Sometimes backpackers focus too much on big name brands with flashy ads in popular magazines. We’re all guilty of it. Those same publications and people often forget to show love to brands who create great products without the glossy centerfolds — no, not those kinds of centerfolds. So, when our editor tossed me the ZebraLight H52w headlamp, I was intrigued and delighted to see an item and brand I didn’t know.
The ZebraLight H52w AA Neutral White combines everything we love when it comes to headlamps: lightweight, durable, versatile, one-button operation, and a rich feature set without any advertising hype. Throw in a super-bright LED and the ZebraLight H52w headlamp clinches the Premium Pick for the Ultralight Backpacker.
Choosing a headlamp might have your head spinning — we’ve got an Outdoor Guide for that! Inform yourself, and read the full review of the ZebraLight H52w headlamp below.
|Feature Type||Feature Specs||What This Means|
|Lumens (Light Output)*||
High: 280 Lm
Medium: 50 Lm
Low: 2.7 Lm
|The headlamp actually has 6 programmable modes of brightness. These three are accessible out of the box. The highest setting is very bright.|
|Max Beam Distance*||Not Measured||Unlike other manufacturers, ZebraLight knows beam distance decreases as the battery drains, so it doesn’t list beam distance. On High (280 Lm) you can see very far.|
High: .9 hours
Medium: 7.5 hours
Low: 96 Hours
|Decent battery life on Medium and Low modes. Only use High for short, necessary stretches.|
|Beam Type(s)||Spot||A very focused beam of light on this headlamp. ZebraLight also makes the H52w Floody, which has all the same specs but a wide, close beam.|
|Modes||Low, Medium, High, Strobe||Three basic modes with three more programmable settings beneath them, and two strobe settings.|
|Red or Green Light?||No||Just white light. It does get very, very dim for reading if needed.|
|Water Resistance||IPX7||Highly water resistant. Dunk away, at 6.56 ft. (2 m) for 30 minutes.|
|Tilt||Yes||The lamp is inside a silicone holder and you can rotate it at will.|
|Lock Mode?||Kind Of||No official lock mode, but you can unscrew the cap a bit and the headlamp won’t turn on.|
|Battery Type||AA||Uses one AA battery! One! However, it needs to be a NiMH battery, preferably an Eneloop, or battery life decreases.|
|Headband Type||2-band||Standard headband. Comfy.|
|Weight||2.9 oz. (80 g)||Weight includes the light, headband, silicone holder, clip, and battery. Each component can be removed to lessen the load.|
|Manufacturer Warranty||1 year||Not the greatest warranty, but ZebraLight construction is rock solid.|
|Retail Cost||$64-$76||A high price for a powerful headlamp with tons of ultralight versatility.|
*Studies show that manufacturer claims on Max Lumens, Beam Distance, and Battery Time are inflated compared to traditional ANSI standards. Our listed specs are those of the manufacturer, which are typically accurate for the first 2-10 minutes of the headlamps’ use with a full charge. While this is unfortunate, it is currently industry standard, which means most headlamps suffer from these inflated specs, and wash across the board.
Origins: Easing You In
January was a tough month for gear testing. My dad turned 70. I got sick. Work was hectic. But, excuses are for politicians and teenagers (sometimes the distinction is impossible to make).
I was excited to get on the trail and test the ZebraLight H52w AA Neutral White — a product name that’s hard to remember and henceforth dubbed the H52 — so I geared up for the cold and headed to a local fire road for a trail run.
I’m very picky when it comes to headlamps and wanted to put the H52 to a particular test: downhill running. No, most backpackers don’t run downhill at full speed. But I can’t stand a bouncing piece of metal or plastic strapped to my face, so this was a warm up for the H52.
The road made a steep ascent for 1.5 miles before leveling off. I ran up. Great. I ran down. Not so great. I’ll touch more on that later.
After the run test, I knew I needed to test for my most frequent scenario: hiking at night and setting up camp after dark. In true funhog style I loaded my overnight kit into the car the night before, and went straight from work to the trailhead. (Side note: When you want to mix up your work week, wake up in the woods and head to the office. You’ll feel great, and you can brag to your colleagues about how much of a badass you are).
I set out as the sun was making its final descent behind the mountains. This made crossing the 30-foot wide, rain-swollen Matilija Creek…interesting. And wet. I clicked on the ZebraLight H52 and pressed on with soaked socks and high spirits.
Revelation: The Moment I Knew
The walk to camp was about 2.5 miles (by no means challenging). But when I haven’t hiked at night in a while the distance always feels twice as long. I stop for every leaf rustle and periodically check over my shoulder for bears and axe murderers. If you don’t check, you won’t see them coming!
I started with the H52’s brightest output, but quickly realized that 280 lumens was overkill. After reacquainting myself with the click sequence, I was able to quickly move through different outputs with ease, and found a happy home on one of the middle settings.
When the canyon opened up, I toggled to bright. When the willow and sage closed in, I bounced down to low. Ease of output adjustment is key when you’re on the move, and this was the moment I knew the H52 had a leg up on some of the better-known competitors.
