A great bike light is essential for cycling – both for seeing, and for being seen. But with so many bike lights on the market, how do you choose the best one? This post explains all the key factors to choose the best bike light for bike commuting.
Is the bike light bright enough?
The ideal bike light must be bright enough to see and be seen, but should not be so bright as to blind other people. Bike lights are rated in lumens, with 300 lumens being a minimum for commuter cycling in the dark.
As a reference point, bear in mind that a single car low-beam headlight is about 700 lumens, and a single typical car high-beam headlight is 1,200 lumens.
It’s also not the best idea to go too bright. A range of 300 to 500 lumens is usually fine for city cycling. However, with a light such as the LuminTrail (reviewed here), you have the option of using it on low, when it puts out around 400 lumens, and then engaging high (1000 lumens) if you are riding off-road in pitch darkness with no other road users.
Although 300 lumens is bright enough, it is great to have a bike light that has some extra power for when you need it. For example, the CatEye Volt 700 Headlight has 700 lumens, a high intensity white LED X1 light and a choice of 5 modes. This bike light has all the versatility to be excellent for commuter cycling, and then step up to be your trail riding light in a pinch. Basically the different modes on high quality bike lights like this one enable you to use maximum lumens when needed, and use much less lumens when you don’t need that much light, and don’t want to blind people.
Bear in mind that it is possible for bike light manufacturers to claim whatever they like in terms of how many lumens the light has. However, manufacturers can voluntarily apply to be FL-1 certified, which means you know that the light really is as bright as the manufacturers claim. If you see an FL-1 certification, you can be much more confident about buying a bike light. ANSI/NEMA FL-1 Standard is a testing protocol that scientifically measures a light’s brightness, run-time, and water/impact resistance.
It is notable that Light & Motion was the first bike light company to adopt and certify every one of its bike lights to the FL-1 Standard. Today, this is one of the highest rated commuter bike lights, consistently on reviewers’ top five lists.
Different modes on bike lights
Good quality bike lights usually come with different modes, such as low, high, flashing and steady. The flashing mode greatly extends battery life. Steady is for seeing, blinking is for being seen. I like to have one light for each. Most cyclists just have one bike light, and adjust it depending on conditions. For this purpose, the Light & Motion 350 (above) is excellent, because one of its 4 modes can blink and shine light ahead of you at the same time so you can see and be seen at the same time.
Is the bike light easy to install and remove?
You don’t want to spend hours installing the bike light, and you want to be able to easily take it with you when you park the bike in a public place, to prevent theft. Also, if the bike light lasts for years (and a good one should), you may be surprised at just how many times you want to move it to different bikes.
What is the light beam like?
You may sometimes see a light advertised at what seems an impossibly cheap price for the amount of lumens. In this case, the manufacturer may be saving money on lens technology, with a cheap lens that focuses the light in a narrow beam. You need a light that disperses the beam a good width without losing too much brightness. The pictures below show the light beams on two top-notch bike lights.
How easy is the bike light to recharge?
I have had cheap bikes that require a screwdriver to remove the battery for recharging – ridiculous! That’s one reason not to have cheap lights. (The other reason is that cheap bike lights are never bright enough.) These days many bike lights are recharged with a USB charger cable, which makes for easy charging at your desk. I went thought years of fiddling with battery recharging machines once a week, recharging all of the AAAs and AAs that powered the lights on my bike. I am glad I don’t have to do that any more!
Most bike lights use a generic micro USB cable, which is convenient. Of course, they will charge much quicker if they are plugged directly into the wall, not into a computer. Some, such as the CatEye Volt 700 Headlight, come with a charging cradle, to make it even easier. I like to set up charging cradles in convenient places, to make life simpler.
Is the bike light waterproof?
This is very important, as you don’t want your bike lights going out in heavy downpour on a dark night!
Waterproofness is rated with an IP standard. For example, the Light & Motion Urban 350 Bike Headlight is rated as IP67, which means it is fully waterproof in 1 m (3 feet) of water for 30 minutes. In general, most good quality bike lights are designed to be at least water resistant, so you don’t have to panic when it starts to rain.
Does the bike light have a battery status indicator?
These can be very useful, to ensure you don’t run out of charge. However, it’s not a deal breaker, in my opinion, as you just need a regular charging routine so you are never caught short.
Bottom line on how to choose the best bike light
It’s best to consider all of the above factors when you buy a bike light. However, details can be surprisingly hard to find. Often, online adverts are just plain wrong or sloppy, and you have to go all the way to the manuals and the packaging to find the truth. That’s why I published this post featuring 3 of the best bike lights for bike commuters, which clearly contrasts all of the important features in a comparative table, to make it easy for you to compare the features of 3 top-of-the-line, affordable bike lights.
Update: Try Not to Blind Other Road Users
As several readers have pointed out, it is critically important NOT to blind other road users – whether they be cyclists, pedestrians or motorists. With the price of bike lights coming down, you can buy a whole lot of lumens for not much money. It’s not uncommon to see bike lights advertised at 1000, 2000 and even 3000 lumens. As a high beam on a car is 1200 lumens, these lights are really better suited to ride through a lonely desert on a moonless night (should you have the urge to do that). I do use a 1000 lumens light for night commuting, but I wear it on my helmet so that I can keep it pointed towards the ground, and instantly angle it away from other people (by turning my head). I also only engage the full 1000 lumens when there are no upcoming road users to blind. It is often easy to change the angle of your light on a helmet mount while moving, which is why helmet mounts are my preferred mount for bike lights. The light below is the 1000 lumens Lumitrail light that I use, with an extremely adjustable helmet mount. I published a full review of this Lumintrail 1000 bike light here.
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