Bike lights keep getting lighter and smaller while delivering brighter illumination for riding safety. This article will help you choose the right lighting for your biking needs.
First, ask yourself this: Do you want to see, be seen or both?
A well-lit bike is equipped with front and rear lighting (each with side emitters) to ensure your visibility to motorists and pedestrians. For commuting or riding after dark—especially on trail rides that are far from ambient light sources—your front light needs to be a high-output lighting system.
High-output lighting systems: These usually are rechargeable light systems that offer maximum illumination. Though pricey, they help you see where you’re going on the trail or road in nearly all conditions.
Front safety lights: These help motorists see you from the front in dim light or daylight conditions. However, they’re not bright enough to help you see where you’re going for most night riding.
Rear safety lights: These enhance your visibility to motorists whenever you’re riding—at dusk or at night. The main differences in taillights are in mounting options and the number of light-emitting diodes (LEDs).
Other options include using reflective tape or a lighting system like BikeGlow, which illuminates the shape of the frame.
All lights offered by REI use durable housings sealed with weatherproof gaskets. Count on these lights to shine in any weather. What to consider:
LEDs: Light-emitting diodes run up to 3 or 4 times longer than halogen bulbs while providing moderate to high levels of illumination. This energy efficiency makes LEDs the predominant light source used in safety lights as well as in high-output lights. LEDs outlast standard bulbs and are highly durable.
Lumens: A lumen is a unit of measurement that quantifies the amount of light falling on the object you want illuminated. Measured at a uniform distance, a lumen describes the light intensity of each lighting unit. Each light manufacturer provides a lumen rating; this is shown on REI.com.
Beam pattern: If you commute on streets with streetlights, you may want to choose a front light with a narrow-focus beam. On darker roads or trails, you’ll want to go with a wide-focus beam for better peripheral vision. Beam patterns can be difficult for shoppers to compare; check online product descriptions or ask an REI sales specialist for help.
As a general rule, higher price equals higher light output.
Rechargeable systems feature lithium ion or nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries. They can be charged hundreds of times, making them an inexpensive and environmentally sound alternative to disposable batteries.
Unlike alkalines that dim slowly over battery life, most rechargeables deliver consistent light until their power is exhausted. The drawback to this consistency is that you can’t tell that your battery is about to die unless your system has a “fuel gauge” or low-battery warning. All rechargeables, though, do have a power light to indicate that power is available.
Both lithium ion and NiMH batteries offer excellent power for their weight, and they are characterized by their long run times. Both are easy to keep charged because they suffer no “memory” effects from being fully discharged. Lithium ion batteries have become more common since they are lighter and more powerful than their NiMH counterparts.
Most rechargeable batteries are capable of more than 500 charge/discharge cycles. Self-contained units can be charged via a power cord or USB charger.
When charging batteries, be sure you fully charge them, especially before storage, but do not overcharge them. Most systems come with smart chargers that automatically stop when the batteries are fully charged to prevent overcharging. Because inactive batteries lose their charge over time, plug in and charge your system before every use.
Battery life depends on the light’s battery type, the power of the system and the kind of bulbs in the light. The product pages on REI.com provide comparative ratings.
A flashing light emits an eye-catching pulse (either steady or random) that uses less battery power than a steady beam. Most lights offer flashing and steady modes.
Most rechargeable units have multiple settings. This lets you switch between long-lasting, low-power light and bright, high-intensity light that drains battery power more quickly. Most systems let you select from a range of illumination levels.
Front safety lights mount onto your handlebar. Many high-output systems can mount onto your handlebar or your helmet. For nighttime trail riding, you should consider using both types. Beams of helmet-mounted lights can be directed by just the turn of your head, so if you’re using only 1 light, it should be helmet-mounted.
Rear safety lights can be mounted on your hydration pack, pocket or seatpost. Some can also be mounted on the back of rear bike racks.
Battery packs for high-output lights can be attached to your bike or—since many have dramatically decreased in size and weight—stowed in a pack. Quick-release hardware lets you take your light with you when leaving your bike, especially when the battery and light are contained in a single unit.
By T.D. Wood
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Last updated: Mon Mar 04 21:24:14 PST 2013
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