Lights Shootout: How to buy a bike light

Tips and advice on what to look for when purchasing a night riding light

Lights Lights Shootout

2017 Lights Shootout

Today's new lights can be conveniently small or more powerful than you car's headlights.

Editor’s Note: This article is part of Mtbr and RoadBikeReview’s 2017 Bike Lights Shootout. For more check out the 2016 Mtbr Headlights Index and the RoadBikeReview Commuter Lights Index. Updated with new lights

The 2016+ Lights Shootout will cover roughly 20 new models to go along with the existing lights unchanged from last year. The Headlight Shootout for trail use is available here while the Commuter Lights Shootout is here.

First, though it’s important to understand how to go about choosing the right light for you. Deciding on that ideal light is of course dependent on intended use and understanding of the key issues outlined below. Read on to learn more.

How much light do you need?

For MTB trail riding, 700 Lumens is the minimum. It allows you to ride at a decent speed with a good sized beam pattern that allows you to clearly see the periphery. An even better setup is two lights: the more powerful light on the handlebars at about 1000 Lumens and a 700 Lumen light on the helmet.

Beam pattern and intensity are critical in maximizing the mountain biking experience during short daylight hours.

Beam pattern and intensity are critical in maximizing the mountain biking experience during short daylight hours.

The faster you ride the more light you need in order to not “outrun” your beam. That means 2000 Lumens on your bars and 1000 on the helmet.

For commuting, 400 Lumens is the minimum light output Mtbr recommends. You’ll also want a tail light, which allows you to be seen by drivers. This combination is also desirable during the day, as it increases rider visibility in traffic.

What kind of beam pattern is ideal for your needs and budget?

What kind of beam pattern is ideal for your needs and budget?

Picking a beam patterns

After output, the next most important attribute of lights is beam pattern. Beam pattern is the shape and size of the light that is projected by the light. As a light gets brighter, you want to look for a wide and even beam pattern. A bright light is more useful when the beam is dissipated over a wide area evenly, while also projecting out a fair distance.

A clean beam pattern that doesn’t have hotspots or dark artifacts is desirable, too. And finally, color is a factor as well. A white, slightly yellow (or warm) color is best, as it reveals trail contours better and is not harsh on the eyes. Pure white lights, or blueish lights may appear bright but they are difficult to see with and increase eye strain.

How is light output measured?

Light output is measured in Lumens which is the total light output of a light throughout the entire beam pattern. This output can only be measured accurately with a light integrating sphere which is a scientific instrument usually costing about $25,000 and requiring an engineering degree to operate.

This $20k integrating sphere measures the actual output of a light device.

This integrating sphere measures the actual output of a light device.

Mtbr takes the time to measure light output with an integrating sphere and we match up actual output against the manufacturer claims. Many manufacturers used to fib or exaggerate their light output, but claims are much closer to reality these days.

Continue to page 2 for more tips and advice on how to buy the best light for you »

About the author: Francis Cebedo

The founder of mtbr and roadbikereview, Francis Cebedo believes that every cyclist has a lot to teach and a lot to learn. "Our websites are communal hubs for sharing cycling experiences, trading adventure stories, and passing along product information and opinions." Francis' favorite bike is the last bike he rode, whether it's a dirt jumper, singlespeed, trail bike, lugged commuter or ultralight carbon road steed. Indeed, Francis loves cycling in all its forms and is happiest when infecting others with that same passion. Francis also believes that IPA will save America.

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  • Eznitram says:

    I’d like to add something to the “Helmet or bar Light?” question:
    From the helmet the light has almost the same path as the line of sight from the eyes. From the bar it is much flatter. For this reason the bar mounted light gives better contrast or less glare in several situations.
    Bar mounted will be better in fog or rain and in more structured terrain, like roots and rocks.

  • Carbonazza says:

    I got a Lupine Piko 3 in a big sale, with 900lm and it was ok for a while.
    Then I tried various Chinese lights, and some are surprisingly good for their price.

    But since I ride a lot in the dark half of the year, I finally offered me a Lupine Wilma with the big battery, and it is a game changer.
    I can ride in the dark, [almost] like in the day, I don’t regret the buy at all( ok, after swallowing the cost shock ).

    And for the helmet/bar discussion.
    Helmet is fine until it is raining( something unfortunately common here half of the year too ).
    The raindrops and the drops jumping from your front wheel at speed become little stars just in front of your eyes, and it dazzle you.

    So although for technical terrain a helmet light is best, I keep it generally on my bar.

    If you can, save money with cheap Chinese lights, and after a year or two get a really powerful light. You will not regret any moment of it.

  • Roy says:

    The helmet flood light coupled with the spotlight on the bar is the best set up. The light on your helmet allows you too look deep into the corners. The dazzling effect of raindrops in front of the helmet light is awesome. The only thing better is riding in the snowstorm at night. For under $100 you can be out ripping single track at night with your Chinese LED headlights. Everyone here is doing it. Tons of fun.

  • Gator says:

    Ituo lights are the best on the market right now!! Check them out!!

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