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May 1, 2009 Comments (0) Gear & Equipment

Princeton Tec Fuel Review

IMG_2798aHeadlamps were once odd devices that typically evoked images of dirty coal miners descending into deep mine shafts.  They were large and heavy and were powered by large batteries carried on a harness or belt.  Modern headlamps are a far cry from their primitive ancestors.  The headlamps commonly used by today’s Woods Monkeys are light, small and powerful.  Most feature lightweight batteries like AA, AAA, or even button cells.  Many also feature lightweight, powerful LED bulbs that will far outlast a normal incandescent bulb.  There are several manufacturers of headlamps now that they have become commonplace with backpackers, mountain bikers, cavers, orienteerers, and all other manner of outdoors people.

About a year and a half ago, I went caving with some friends right when I was getting into the outdoors and didn’t have very much gear.  I was also too proud to ask to borrow gear, so I took my mini maglight and a wind-up powered LED light.  Not only was I cold and wet, but I didn’t get to fully enjoy the visual experience because of my low-powered flashlight.  I also had trouble getting around in the caves because I always had a flashlight in my hand or mouth.  All of my companions were sporting headlamps and were able to see wherever they looked and had their hands free the entire time.  I developed the need for a headlamp.

IMG_2603aSome time later I was browsing Walmart and came across a basic 3 AA powered headlamp with two levels of white light output and one level of red light output, all LED.  The lamp worked well enough, but it was bulky and heavy and the pivot system wasn’t strong enough to hold up to running or hitting bumps in the road on my bicycle.  I ran across the Princeton Tec line while in Dick’s Sporting Goods recently, and remembered the name from somewhere.  I bought the Scout model–Princeton Tec’s smallest headlamp model that runs on fourbutton cell batteries.  It features two LED bulbs and a weighs a scant 34 grams (or 1.2 oz).  The Scout is also designed to work without the included carry strap by clipping onto a hat brim, backpack strap, collar, or just about anything else.  I have been very satisfied with this model, so when I was offered the chance to review the Fuel model by Princeton Tec, I jumped at it.

IMG_2602aThe Fuel is a larger model than the Scout, featuring 3 LED bulbs that run off of 3 AAA batteries.  The weight is still a scant 78 grams (or 2.75 oz).  The Fuel boasts 35 lumens of light output (according to Princeton Tec).  Operation is fairly simple; press the single button on top of the light until the desired light level is reached.  Press again to turn the light off.  A feature that I appreciate on the Fuel is the size of the button; it is quite a bit larger and easier to press than the button on the Scout.  The Scout is difficult to operate with gloved hands, but the Fuel is no problem at all.  The Fuel has three different light output levels as well as an “emergency” strobe mode.  For most common activities such as cooking, setting up a tent, walking, or reading, the lowest light output setting is more than adequate.  There is not a dramatic light output difference between the different levels, but battery life seems strongly affected by the different levels.  Because of this, I normally operate the light on the lowest setting.

The Fuel is not dramatically brighter than the Scout, but perhaps the biggest advantage is that AAA batteries are far more available than button cells.  AAA batteries can also be had in rechargeable variety, which often boast longer life and save money in the long run.  Because AAA batteries are relatively cheap and easily had, I never felt bad about using the light around the house for common tasks.  The Scout uses button cells, which are less convenient to buy and are fairly expensive. For that reason alone, I often hesitate to use my Scout around the house or for other smaller tasks, preferring to use my cheap headlamp that runs on AAA cells.

IMG_2606aPrinceton Tec offers a handy chart on the back of the package that the light comes in, showing the different levels of light output at different run times.  Princeton Tec  also shows the light levels in terms of throw distance (in meters) instead of lumens which I personally can grasp much better.  The Fuel is advertised (for the highest light output setting) as being able to throw a beam of light 35 meters (~115 feet) for about 30 minutes, after which the throw is reduced to 28 meters (~90 feet).  After 10 hours of running on the highest setting, the Fuel will still throw a beam of light to 14 meters (~45 feet).  I’m pretty impressed by that.  What do all of these numbers translate to in real life?  It means that this light has enough throw and is bright enough to easily navigate dark streets on bicycle or foot, as well as working my way through the woods on a dark night.  The light also works great for average, around-the-house flashlight tasks.  The fact that it can be strapped to your head to give hands-free light is a bonus.

One major thing that sets the Princeton Tec lights apart from my cheapie from Walmart is the pivot mechanism.  The Scout features a small hinge (the tension of which can be set with a small screw) that allows it to either sit flat against the forehead or point down into the wearer’s face.  The full range of movement allows the light to be used as a headlamp with the provided strap, or it can be used clipped to a hat brim or other support.  The Fuel features a different sort of adjustment, a “hinged bracket”.  The Fuel’s pivot system is difficult to describe, and is best understood by examining a photo of it.  I would not personally call it a hinged bracket, but whatever it is called, it works very well.  The light never moves, even during vigorous activity.  The Fuel, at its “rest” position, is already tipped slightly downward, to counter the fact that most foreheads are tilted slightly backwards.

IMG_2807aBoth lights are advertised as being “water resistent”.   I have worn my Scout in a light rain with no problems.  I don’t know if I would trust either light to survive a dunk test without suffering from a short circuit, but it seems that it would be fairly easy to seal off the electrical components with a bit of rubber.  Also, if someone is looking for a light that they could really trust to be waterproof, Princeton Tec offers some models that are designed for divers.

I really appreciate the small, thoughtful things that Princeton Tec adds on to their lamps.  For example, the Scout’s battery compartment can be accessed with a small tab built into the adjustment on the head strap, as well as almost any common coins.  The screw that secures the Scout’s battery compartment is also attached in such a way so that it can not be removed, so that it won’t be lost by accident.  Like the Scout, the Fuel features a built in battery compartment-opener in the strap.  A small tab on one of the adjustment buckles allows easy opening of the otherwise “virtually bulletproof” battery compartment.  Many common coins will also do the job well.

IMG_2811aAs far as I’m concerned, the only real thing I would comment on with regard to the Fuel that the light output levels are not very different from each other.  I think the lights would be just about perfect if the brightness levels were altered a bit.  Instead of the current light output levels they offer, (glow, medium, maximum ) a very low light setting would be great for reading or to tie to your tent so you can find your way back at night after watering the flowers.  A mid level light would be a good compromise between battery life and useable light levels.  It would also serve nicely for common activities like cooking or setting up a tent in the dark. A maximum brightness level would be good for caving, biking, or other times you need to see far ahead.

Princeton Tec has done very well with their headlamps.  They offer lightweight, bright headlamps at an easily affordable price.  They build clever little conveniences into the lights that make a user’s life so much easier.  As mentioned, the Fuel has proven to live up to the legacy that Princeton Tec has established in the outdoors lighting industry.  So, if you’re in the market for a headlamp that will give you true freedom of movement so you won’t be at a disadvantage like I was so long ago, I highly recommend giving their latest model a serious look.”

Visit:  www.princetontec.com

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