Obligatory end of Daylight Saving Time bike lights post

Sunset is at 4:45 today. 4:45! That means the typical evening commute will happen in the dark and twilight hours for the next several months. So lets talk about bike lights.

Longtime readers may remember previous posts about bike lights like this one, and my advice remains largely unchanged: Buy a headlight bright enough to see bumps in the road, don’t put it on flashing mode and don’t point it in people’s eyes.

Biking at night is wonderful. But shopping for bike lights can be overwhelming because there are so many different options at a wide range of prices. Most people don’t want to spend any time thinking about their bike lights. But unfortunately, you need to. So here’s my advice as someone who has gone through a lot of bike lights in my time:

  • Make sure you have a way of keeping your lights charged. USB-charged lights are great. So are lights that can take AAs or AAAs, since those rechargeable batteries are common and cheap. Avoid lights that require annoying (and expensive) watch batteries, no matter how cute they are.
  • Keep your headlight on steady instead of flashing. Flashing headlights might make you feel more visible, but they may actually disorient other people and make it more difficult for them to pinpoint your location. Some people with epilepsy can be harmed by strobing headlights. A flashing headlight is also illegal (makes you wonder why they even have a flashing mode, doesn’t it?).
  • Don’t point your light in people’s eyes. It can be very easy to accidentally blind oncoming people. A lot of people just don’t realize how bright their lights are. You should angle your light slightly down so most the beam hits the ground in front of you. This splash of light on the road will make you more visible to people driving than shining the beam in their eyes, and it will help you better see potholes.
  • Use your lights in the fog, in the rain and when the sun is low in the sky. Lights are not just for dark.
  • Don’t leave your lights on your bike when you lock up. They will get stolen. Trust me.
  • Use your common sense, and do what feels safe to you. Some people prefer to get decked out in reflective gear and light up their bikes like a Christmas tree. If that’s you, then go for it. Others, like myself, feel comfortable with a set of good front and rear lights.

If you want to invest some money in lights that you will never need to think about again, ask your local bike shop about dynamo lights. These lights are usually quite powerful and mounted somewhat permanently so you don’t need to remove them when you lock up. And they are powered by your motion, so they turn on automatically when you start rolling and never need to be charged. But they will typically set you back a few hundred bucks and may even require building a new front wheel with a dynamo hub. So it’s not a simple upgrade. But as someone with a knack for destroying or losing battery-powered lights, I’ve probably saved money by investing in dynamo lights instead.

Do you have a favorite bike light? Talk it up in the comments below.

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17 Responses to Obligatory end of Daylight Saving Time bike lights post

  1. Matt says:

    I don’t think you really did dynamo lights justice. It’s not just that they’re more powerful, they usually also have nicer optics that throw light where you need it without blinding oncoming traffic.

    But yeah, it is an expensive upgrade for most bikes due to the whole “need a new front wheel” issue.

  2. Liz says:

    If your commute warrants an extremely bright helmet-mounted light, like you’re crossing Mercer Island at 9 p.m. or something, but you also ride through Downtown, please turn the light off while you’re in traffic. Those suckers are blinding! Thanks and happy trails!

  3. bill says:

    There are battery powered lights available with the same optics and beam shape as dynamo lights.

    I would like to make a special plea for folks to get the more expensive German headlights with shaped beams. These have a sharp cutoff above a certain height so light does not blind oncoming traffic.

    Besides always providing power for your lights, dynamos can also run your gps and charge your phone. You can get lights that provide a USB port, or separate devices that convert the dynohub’s output to USB. Worth considering if you intend to tour or ride long distances.

    • Andrew Sapuntzakis says:

      > Besides always providing power for your lights, dynamos can also run your gps and charge your phone

      dynamos can recharge, through a USB rectifier, available separately or built into certain headlights

      but they probably can’t operate a headlight and recharge a phone/GPS at the same time.

      • bill says:

        >but they probably can’t operate a headlight and recharge a phone/GPS at the same time.

        It depends on the dynohub. If you put a 20″ hub in a large wheel for illusory drag reduction, it certainly will not power multiple devices. A large wheel hub like a SON28 can do it. However, you will begin to feel drag when it is working at full power.

  4. Ragged Robin says:

    I think the crucial thing missing is not pointing out to not get carried away with super high-powered lights during night time. It seems like a common misconception with cyclists that more lumens == more safety when it’s the opposite, they’re just blinding their fellow road users. Even in the darkest sections of i90 over Mercer Island, you only ever really need 150 lumens at most, and that’s being generous. If you absolutely need to use high beams, lower the intensity or cover a portion of it for oncoming road users most especially in super dark areas. It’s not just a matter of common courtesy but also a matter of safety.

