Headlights!

If you regularly commute by bike, you’ve likely figured out by now that you might need lights, especially for your evening commutes. I’ve had a couple of my meat-world friends ask for my specific recommendations, so here they are.

Light & Motion LM 400 bicycle headlight

How much are you willing to spend?.

How much we spend on bicycle lights is an informal, real world exercise in risk-benefit analysis. You can spend anywhere from five bucks to hundreds of dollars on a bicycle headlight. Generally speaking, more money buys you brighter lighting, better quality, and longer battery life. Brighter lighting also enables you to ride fast more safely, so your cycling speed can also factor into how much brightness you think you need.

Lights in the $5 to $15 range are “be seen.” I keep some on hand as emergency lighting. A lot of these are powered by CR2032 lithium watch batteries. These are just now becoming available in rechargable varieties, but in any case they’re often a pain to change out in these less expensive lights. These lights may or may not satisfy California law, which nebulously says the lights must be visible 300 feet in front of the bicycle. Typical models include this six dollar silicon handlebar light.

The next step up are what I consider the twenty dollar lights. The best-selling bicycle headlight on Amazon is the Planet Bike Beamer. Like the Beamer, lights in this category generally use AAA or AA batteries and provide just enough light to light up a road. My long time favorites from Cateye also fall into this category. The Planet Bike Blaze is another popular headlight that provides noticeably more light for about $40.

Beyond that, you get to the truly bright headlights that approach and rival automobile headlights in brightness. Lights like the Magicshine MJ-880 reviewed here pump out nearly 1500 lumens of light for about $200.

At the other end of the spectrum, you can also buy a little LED flashlight from the drugstore and mount it to your handlebards with rubber bands.


$5 headlight

My recommendations

AT&T tells us more is better, but beyond about $100 there is a point of diminishing returns on bicycle headlights. I’m personally comfortable riding with the 300 lumens available from my Nite Rider 350. This model is no longer available, but the Lumina 350 is nearly identical and retails for about $80. The Lumina series is also available in a 550 lumen model ($90) and a 750 lumen model ($110). Once upon a time I hesitated to recommended NiteRider lights because their mounts didn’t quite hold their heavier lights, but since NiteRider redesigned the mounts in 2012, I can wholeheartedly recommend the lights. They’re rugged, they survive continuous exposure to rain and the elements. Like many other models in this price range, the Lumina lights contain high capacity lithium ion batteries that are USB rechargeable. Run time is about an hour a half on the brightest setting, up to 18 hours in flashing mode.

My other recommendation are for the Light & Motion Urban series of commuter headlights. These lights are USB rechargeable, rugged, and weatherproof. They’re a little pricier than the NiteRider Lumina analogs, but Light & Motion lights are sleeker and lighter in weight. The Urban series of lights are available in 200 lumen, 400 lumen (shown above), 550 lumen, and 700 lumen varieties.

I’m personally a fan of Light & Motion because they’re local (based in Monterey CA, where they also manufacture the lights) and spend a lot of time riding in San Francisco specifically for market research.

The links above point to my Amazon affiliate sponsored product pages, which gets me a few dollars if you buy from there. Prices at your local bike shop will be similar, and you don’t have to wait for shipping. You can also see these lights at two upcoming bike shows that I’m aware of. Light & Motion will be among the vendors at the Philadelphia Bike Expo this coming weekend. And on November 16, don’t miss the SF Bike Expo where numerous lighting vendors will display their wares.

The universe of bicycle headlights is pretty large these days. I’ve tried a lot of brands and seen even more. What do you use that has held up over time?

See also Janet Lafleur’s bike light tips over in the Mountain View Voice, where comments follow regarding helmet mounted lights and strobes.

Tomorrow: Tail lights!

13 Comments

  • November 5, 2013 - 11:17 am | Permalink

    Great article. Let me add a bit. It also depends on where you ride, and how far. I ride on very very dark MUPs at night where anything but a very bright light is just not safe. If you ride where there is street lighting you can get by with a lot less. You also have to factor in whether you can deal with a battery pack. I have very safe parking where I don’t need to remove my light, so a pack is not an issue. If I had to park outside I’d get a light I could remove. But with a pack I don’t have to worry about charging as much, and I can also use my light on really long rides.

  • November 5, 2013 - 11:20 am | Permalink

    Thanks Curtis, good things to keep in mind.

    BTW, I forgot to thank you for the tip about mounting the Magicshine battery pack on the seatpost. I gave that a shot and it works very well!

  • November 5, 2013 - 11:35 am | Permalink

    I’ve already got both a Bell Dawn Patrol and a Bell Radian 350 light on the front but I still wish my ability to see the road was better. My Dawn Patrol has 1/3 lights broken from a fall, but the Radian is fully functional. Both have held up well going to at least one if not two Burning Mans, the Dawn Patrol has even survived two moderate crashes admirably (though held together with duct tape now).

