Do you mountain bike at night? I’m always surprised when I invite someone for a ride in winter and they ask “Will I need lights?”.
“Well, its dark so, yeah.”
“Oh, I haven’t got lights”
I guess, like most people, I have a habit of looking at things through my own perspective. I ride every day and in winter, when its gets light at 8:30am and dark again at 4:30pm, I assume that if you ride a mountain bike you have lights. I see lights like chunky tyres or a warm jacket or gloves, if you ride in winter you just have them. Realistically though, most people don’t ride every day and ride for fun so can choose to ride when the sun is up, even in winter. So the next question I usually get is
“What sort of light should I get?” And then it gets a bit complicated.
If you’ve never ridden in the dark before be prepared that the first time might be a bit intimidating, especially if you’re on trails you’ve never ridden before. Even with the best lights you still lose your peripheral vision and you can’t see past a tree that you can look straight through in the day time when the light is coming from over head. You can’t see as far in ahead and you can usually only plan one corner at a time. Shadows get longer and you have to learn to tell the difference between a hole, a black rock and a shadow I find I ride the same trails about 25% slower than daytime. Noises on the side of the trail can be a bit spooky. Despite all of this I love it! its not better than riding in the day light its just different. I get excited when summer ends and its time to turn the lights on. The air is cooler and you never overheat. The trail becomes a corridor with solid jet black walls and your vision gets concentrated. You feel like you’re flying as the tracks disappears in a blur. And you can get a bit carefree at intersections knowing you can be easily seen by other trail users. If you’re lucky you sometimes get to race bats and owls down tree lined tunnels. But by the time winter is nearly over I cant wait to ride in the light .
So what light should you use? Firstly, you don’t use 1 light. If you ride on the road or open fire trails or you just finish in the twilight you could use just 1 light but if you want to ride in the dark you need a more sophisticated set up.
Start with the rear light. Small, red and needs to last for at least 2 hours. USB rechargable is better than battery and a longer life flashing mode is good too. If you want to be nice to the people you ride with get a light with a dim constant setting that won’t blind them. If you have a more typical relationship with your riding buddies that involves laughing at their misfortune, get a super bright rear light with a flashing mode that has a slightly longer interval. Riding behind someone with a light like this ( not mentioning any names Jonathan Isles ) is like being questioned by the Gestapo and is guaranteed to bring on a migraine. You only need 1 rear light but its good to have a second, purely as a back up. If your rear light goes out while your riding you don’t want to ride on the road with cars as you’ll get run over from behind. I usually carry an emergency rear light in my pack. They’re cheap and small and as most mountain bike rides involved some road riding it might save your life.
Now for the front. I always ride with 2 lights. One on my handle bars and one on my helmet. The one on my handlebars points straight down the track about 10ft ( 3m ) ahead. If it points too far down the track it creates long deceptive shadows which makes it hard to pick out trail features. The handlebar light only points in one direction, it won’t allow you to anticipate whats coming up and it won’t follow your eyes when you look to the side. You could ride with only a handlebar light but it would be very slow or very dangerous. I have my less powerful light on my handlebars, it provides a constant illumination of the track immediately in front of me allowing me to see what Im about to ride over but its not where my eyes are usually looking. For the last several years I’ve used an older model Exposure joystick which throws out about 400 lumens but this year I’ve ordered the more powerful Exposure Diablo light which throws out quite a bit more.
On the helmet I put my best light. I set it up so that it points where Im looking in my natural head and eye position. When I’m riding on a straight level path I find this is about 30ft (10m ) ahead of me. In combination the handle bar light and the helmet light provide a reasonable well lit area from a few feet in front of me to about 30m down the track. I can adjust my head position to better light up the track closer or further ahead of me. The helmet light follows my eyes and it allows me to look from side to side and up and down. When Im looking to the side the handlebar light gives me peripheral vision immediately in front of my front wheel which is invaluable and I can’t imagine riding with only a helmet light. On my helmet I currently us the Exposure Equinox. The 2 features I love are SUPER mode which only last for 30 minutes but gives me a mighty 2100 lumens and the remote control button I can put on my handlebars and use with my thumb.
How I use them… I put off turning my lights on for as long as possible. Not to the point of being dangerous but, I find that once I put my lights on my night vision cuts out and half light that I could ride in becomes dark as soon as I hit the switch. On open trail or the road I run my lights at low. I find that’s enough and it doesn’t chew up the battery too quickly. Once Im in the bush I put my handlebar light up to medium but leave the helmet light on low. This has more to do with the relative power of the joystick compared to the Equinox. On low the Equinox puts out about the same amount of light as the Joystick on high. It will be interesting to see how this changes this year when I start using the Diablo. As the track speeds up or gets trickier I put the handlebar light on high and the helmet light to medium. Its only when I’m going fast down steep single track that I put my helmet light on full. It lights up the trail like truck head lights but cars and walkers get cranky when I forget to turn them down. With my current setup I’ve never found myself asking for more but I know there are brighter lights available with better battery life.
Im currently using Exposure lights, they are a bit pricey but I like their solid construction and the fact they have no cables and battery packs. I find the claimed battery life is accurate and their lumen output isn’t exaggerated. I have also used Lezyne, Knog, Cateye, Azur. and NoName Ebay Chinese specials.