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How to Choose a Bike Light

Whether you are on a road bike, mountain bike, or hybrid, lighting is all about two things: seeing what’s ahead of you, and being seen from behind, especially in traffic.

Before you choose the right bike lights, here are a few considerations that should help the process go more smoothly.

Bike Lights

It's the Law

As is the case with so many laws across the states, you'll encounter slight differences regarding bike light regulations. In Massachusetts, for example, your front and rear lights must be on if you're riding any time from a half hour after sunset to a half hour before sunrise. Head down to Texas, though, and the law requires a front white light, but not a rear light. A red rear reflector is all that’s needed.

Generally, though, you should err on the side of caution by attaching a front white light that clearly illuminates objects ahead of you and a rear red light that’s visible from 600 feet away.

Colors

Bike lights come in two colors: red and white. Following the rules of the road for cars in most states, you'll need both lights to ensure that you can always see the road ahead of you and be seen by cars behind you. Be sure to choose a bright white LED light to face the road, and a red light to attach to the rear of your bike. Many times, you'll find that rear lights have a blinking feature to better catch drivers’ eyes.

How Many?

Since the most basic bike lighting setup includes one bright white light in the front and a red light in the back, it’s easy to find combination packs that include both. But by all means, if you want more light, go for it. Another standard rig is to attach a white light to your handlebars, a red taillight to the back, and a third light to your helmet.

Beyond this, it's up to you. There are also lights to put on your spokes, products that make your bike frame glow, and endless reflectors that you can attach.

Mounting

Many lights feature simple mounting systems that use plastic clips or brackets, and hand screws that make them easily transferable from bike to bike. Often, the necessary attachments for handlebars are included.

Your rear safety light should be mounted onto your seat post; plus, you can clip more into back pockets or backpacks. Also, some bike packs and jerseys have a dedicated loop for attaching a taillight.

Brightness

Different lights offer different lumen ratings, which is a measurement of how well the lamp illuminates a subject at a certain distance. Don't assume, however, that higher lumens automatically result in a brighter light. The lens and bulb housing design are also factors that influence brightness levels.

Some lights provide a focused narrow beam, which illuminates a smaller area at greater distance, and a wider beam, which improves your peripheral vision (preferable in traffic). Lights generally offer 40 to 500 lumens, so be sure to check out these and other features, too.

Battery Life

Some rear lights and most bike headlights offer multiple lighting modes, such as high intensity, low intensity, and strobe (flashing, blinking) mode. In these cases, the light should list a different max battery life for each setting. The lower the intensity that you set the light to, the longer the battery will last. In practical applications, you're most likely to use the light at its highest setting and leave it there.

Some lights feature a charge indicator that lets you know exactly how much life is left, which can certainly come in handy. If you choose to use standard batteries, stash extras in your seat bag.

Road vs. Mountain

While lighting your way will always be necessary when biking at night, there are a few differences between commuter biking and mountain biking. In the city, the focus is to see and be seen. On the trails, where there’s much less ambient light and zero threat of being hit by cars, focus on your own visibility. For this, you'll need high-output lamps that are affixed to your handlebars and bike helmet, letting you see in all directions.

If you plan to be mountain biking at night, go for a light that offers an extremely long battery life so you don't get stranded, and is rugged enough to handle any falls you may take.

There's no reason to let a little darkness stop you from enjoying your commute or a romp in the woods on your bike. Just be sure to make a good a lighting system part of your bike gear that will keep you, and those around you, safe.

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