Lighting Systems

Bike lights are pretty basic, so it's surprising that a decent light suited to mountain biking will set you back at least a couple hundred bucks, when all you need to make your own light is a bulb, a battery and some wire. A good switch is also nice to have and so is a clever mounting system...

If you go shopping for the parts to build your own light, you will probably discover that a good battery and bulb alone make up the bulk of the cost. If you are crafty and enjoy making stuff, go for it and make your own bike light. Otherwise, spend a little more money and buy something off the shelf.

Then start saving your money for a second light.

You can ride with just one light, but you really want two: one for your handlebars, that illuminates where you point the front wheel, and another one on your helmet that shines wherever you turn your head to look.

There are lots of good lights out there, and I'll give some personal recommendations later, but they are all subject to the same limitations of batteries and lightbulbs.

You'll want your batteries to be:

  1. lightweight
  2. long-lasting
  3. inexpensive

Pick two.

The bottom line is that long-lasting, lightweight batteries are expensive. The two types of batteries to consider are nickel metal hydride (NiMH) and lithium (polymer or ion) rechargables, with the lithium batteries being lighter and more expensive for a given burn time. Nickel Cadmium (NiCad) batteries were once the state of the art when it came to rechargable batteries, but they don't compete with NiMH or lithium rechargables and aren't worth considering, nor are lights with non-rechargeable batteries, since you'd probably need to replace them after each ride.

The bulbs are primarily LED, HID or halogen, with LED being the most energy-efficient, HID the brightest, and halogen the least expensive. LED technology is getting better and better these days, and the compact size of an LED bulb makes it a great choice for a headlamp. Put a dual-beam unit on your bars, or another single beam unit if budget or weight-conscious.

When you crash and a bulb on your handlebar light burns out, you'll be glad you have a dual-beam setup.

The choice of light is a trade-off between price, weight, burn time and brightness. A 180 lumen light with a 3 to 6 hour burn time is a good starting point, for which you'll pay around two hundred bucks. A brighter or longer-lasting light will cost more.

Try before you buy. Go to your LBS and check to make sure you like the switching system on the light before you decide which one to buy. The switch should be easy for you to operate and provide both short-burn high beam and long-burn low beam settings (3-6 hr. range in high/low battery life is typical). Other features may be nice, but are probably unnecessary. I would avoid lights that turn off briefly while switching beams, because you'll have to stop riding to switch them safely.

There are many options. Hopefully the above info will help you get dialed in for night riding. Everyone seems to have a different setup, but there is a general consensus that you'll definitely want both a headlamp and a handlebar light for serious night riding.

I run a 17 year old Nite Rider halogen dual beam (12W, 20W or both) on my handlebars that has been upgraded from a NiCad to a NiMH battery made to spec by Batteries Plus. On my helmet I have a Stella LED single beam light with the NiMH battery (180 lumen model, no longer made). The combination of lights does the job quite well and is a good balance of price & performance. I highly recommend any of the Stella LED lights and Batteries Plus did a great job of making me a new, better-performing battery for my handlebar light. I also had to buy a new charger from NiteRider, but it was a lot cheaper than a new dual-beam light. The fact that my NiteRider handlebar light purchased in 1993 is still working also says a lot for the quality of their products, but I personally prefer the sleek design of the Stella lights over those offered by Nite Rider.

Add your comments if you have any recommendations for people looking to get into night riding.