Whether you’re extending your season, riding beyond daylight hours, or simply wanting drivers to see you on the road, adding a light (or two) is only logical. Illuminating the route ahead is an obvious benefit, while alerting drivers at all hours and in inclement weather provides added safety. Most bike commuters typically go with a white front light, and a red rear light. While they’re a safe-riding essential (and legal necessity for riding at night in some states), finding the best type of bike light can be a hassle; here’s how to find the perfect set.
First, Ask Yourself These Questions
Where will I be riding my bike?
Are you going to be in well-lit urban areas, country roads, off-road paths? The places you ride will dictate what kind of light you need—especially in deciding if your main concern is illuminating the road ahead, or just alerting others that you’re on the road.
Can I leave them on my bike?
In some areas, things not locked onto a bike may not be there when you get back. If that sounds like where you live, you’ll want lights that are easy to put on and take off your bike.
Will I remember to charge them?
Rechargeable lights are great, but you have to charge them. For the forgetful, having something that is always ready to turn on, until it eventually needs a new battery, is a better option.
What is my budget?
Bike lights come in all sizes, styles and price ranges, decide how much your illumination is worth, and stick to your budget.
There are two main styles of bike lights: those meant to help you see, and those meant to help you be seen.
Designed To See
Bike lights designed to help you see are impressively bright, medium to large in size, and rechargeable. These often come with high lumen ratings, which is a measure of the intensity of the light emitted, ranging from 100-200 into the 1000s. On city streets, lights around 200 lumens usually work great, on dark trails, look for lights near 1000, while on country roads you’ll usually be well served around 500-600 lumens.
Designed To Be Seen
Not intended to illuminate the road surface ahead, but rather to catch the eyes of other road users, these bike lights often have low lumen output, are relatively small, and come with rechargeable or small batteries. Often on the less expensive end, some cyclists will leave them on their bike at all times as a backup light. Having these lights stolen is a smaller hit than the theft of more premium high-output lights.
To gauge illumination, consider the light’s “shape” in terms of how the beam hits the road surface: broad vs. narrow and focused. The width of the beam angle determines your field of clear vision, and, in combination with your lumens, how brightly it will be lit (referred to as lux). If two lights have the same lumens, for instance, but one has a smaller beam angle, its lux will be likely higher than a light with broader beam angle.
Road cyclists and urban bike commuters often enjoy a narrower beam angle that provides bright illumination of what’s coming down the road directly ahead. Cyclists riding dirt trails or even mountain bikers on singletrack will benefit from a far broader beam that illuminates nearby obstacles to each side, upcoming turns, and any nocturnal creatures that might wander across the trail. To keep the lux high, these lights often have incredibly high lumens, even in the 1000s so that the broad area where the light falls is still illuminated brightly.