Getting the right bike lights can be complicated, but good bike lights keep you safe on the road. With all the lights available, how do you pick the best lights? Here’s a complete guide to getting the best bike lights at the best price.
The most important thing for cyclists is to make sure we can be seen by motorists (because, unfortunately, they might kill us if they don’t see us). The second most important thing is to make sure we can see where we are going (for obvious reasons). Both of these are vital for safety, which is why I so strongly believe that bike lights are the best thing you can spend your money on once you start commuting by bike. (I am usually the most brightly-lit cyclist for miles around when I cycle.) The question is, how to choose the right bike lights for your money, with such a vast choice available?
Categories of Bike Lights
The first thing to know is that bike lights are designed for two main categories:
- lights to use on mountain bikes on mountains and trails; and
- lights to use on the road.
These two kinds of bike lights are very different in weight, expense, how long they run, and how much light they produce. So start by deciding which type of bike light you need. For most commuters, you want lights designed for use on roads, not mountains.
How Bike Light Power is Measured
The Lumen is the unit for measuring brightness, now that Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) are standard. Bear in mind however that while 3,000 lumens is ultra-bright when focused in a laser-like beam, it becomes less bright if it is diffused into a wide angle beam. So you have to factor in breadth of beam as well as power when assessing the brightness of lights.
Road/Commuter Bike Lights
The good news is that road/commuter bike lights are cheaper than mountain bike lights. Their main point is to make you visible so that motorists see you, and of course to enable you to see.
Important points to consider when choosing your lights include:
- Power (measured in lumens)
- Beam (a powerful light that is dispersed too widely becomes less powerful)
- Battery life
- How easy it is to recharge the batteries
- Side visibility
- How easy they are to take on and take off
Buying Tip: Check the Batteries BEFORE You Buy
When you buy your lights, check how the batteries are replaced. You do NOT want cheap lights that you have to remove from the bike, and then use a screwdriver to open the battery case. All that time and hassle means you may be tempted to put off changing the batteries, with the result that you could be caught on a dark road with no lights.
Breadth of Beam This refers to how broadly the light is dispersed. This is often a challenge on commuter lights: the light may be focused to a laser sharp spot so that motorists can see your flashing little white light coming for a mile or two. That’s great. BUT you also need to be able to see clearly so that you don’t hit a brick or a pothole (or a pedestrian or car).
Tip: Use Two Lights
Many cyclists cope with the beam problem by having two front lights: a smaller, sharply-focused, flashing bright light so that others can see them; and a more broadly-focused, bigger light that enables them to see the road ahead. The smaller lights usually come with different modes, and the flashing mode greatly extends battery life while attracting more attention, so it’s a win-win. The wider lights that are designed for you to see where you are going often don’t have a flashing mode, as this would just give you a headache (no one uses disco lights to navigate!)
Buying Tip: Avoid Buying a SET of Lights
You can buy your bike lights separately or in sets (front and rear light sold together). You might get a better deal on a set, but the drawback is that sometimes one of the lights is less than great. As the savings are usually quite minor, it’s best to buy lights separately, so you can make sure both your front and your rear lights are the best you can afford.
Environmental Tip – Use Lights that Don’t Need Artificial Power
The Reelight SL120 bike lights are powered by electrodynamic induction, which means that power is generated as your bike moves, by a pair of spoke-mounted magnets passing over a copper coil (inside the light unit). Once you have them mounted, they are always on. You don’t have to remember to keep the batteries charged, or even to switch the lights on. As long as you’re moving, your Reelight SL120 bike lights are on.
Even better, thanks to a built-in capacitor that stores energy, Reelight SL120 bike lights stay on for a couple of minutes after you stop pedaling. So even when you’re stopped at traffic lights, they’re still going. Read my full review of Reelights here.
