A Guide to Winter Bike Lights

With such an expansive range of lights available to cyclists, we can confidently ride all year round through the darkest nights and gloomiest mornings. To keep riding throughout the winter it’s important to have the right lights for the right occasion. Bike lights can generally be broken down into three categories; commuting, road riding and mountain biking, with some inevitable crossover and multi-purpose lights.

Picture by Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com - 16/01/2016 - Cycling - Fat Lad at the Back.

See or Be Seen

The first thing to consider when buying bike lights is to establish whether you need the light ‘to see’ with or ‘to be seen’. A light used to see with will generally have a bigger brightness output
(measured in lumens) and more focused beam trajectory to light the way ahead. A light used to be seen will come with a wider beam to be seen from more angles as well as a variety of modes and brightness settings. If you’re commuting in a well-lit urban area your focus should be on buying lights that are going to help you ‘be seen’. If you’re riding off-road trails at night you’re going to need a powerful light with a focused beam to see what’s ahead.

What to look for 

The majority of bike lights will have a lumen value on them, this refers to the maximum total amount of light emitted. The higher the lumen value, the more light given out. Typically a light used specifically for commuting in a well-lit area should be around 200 lumens, for road riding at night you will need at least 500 lumens if riding on unlit country roads and for mountain biking in the dark we’d recommend something with 800 lumens upwards. Battery life and charging options should also be considered when looking at light options. The majority of bike lights now feature built-in rechargeable batteries which can be charged via USB, although some lights may still run on disposable batteries such as AA’s. Rechargeable lights mostly use Lithium-ion batteries which are generally lighter and more powerful than disposables, and will have some sort of indicator to show how much battery life remains. Run time or burn time will state how long a light will last from fully charged to flat on each of the specified settings or modes. This is important and will dictate how long and far you’re able to ride for.

Which light is for me?
This all depends on where, when and for how long you’re riding. As mentioned earlier this can fall into one of three categories; commuting, road riding or mountain biking. Lights for commuting must prioritise rider safety above all else, as riding to and from work generally
takes place in a street-lit urban environment. For commuting we would recommend a rear light with somewhere between 50 and 100 lumens when riding in the dark and a front light with 200 to 400 lumens. This category of light will come with a variety of running modes, including at least one constant mode plus numerous flashing modes with high levels of side visibility prioritised. The Knog PWR Commuter Light is one of the best front lights for commuting with a maximum output of 450 lumens that will run at a constant 200 lumens for 2 hours, which will cover most daily commutes. While the Fabric USB is a great rear light option that features 180° visibility and is rechargeable via USB so can be charged between the morning and evening commute.

For serious road riding on unlit roads a powerful front light is a must. A focused beam with at least 500 lumens is needed to light the road ahead and pick out potholes, drains and any other road furniture you’re likely to encounter. The Cateye Volt 800 is a superb front light that strikes a balance between functionality and compactness, with multiple mounting options and a low battery indicator. The Lezyne Strip Drive Pro 300 is an extremely powerful LED rear light and is waterproof, which is especially useful in British winter. With nine different modes and up to 300 lumen output it’s the perfect option for road riding at night. The demands of mountain biking at night call for a seriously bright front light, with no artificial light around and trees and rocks lurking around every turn. The thrill of trail riding at night is like none other and we’d recommend giving it a go. You’ll need at least 1000 lumens of output up front to light the way ahead and many riders will often use a helmet mounted light in addition to one mounted on the bars. The Exposure Race MK13 is one of the best front lights around with a maximum output of 1900 lumens and a new fast charging system to reduce charge time by 35%. The
Exposure TraceR is a super compact rear light with 3 brightness levels and a fuel gauge displaying the remaining battery life using a traffic light system and is rechargeable via USB.

In summary
If you’re going to ride through the winter in the UK you’re probably going to be riding in the dark at some point and it’s a legal requirement to ride with a white front and red rear light when riding at night on a public road. Bike lights are an essential piece of kit and should be a considered and informed purchase. The most important points to think about are your budget, whether you need ‘to see’ or ‘be seen’, charging and mounting options and running time. Once you have determined all of this you’ll be well on your way to choosing the perfect bike lights for your riding. Then you’re all set to go out and enjoy being on your bike, which is what we all love to do.


Thanks to Wheelbase UK for writing this exclusively for Fat Lad At The Back.

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