    It’s a little counter-intuitive but it makes sense when you really think about it. The darker it is around you, the more powerful your light is. The lighter it is around you, the weaker your light is. Thus, high powered lights are primarily day-time lights and lower power for night-time.

    • Dave says:

      I find that I need a light a little brighter to see potholes at night, but 250 lumens is plenty.

    • Kris says:

      I find lighting a very subjective thing for intensity. In areas where ambient lighting is high but not high enough, and especially when you’re constantly transitioning between well lit and poorly lit areas, brighter lights than 150 are needed for adequate identification of road hazards. If it’s consistently dark like Mercer Island can be, or extremely well lit, 150 is great and there are plenty of lights that fill this category. Personally I like the 500 lumen lights for this; on high I can see really well under almost all conditions, and on low they’re running at 150 lumens or so and will last many hours on a single charge.

      It’s also worth remembering that 15 mph is 22 ft per second. Can you see and identify something 30 ft ahead of you with your light (1s travel time at 20 mph)? If you can’t, it might be time for an upgrade.

  5. Neal says:

    Several years ago my wife gave me one of those super bright bike lights, called cateye nanoshot, I think. It’s OK for the bike, as long as you aim it at the ground and keep it on a low setting. Once a guy with a similar light blinded me and knocked me off the bike on a bike trail, so I’m not that wild about them as bike lights. But I love it for winter crab fishing (wading at night) and I use it to find dust and cobwebs when I’m vacuuming. Oh also for razor clam digging. Very useful.

  6. Don Brubeck says:

    Tom,
    That is a really nice distillation of hundreds of thousands of flaming bike light blog post comments down into just a few essential points.
    Now let’s just get out and ride through the winter!

  7. Marko says:

    Great tips. One more: I recommend a solid (not blinking) taillight. It is difficult for cars/bikes to judge their distance from a blinking light; much easier to do so from a solid light.

  8. William says:

    I know it’s illegal but a 2nd “not so powerful” flashing headlight is a must for me at twilight and while riding on side streets. Drivers see it

  9. Jim rinehart says:

    I have used Donetti bicycle lights for 6 years. Front & back.
    They are bright, rechargeable, waterproof, long battery life and reliable.
    I purchased these lights after I saw a bicyclist using them on a sunny day around noon. He was 1/2 mile ahead of me and very visible.
    There are 3 modes for flashing and 3 modes for constant lighting.
    To me, thess lights are worth every penny.

    I am very aware of on coming traffic and out of courtesy I angle the lights down to avoid blinding people.

  10. Law Abider says:

    Test your own lights on yourself. That’s the simplest way to see if they are obnoxiously bright.

    I personally like Reelight. They are a Danish company that makes pretty slick lights that are powered by magnets on your wheel. They are pretty easy to retrofit without taking apart your bike. If your bike is moving, they are on and have a small capacitor to store a little charge for when you’re stopped.

    They aren’t good for pitch black riding, as they aren’t bright enough to fully illuminate your path (but are better than nothing in a pinch). But for city riding, where there’s ample ambient light, they are great for being seen. Little pricey, but worth it for lights you never have to think about and they are difficult to steal.

  11. kDavid says:

    Some thoughts:

    When on the TRAIL – _please_dim_your_headlights for oncoming cyclists (put your hand over it, or install a dimmer switch like I did). If you see someone oncoming doing it for you, they may be signaling you that you should do the same. Also, using “cessna landing lights” on the urban parts of trails is just bad form – save them for lone riding earlier or later than std commute times, or for the country trails. #dontbethatguy

    Rear lights on the helmets attract even more attention as they vary in intensity and orientation by virtue of their location. Same for front facing white lights on the helmet (and looking straight at a motorist will put the light in their line of sight, perhaps preventing them from pulling out in front of you!)

    Always have a battery powered backup light for front and rear should yours fail for whatever reason (damn! I thought I charged it!!) ;-)

  12. Dane says:

    I love posts like this. Would like to see more “how to ride in Seattle” or “urban cycling etiquette” posts.

  13. George says:

    I’m a yearlong commuter through downtown Seattle to Harborview. I use two Niterider (500 lumen I think) headlights. One on my handlebars and one on my helmet. I keep the helmet light on low, and since I’m moving my head I believe it’s much more noticeable to cars, kinda like a flasher but not as obnoxious. I’m careful to point it down so it doesn’t shine in anyone’s eyes but is still visible. I have a powerful Dinotte flasher on the back of the bike and a smaller flasher on my helmet. I’m constantly amazed at the number of people who have small flashers on their backpacks…shining up into the sky and invisible to cars behind them.

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