Front Lights for Road/Commuter Bikes
The Lumintrail Headlight
This is the best headlight I have ever had. It’s almost as good as a car headlight, and makes me feel really safe. I would never cycle at night without it. Once when I forgot to charge it, I took the bus! When I see motorists who look threatening, I just shine the light in their direction, and they always stop. (For all they know, I might be a motorcyclist, and might make a very big dent in their car.) You can also mount this headlight on your handlebars with amazing ease. In fact, I LOVE this light and have devoted an entire post to a review of the Lumintrail Headlight, here.
The Serfas E-Lume 450 Headlight
Another light so good that it has its own review – which you can see here. I like this light so much that I bought Mrs. Average Joe Cyclist one for Christmas (and some other stuff too – I may be a lot of things, but I’m not cheap!)
CatEye Econom Head Light Rechargeable HL-EL340RC CatEye is a brand known for quality, which is obviously what you want from something that could save your life.
This front light is powerful enough that you can ride fast, while not being too horrible for oncoming cyclists or pedestrians. A nice plus is the little side lights that improve side visibility. You can buy these from from Amazon for less than $50. It’s cheaper than the Serfas light and the Lumin light, but then it’s not nearly as bright as them. You get what you pay for. For the price, it’s a good light.
Rear Lights for Road/Commuter Bikes
Serfas Thunderbolt (UTL-6) bike taillight
A star is born! This is a great new taillight – very small, inexpensive (less than $40) – that attaches with silicone stays to pretty much any part of your bike. I move it from bike to bike, so I only need one great taillight for three bikes. Read my full review here.
Cateye Rapid 3 (rear)
This rear light gives great visibility without completely blinding those behind you. A nice feature is that it switches back on in the mode in which you turned it off. This will be a relief to all those who get irritated cycling through their light options every morning, trying to find the one and only mode that they use. Run time is up to three hours on constant, 80 in flashing and 20 hours in rapid mode. It attaches via the new Cateye FlexTight bracket, making mounting and taking it off easy. At less than $20, this light is a great buy.
1W Portland Design Works Radbot 1000
Mountain Bike Lights
These are all about the lighting power, so that you don’t break your neck on a dark log on an unlit trail. Because you need so much power, these bad boys are NOT cheap. Personally I will save my trail riding for the day time, but if you want to ride the trails at night and have the big bucks to finance it, here are some options.
Front Lights for Mountain Bikes
The NiteRider Pro 1200 LED Rechargeable HeadLight with Li-Ion Battery is very a respected light that claims to be like having your own miniature sun, and to be the brightest bike lights ever constructed, producing 1,200 lumens via six of the highest performing Cree LEDs available. It is also complete customizable and comes with both helmet and bar mounts. Reviews of this light affirm that the light is the brightest you can find.
Light & Motion Seca 2200 Ultra Bike Light
The Seca 2200 Ultra Bike Light claims to be like a floodlight and to be one of the brightest bike lights ever made, and to have a long battery life. The hype includes “this high-powered light gives you the vision to ride just as fast on pitch-dark single track as you would on a mid-day downhill kamikaze run.” Reviewers love it for turning night into day, and point out that it is made in the USA!
It is not cheap, but it is not average, either. Reviewers point out that it includes “a very high quality reflector to efficiently direct and sculpt the beam pattern to maximize light output;” and at night on the trails it’s like riding in a bubble of sunlight. The battery pack is big and unwieldy, but the consensus seems to be that this is the best light for your bucks. You could use it to do an all-night endurance race.
Rear Lights for Mountain Bikes
For obvious reasons, it is less necessary to be seen from the rear when you are cycling on a dark mountain than when you are whizzing down a dark highway. Therefore, any good rear light will do.
