A Primer on Bike Lights

Yes, it’s definitely that time of year when it registers that our allotment of daylight is beginning to dwindle. Daily commutes may no longer take place in brilliant sunshine and what was once plenty of time post-work to ride in dayllight is quickly becoming a more precious commodity. Which makes now the perfect time to discuss bike lights and which ones will fulfill the needs of your riding endeavors.

In general, lights fall into two categories: lights that help you see and lights that help you be seen. And of course there’s then the million dollar question – which do you need?

Much will depend on when, where, and how you ride, but one thing is consistent: every cyclist should own at least one set of lights to help ride safely during the darker months. While many bikes come with reflectors, and a lot of cycling clothing is reflective as well these days, you still need to use lights for safe cycling. In fact, most states require that lights be used when riding at night. Our home state of North Carolina requires a front light that can be seen from at least 300 feet in front of the bicycle and offers a choice for the rear of either a red light visible from at least 300 feet behind or clothing/a vest that’s visible from 300 feet behind.

Safety Lights

Quite simply, every cyclist needs to own at least a set of safety lights. These small, inexpensive LED lights have become much brighter and have longer battery life in recent years. They take up a minimal amount of space on the bike, attach easily to the handlebars and seatpost, and are bright enough to help you be seen on even the darkest roads. Even if you don’t plan on riding at night, having a set of these with you during the fall and winter is important in case something unexpected happens and your ride makes an unplanned transition into darkness.

Going beyond having safety lights for use when it’s dark, it’s just a good idea to use them as daytime running lights to maximize your visibility to motorists, fellow cyclists, and pedestrians. Even in broad daylight, a small set of front and rear safety lights can create bright pulses and flashes to snap other road users, especially motorists, out of the haze and malaise of the day and alert them to your presence. I’ve personally become a fan of the Knog Blinder 1 headlight and tail light as they’re well-designed, the epitome of minimalist, and – like many lights in this category – conveniently re-charge via USB. They’re on every time I’m out on a ride.

Safety lights, such as the Blackburn Click Combo, are an inexpensive, minimalist means to alert others to your presence on the road or trail.

Commuter Lights

Packing more of a punch than safety lights, commuter lights make an ideal choice for commuters and road riders. Commuter lights are much larger and brighter than safety lights, and have a higher light output as well. These lights are typically in the 50-450 lumen range (lumens are a measure of how bright a light is – the more lumens, the brighter), and are capable of putting out enough light to illuminate the path in front of you with some help from a street light or two. They also usually have a flash mode that can make you more visible to drivers from further out.

They’re typically very convenient to mount on the handlebar – most utilize a tool-free system – and they feature an internal, rechargeable battery that helps keep the weight down and re-charges via a USB cable. Commuter lights are also moderately priced and won’t bust your budget. Always use a commuter light with a tail light.

The NiteRider Lumina Micro 450 Headlight/Sabre 50 Tail Light Combo makes an excellent choice in the commuter light realm.


Headlamps are the big hitters of the bike light world. Packing high powered LED lamps in the 500-2200 lumen range, these are the lights that are used to light your way during full-on night rides in pitch black darkness. At the lower end of that brightness range the lights are still relatively compact, self-contained units, while at the upper end of that brightness range they can be fairly big and heavy, and some even require external battery packs. And they can be priced in the several hundred dollar realm. But what you get is a bike light that is so bright if feels like you’re riding with your own, personal sun – such as the brightest light Nashbar currently sells: the NiteRider Pro 2200 Race Headlight, featuring a massive 2200 lumens in its brightest mode.

If you ride on trails at night, like to do some road cycling at night, or commute down unlit country roads, these are the lights that can show you the way home. We also recommend pairing these lights with a flashing commuter or safety light as well, so drivers won’t confuse you with a slow moving car or motorcycle. Always pair a headlamp with a tail light.

The Cateye Volt 1200 uses 1200 lumens of broad beam power to light up the darkest roads or trails.

Tail Lights

Basically, tail lights are flashing red lights that mount to the back of your bike — either at the seatpost or seatstay, or by clipping onto a saddlebag or backpack. Their purpose is to make you visible to traffic approaching from the rear, while some tail lights also offer a wider radius of illumination and can also help you be visible from the side. Most are pretty inexpensive, and they go a long way toward helping you stay visible and safe. The most powerful tail lights can be seen from over a mile away, while smaller “blinky” lights are more suitable for city or suburban streets that aren’t totally dark.

Tail lights are also required of cyclists riding at night in almost every state, city, and municipality in the United States, but independent of the law, we just think they’re a very good idea to enhance your safety.

A tail light, such as the NiteRider Sentinal 40, is an essential element of cycling safety.

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2 comments on “A Primer on Bike Lights
  1. Will Seagraves says:

    Thanks for posting this information. My wife and I have been discussing lights as the days are fading earlier. It has been tougher to get out after work. We will be buying two sets very soon, and would like to see all lights offered as sets. I hate to hang anything on my bike, so this will be a stretch for me. Gotta be light weight. Gotta be affordable. In our area, I would not willingly go out to ride after dark, but would like some peace of mind coming home late. Like Mom used to say; “you don’t want an ass full of fenders”.

  2. Hillary says:

    I want this. I will surely get one for my bike. Thanks for sharing this.

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