“And that is a … that is a HEADLAMP. She’s blinding our cameras with it.”
While the 2023 Western States 100 livestream commentators and camera operators may not have appreciated my Petzl Nao RL ($170) beaming into their tired eyes at 4:30 a.m. as I crossed the finish line, I can’t think of a better public endorsement for this headlamp. You’re welcome, Petzl. It’s no wonder this light was our top pick for ultrarunning in our best running headlamps guide.
With an actual weight of 5.2 ounces (146 grams) and producing up to 1,500 lumens of cool, white light, this headlamp packs a lot of power and brightness into a relatively small, lightweight package. That’s why it’s our first choice when our long run takes us through the night. Although it’s a hefty investment, especially if you opt for an additional battery pack, this headlamp is worth it if you run 100 milers or embark on adventures that take you through multiple nights.Shop the Petzl Nao RL
Petzl Nao RL Features and Specifications
The Petzl Nao RL is built with a rechargeable 3,200-milliampere-hour lithium-ion battery. It was a little tricky to set up the first time, but the packaging includes clear instructions, and once it’s set, it’s easy to recharge and swap the battery pack.
Petzl calls this battery R1 and sells individual R1 battery packs separately for $70, if you want to keep a back-up on hand or make an easy swap between charges. According to Petzl, this battery takes about 3.5 hours to charge and will last through 300 charging cycles.
This headlamp has a few different lighting modes, including standard and Petzl’s Reactive Lighting. Reactive Lighting means that the headlamp’s brightness and beam automatically adjust according to surrounding ambient light — growing dimmer when there’s more ambient light and brighter when there’s less. This technology allows the headlamp to self-optimize for both lighting and power use, allowing the user to focus on the trail ahead and not fiddling with headlamp adjustments.
The battery pack, which is positioned on the back of the head, has a red light that can be set to continuous, strobe, or off.
Within each of these lighting options, the Nao RL can be adjusted between three brightness levels: max burn time, standard, and max power. While max burn time is sufficient around camp or on a brief dawn patrol mission, it’s not bright enough for most ultrarunners’ tired eyes during the wee morning hours mid-100 miler. On the other hand, its max power level delivers up to 1,500 lumens but won’t last through the night. The standard level is the middle range of both burn time and power, and the Reactive Lighting setting offers the longest burn time, although it’s a wide range — five to 40 hours.
Although the Nao RL is a little heavier than our favorite everyday running headlamps, its 5.2-ounce (146 grams) actual weight is right in the middle of the top headlamps for ultrarunning. The key difference between a daily headlamp and one that’s ideal for ultrarunning is the battery life. Because the best ultrarunning lights have enough battery power to last through the night, they have bigger battery packs and are therefore slightly heavier.
While you can certainly use one light for both your everyday pre-dawn or sunset runs and your next 100 miler, some runners will opt for a lightweight headlamp when they only need light for a few hours, and then keep a longer-lasting light on hand for overnight missions and 100 milers. Among the headlamps that can shine through the night, the Nao RL is plenty lightweight.
Petzl Nao RL Performance
I wore the Petzl Nao RL for hundreds of early morning, late evening, and overnight miles during 2023 while training for and racing both the Western States 100 and IMTUF 100 Mile. In both races, I wore the headlamp over a backward cap or a folded-up gaiter. This headlamp was comfortable through the night and never caused any pressure points or tension headaches.
The Nao RL is easy to adjust while running, using the orange cord and a small orange tab that sits above the battery pack on the back of the headlamp. Simply flip the tab up, adjust the orange strap for the best fit, then push the tab back down. Also included with this lighting system is an elastic cable strap that can be added to the top. This additional strap can help diffuse pressure if you’re sensitive to headlamp straps on your head, however I never felt the need for this additional strap.
In our best running headlamps article, we dinged the Petzl Nao RL for its comfort. While it’s still our top-choice ultrarunning headlamp, its elastic cable construction is a little awkward, especially if you have a low ponytail or bun. That said, with a gaiter-like headband or backward cap providing a little padding, it’s easy to forget you’re even wearing this headlamp.
More than anything, I was impressed with the Nao RL’s battery power. During my overnight races, I used the Reactive Lighting setting and usually set it at the standard level to optimize the battery and to ensure it’d last through the night. However, in both the Western States 100 and IMTUF 100 Mile, I reached a point where I wanted more light through a technical section of trail, and I switched to the max power level. I worried about draining the battery, so I carried a backup (albeit, less bright) light just in case.
I was surprised to find that the Nao RL’s battery lasted through the night, not only Western States’s approximately eight hours of darkness, but also IMTUF’s 11 hours of darkness. While these numbers are within the up-to-24 hours listed on Petzl’s website, and I was not using max power the entire time, I didn’t fully trust the headlamp to last through the night and was pleased to find that it did.
Runners will have different preferences for headlamp brightness, and their preferences will change based on the terrain. After five 100 milers and countless adventures in the dark, I’ve learned that I’m comfortable keeping my light as dim as possible on a gravel road, pavement, or other open and non-technical surfaces, but I like more brightness on the trail, especially when I’m running alone.
Now that I’ve got some experience with the Nao RL, I will likely set it at max power with Reactive Lighting anytime I’m on singletrack in the forest at night. I will continue carrying a backup headlamp or, better yet, a second Petzl R1 battery pack that I can easily swap on the fly.
Finally, while this light packs down small considering its battery pack, it still occupies a chunk of space in my hydration pack. I noticed that when I stashed it in a rear side pocket (so I could access it without stopping or removing my pack), I had to make sure it was positioned flush against my back, or I’d feel its hard plastic edges pressing against my low back. Of course, this was not an issue if I stored it in my vest’s larger back pocket, but then I had to take my pack off or get help from a pacer to dig it out.
For these reasons, I typically left the headlamp with my crew during races until I needed it and then dropped it with them again after sunrise. As a result, I won’t necessarily reach for this headlamp if I need just an hour or two of light at the start of a long run, because I have other lighting options that pack down to about a third of the size.
Petzl Nao RL Overall Impressions
The Petzl Nao RL is a reliable light that’s both powerful and compact. While it is expensive, it’s a premium, feature-packed light that’s ideal for ultrarunning.
It has a wide range of both brightness and battery power, so runners can find the perfect balance of light and run-time for their individual preferences and the demands of the terrain, weather, and objective at hand. This light is easy to adjust, and the battery pack can be swapped out on the fly. The only downside is that it’s expensive, especially if you add on an extra battery pack.
That said, it’s our favorite headlamp for ultrarunning in our best running headlamps guide, and it’s worth the investment for any runner who regularly runs for multiple hours at night.Shop the Petzl Nao RL
Call for Comments
- Have you tried the Petzl Nao RL? What do you think?
- For those who also ran with the original Petzl Nao, what do you think about this second version?
- What’s your favorite headlamp for daily use and/or ultrarunning?
[Editor’s Note: If you’re affiliated (i.e., an employee, ambassador, etc.) with a brand, please share your relation in each of your comments on this article. Thanks!]