Light Up the Night Bicycling Guide

October 27, 2020 • Transportation

Light Up the Night - A Guide to Making Your Bike Bright

All too often, bike lights are a gear afterthought—items haphazardly plucked from the rack or selected from scant options available on Amazon Prime. In reality, lights should be treated like mission critical parts of the bike, like the handlebars or pedals.

According to California vehicle code, when riding in darkness, a bicyclist must have a white front light (visible for 300 feet), either attached to their bike or to themselves. A red rear reflector, a white or yellow reflector on each pedal, shoe, or ankle, and reflectors on the wheels are also required by law. Keep in mind that cyclists are subject to the same rules and regulations as drivers, and not having proper lighting while riding in the dark could result in a moving violation.

Having the legally required light provisioning for your bike is good, but most bike experts would recommend more lights than the law dictates. Some—specifically this guy—even argue there’s no such thing as too many lights on your bike.

So if you’re planning to bike after the sun goes down (which will happen much earlier starting November 1, 2020 for Daylight Saving Time), please consider additional lights. Very good inexpensive options are available, and make you visible to drivers who otherwise may not see you in the dark.

See and be seen

What does bike lighting have in common with celebrity charity galas? It’s all about seeing and being seen.

Lights used “to see” will illuminate your path. These lights are typically brighter, have larger batteries, and are used to see things in the distance. Lights that are used “to be seen”—by cars or others on the road—typically beam light from several angles via wider beams. These kinds of lights are usually dimmer, have smaller batteries, and are cheaper than lights used to see with.

So what kind of lights do you need? Both, so you can see where you’re going and be seen by other travelers. You’ll want get a front light that will show you potholes and other hazards well in advance. If you’re going to be riding home along car-logged streets in the winter months, consider multiple “be seen” lights to make you highly visible to drivers.

Light recommendations

When the item you need helps keep you safe, it’s advisable to spend a little more for a better quality product, but not too much. Our light recommendations reflect (ha!) a balance of affordability and quality.

It’s a good idea to get USB rechargeable lights. If you establish a habit of plugging them in when you return home for the evening, you’ll always have functioning bike lights. Plus you’ll never have to futz with swapping out batteries.

Another consideration is mounting. In most cases, you want lights that you can easily take on and off your bike. Bike thieves will go after anything on your bike that isn’t locked, so being able to take your lights with you when you lock to a public rack is clutch.

  • Front and rear combination lights to be seen: Knog makes a great USB charging light set that uses a rubber strap system to hook on and off the bike. These will help others see you at night, but don’t expect them to light up your path.

  • Front light to see: The Light & Motion Urban is a great choice for an easy to use, USB recharging front light. At an output of up to 1000 lumens, it’s sure to make you visible. If you want more, the Light and Motion Seca model can make you potentially brighter than a car at up to 2,500 lumens. These lights are also visible from the side, an important feature.

  • Rear light: Cheap, rechargable, super effective, and possibly the most iconic blink pattern in bike taillight history is the Planet Bike SuperFlash.

  • Next level: If you want a light system you never have to charge, consider a dynamo-powered system, like the E3 Pro 2 front light and corresponding tail light. These systems require a dynamo front hub, so you may need a new wheel, but they are reliable, and you'll never forget them at home.

  • Fun lights: Once you’ve properly lit your bike for safety purposes, you can start to get creative. A cheap way to make your bike stand out in the dark are $4 spoke lights, that create whirls of color when you pedal. Or, if you’re willing to drop a bigger chunk of change, MonkeyLights transform your wheels into luminescent flipbooks, creating cool patterns, even cartoon characters as you ride.

Want more info?

For a good explainer, including diagrams, check out this light buying guide, compiled by Bike Exchange.

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