel August 1st, 2018 11:11 am

    Doesn’t make sense to me to insist on AA batteries. Li-ion has a higher energy density than alkaline or Ni-Mh and is better for high currents of powerful headlamps. Single-use Lithium cells might be reasonable for some expedition use, but solar chargers are already ubiquitous in that area, too.

    What’s more, the reduced weight of the battery enables you to get rid of the separate battery pack, which is just clumsy and also the wire is from my experience by far the most frequent cause of failure.

    What am I missing?

  5. XXX_er August 1st, 2018 11:48 am

    its unclear how this light adjusts the light pattern up and down but if they do it with a hinge that is the weak spot where head lamps always seem to break IME

  6. Steve August 1st, 2018 12:53 pm

    Once you get to know something like the products Lupine North America offers, all these “turnkey” headlamps feel like lightweights. With Lupine’s Piko @ 1200+ lumens you can MTB or ski about as aggressively as you ever would during the daytime. And they’re bigger units go up above ~4000 lumens if I recall. Whole other level.

  7. Lou Dawson 2 August 1st, 2018 1:00 pm

    Pavel, good thoughts, I simply standardized on the AA units because that’s what I like for my frequent situations when I’m away from residential voltage, and also want to quickly remedy dead battery. I totally agree that Li can be wonderful. We’ll review some of those as well. Lou

  8. buck August 1st, 2018 1:37 pm

    ” the Icon control could be easily activated inside a backpack. According to the arcane instruction sheet, you press the switch 4 seconds to activate a lock function”

    the lock function does work – you hold it down until you see some blue flashing. BUT it’s a press-activated lock/unlock, so even if you lock it successfully, a long press from bumping into anything deep inside your backpack will still unlock it and drain your battery. Just what you want to have happen with a critical emergency item, isn’t it?

    After 2 separate instances of finding my headlamp battery dead & having to dig into my repair kit and dig out my spare batteries (in the f*ing dark), I’ve had to procure a container for the headlamp and insert foam padding in all the right places to ensure that the light is never unlocked & turned on accidentally when it’s stored in my pack.

    Who the hell designs and tests this stuff?
    anyone from BD reading?

    move the lock/unlock function to a separate & better hidden toggle switch, or provide a custom container for the headlamp that insulates the control button from accidental activation

  9. Craig Steury August 1st, 2018 2:47 pm

    I’m a long-time BD user also with similar UI issues, which included a few accidental “turnings-on” of the headlamp inside my pack when it wasn’t locked — aargh! Eventually became 2nd nature though ..

    One question/clarification of the “regulation” feature. My understanding what the *current* was regulated so that the light produced a constant lumen output up until a certain threshold, at which point it would switch to a non-constant battery output (to conserve whatever life is left in the battery). If you look at the output from an unregulated alkaline battery it falls off fast; it’s really good at the beginning and then drops off to a lower level for a much longer time. Lithium batteries are better in this respect as well as being less-effected by the cold. The previous paragraph should be considered a question for Black Diamond because I’m not sure about my facts! (it could have been a feverish dream) It’s especially difficult to reconcile with the longer battery life claims, as I would think that regulating the current to be constant would make the battery discharge more quickly because of the extra circuitry, etc?

  10. Steve August 1st, 2018 4:34 pm

    +58 for the BD headlamps turning on way too easily and the lock feature being sub-optimal. I carry one in my ski patrol vest, regularly forget to lock it after using it, and inevitably have someone tell me my pocket is glowing.

  11. Allen August 1st, 2018 11:22 pm

    BD’s battery life claims are wildly inflated to the point of being absolutely ludicrous. Outdoorgearlab did a really good expose of this a few years back and they still talk about it in there more recent headlamp reviews.

  12. Jernej August 2nd, 2018 2:32 am

    I find helmet/head mounted lights are terrible for skiing/MTB or any fast movement over rough terrain. Not for their lack of lumens but the lighting angle towards terrain. You just don’t see the features (rocks, ditches, bumps, roll overs…) well enough because the light is flat. If you really want to see where you’re going you need the light down by the waist or knees. It’s the same problem as built-in flash in photography. Terrible light on camera, but move it away from the lens axis and you suddenly get shapes.

    I still use a headlamp but I don’t particularly care how strong it is, it’s there just for picking up details of where I’m looking at that moment. But for seeing where I’m going I want a strong light lower down .

  13. rod georgiu August 2nd, 2018 8:22 am

    I’ve been using a zebralight for a couple of years. 4 ounces, aluminum, 1000 lumens, 18650 single battery.
    Great technology.

  14. Allen August 2nd, 2018 8:57 am

    BD Icon
    Measured High Mode Run-time (ANSI) 12.6 hrs
    Claimed High Mode Run-time 70 hrs

    Per Outdoor gear lab testing with lightmeter.


  15. Simon Kelly August 2nd, 2018 3:40 pm

    I’ve been impressed with this headtorch. Only 220 lumens but got me down at dusk just fine (carefully!).