    Do you think a head lamp would be better or another/brighter bar light to replace the Dawn Patrol? I’m even considering both a helmet and a new bar light (kind of paranoid about night visibility).

    http://www.amazon.com/Bell-RADIAN-350-Light-Black/dp/B003NTL7IO
    http://www.amazon.com/Bell-Dawn-Patrol-LED-Headlight/dp/B002Y1IO7E

  • ark
    November 5, 2013 - 12:05 pm | Permalink

    I love my blackburn Flea lights. the old version is $10 at nashbar and I can ride trails I know by the light of just two of them. they are teeny tiny, charge of USB and are trivial to put on and off. I taped some innertube to my bars to give them a nice wide platform to grip onto.

    My only complaint is you need to take the strap off and a special usb plug to charge them.

  • Daniel M
    November 5, 2013 - 12:19 pm | Permalink

    I think this discussion is incomplete without mentioning dynamo lights. I know they are a huge step up in cost and specialization (i.e. having a front wheel built onto a dyno hub), but this is a website for people who ride for transportation.

    The most tantalizing / frustrating aspect of LED lights for me is how wonderfully bright they are with fresh batteries, and knowing that their output will be significantly less for most of the useful life of the batteries. Dyno lights give you full brighness all the time, with no need to change or charge batteries (or even turn them off, for that matter) at any time.

    I have two primary bikes – a lighter, drop-bar all-rounder and a heavy duty, upright bar shopping/touring bike, and I have now taken the plunge on dynos for both of them. I can’t imagine ever going back. Night is simply a non-issue. Nothing to plan ahead for or charge up; my “be seen” daytime running light simply becomes a lane-wide pathway of forward illumination as daytime turns to night. And no reason to use flashng mode, front or rear! (There isn’t one, anyway.)

    If you ride every day, to and from work, etc., including nighttime hours, the high upfront cost is well worth it every night on the way home.

  • Anonymous
    November 5, 2013 - 1:50 pm | Permalink

    I forget the technical term, but most mid+ range lights don’t dim as battery strength diminishes until near the very end.

    I personally have a 1W blaze and a super flash turbo in the back. The blaze seemed about perfect for urban use (San Francisco and most of Santa Cruz) as it’s an amazing be seen light and decent enough to see, but in more rural / less lit areas I end up wanting a little more.

    Given where I end up parking my bike often enough having something that quickly detaches is a must. I actually had my front light mount stolen once. =/

  • November 5, 2013 - 3:35 pm | Permalink

    Do any of those lights have asymmetric beams with a cutoff, like car headlights, to throw more light further down the road and avoid blinding oncoming drivers or cyclists? I use a Busch & Müller Ixon IQ on my bikes that don’t have dynamo hubs, and a B&M IQ Cyo and Lyt on my bikes that do. I heartily recommend the Ixon IQ if you want a light in the $80-100 range ($80 without charger; $100 with; it uses AA batteries, so if you have batteries and a charger already, no need to get the one for the light). The B&M site (www.bumm.de) is only in German, but the US distributor, Peter White, has some info on his site (http://www.peterwhitecycles.com/b&m.asp).

  • November 5, 2013 - 3:49 pm | Permalink

    THanks for mentioning Peter White, to whom I should give due props. Everything I know about bike lights I learned from him.

  • November 5, 2013 - 5:39 pm | Permalink

    I use an old head-mounted NiteRider light that uses a 10W HID bulb, but the next time the bulb dies, I’m replacing it with an LED light, now that LEDs are bright enough to be useful. The HID bulb is about as bright as my son’s Lumina 650, and both about the right brightness for riding to and from UCSC. The Lumina has a small enough battery to be a single helmet-mounted unit—I haul around over a pound of NiMH batteries to power my old light. (The charger for my old light also weighs a couple of pounds—clearly not designed by a modern electrical engineer!)

  • November 5, 2013 - 5:40 pm | Permalink

    I used to use a dynamo light years ago. I got tired of replacing bulbs when they burned out going down hill. Perhaps newer dynamo lights are better designed, but the old ones relies on bikes never going over 25mph for the voltage regulation.

  • Daniel M
    November 6, 2013 - 11:54 am | Permalink

    Modern dynos do not have the problem of burning out bulbs while going fast – they have some sort of voltage regulator that avoids this problem. Plus, the newest dyno lights are LEDs, just like the battery ones, so you never have to change a bulb for the life of the light. They are certainly not for everyone due to the expense, but if you find yourself on a bike every night, they really makes a lot of sense. Can you imagine if we had to charge our car headlights before we drove at night?

  • stuart
    November 6, 2013 - 2:17 pm | Permalink

    With dynamos, I’d no longer have to excuse to leave work early! “Oops, forgot the headlight today. Better leave before it gets dark.”

  • November 6, 2013 - 6:57 pm | Permalink

    I have the “drug store LED and rubber bands” generally handy — but yes, I sprung for the Busch-Muller dynamo from Peter White which will also charge my GPS or cell phone or whatever I can slide into the USB slot.
    HOWEVER, as of yesterday, it is having issues that may be weather related. The documentation says to be darned sure that handlebar switch that has the USB port is protected from the rain… but part of the wiring seems to be more exposed than it should be and… yesterday I actually got rained on (happens every five or six years)… and it’s not holding a charge as it should. Hoping it dries out!

  • Leave a Reply