Other Cool Ways to be Seen on Your Bike
Reelight SL120 lights (reviewed in detail here) are a pair of front and back lights, powered by electrodynamic induction. This basically means that power is generated as your bike moves, by a pair of spoke-mounted magnets passing over a copper coil (inside the light unit). Once you have them mounted, they are always on. You don’t have to remember to keep the batteries charged, or even to switch them on. As long as you’re moving, your Reelight SL120 lights are on. Note that they are not bright enough ON THEIR OWN (in my opinion) for you to be safe from cars. Pair them up with another set of lights, and you’re golden. They are just great as backup lights that are always on.
I am a great fan of MonkeyLectric lights, reviewed here. They enable you to be seen from miles around. They are especially good for side visibility, which is often neglected, but they are also clearly visible from behind and in front, as you look a bit like a traveling circus. And they’re cheap to run too, not to mention cheerful!
Basically a set of MonkeyLectric Lights consists of 32 tiny, full-colour LED lights (or 10 if you buy the cheaper version), mounted on a flat, boot-shaped piece of plastic which fits perfectly and easily onto the spokes of a bike wheel. I love mine, and wouldn’t do a winter night time ride without them. I have now bought a set for all three of my bikes, as the price has gone down to around $60 per set. At Christmas time I change the light display to green, red and gold, which seems to give a lot of people a reason to smile at me as I go by, as I guess I look like a traveling Christmas tree. I often get people coming up to me to compliment me on the lights, and ask me where I got them. And the other day I cycled past a small boy who stared at me with open-mouthed admiration. As I went past I heard him yelling, “Wow, cool!!!” Not a bad thing to hear from a kid when you’re over 40 (trust me, I never hear it when I’m not on a bike).
I’m about to get myself a second set of monkey lights, so that I have one set on each wheel. I texted my wife Maggie to ask if she wanted me to get her a second set as well:
Maggie: How much are they?
Me: Don’t know for sure. About $100.
Me: How much are YOU worth? Much, much more than $100!
Maggie: K k k. Get me TWO sets!! 🙂
Rechargeable Lights or Lights that use Standard (rechargeable batteries)?
More and more bike lights now use Li-ion or NiMH rechargeable batteries. They are usually more expensive to buy up-front, but then you don’t have to keep spending money on new batteries – even rechargeable AA’s or AAA’s need replacing from time to time. Plus of course you have to buy the recharger as well. Personally I much prefer the Li-ion option, for the following reasons:
Li-ion batteries have higher energy density
Li-Ion batteries hold about 3 times more energy in the same space as regular batteries, and also retain their energy capacity over more discharge cycles.
Li-ion batteries are Safer
Rechargeable lights have a built-in voltage regulator to stop the brightness from dropping off as the battery drains. Most standard-battery powered lights do NOT have this, with the result that they begin dimming almost immediately. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen cyclists in the dark, no doubt thinking they are safe because they have lights – but the lights are just a dull glimmer in the dark. I know a woman who had a head-on collision with a car because her front lights had dwindled to almost invisible and she had not noticed. (With street lights on, you may not notice how much your front lights have dimmed. Which means you can still see just fine, but you might be almost invisible to motorists.)
Li-ion batteries are Brighter
In my experience, Li-ion and NiMH powered lights appear to be brighter and stronger. Longevity: Most NiMH and Li-Ion batteries will last for at least 300 full charge cycles. For average riders, that’s about three years of use. Convenience: NiMH and Li-Ion batteries are supplied with recharging kits that you can just plug into between rides. The photo below shows my lights quietly recharging in my living room (coincidentally, Maggie was out).
Li-ion or NiMH batteries?
I prefer Li-ion because you don’t have to worry about running them flat – they are smart batteries, they don’t care if you start charging them when they are flat or not, and they don’t care if you forget to unplug them (which I do, all the time). NiMH batteries are less smart and prefer not to be run flat. That said, you should avoid repeatedly running Li-ion batteries completely flat. Bike lights can save your life, and they can be a lot of fun too! Honestly, with all my heart, I believe lights are among the best possible things for cyclists to spend our money on. Let’s stay visible, stay safe, stay alive and RIDE ON!
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