  16. Tim August 2nd, 2018 5:25 pm

    Hey Rod, which Zebralight are you referring to? I have been using one of their single AA lights for years, but it isn’t as bright as what you mention. How long does the 18650 battery last at 1000 lumens?

  17. XXX_er August 2nd, 2018 8:48 pm

    The Zebra has also been on my radar but which one ???

  18. rod georgiu August 2nd, 2018 9:08 pm

    It’s the 18650 non flood type, neutral white.

    Battery life is excellent, used it many times in cold temps at medium setting, which is 400+ lumens.
    Anyway, I have a few headlamps, and this is by FAR the best.

    I think it’s about$80.

  19. XXX_er August 2nd, 2018 10:07 pm

    yeah thanx for that, a buddy bought one and I was impressed with the quality but of course she thru out all the paperwork so no idea which one it was

  20. Russya August 3rd, 2018 1:13 am

    I use this Gemini bike light with the 2 cell battery pack on my helmet. Much brighter than either of these options and lighter at 1500 lumens 122g $170 with the battery vs Icon(300g 500lumens $100) and Duo(360g 450 lumens $250) and it’s priced right between the two. It also comes with a wireless remote you can mount to your pole and change without having to touch your head and fumble around with gloves. Kind of a no brainer if you ask me. Give it a look. Best option I’ve found for the money. You can even spec different emitters for a different light temperature. Not affiliated with the below company, just happy with the light.


  21. Ted Eames August 3rd, 2018 9:06 am

    I use my light from my bike, a cheap 2000 lumen Magicshine, long cord allows batery toi stay warm and helmet mount is easy to use, large oring attaches, I rivited mine to my alpine smith helmet for early season patrol sweep when it gets dark before we are down, but have done some covert powder runs. you can get these for cheap off Amazon

  22. Jim Milstein August 3rd, 2018 7:43 pm

    Agree completely with Jernej about light being more effective well off the line of sight. Ideal might be a waist-mounted high output flood with a small helmet-mounted spot for looking around.

    All this is theoretical for me. What I want is a light to get me safely back when benighted. For that I have a small Fenix HL10 flood that takes a single AAA. I use prime Li AAAs and keep several spares with it. They weigh almost nothing. Super simple UI: a big glovable rubber button. Long push turns on or off. Short push, with light on, rotates through Low, Medium, and High. It remembers the current mode. The Li primes have a shelf-life longer than my expected life and work below 0ºF.

    Once I was benighted and preferred to ski back to the trailhead by the light of Venus rather than destroy my night vision with an early LED lamp I had with me. Open country, needless to say. Venus, sadly, is not so good in the trees.

  23. Atfred August 4th, 2018 5:42 am

    Always have headlamp in my pack, and small light in my pocket; have used both mostly for going from bed to bath in hut, and occasional alpine starts. Two lights for insurance.

  24. Lou Dawson 2 August 4th, 2018 7:08 am

    Yeah, I put the lightest smallest light in my repair kit, then carry some sort of headlamp depending on the nature of the trip. Usually just a light, simple AAA battery lamp with a basic headband. If I know for sure I’ll be night skiing, then I ramp it up. Headlamps have become quite reasonably priced, owning more than one is feasible. Lou

  25. Bruno Schull August 4th, 2018 8:31 am

    I just wanted to mention that Goya used to wear a hat with a wide brim on which he mounted a ring of candles so that he could paint at night. Maybe we should do the same for skiing or mountaineering? That’s all.

  26. Jim Milstein August 4th, 2018 9:00 am

    My preposterometer is pegged, Bruno.

  27. Tim August 4th, 2018 12:13 pm

    Old news, but one possible solution:


  28. Bruno Schull August 5th, 2018 12:35 am

    It’s true, Jim! Google, “Goya candle hat,” or read the wonderful poem by former US poet laureate, Billy Collins, entitled, “Candle hat.” I didn’t believe it either at first. Maybe we need 22nd century iteration…like a helmet with 360 degree LEDs or something like that. Just trying to say, I’m not mocking the light article–obviously important. I just couldn’t resist bringing that tidbit to the table!

  29. Atfred August 5th, 2018 4:44 am

    Yeah Lou, no fun if light dies half way to pooper!

  30. Jim Milstein August 5th, 2018 9:25 am

    Still pegged, Bruno! I looked up Goya’s selfie with silly hat. He is trolling. The portrait is meant to be preposterous. Goya is wearing a matador’s costume while painting and a completely ridiculous candle-holder hat. Goya, life of the party!

    For 360º lighting, see Tim’s youtube link above.

  31. brunoschull August 6th, 2018 12:18 am

    Hey Jim. I would love to believe that Goya was trolling eternity, and I would also love to believe that he painted in that hat! They’re both great narratives. Wouldn’t it be great if somebody in, say, 200 years, looked back at that night-ski-light video (which is great) and thought that was how we all skied?

  32. Jim Milstein August 6th, 2018 7:45 am

    Actually, Bruno, that is just how I ski. I hate skiing when the sun is up. Too dazzling. Doing flips off cliffs is really fun at night in a light suit. Try it!

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