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Reviews > Lighting > Headlamps - LED > Princeton Tec Fuel 2009 > Test Report by Hollis Easter

Princeton Tec Fuel Headlamp - 2009 Version
Test Series by Hollis Easter

Initial Report - 22 September 2009
Field Report - 1 December 2009
Long-Term Report - 2 February 2010

The Princeton Tec Fuel (2009) is an updated version of the company's LED-based battery-powered headlamp of the same name.

Quick navigation links:
Princeton Tec Fuel Headlamp

Reviewer Information:

The author
The author

Name: Hollis Easter
Age: 28
Gender: Male
Height: 6'0" (1.8 m)
Weight: 205 lb (93 kg)
Email address: backpackgeartest[a@t)holliseaster(dah.t]com
City, State, Country: Potsdam, New York, USA
Backpacking Background: I started hiking as a child in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. As a teenager, I hiked my way to an Eagle Scout award. I love winter climbing, and long days through rough terrain abound. The peaks have become my year-round friends. I also love climbing rock and ice.

I am a midweight backpacker: I don't carry unnecessary gear, but neither do I cut the edges from my maps. I hike in all seasons, at altitudes from sea level to 5,300 ft (1,600 m), and in temperatures from -30 F (-34 C) to 100 F (38 C).

Product Information:

Manufacturer: Princeton Tec
Year of manufacture: 2009
URL: www.princetontec.com
Listed weight (inc. batteries): 2.75 oz (78 g)
Measured weight: 2.8 oz (80 g)
Listed brightness: 43 lumens
Listed burn times: 50/90/146 hours
Listed light distances: 130/92/66 ft (39/28/20 m)
Color: Grey/Green (also available in Grey/Black and Grey/Pink)
MSRP: $26.99 US

Product features (from manufacturer materials):

  • Water resistant
  • Hinged mounting bracket
  • Four modes (high, medium, low, flashing beacon)
  • Efficient LEDs give long battery life
  • Four 5mm LEDs are bright and still efficient

Princeton Tec offers a somewhat confusing warranty on the Fuel. They specify that the warranty lasts five years, but then add "Princeton Tec warrants this product to be free from defects in workmanship and materials under normal use for as long as you own this product." They also agree to repair or replace defective parts, and offer a replacement product "less allowance for use of the product" if the headlamp has to be repaired unsuccessfully three times within the warranty period.

If that was confusing, I empathize.

Initial Report - 22 September 2009:

Back of the Fuel
Back of the Fuel

Princeton Tec has long been known for its high-quality lights for outdoor purposes, and the "new" Fuel is one of its latest forays into the field of lightweight headlamps for hiking and climbing. The original Fuel came out several years ago and was quite successful; Princeton Tec has chosen to update the design this year. They've added an LED, increased burn time, and kept the weight the same. What's not to like?

I'm testing the "new" Fuel, which isn't up on the Princeton Tec website yet. As such, manufacturer specifications for things like brightness and burn time will not match those listed on the site as of mid-September, 2009.

The Fuel is an impressively light headlamp that packs a lot of power into its diminutive size. I've had three headlamps that use LEDs, and the technology is new enough that I see significant improvement with each upgrade. The Fuel is bright, pretty light, and boasts an impressive burn time (although we'll see how long it lasts). I care about brightness and burn time because I'll be using the headlamp during winter climbing season, when I often spend hours hiking in the pre-dawn and post-dusk darkness. Good lighting is essential, and it's important to have a light that can throw out some extra lumens when needed.

The Fuel comes in two parts: the headlamp assembly and an adjustable elastic headband. It's easy to join or separate the parts, which is good since I like to wash the headbands periodically. The headband is easily adjusted using a ladderlock-style buckle that doubles as the opener for the battery door.

Battery door
Battery door

The actual headlamp has an L-shaped green plastic base that connects to the headband and positions the lamp assembly. The actual battery pack and LEDs are housed in the grey plastic section. The rotation mechanism is actually pretty neat here: the grey part rotates easily, snapping into hidden detents. I measured its deflection at 25° upwards and 65° downward, which gives plenty of adjustability. It's easy to set the angle, but not so easy that I'm concerned about it bouncing out of place.

The Fuel is comfortable to wear, and it was easy to adjust the headband to fit my 24 in (61 cm) head. It sits quite close to my forehead, which keeps it from bouncing around too much. One thing I love so far: there's no glare in my eyes when I'm wearing the light. One of my other lamps spilled light into my eyes, which was irritating.

The headband's buckle can be used to open the hinged battery door, although I found that a US dime worked just as well. Battery markings were fairly clear inside, although I found it difficult to correctly orient the batteries in the dark (which I'd need to do if my batteries had died). I notice that there is no gasket sealing the battery door; in fact, there's a joint between some parts of the lamp assembly that admits air when I blow on it. I can only conclude that the Fuel isn't designed to have a sealed battery compartment. This raises some concerns about its water resistance.

