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
Manufacturing and assembly are a big part of a light's reliability and longevity.

Manufacturing and assembly are a big part of a light’s reliability and longevity.

Helmet or bar Light?

The bar light is ideal for a powerful light that is out of sight, out of mind, with the ability for longer battery run times. A very wide beam pattern is desirable to see the periphery. A helmet light is ideally a smaller light that’s lighter with a tighter beam. That beam can see a long distance and will follow the riders eyes to help them see through corners and switchbacks. Ideally, the rider will have both lights complementing each other and lighting up the periphery with the bar light and seeing through corners with the helmet light.

If the rider can only have one light, the helmet light is the more common choice. It allows the rider to use the Lumens more efficiently, aiming left to right with head movement.

Mtbr measures actual Lumen outputs vs. manufacturer claims.

Mtbr measures actual Lumen outputs vs. manufacturer claims.

Heat and run time

The great enemy of LED lights is heat. No bike light is designed to run at full power with no airflow, so various strategies are employed to move heat away from the LED using heat sinks.

When there is low bike speed or airflow, today’s LED lights throttle down output and grow dimmer. The most advanced lights automatically sense airflow and throttle the light back up when the rider speeds up. The more primitive lights need to be powered on/off or run for a while before returning back to full brightness.

Run time is the total time the light runs in high power until the light shuts off or dims down to half of its brightness as the battery loses energy.

Self-contained lights deliver wire free usability and convenience for other tasks.

Self-contained lights deliver wire free usability and convenience for other tasks.

Self-contained or wired?

All bike lights used to be wired, but the emergence of LED and lithium batteries have allowed bike lights to combine the light head and battery into one compact package. The big advantage is no wires and connectors to fiddle with. The self-contained bike light can also be used around the house or campsite as a very powerful flashlight.

The disadvantage of self-contained lights is lower brightness and shorter run times. Since battery size is limited by the unit’s packaging, light output is typically limited to about 1.5 hours at full power. Field replaceable batteries used to be an option but that is as a dying breed due to lithium cell battery concerns.

Lasers, Bluetooth and accelerometers are just some of the features being integrated into bike lights.

Lasers, Bluetooth, and accelerometers are just some of the features being integrated into the latest crop of bike lights.

Features, features, features

As the race towards mega powerful lights has subsided, manufacturers have focused on features and usability. Some of the best we’ve seen this year are:

  • Wireless Bluetooth remote
  • Integrated camera to record ride or traffic violations by cars
  • Integrated laser output to improve rider visibility in traffic
  • Field replaceable batteries to provide ‘unlimited’ run time
  • LCD displays to monitor light and battery status
  • Accelerometers to monitor motion to turn the light on or make it brighter

This article is part of Mtbr and RoadBikeReview’s 2016 Bike Lights Shootout. See the 2016 Mtbr Headlights Index and the RoadBikeReview Commuter Lights Index.


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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