Bright ideas for biking at night
There’s a guy who rides his bike on the streets of Seattle dressed up like a crossing guard who just had a run-in with a Christmas tree. The locals call him as High Vis Man.
I used to snigger when he rode past, until I was hit by a car while riding home from work last summer. (I survived, but not gracefully, as you know if you’ve seen our last video.) Since then, I’ve been getting in touch with my own, inner High Vis Man, trying to make myself utterly impossible to miss — or rather, impossible not to.
The video above covers the basics: Start with a headlight and a tail light, add helmet lights, and go crazy with the reflective tape. Here are a few more details for folks who are sorting through the options, wondering how to get their High Vis on without ditching every last scrap of dignity, or blinding the populace as they ride past.
How bright do you really want those lights?
Some of the newer, high-end lights are truly blinding — so much so that they’ve spurred a fair amount of grumbling from riders who say the ultra-bright LEDs wipe out other bikers’ night vision, making cycling more dangerous rather than more safe.
They have a point. Some of these lights are bright enough for gator hunting — designed for riding dark, country roads and even mountain bike trails. To get a sense of how bright various lights are, check out Modern Bike’s light comparison photos. Some of the weaker lights hardly make a spot on the sidewalk. The high-end lamps light up the whole freaking neighborhood.
Me? I ride city streets that are, for the most part, fairly well-lit already. My lights are really less about seeing the road in front of me than they are about being seen by everyone else.
After doing some comparison shopping and talking to the pros at a couple of local bike shops, I decided to go with a three-watt, 310-lumen headlight (lumens are a measure of brightness) with a lower, 250(ish)-lumen setting and a blazing, 500-lumen “daylight visible” flash setting. The normal setting lights up the street in front of me decently well. Turn it to flash, and every street sign and reflective surface for two blocks is suddenly strobing. It’s more than bright enough for my purposes.
My tail light is two watts, and pulses plenty bright for cars and fellow bikers to see me both day and night — and I do use it at all hours. My helmet light is 120 lumens — again, more about being seen than seeing where I’m going — and includes front and rear lights, plus amber lights visible from both sides.
It’s great to have lights in front and back, but look for lights that are visible from the sides as well. You can buy small LED lights that attach to your spokes, but before long, you’re turning on six different lights every time you set out for a ride. Plus, spoke lights run on watch batteries, which are expensive and not terribly long-lived. That’s why I opted for reflective tape on my spokes for additional visibility from the sides — and went all out with the Monkey Lights on the family cargo bike, which weighs a thousand pounds anyway (and is geared accordingly).
Speaking of batteries, I’m loving my new rechargeable lights. The only drawback? When the battery goes, it’s gone. You go from brilliant to blackout in zero seconds. Look for lights that have a decent battery indicator system, so you’re not caught out in the dark — and did I mention you should get crazy with the reflective tape, just in case? Want to skip the batteries altogether? Go with a dynamo hub that powers your lights with energy generated from your pedaling. I’ve got one on the cargo bike that lights both the head and taillights.
Finally, a note about cost. You can drop a small fortune on bike lights, but you don’t need to. I got my new headlight/taillight set, plus my helmet front/back combo, and all the reflective tape and decals I needed, for just over $200. Not chump change, but not bad as life insurance policies go.
I know there are a million ways to do this. One of my favorite High Vis trends of late has been crazy striped socks — totally invisible by night, but kinda hard to ignore by day.
Got any tips? I’d love to hear them. Put ‘em in the comments below.
Get Grist in your inbox