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We're ashamed to admit that we used to snicker at the sight of a headlamp. We'd see joggers wearing them while hitting the pavement and say snide things under our breath like, “Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it's off to work we go.” But when we got old enough to turn wrenches in the garage, we realized head-mounted lights weren't just for miners.
In fact, headlamps aren't just for recreational activities, but are essential for emergencies. Picture an earthquake that topples your apartment complex, and you have to dig through crumbled walls to find your missing daughter. Imagine a chemical spill spews toxic fumes for miles, forcing you to bug out far away from city lights. Or perhaps you're in the less dramatic, but more likely, scenario of having to fix a flat tire after sundown — it's pretty hard to unscrew lug nuts with a flashlight in one hand.
So, in this edition of Hands On, we're pitting two moderately priced models head to head (pun completely intended): The Coast Products HL27 and the Fenix HP12.
Make & Model: Coast Products HL27
Max. Runtime: 330 lumens
Max. Runtime: 8 hour, 45 minutes
Weight: 6.8 ounces (including batteries)
Make & Model: Fenix HP12
Max. Runtime: 900 lumens
Max. Runtime: 145 hours
Weight: 5.9 ounces (including batteries)
On paper, it might seem like Fenix's LED outshines Coast's. Its max output of 400 lumens edges out the Coast's 330 lumens. Plus, with a maximum output of 900 lumens in the 30-second burst mode, the Fenix offers a retina-searing amount of light with an impressive throw of 124 meters (a little longer than a football field). Many light snobs will love the ability to wield almost 1,000 lumens…but when is a lot just too much? It depends on your application.
We tested both models in various situations: indoors, performing car maintenance and practicing household emergency drills; outdoors, hiking in low light and using the lights while practicing our survival skills on a camping trip. Like giddy Boy Scouts, we found that the Fenix's 900-lumen burst mode was fun to play with while outdoors, but it wasn't really necessary. In the woods, our immediate survival concerns at night never extended beyond 40 meters at any given moment, and indoors the burst mode was more a detriment than an asset, as it often caused light to bounce off walls and nearby objects into our eyes. We suspect that, unless you're in an outdoor search-and-rescue situation (either signaling to be rescued or searching as a rescuer) or your job puts you in a vast and unlit workspace, the burst mode won't be vital to your general operations.
Rest assured the Coast's 330 lumens come close enough to Fenix's 400-lumen output for all practical purposes. Both provide superior illumination at night and offer different levels of brightness. The Fenix HP12 can also emit 150 lumens on mid mode, 50 on low, and 10 on eco. Meanwhile, the HL27 doesn't have different modes, but rather features Coast's Light Output Control Wheel, which you twist like a dimmer dial to get the exact brightness you want.
While the Fenix might have the Coast beat in the maximum brightness category, the Coast is much more intuitive to use. Coast's Light Output Control Wheel is pure genius. Just spin it counterclockwise to get a dim light then rotate it clockwise for gradual brightness or all the way for full blast. Located at the top of the lamp just behind the on/off switch, the wheel is easy to find by feel, responsive to the touch, and a simple yet brilliant solution to the Goldilocks problem of needing a brightness level that's not offered by the preset modes.
Meanwhile, the Fenix has a push-button switch that's easy to find on the side of the lamp. To access each mode, just push the switch. However, because it has multiple modes, you'll have to push it four times to get to high mode. While not a big deal if you're on a casual hike, it could be tough to find the right mode under any sort of stress. On more than one occasion, we found ourselves hammering on the switch, running through the modes and initiating a manual strobe of sorts as we tried to find the right brightness. In a desperate doomsday scenario, we can foresee potential problems with this, such as accidentally signaling your location to strangers when you were just trying to shut it off.
To turn the Fenix on or off, simply hold the button down for a moment. Just don't hold it down for too long or you'll kick on the blinding burst mode.
The Coast's on/off switch is an ergonomic button just above the light that's a cinch to operate. Another highlight for the HL27 is its twist focusing ring on the lamp that lets you adjust the beam from flood to spot, just by rotating the ring. When turned to spot beam, the Coast lamp can shine up to 129 meters, slightly more than the Fenix. This makes the HL27 exceptionally versatile.
The HL27's lamp also has a hinge, so you can shine the light downward in various positions rather than having to bend your neck to illuminate what's at your feet. Likewise, the Fenix HP12 can pivot downward, but has the added advantage of also turning upward. Shining your lamp skyward wouldn't make sense in the backcountry, but indoors this can reflect light off ceilings and provide greater overall illumination in a confined space.
With its mostly plastic construction, Coast's HL27 doesn't look particularly rugged — but it held up admirably during our testing period. Of course, we didn't go spelunking or attempt to summit K2, but we didn't baby it, either. Backed by a lifetime warranty against defects in materials and workmanship, the HL27 is impact and water resistant.
On our heads, it felt comfortable thanks to adjustable elastic straps. Plus, the two main contact points are made of flexible synthetic rubber. Oh, and the cord that connects the battery pack to the LED is integrated into the headband to prevent snagging.
On the flipside, the Fenix's power cord hangs outside of its elastic headband. While we didn't get caught up in the cord during use, we can see how much better the Coast's integrated cord is at avoiding snags (and any resulting damage).
Fortunately, the Fenix is quite durable — and certainly looks like it. Made of aluminum alloy and stainless steel, the headlamp and its battery housing have a hard-anodized finish to fend off abrasions. Even the lens is made of tough glass with an anti-reflective coating. These features allow the HP12 to be shockproof and waterproof up to 2 meters — and even freeze-proof from -40 degrees.
Though only long-term testing will truly determine how long the headlamps last, it's a safe bet that both should perform diligently for years to come.
If backed into a corner and forced to pick just one, we might bypass the Fenix HP12's superior illumination capabilities and give the slight edge to the Coast HL27 because of its versatility and ease of use. Not only does its Light Output Control Wheel provide precious brightness levels quickly and easily, it's powered by three AA batteries, which are far more common than the two CR123 batteries that the Fenix feeds on.
However, there's no loser in this headlamp faceoff. Both models performed admirably in the field and are solidly constructed with quality parts. Either one would be worthy additions to any prepper's go-bag. With stellar performance and quality construction, both of these headlamps will cut through darkness; whether you're in the woods or on the trail … or in a mine filled with singing dwarves.