Light the way: what you need to know when choosing bike lights

Lights tend to be categorised by the number of lumens they can emit, with the cost of the light generally being correlated to its power output.  Therefore, the key to buying lights then is finding a light with enough power, at a price you can afford.

Quick Guide

  • Road – 300 lumens
  • Trail – 900 Lumens x2 (one for your helmet, one for your bars)
  • Commuting – 200 Lumens
  • Buy the most powerful rear light in your budget

Road Riding

If you’re riding on the road at night, even if there are street lamps, you need to be able to see potholes and other obstacles in your way, but you also need to know that cars can see you.  This means you need a powerful front light and a quality rear light.

For the front light, you should look for at least 300 lumens; anything less than this and you won’t be able to make out the road surface well enough.  You should also look for a light with an internal battery that’s USB rechargeable.

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You also need to know that cars can see you.  This means you need a powerful front light and a quality rear light.

On the rear, it’s vital to have a bright flashing light, as most cars will be approaching you and passing from behind you.  An important feature to look out for is the angle of light emission.  Cheap lights tend to only project light directly behind you, so any cars coming from the side will have no idea you’re there, so be sure to look for a light with good side visibility.  Beyond this, buy the most powerful rear light you can afford, as brighter is always better.  A good benchmark to look at is around 40 lumens.

Trail Riding

For those who don’t get enough of an adrenaline rush from normal mountain biking, there’s night riding.  The same as normal riding, except you can’t see whats coming.  For this, you generally need two extremely powerful lights: one mounted to your bars, the other to your helmet.

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The bar light illuminates the trail directly in front of you, and the helmet light gives you the versatility to see what’s around you.  For both of these lights you need at least 900 lumens.  Because of this massively increased power output, these lights only come with external batteries, so be sure to find a set where the batteries mount close to the actual light.  It also helps to have the shortest cord possible from the light to the battery, to minimise any chance of the cord getting caught or tangled.  For bar lights, the battery pack usually mounts underneath your top tube, and for helmets, the ideal solution is a system where both the light and the battery sit on the helmet itself.  On top of this, it’s a good idea to carry spare batteries on you, so you can always see your way out of a jam.

Buy the most powerful rear light you can afford, as brighter is always better.

Commuting

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USB rechargeable lights circumvent the problem of having to have AAA batteries available all the time.

Riders in this category tend to be more concerned about ‘being seen’ rather than ‘seeing.’ You fit into this category if you set out to work in the morning and the sun is only just rising, or if it’s just starting to become twilight on your way back.  Because of the increased ambient light (if you’re around city lights) compared to the other categories, you can get away with a less powerful light, with anything from 150 to 200 lumens being more than enough.  Again, look for an internal USB rechargeable front light, and any flashing rear light should suffice to make sure you’re visible enough to other road users.

About Tim_Davis@Pushys

I'm a Science Graduate and Medical student at the University of Queensland, specialising in anatomy and physiology. More importantly, I'm all for any type of riding; road, mountain, dirt jumping, I love it all! Let me know if there is anything you want to know about nutrition and health, and I'll do my best to help you out!

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