Pros and Cons
Filed under:Accessories, Gear reviews, Headtorches, headtorch, Petzl, Petzl Swift RL, reactive lighting, rechargeable
Jon Doran tests a new rechargeable all-round headtorch that uses Petzl’s Reactive Lighting technology...
New this winter, the Petzl SWIFT RL aims to hit the Goldilocks spot of headtorch technology that’s incredibly clever, but also really easy to use. It weighs just 100 grammes – or 101 grammes if you believe our digital scales – uses Petzl’s own fully-capitalised REACTIVE LIGHTING system to vary light output according to ambient light and has just a single, simple button to control it all.
No bluetooth-accessed smartphone apps or multiple controls, just one button. All this and it churns out a headline-grabbing 900 lumens of light at top whack. Finally it’s powered by a lithium ion battery that’s charged via a Micro USB port and can be swapped out for a spare if needed.
How It Works!
Visually the SWIFT RL is recognisably the 33-gramme, 200-lumen BINDI’s big brother – same translucent coloured plastic, same white main body, same style-lines and switch, but while the BINDI is focussed on minimal utility, the SWIFT is more about comfort. That means an interesting two-part removable and washable headband with ample padding and a split rear section that sits comfortably and stably on the back of your head. Possibly the most comfortable headband we’ve used. It helps too that unlike the NAO+ for example, the SWIFT is an all-in-one unit. You can also, thanks to that padding, hang it comfortably around your neck. More about that later.
The removable battery pack is housed on the rear of unit with a heat-sink for the LED sandwiched in between. You have the option of stumping up 45 quid odd for a spare battery, which obviously doubles your potential burn-time. Swapping is straightforward, though fiddly with cold hands and tough on fingernails.
Control is courtesy of a single white button. One press turns the torch on, then successive presses cycle through Max Burn Time, Standard and Max Power brightness levels. A longer press swaps from Reactive Mode to Standard. All of which is pretty much how the NAO+ works and is fine. The admittedly small flies in the ointment are that the small button is hard to feel through gloves, so you can accidentally switch up and off without really meaning to. Also, because the light cycles through those three levels and then switches off – which to be fair is pretty standard with headtorches – if you want to go down a level, you actually have to switch the light off momentarily, not great if you’re moving at the time. When in your pack, the lock mode on the switch prevents it from being turned on accidentally.
Charging is via a micro-USB port and takes about six hours claimed, which seems about right (this is based on a 100% charge – Petzl claim that it charges far quicker to 80%). That does limit the torch a little for multi-day trips where access to mains electricity is limited and there’s no option to use conventional batteries as a back-up. You can’t charge and use the light simultaneously, just in case you were considering a back-up power bank-type set-up. The neat five-bar fuel gauge that illuminates after switching on or off for a few seconds is super handy and works well .
How Much Light?
If you want to see the exact figures, head on over to Petzl’s website and check out the specs there, but the maximum output for the three levels is given as 100 lumens, 300 lumens and a stonking 900 lumens in Reactive mode. Standard settings are a lot less. What does it mean? Well, we found the basic 100 lumen lowest setting fine for walking on most terrain, the standard medium setting is good for walking or running on all but really rugged surfaces and the Max Power option is great for seeing way into the distance – picking out and trig point or a far-off gate maybe – and on really nadgery, technical ground. It would be handy on the mountain too, maybe trying to pick out a distant abseil point or feature.
Reactive lighting is a bit like magic. Focus on the ground close to you and then look up and into the distance and the sensor detects that you need more light and provides it pretty much seamlessly, it comes as a bit of shock when you realise that normal lights don’t do this. The pattern’s decent too with a nice mix of distance-piercing spot and a wide, floody close-up beam. If you’re being hyper-critical you’d have to say the NAO+ gives more even light and more of it for technical running, but the SWIFT has better penetration.
A few quirks: if you get your head close up to something solid, the beam goes into a mild strobe mode, but you really have to provoke this. And if you switch the light in a lit room, you can be tricked into thinking it’s not working because the the light simply doesn’t need to come on.
I barely used standard mode bar the lowest 10-lumen setting for campsite use, cooking and similar.
Round Me Neck Son
Out of curiosity, I tried hanging the SWIFT RL around my neck and found it surprisingly comfortable and pleasant as a way of directing a pool of light on the ground immediately in front and with reduced dazzle potential for any other trail user. At the same time it’s slightly disconcerting to look to the side and find you have no directional lighting. Good news for zombies and vampires stalking hills and trails, who’ll be able to sneak up on you undetected.
Stuff it doesn’t have? Any sort of red light front or rear-facing – bear in mind the headband is reflective – any programmability, which I honestly didn’t miss given that I had as much or as little light as I wanted at all times. And the option of a remote battery box for really cold conditions. If you want those, look elsewhere, maybe at the bulkier, clunkier NAO+ which also has a more glove-friendly control system.
It’s just possible that the Petzl SWIFT RL is the best all-round headtorch on the market right now as long as you can live with the USB-charged lithium ion battery spec. It’s astonishingly bright on full whack, but frugally dim on minimum setting and covers everything in between too. The Reactive Lighting system is uncannily effective at giving you enough light to avoid stepping on errant hedgehogs in your path, before instantly illuminating a distant trig point, sheep or crag edge. The beam pattern mixes enough flood for sure-footed running and enough spot for feature spying. And the single control button is easy to use albeit a little fiddly with gloves. We never missed the lack of programmability either. The bottom line is that this a torch you can happily use for anything from gentle all-round walking and camping right through to technical night-time mountain running or mountaineering. The one proviso is that for multi-day trips away from base, you’ll need to consider battery-charging options.