The Fuel is initially quite hard to turn on, which has good and bad points. It sometimes takes me a few attempts to get it on, but this also leads me to feel confident that it won't get turned on in my pack by accident. I also note that Princeton Tec has designed the Fuel with ridges around the switch so it will be harder to activate unintentionally.

Pressing the power switch sets the Fuel to "high" mode, and subsequent presses step it through "medium", "low", and "flashing" modes before returning to "high". To turn it off, I just wait a few seconds before pressing the power switch. Simple and effective, and it doesn't require a ton of dexterity (relevant because I'll be wearing gloves).

The beam seems bright enough to be useful, even when it's on "low". It's always hard to convey relative light levels, but I've included photographs to describe them. Each picture was a six-second exposure with light levels set in darkness.

Low beamMedium beam
Low beam and medium beam intensity
High beamFlashing beam
High beam and flashing beam intensity

I'm looking forward to using the Fuel. It's light, small enough to fit in my pockets, and seems bright and Fuel-efficient when it comes to batteries. Sounds good!

Field Report - 1 December 2009:

During this period, I carried the Fuel for five days of hiking, although I never ended up needing it on the trail. It's finally snowing out, and winter climbing season is two weeks away, so I look forward to long days starting soon.

In the meantime, I've used the Fuel extensively around my house and at work, and my Field Report comments are based on that. In brief, the Fuel is light, bright, and easy to use. It has become my favorite headlamp, to the point that I actively remove it from my pack after hikes and put it on my desk so it'll be available whenever I need it.

Use:

Since I've been off-trail by sunset during all my walking in the last two months, I'll talk about the other things this headlamp has helped me do. It's been an invaluable tool for household tasks.

I've used the Fuel repeatedly to help me clean up broken glass when people have dropped dishware in my kitchen. I turn off the overhead lights, set the Fuel to its brightest setting, and then hold it on the floor, sweeping the beam back and forth. The bright light causes shards of glass to cast big shadows, which shows me where they are. I... have more experience with this use than I'd like.

I keep the Fuel on my desk and use it quite frequently when I'm filing paperwork. My filing cabinet sits in the shadow cast by my desk, which makes it difficult to read the titles on my folders. I just pop the Fuel onto my head and I'm golden. It's light enough that I often forget it's there, which means it's good that I have a mirror near the desk. I would get funny looks going out with a headlamp on!

During this test period, the weather changed from 75 F (24 C) summer to snowy weather that's well below freezing. That's meant digging all of my winter gear out of storage and reorganizing it for use. Most of my winter gear is black. In previous years, I've spent hours digging through piles of dimly-lit black fabric trying to find the pair of gloves I want or the fleece leggings I need. Not this year! I got smart and used the Fuel.

I've also used the Fuel at the end of some hiking trips while unpacking the car in the dark. It's very helpful to have a point source of light in these contexts!

The more I use the Fuel around the house, the more I discover its utility. I can't wait to be on trail in the dark.

Commentary:

So far, the Fuel's battery life has been excellent. I haven't noticed any change in brightness during the time that I've been using the headlamp, and I still use the lowest brightness setting by preference. For tasks that require seriously bright light, I kick up to the highest power, but when I'm wearing the headlamp it tends to be on Low. I raked my yard in the dark one day using the lamp on Low, and it was fine.

The Fuel's beam orientation seems to be pretty effective for the things I choose to do. It's neither too narrow nor too broad, and it provides a reasonable amount of light anywhere in its beam. When I'm working close-up, the beam functions more as a task light, giving me adequate illumination for everything I've tried so far. When I'm working in a larger space, the Fuel's flood-like beam gives me clear vision without needing to sweep the beam around the area. I'm impressed, because Princeton Tec seems to have the sweet spot for beam design.

The Fuel is the most comfortable headlamp I've worn. It's light, to start with, even when loaded with three AAA battery cells. There's another thing about the Fuel's rocker arm design that works well for comfort. Because the pivot point is always centered in the rotating arm, there's never additional leverage because of tilting the beam downward. That means I don't get additional forehead squeezing due to adjusting the beam angle—something that makes me very happy! I also find that the tilt adjustment stays where I put it, even when I take the headlamp off. Nice!

The band is soft and comfortable, and it doesn't smell bad even though I've sweated while wearing the headlamp. Good!

I love the fact that there's no glare shining into my eyes when I'm using the Fuel. My previous headlamp's design had a "feature" that allowed the lamp to shed light directly into my eyes whenever I wore it... most unwelcome! The Fuel seems to direct all its light outwards. It's a small thing, but very important to me.

