Illuminating night riding

Tips to improve the learning curve of night riding. Where is the balance between weight and light output? Bar or helmet mount?

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There are many reasons for wanting to be able to ride a mountain bike on singletrack at night. The reasons range from wanting to do longer rides after work than daylight allows, wanting to participate in a race format that requires riding at night such as a multiday race or 24 hour race, or simply being able to get home when an afternoon ride runs long due to an untimely mechanical, a slow trail, or an overambitious ride plan.

Everyone has been in a situation when the sun goes down, visibility approaches zero, and a ripping piece of singletrack turns into a long hiking trail because riding by starlight is impossible.

Then there’s the simple reason that riding bikes in the dark is novel and fun. Whatever the reason, there are a certain things that can make riding in the dark an enjoyable experience rather than one to be dreaded.

Amount of Light

When riding at night, the speed you will be comfortable maintaining is directly correlated to the amount of light available. While it is possible to putter down a trail with only a small headlamp, a bright light will allow you to ride at nearly full speed.

Light output is measured in lumens and the brightest bike specific lights on the market currently are rated at a staggering 3,000 lumens. In comparison, a standard commuter light output is about 150 lumens.

Of course, more lumens equates to a larger light and heavier batteries. While 3,000 lumens may be great for a racing scenario — where the added speed possible due to the increased visibility would make the extra weight worthwhile — no one wants to carry around an extra pound of lights on all rides as a backup in case the sun goes down before the ride is over.

The happy medium with light seems to fall around the 1,000 lumen range. A 1,000 lumen light will weigh in around half a pound (about the same as a point and shoot camera) and will produce ample light for riding singletrack at a reasonable pace.

For racing on trails at night, most people tend to be happy with about 1,500 to 2,000 lumens, generally split between a handlebar light and a helmet mounted light. These setups will generally weigh in around a pound, including batteries.

Light Options

When looking at light options, there are a few things to consider besides the obvious weight and cost considerations.

Handlebar vs. Helmet Mount

For most night riding, a single light is adequate and it’s possible to get away with fewer lumens if the light is mounted on the helmet rather than the handlebar. This gives the rider the ability to scan further up the trail and look around corners, something that isn’t possible with a handlebar mounted light.

The downside of having a single helmet mounted light is that, in order to produce enough light, the weight on the helmet can be significant, especially if the battery is also mounted on the helmet.

Many light models have cord extensions that allow for the battery to be carried in a camelback or a jersey pocket but even the added weight of just the light on the helmet can cause excessive movement of the helmet on the head, especially on rough descents.

On the other hand, a bar mounted light can be heavier without added discomfort since the weight is on the bike and is less noticeable. On trails with few corners or on dirt roads, a floodlight on the handlebar is generally fine.

For racing, most riders will use both a handlebar light and a helmet mounted light. The exact ratio of the lumens from each light is dependent on rider preference but there are generally two schools of thought.

Some people enjoy having a bright floodlight on their handlebars to illuminate the trail directly in front of their bike at all times and use a smaller helmet light to be able to look around corners and farther down the trail on high speed sections.

Others prefer a weaker handlebar light to keep the trail immediately in front of the bike illuminated and use a bright helmet light to be able to see far down the trail.

Rechargeable vs. Standard Batteries

A second consideration when thinking about lights is the difference between a rechargeable battery pack and a light that can run off of AA or AAA batteries.

The lights with higher lumen outputs tend to run off of rechargeable battery packs and are perfect for racing situations and night specific rides. The downside is that the batteries tend to lose charge over time, so it’s possible to carry around a rechargeable light and battery pack for the entirety of a summer only to get caught out on a late fall evening and find that the battery is dead.

For long multi day rides and races such as the Arizona Trail Race a light that can run off of batteries easily purchased at a gas station is more useful than one that needs a specific charger and outlet to recharge.

Tips for Night Riding

As with anything in life, there’s no better way to get good at night riding than to practice. By keeping a few key ideas in mind, the learning curve doesn’t need to be excessively steep.

      1. Keep your head as still as possible and keep looking up. There is a strong tendency to look directly at the trail directly in front of the bike in the daylight and this bad habit is aggravated at night. As is the case in the daylight, your body can react to obstacles better when seen in advance, and the farther ahead you are looking, the more easily your brain and body will process the trail.

      2. Keeping the head still is also important, as many are tempted to look off the trail to take in the scenery. While peripheral vision allows riders to do this during the day, even a short section of trail that isn’t fully illuminated can cause havoc in the mental processing of riding the trail.

      3. Know that rocks will look bigger than they are. Because of the way that shadows created by direct lights fall, rocks look bigger and more intimidating than they actually are. Having both a handlebar and helmet light helps the situation, but many riders will hesitate at an obstacle at night that would not concern them during the day.

      4. Don’t ride too close to your riding partner. There is a natural tendency to want to ride closely behind another person at night to be able to use their light beam for extra illumination. Unfortunately, this causes the leader’s shadow to fall in front of them and with the added light in the periphery from the follower creates a dark shadow directly in front of them. While the trail isn’t lit up less by having a follower, the perception of the shadow makes the trail seem darker for the leader.

      5. Know you can’t see as far down the trail as you are accustomed to. Even with the brightest lights, it’s impossible to scan as far down the trail as in the daylight. On many slower or curvy trails that don’t have a long sightline this isn’t a problem but straight and fast trails and fire roads may require riding at a reduced speed when riding by the light of a headlamp.

Riding at night can be an incredibly fun and fulfilling experience. It allows for longer before and after work rides, makes old trails seem new again, allows for riding in the desert in the middle of the summer, and creates an entirely new skill set in bike handling and trail perception.

Plus, it eliminates the dreaded hike home after the flat tire that was followed by a broken chain and then accompanied by a wrong turn that extends the ride that was supposed to be done well before the sun set behind the horizon.

Eszter Horanyi lives and mountain bikes in Crested Butte, CO.  She has dabbled in road racing, cyclocross racing, and cross country mountain bike racing, but has gravitated towards ultra endurance and multi day self supported racing in the more recent past.  She firmly believes that nothing tops a good ride with good friends on good trails, thus she spends her life in search of all of the above. You can follow her adventures on her blog. All articles by Eszter.

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