Just because it’s cold and dark doesn’t mean you can’t ride…
In an earlier post I gave you a few tips on how to stay warm in the coming cold days of winter. With those cold days, unfortunately (or fortunately), come darkness. But darkness, like cold temperatures, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t (or can’t) ride. There are plenty of lighting systems that will allow you to continue to enjoy your riding, on or off-road.
Below are a few tips I’ve learned over the years about riding at night and selecting the proper lighting system so that you can continue to enjoy cycling deep into the darkest nights.
First and foremost I highly recommend that if you are going to ride at night that you ride somewhere you are familiar with. This applies to both road and trail. If you are riding off-road I suggest you stick to trails you know. Don’t go to that 30,000 acre state park you’ve been wanting to hit all summer for the first time at night – you’ll get lost, trust me…
Cold and dark winter riding can be very unforgiving. While it may be ok to ride alone in the warm days of spring and summer when light is plentiful and the temperatures are mild, winter is not the same. Don’t ride alone; this is particularly critical in off-road situations where a mishap in the woods could very well mean the difference between life and death.
So, now that I’ve freaked you out a little let’s move on…
Riding a trail or road you’re familiar with at night is like riding a completely different destination. I love hitting my local singletrack in the dark of night because it provides me with a completely “new” riding experience. Riding at night heightens the senses and it really reveals how much attention you are paying to the trail during the “daylight” hours.
At night you notice things that simply don’t manifest themselves during the day. For starters, critters that hide in the day make their way under the cover of darkness. You’ll experience a completely new world and in the process bring your riding to the next level.
So, how do you make that dark outing successful? For starters you need to make sure you pick the right light for the job. Stay away from anything powered by AA or AAA batteries; those lights WILL NOT provide you enough coverage for what is needed to safely operate a bike in the dark. Begin your search for lights that produce at the very least 500 – 700 lumens.
I’m not exactly sure when the change from “watts” to “lumens” took place in bike light designation, but most bike lights are now defined by their lumen output. Lumens measure the amount of light produced by a bulb. The more lumens, the brighter the light (and generally the higher the cost).
I would suggest you not go below 700 lumens for either road or off-road riding and that you select the highest lumen light available beyond that within your budget.
On the road
Night road cycling is all about visibility. Drivers already have a tendency to not see you in the day, so at night, the risk of getting hit increases exponentially. For road situations you will need at the very least two lights: a forward facing headlight and a rear facing taillight. If you do not have at least these two I suggest staying home.
If you must choose only one forward facing light I would go with a bar mounted system because it will provide a steady forward facing beam “most” of the time. A head mounted light will move with your head so it may not be visible from the front for brief periods of time. On the road, a couple of seconds of non-visibility counts.
Your second light should be a head or seat post mounted tail light. I prefer a flashing “beacon” that alerts drivers of your presence. Again, like the front facing light I would opt for a bike mounted light that remains static and I would choose as bright a light as possible – preferably one that can be seen form far away and for at least 180°.
Additionally, you should wear as much reflective clothing and gear as possible so that you are seen from far away and so that you use other vehicle lights to your advantage. Reflective tape is available and is a great accessory you can add to your bike, helmet and even your clotting.
Ultimately I recommend that you have at least two front facing lights, one on your helmet and one on your bars, and at the very least one flashing red tail light. Augment all of this with as much reflective material as possible.
Being “visible” to others is not as much of an issue when you are riding your local trails at night. When riding off-road seeing what’s coming ahead of you is what it’s all about. On single track trails things come at you really fast, and minor nuances that are clear in the daylight hours can easily send you face first into the ground at night.
Lumens really matter. Unlike the road you will need at the very least one light: a powerful front facing beam. There is lots of discussion and debate in mountain bike cycling circles as to whether a bar or helmet mounted light is best. I recommend you try both and make that decision on your own. The easiest solution to this dilemma is to have both a helmet and bar mounted light. Get a wide beam bar light that gives you a clear view of what is immediately ahead of you and where you are going, and a narrower focused beam on your head that allows you to scan what’s coming, lets you see what’s in the periphery, and helps you anticipate what’s ahead.