I really like the Fuel's switch. It's easy to use, and I don't have to fiddle with it to get the lighting level I want. It has a comfortable amount of travel, too. The Fuel's design also seems effective at preventing the headlamp from turning itself on inside my pack. Again, this is an improvement over my previous headlamp.

I'm glad I picked the grey and bright green color for my Fuel. It's easy to find even in pretty low-light conditions: the green seems to "pop" if there's even a little bit of light.

Summary:

I really like the Fuel. It is now my favorite headlamp, and I use it several times a week at home. It's light enough that I don't mind carrying it in my pack, and it's small enough that I can toss it into my pants pocket for a quick walk after work. It sheds enough light to be really useful without overpowering me and wasting battery life. It's comfortable and seems to fit my needs well so far!

Long-Term Report - 2 February 2010:

I carried the Fuel on every hiking trip during the Long-Term phase. I often popped it on while packing the car in the gathering darkness after the hike. I actually used the Fuel on three days of field use, with an additional three days of hostel use. In brief: the Fuel meets my needs very well. I like it and plan to continue using it.

Frozen dawn on Giant Mountain
Frozen dawn on Giant Mountain

Field Conditions:

December 31, 2009: Cross-country skiing at Clarkson University

Temperature:Wind:Elevation:
32 F (0 C) none not relevant

My first day of cross-country skiing in 15 years was a blast, if a trifle awkward. We did some moonlit skiing; the Fuel headlamp lit the way when the trees were too thick for moonlight. We skied about 2 miles (3 km).

January 1, 2010: Cross-country skiing at Clarkson University

Temperature:Wind:Elevation:
32 F (0 C) none not relevant

Every year, our local outdoors club has a New Year's Gathering to ski or snowshoe the trails at Clarkson University. Emboldened by the previous evening's skiing, we decided to venture off-trail into the woods around the campus. Lots of fun, although some of the terrain was a bit too advanced for me. I used the Fuel for some light evening skiing, and also while searching the woods for kindling.

January 9, 2010: Rocky Peak Ridge and Giant Peak

Temperature:Wind:Elevation:
5 F (-15 C) up to 20 mph (32 kph) 4,420 ft (1,347 m) and 4,627 ft (1,411 m)

We ascended two gorgeous High Peaks on one of the first clear days this winter. Both peaks are steep, and we ascended them via the steep Zander Scott trail. Ice bulges in the deep col between the peaks made us glad for the ice axes we brought. On the summits, we had clear views of hundreds of peaks in New York, Vermont, Ontario, and Quebec. What a stunning day!

I used the Fuel headlamp in the morning for hiking on-trail, where it did the fine job I've come to expect. I also used it for three days in the hikers' hostel in Keene Valley for moving around after dark. The LED layout is good since it's easy to wrap my hand around the headlamp (used as a flashlight) to cut down its light output. That's an important courtesy when staying in a hostel, and the Fuel did a fine job. Still on the original set of batteries with no sense of dimming.

Summary:

I really like the Fuel. It is lightweight, compact, and durable. I find the switch easy to use even with gloves on. I also note that the Fuel has never turned on accidentally in my pack, which is a feat none of my other headlamps managed. The headlamp feels comfortable on my head whether I'm wearing a hat or not, and it also fits well on my Petzl Elios climbing helmet. The light's low profile also helps it avoid catching on overhanging trees.

I am still using the original set of batteries in my Fuel and, while I cannot measure the light output scientifically, I still prefer to use the headlamp in its lowest-intensity mode. I bump it up to High when I am looking for something inside my pack (it seems as though all of my gear is black!) but otherwise leave it on Low. Even after months of us, the batteries are strong enough to give me ample light on the lowest setting.

The Fuel is my favorite headlamp now. I wish it were available with a red LED, since I prefer to use red light so as to preserve night vision. However, I usually end up hiking with partners who use white lights, which negates the value of red light.

The 2009 Fuel is a very high quality headlamp. It is light, powerful, efficient, comfortable, and easy to use while wearing gloves, and it costs little more than the off-brand headlamps sold at my local drugstores. I plan to continue using it around the trail, but I also like it enough that I keep it on my desk between hikes. I use it often and would buy a new one if it broke.

Likes:Dislikes:
  • Light weight
  • Bright, but not too bright
  • Long advertised burn time
  • Doesn't turn on accidentally
  • Good switch design
  • Wide adjustment range
  • Comfortable band
  • No glare
  • Good beam design
  • Batteries seem to last a long time
  • Batteries hard to install in darkness
  • Some concerns about water resistance

I thank BackpackGearTest.org and Princeton Tec for allowing me to test the new Fuel headlamp.



Read more reviews of Princeton Tec gear
Read more gear reviews by Hollis Easter

Reviews > Lighting > Headlamps - LED > Princeton Tec Fuel 2009 > Test Report by Hollis Easter



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