As I got into camp I was stoked to see that my favorite spot had not been wiped out by recent flooding. Yes, California finally got some rain. It was pitch black and the stars were burning as I pitched the tent.
The H52 comes with a little clip to convert the unit from headlamp to trusty flashlight. I was able to pop it onto the door of my tent as I inflated my pad and fluffed my sleeping bag. I seriously love this feature.
As I cozied up to sleep, I pulled out a self-help book (don’t judge me, I’m human), and was reminded that the H52 is extremely bright on high output. Even on medium output. But it has so many settings! I toggled it to low — and its low is actually low so you can still read up close without being blinded by the reflection off a page. I was able to read 2 pages comfortably before dozing off. Never fails.
Another surprising feature: the unintended battery lock. I am a notorious battery-drainer – I leave the light on, I forget to lock the button, I leave the batteries in. Luckily, the H52 has a simple solution: unscrew the battery cap a bit and you’re locked out. I like this better than button locks because fate always manages to find a way around these, and it keeps the battery from unintentional drainage.
Finally, let’s talk customization. ZebraLight takes a different approach than other manufacturers (Petzl and Black Diamond to name two) when it comes to output customization. Instead of a dimmer function, the H52 remembers custom output selections through menus accessed with button sequences.
If that seems confusing, it is! After reading the manual a couple times and practicing, the button sequences came together. I anticipate I would need to bring the instructions with me if I wanted to program on-the-fly adjustments, but you can customize each light mode at home (there are a total of 6) and the headlamp even remembers your selections after you change the battery.
I have a big head. No, I’m not cocky: my skull is large. Most lamps are heavy or stick out far from my face and require me to crank down the headband to keep it in place. Not the H52. It’s light enough that I can keep the strap comfortable, and the stretchy headband and silicone holder feel great even under a hood or against the skin.
Two words: metal casing. Almost no one uses a metal casing anymore. The H52’s case is machined aluminum so it’s still super light. I don’t have 2 years to put the light through hell, but I foresee it lasting many years. Also: it really is waterproof! Check out my dunk test:
The H52 is bright. Even on pitch dark trails, I only needed the lower of the two medium settings for perfect lighting near and far. The beam is pretty focused, so it’s great for spotting and close-up tasks. I do prefer a more spread beam (available in the H52 AA Floody), but it wasn’t too distressing.
ZebraLight’s specs on the H52’s battery life are pretty accurate. I left a fully charged Eneloop rechargeable AA in the light for two weeks prior to testing (some drainage testing), and this did significantly impact battery life. I was able to get about 2 hours of full output/customization before the device permanently stepped down output to low. I appreciate that the light automatically steps down output when charge is low to extend battery life, and this bought me time before having to switch to a fresh cell.
Editor’s Note: The battery life of the ZebraLight H52w is accurate only when using a NiMH battery, specifically an Eneloop battery. This battery is what ZebraLight used when measuring the specs of the headlamp, and ZebraLight recommends using high quality NiMH battery for best performance. Alkaline batteries will not last as long, especially in the brightest mode, where they will drain incredibly quickly. It says this in the paperwork you receive with the headlamp. This makes the H52 even more of a Premium Pick, as you need to invest in better batteries for it to function as intended.
I don’t expect to see the H52 on a catwalk anytime soon, but it’s got a clean, functional design and look. But the casing and strap blend in a little too well with the California dirt…I almost pulled out my hair looking for it after I dropped it in the dark with the light off.
Nothing is perfect, right? Here are my issues:
Even as lightweight as the lamp is, it sticks out horizontally from your forehead quite a bit. So, if you’re moving quickly a lot on the trail (extended downhill trail running) you can feel the lamp bouncing on your forehead. The included silicone holder has a spot to attach a top strap, but you have to buy a full headband array separately to get a top strap (according to Zebra Light’s online store at the time of publication). It’s not a running-specific lamp, but I like multi-use gear.
While I love how customizable the H52’s light output is, the number of button clicks required to reach each output level is tedious. Also, remembering the program sequences to customize the outputs wasn’t intuitive. I got it in the end — after about 15 minutes of playing around at home — but it required practice and patience. This is typically the tradeoff of single-button operation, but the H52 is particularly difficult to remember. It may may frustrate more casual users.
Finally, no red light. Sigh. I like red light at night for close-up tasks around camp like map reading and cooking. The lowest setting on the H52 is pretty darn low, so I can get over the lack of red light, but I do love to nitpick.
I’m no wildlife biologist, but this durable, lightweight, adaptable ZebraLight H52w represents a species on the rise — I can’t wait to see what they do next!
The ZebraLight H52w AA Headlamp Neutral White is the full name of the product we tested for this review. ZebraLight has an immense amount of headlamps (and other lights), each of which has slightly different specifications. This model has a spot beam, natural lighting, and enough power for a typical Ultralight Backpacker. You’ll see links to purchase this headlamp below, as well as the Floody, which is the same light with a Flood beam instead of a Spot beam.
The links below allow you to purchase from ZebraLight directly and from Amazon. Amazon prices are higher at the time of publishing, so go the ZebraLight route unless you have money with Amazon, or need that Prime shipping.