When I first started bike commuting to work years ago, the end of Daylight Saving Time drove me off the bike, but not anymore. I now have bike lights that keep me visible to others, and keep the trail or street visible to me. Like most things, feeling comfortable and safe was a matter of having the right equipment.
I've gathered quite a number of lights over the years and learned through trial and error what works for me, which may not be what's best for you. Here's what I've learned.
Putting Your Best Light Forward
A white front light keeps you visible to oncoming vehicle and bike traffic as well as to people walking. To ride legally after dark, your front light must be visible from the front and side at 300 feet away, which is about one city block or five houses away. A basic $20-$30 light with fresh batteries will meet this legal standard and is good enough if you'll be riding on slower-speed city streets with street lights. Most of these lights operate on standard batteries, but some are rechargeable through a USB connection.
If your routes take you on unlit trails or poorly-lit streets you'll do well to invest in a more powerful light rated at 150 lumens or greater. Pricing for these lights starts at about $60 and virtually all feature rechargeable batteries. You'll also want a powerful light if you'll be riding on roads with speed limits of 35 or greater. At higher speeds, drivers need to see you from further away so they have enough time to react to you.
Aimed for Success
Front lights can be mounted on your bike's helmet, handlebar or front fork. Helmet lights let you see around corners better and let you look down at your bike if something malfunctions. Handlebar or front fork lights work better in fog and don't add extra weight to your head, which can be an issue for the more powerful lights which have heavier batteries.
In either case, make sure your front light is pointed at the roadway and not blinding oncoming traffic. That's especially important for helmet lights, which are harder to adjust and mounted higher, and even more important when you're using powerful lights. Blinding drivers doesn't make you or anyone else any safer.
Brightening Up the Rear
By law, your bike only needs a red reflector visible from 500 feet to the rear, but most riders use red lights, not just reflectors, for higher visibility. Like the front lights, more expensive rear lights are generally brighter, but the range is not as dramatic. Rear lights can be mounted on the bike or clipped to a rider's backpack or pannier. Common bike mount locations are the seat post, the frame of the bike near the rear wheel (seat stay), or on the back of a rear rack. If you mount it on the bike, make sure any gear you carry or any clothing you wear doesn't block the view.
To Blink or Not to Blink
Most bike lights offer both steady and blinking options. I set mine to blinking as the sun starts to go down and then switch to steady at dusk. I find a steady front light helps me see the road ahead better so I can avoid potholes and other obstacles. Steady lights also help other road users gauge your distance from them better than flashing lights. Also, super-bright flashing lights can be very distracting to drivers, other bicyclists and people walking. One day a man walking by actually thanked me for not setting my bright front light to flashing.
I do set my lights to flashing after dark in areas with a lot of other lighting distractions or when it's raining at night. Or sometimes I set a smaller light to flash and my bigger main light to steady.
Looking for the Bright Side
Being visible from the side is often overlooked. The law only requires white reflectors on the wheels or tires with reflective sidewalls. I have both, but also have amber spoke lights for extra visibility. I'm a lot more comfortable approaching or rolling through an intersection knowing I'm visible from all directions, whether or not there's a headlight hitting my wheels at the right angle.
Back it Up for the Unexpected
Don't get left in the dark when your front light loses its charge or your rear light falls off your bike mid-ride. It's worth buying and carrying a second pair of lights. One easy way is to mount an inexpensive "be seen" front light to your helmet and mount a more powerful one on your handlebars. The same works for the rear: mount a more powerful rear light on your bike, but clip an less expensive blinkie to your bag or helmet.
Are you and your bikes ready for this week's early sunsets? What are your go-to night riding accessories?