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Seeing the Light - Outdoor Retailer Show

 Every winter the Outdoor Retailer Show takes place and 1000-plus manufacturers of skiing, climbing, snowshoeing, backpacking, and camping equipment pack into the Salt Palace at Salt Lake City to hock their wares to retailers. To me, a media guy, I’m most interested in what’s new in the gear world and what industry trends are shaping up. Are there gee-whiz gadgets that floor me? Are there game-changing developments in gear? Are there significant new directions within the industry?

This year I came away from the show not having seen anything that blew my socks off but having witnessed reams of smaller tweaks, changes, and improvements that keep gear on an ever-improving curve and that keep many of us lusting gear that’s only fractionally better than what we already own. If forced to summarize the 2011 Outdoor Retailer Show, however, I’d call it the Light Year. On one level of ‘light’ there were many interesting tweaks within the realm of ultralight travel. On another level of ‘light,’ there were significant strides among manufacturers who were treadling light—i.e., being environmentally sensitivity. But the light I’m going to focus on is the quickly evolving and rapidly improving realm of headlights and flashlights.

I’m enamored with such lights because we live in one of the northernmost corners of the country and, between late autumn and early spring, we can either get depressed over how short the days have become and how little we get outdoors, or we can reclaim the hours winter has stolen with a powerful light. For a few years now, the Black Diamond Icon has been my benchmark of a suitable headlamp that reframed the daylight problem associated with winter. If you don’t move too fast, the Icon puts out plenty of light (100 lumens) to hike, run, climb, ski, or bike. It’s affordable ($65) and can be outfitted with a rechargeable NiMH battery and charger ($30). It’s also weatherproof, offers spot and flood lighting, has many different power levels, and is simple to use. In a nutshell, it’s an excellent headlamp.

Nonetheless this is a time when LED bulbs are burning brighter, reflector designs are throwing beams farther or spreading them wider, and batteries are improving. Consequently a number of lights appear to have eclipsed the Icon. These include the Apex from Princeton Tec, the Solio from Light and Motion, the PD-31 from Fenix, the Ultra from Petzl, and the X-Flare from Essential Gear.

What promises to make these lights better?

The Apex from Princeton Tec is a headlamp claiming to shed twice the candlepower of the Icon (200 lumens) and has regulated LED bulbs that let you use batteries of different voltages like alkaline, lithium, or rechargeable NiMH cells without dimming the light or frying the bulbs. The Apex ($90), like the Icon, is weatherproof, has many different power levels and switches between flood and spot lighting.

The Solite from Light and Motion was easily the lightest headlamp of its power (150 lumens) that I encountered. With its rechargeable lithium-ion battery, it’s about half the weight of both the Apex and the Icon. It distributes 3 hours of light on high beam and 40 hours of light on its lowest power setting (33 lumens). This versatile light for multi-sport use costs $180 and comes with all the bands and mounts needed to use it around your head, on a helmet, on bike handlebars, in your hand, and more. The company behind this product was also among the most innovative companies at the show, as demonstrated by its deep-rooted environmental practices and its commitment to build its products domestically rather than outsource manufacturing (and jobs) to Asia. These practices will be highlighted later in a detailed review of the light.

The PD31 from Fenix Lighting ($70), meanwhile, is a very innovative new flashlight and was the most compact hand held light (4.75” by 0.85”) of its intensity (300 lumens) I stumbled upon. A, rechargeable lithium-ion cell ($20) is available for the PD31 and, powered with this battery, you get about 2.25 hours of cold-resistant light on high beam and over 100 hours of illumination on the lowest power setting. Accessories available for this light, like the handlebar mount for bicycles and the headband for hands-free use, make this super-small package super versatile. The Fenix TK35 ($110) is another very interesting product running off two lithium-ion cells ($20 each) and creating a lightweight (9 ounces) flashlight that cranks out a 820-lumen ray of sunlight. Look into this beam only if you want to be Ray Charles.

The Petzl Ultra was among the brightest headlight (350 lumens) I examined for muscle-powered, multi-sport use (hiking, climbing, skiing, and mountain biking). With the Accu2 battery pack, this headlamp delivers a rechargeable lithium-ion battery providing 4 hours of light on high beam. This comes with a substantial price tag ($430), but for recreationalists like mountain bikers and skiers who intend to move quickly through the darkness, I can attest from hard-learned experience that the cost of adequate light is cheap compared to the cost of injury caused by outstripping your visibility.

Finally, I was intrigued by Essential Gear’s X-Flare which claims a 375-lumen output at the far more affordable price of $150. The rechargeable battery used is, on face value, the significant differences between this light and the Petzl. The X-Flare uses a NiMH battery which will service many users, but which packs far less juice than the Petzl. The X-Flare will burn for several days on its lowest power setting, but it’s high beam only burns for 30 to 60 minutes (I received different reports here).

In the months ahead, a number of us will test most of these lights and we’ll report back with what we learn. Which lights are best for which uses? Which ones live up to their stated claims and which don’t? Which ones have the best reflectors so the light produced is most usable? Which ones deliver the best value? If you’re itching to buy the best light right now, you’ll need to do your own legwork. If, however, you’re looking ahead toward reclaiming the light which will be stolen from you next winter, stay tuned.