In the land of the long and dark night, a headlight is a must

Posted: Thursday, January 17, 2002

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- In his never-ending quest for a better, brighter headlamp to light up the trail in front of he and his sled dogs, three-time Iditarod champion Jeff King nearly fried his hair.

It was more than a decade ago. He and Greg Ashbach, then a mushing retailer and one of King's sponsors, were trying to come up with a better headlight for the musher.

''We got one that was really bright,'' King recalled. ''I think we were running a 7.2 amp bulb with nine volts.''

King went mushing one night to test the new light under trail conditions and was amazed. It was the brightest headlight he had ever seen.

Just when King thought the days of straining to find pieces of reflector tape on trail markers in the distance during a storm on the Bering Sea coast were over, he smelled something burning.

''The bulb was so hot that it had melted a hole in the plastic lens of the reflector,'' King said. ''The fur on my (parka) ruff was stuck on the back.''

Needless to say, King and Ashbach went back to the drawing board.

In Alaska, where people play in the darkness of winter for six months or more each year, a headlamp is required gear.

King, for example, carries three headlamps with him when he races the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. His parkas have pockets designed specifically for his headlamp's battery pack.

King's headlamps are custom-made by outdoor retailer Cabela's, one of his sponsors. For training, he uses a six-volt rechargeable battery pack that hooks onto his belt. The light has two beams instead of one.

''One bulb can blow out and you still have light,'' King said.

For races, King uses a 6-volt headlamp with a halogen bulb that runs on two lithium D cell batteries. Lithium batteries have become standard among most mushers in the Iditarod and Yukon Quest sled dog races, as well as athletes in endurance races Iditasport and Iditasport Extreme.

At 3 volts, lithium batteries are twice as strong as 1.5-volt alkaline batteries. In addition, lithium batteries are not affected by the cold and they are lighter than alkaline batteries.

The one drawback to lithium batteries is the cost. Lithium D cell batteries go for $12 apiece and AA lithium batteries sell for $2-$3 apiece.

''It's the way to go if you're serious,'' said Fairbanks cross-country skier Bob Baker, who used lithium batteries when he skied both the Iditarod and Yukon Quest trails.

While King uses lithium batteries in races, he uses a rechargeable six-volt battery pack for training.

King recalled the time a few years ago when he was en route to his fifth win in the Kuskokwim 300. His headlight blew out not far from the finish line and he took a wrong turn down an ice road as he was trying to replace it. He ended up finishing second.

''A headlamp is pretty key,'' King acknowledged. ''I like to have something that will see a marker 150 to 200 yards away. When you're looking for a marker, brighter is almost always better.''

''It can certainly be the difference between first and second place.'' said King, who also carries a small pen light in his pocket in the event he needs to change a blown-out bulb.

A good headlight not only allows you to see what obstacles may lay ahead on the trail, it also serves as a psychological companion of sorts, said Fairbanks cyclist Rocky Reifenstuhl.

''Light is important when you're out there by yourself,'' said Reifenstuhl. ''Sometimes when you're walking or on your bike and you haven't seen anybody in 14 hours, having that little circle of light really helps.''

Over the past 10 or 15 years, headlamps, especially those used for mushing, have undergone somewhat of a revolution.

They now feature thick Arctic cords instead of thin, brittle ones. The reflectors are made of aluminum instead of plastic. The on-off switches are now part of the battery pack, so mushers don't have to fumble for an on-off switch on the headlight. Mushers wear specially-made harnesses around their chests that hold their headlights.

Just recently Fairbanks mushing retailer Cold Spot Feeds, which manufactures the most commonly used mushing headlamp in Alaska called The Northern Light, introduced a separate on-off switch that plugs into the cord and has a fabric-fastener back so that mushers can wear it wherever they want to by sewing a fabric-fastener patch onto a coat they wear under their parka. The company also made a brighter light this year by vacuum sealing an aluminum mercury mixture on the aluminum reflector.

''We just keep modifying it as we go,'' said Cold Spot Feeds owner Connie Dubay.

The burn time on headlamps largely depends on what type of bulb and batteries are used. The higher amp bulb you use, the less burn time you get. For example, halogen bulbs will eat up batteries quicker than kryptonite bulbs.

Baker carries two bulbs, one low-wattage and one halogen, and rotates them as conditions require.

''That little bulb will go for 20 hours on a set of batteries and the (halogen) goes only six,'' Baker said.

Likewise, if you're using alkaline batteries in a pack that is attached to the headlamp and exposed to the cold you'll get less burn time than if you're using a battery pack that can be kept inside your coat.

Cyclist Reifenstuhl's headlight is so bright it's not uncommon for motorists to flash their high-beam headlights at him as he pedals down the road in the morning or evening darkness.

Reifenstuhl has two different light setups -- one for riding to and from work on the roads of Fairbanks and one for competing in races such as the 350-mile Iditasport Extreme, which he has raced in as both a runner and cyclist.

Reifenstuhl also carries a small flashlight and has a tiny LED light on the zipper of his jacket for emergencies.

Baker, the skier, prefers ''as simple as set up as possible'' when it comes to a headlight.

''I've got one of those Petzel lights with lithium AA batteries,'' said Baker, referring to one of the most prominent headlight manufacturers in the business. ''It's adequate for just about anything I do.''

Baker used to have a headlight that used two D lithium batteries but found it to awkward and heavy, though it did provide more light. But Baker said too much light can give you a ''false sense of security.''

''If you can't see 10 feet in front of you it helps you stay awake,'' he said.

Dick Flaherty, who spends his free time squirming in and out of caves in Alaska's glaciers, uses a specially-designed headlamp that he ordered from a company that makes caving equipment.

''It has a big, super-bright kryptonite bulb and I wire it directly to a square six-volt battery; I just throw the battery in a backpack,'' Flaherty said, adding that the entire setup costs less than $50.

''I went with this because it's bombproof,'' Flaherty said, noting that the housing for the bulb is waterproof. ''For me the test of a headlight is if I can throw it in water and pull it out and it still works.

''For caving it's everything. You can die without a good light.''

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