Choosing Bicycle Lights For Commuting

By on July 24, 2010

Lights for night cycling

Lights for riding in the dark

Confused with all the bicycle lights on offer for night commuting?

I’m not surprised! There are so many different shapes, sizes, types and prices of bicycle lights, making selecting what you personally require a bit of a nightmare.

So my goal with this article is to give you a simple reference point to work from.

It’s then a case of going down to your local bike shop and asking further questions if need be.

To begin, selecting the right bicycle lights depends on whether you’re going to be:

  1. Commuting under street lit areas
  2. Commuting in unlit areas
  3. Commuting entirely off-road

1. Commuting under street lit areas

Relatively cheap, ‘low-end’ LED (Light Emitting Diode) lights are best for riding in street lit town/city commutes. They can be found in just about every bike shop and are the most common type of lights on the market.

LEDs are excellent at helping you be seen by other road users, rather than you specifically needing to see the road ahead.  For this reason, low-end LEDs don’t require a more powerful ‘narrow’ beam and therefore remain relatively inexpensive lights, with standard replaceable batteries.

Be warned though that if you were to ride out into unlit areas with low-end LEDs, you won’t be able to see far enough in front of you to easily make out up-and-coming obstacles.

Low-end LED lights can have high run times for a good couple of months running on normal replaceable batteries. The downside is they do need replaced.  You should always have a back up supply at home, in your puncture repair kit and at work.

During your rides, always check low-end LEDs continue to work.  When batteries start to get low they have a habit of flickering on and off.  A good tap can sometimes bring them back on again. Just remember to replace the battery when you get home!

Flashing low-end LEDs make for some of the best lights for city commuting, especially in rush hour traffic. Flashing LEDs don’t make you brighter as such, but they certainly make you more conspicuous! (Please note: some countries do not permit flashing lights).

2. Commuting in unlit areas

Higher-powered LED front lights are much brighter than the cheaper ‘low end’ LED lights used for street lit city riding.  For this reason they are more expensive because the brighter the light, the more you have you pay – from about £40-£800+!

Know though that you can get good quality higher-powered LED front lights that are reasonably priced for under £100.

Higher-powered LED lights are now the more efficient alternative to Halogen lights you might also see around.

This is because higher-powered LED lights have a longer battery life (i.e. are more efficient) than Halogens so are a popular choice for bike commuters wanting to ride off road, or on road in unlit areas.

For the rest of this article, I refer to the more popular, relatively less expensive, higher-powered LEDs.

The higher-powered LEDs usually work by emitting two types of light:

  • A bulb that emits light far enough down the road for you to see ahead (a narrow beam).
  • A bulb that emits light outwards for you to be seen (a wide beam).

Note: The wide beam light is similar to how the low-end LED works, but is much brighter.

It’s up to you if you prefer one front headlamp with the two bulbs housed within.  Or, two separate front headlamps with each bulb within.  You’ll find different combinations.

The separate headlamps are a popular choice simply because if one breaks you do have a backup light.  It also means (in some cases) you can customise the angle/dip of each separate light.

Because high-powered LEDs lights emit brighter light, they require bigger batteries. Some of the cheaper high-powered LEDs run on replacement batteries, but quite frankly you’ll find replacing them an absolute pain.

As a consequence, most commuters go for high-powered LEDs with rechargeable batteries. These tend to be quite bulky and heavy but can be tucked away neatly under your frame or even in your second bottle cage.

Because of the high power of these bulbs, these batteries tend to have relatively short run times (about 3hrs on average depending on how much power your light needs).  Of course, depending on the length of your commute, you’ll have to remember to recharge them each night!

To conserve battery power, use one light at a time.  For example, if you’ve got a rural commute before riding in town, you’d only use the narrow beam, and then switch to the wider beam in town.

You may find oncoming traffic flashing you with these brighter lights specially using the narrow beam on busier unlit roads.  For this reason, be mindful as to how you mount your lights; it’s a balance between you being able to see ahead, and how little dip you can get away with!  Remember to always use your wide beam in street lit areas.

For the rear light, some high-powered LED sets come with a rear low-end LED.

Remember, you can be seen very well with a low-end LED in the dark and because of it’s lower power output makes for an excellent economical rear light you can use with your brighter LED front lights.

Finally, when it comes to brighter lights for on road commuting purposes, try not to get bogged down in jargon like “lumens, watts and flux” – just trust me that a good quality LED front light and cheaper LED rear light will more than suffice for the type of commuting you’re going to be doing in unlit areas.

3. Commuting heavily off road only

The only reason you might look for more efficient lights is if you need more battery economy – it will go for longer with the same luminosity…but it will cost you!

More powerful lights like the very expensive (£200-£600+) High-end LEDs are beyond the scope of this article.  This is because if you’re bike commuting, the majority of you won’t need these, but they are certainly fun to have a look at!

I hope this article has been of use.  I’ve tried to keep this massive subject as simple as possible.

The most important thing is to get ‘lights’ on your bike and if you’re still confused, to ask down your local bike shop for help.

No matter what light you buy, do remember to check you really have switched on your lights – I know that sounds obvious, but I’ve started a commute having forgotten to switch on the rear light!  If you’re unsure your rear light is on, get off your bike and check, don’t guess, it’s not worth it.

And, even worse, I’ve forgotten to switch off my lights at work, leaving me with NO alternative to get a lift home with a disgruntled husband…!

So, what lights do you have on your bike?  Do you ride with two lights on front and back?  What combinations work for you?  Is there anything you wish to add to this article, bearing in mind I’m not into lumens, flux and watts jargon?  Would love to hear from you below, so get commenting…

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