5 best tips for riding your mountain bike at night

Enjoy your familiar trails in a different light

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Riding at night is an exhilarating way to extend your riding season and see your familiar trails in a different light.

1. Dial in your light setup

The first thing to note is not to be cheap. Invest in lights that will allow you to have fun and be safe for many years to come. We know way too many folks who drop $5-$10k on each of their bikes but won’t spend more than $29 on a bike light.

Buy a light from a reputable company that has done the R&D to make a bright and reliable mountain bike light and who will support the product for years to come. Expect to buy about 1000 lumens of light and to spend about $200 for a complete set. If you want to go very fast at night or ride for several hours in inclement conditions, expect to spend more. If you just want to get out on easy trails at night close to home, $100 may be enough. Invest in a taillight as well as you’ll likely find yourself pedaling on the road sometimes with motor vehicles.

Ideally, you’ll have two front lights, one on your handlebars and one on your helmet, with the wider, brighter beam on the handlebars to illuminate the trail and show the contours and obstacles of the trail. The helmet light can be very handy on tight, twisty trails. Being able to point your light around twists and turns, obstacles and exposure are good.

Self-contained lights or flashlight style lights are pretty impressive these days as they have no wires but they are now bright enough even for aggressive and fast night riding. And when not on the bike, they can be used as handy flashlights as well.

We are in the golden age of bike lights as LED lights have made them affordable, reliable and very bright.

2. Learn how to use your light before the ride!

Master all the settings and brightness modes and learn how to scroll through each mode before you are actually descending full speed on the trail. Know the run time of the light in each brightness mode so you’re properly able to manage your battery life, with room to spare.

Another key directive is to mount your lights perfectly on your bike before the ride, preferably during the day time. It never fails that at least one person in the group fumbles around in the dark parking lot trying to mount one’s lights. And when the bar mount is not aimed properly, the battery is rattling or the helmet light is wobbly, the ride is severely compromised. Ideally, one will have a night ride bike and helmet, where the lights are always mounted perfectly, ready for the night ride season.

Always start the ride at the lowest brightness setting and let your eyes adjust to the darkness. As your speeds increase and you need more light, adjust the light up then drop the light level as you start climbing again. Don’t start at the brightest light level and allow your eyes about 10-20 seconds to adjust to available light.

The human eyes have quite a range of light sensitivity and they try to maximize vision given any available light. Allow them to do their job.

A brighter light generally allows riders to go faster at night and not outrun the visibility or throw of the light’s beam pattern. That means it’s best to reserve the brightest light setting for fast descents and stick to lower levels for slower climbs.

And be mindful of where you point your lights at all times. Take special care that you don’t shine your bright beam in the eyes of your fellow riders or drivers on the road. And turn off your red blinker light once you hit the trail if another rider is following you.

One can ride alone but riding with someone else is safer.

3. Ride with a partner or let someone know where you are riding

Have a planned route and stick to it. And let someone know where you’re going and what time you expect to be back. If an accident occurs or if your light dies and you can’t make it back, this can mean the difference between getting rescued or spending the night on the trail.

Ride with at least one partner or take extra precautions if you’re riding solo. Having a reliable buddy for night rides increases your safety quite a bit with someone who has your back in case anything goes wrong. Choose your night riding buddy well with someone who is knowledgeable about bikes and the trail and one who rides well within their limits.

Bike light mounts, tire pressures and shifting should not call attention to themselves during a night ride.

4. Ensure that your bike is in perfect working order before the ride.

Night riding puts a whole new wildcard in the mix of a trail ride where even a flat tire or a broken chain can become much more difficult to fix and manage in the dark. So ensure your bike is in the best possible shape and minimize the chance of anything going wrong with the equipment during the ride.

No matter what season you’re riding in, it’s always chillier at night, so bring layers and gloves. Wear clear safety glasses to protect yourself from unseen hazards such as branches. Unfortunately, most of your riding glasses will not work at night since they block light so make proper arrangements for eye protection.

Night riding is not the time to go beyond your safety envelope so only ride trails and features that you are very comfortable with.

5. Follow the 80% Rule

In the spirit of minimizing risk, injury, and bike problems, ride at 80% of your ability to give yourself a very comfortable buffer to enjoy the ride without incident. Even though you’re feeling pretty good about finally doing that gap jump or 12-foot drop for the first time, don’t do it!! Do only things that are well within your wheelhouse to maximize your safety.

Ride well within your comfort zone and learn to ride within the range of your light beams and don’t go faster than what your vision allows. Always look out for the trail edges and any debris or branches on the trail or at eye level lurking to take you out.

Stick with a route that you are very familiar with. And stay away from exploring new trails and new park systems on you your night ride. Minimize all the variables.

The night is a lot less forgiving than daytime rides and any small problem can escalate to a much bigger issue at night. And there may be few or no other trail users to help you out of a jam. so be very self-sufficient during these rides.


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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Comments:

  • jim says:

    I’m perfectly happy with 2 lights on the bars, but a lot of guys do like a headlamp. A wrap of ‘gaffers’ type cloth tape on the bars where you mount the light helps keep the light from slipping. If you have a 100mm or longer stem, it’s the perfect place to put your batteries, I use a velcro strap (an old surf leash velcro is perfect) to secure 2 batteries on the stem. With the batteries on the stem and 2 lights on the bars it’s a pretty uncomplicated and clean setup. – Don’t forget a tail light of some kind for any road travel to or from the trails.

  • Clay says:

    Has the reviewer ever ridden with those “cheap” lights before advising everyone to go out and spend several times more for the ‘brand name’ setups?
    I have…and I think you’re a fool to spend the money on the name brand setups unless you are an adventure racer at the extreme end of the cycling spectrum.
    I won a very expensive NightRider Pro from a trail-worker’s raffle. Run time between that light and the few ‘cheap Amazon’ lights I’ve bought are similar enough that battery life has never been an issue on my rides around 2-3 hours in snowy winter conditions. As far as light output, the NightRider Pro illuminates on the medium setting nearly as bright as the cheap lights do on high beam; but in no way does that slight variation justify the 10X higher cost of the NightRider.
    The “cheap” comment in section 1. strikes me as either A. snobby elitism, or B. ignorance of cheaper product options.

    Night riding is AWESOME!… So even if you can’t afford the name brand equipment, buy yourself some nice bright LED lights and get out there!

  • Scott says:

    Clay,

    We have had a weekly night ride for over 20 years. The new “cheap” LED lights are pretty nice, but they are generally not as reliable as lights from established brands. The cheap lights don’t match the individual battery cell voltages which lead to longevity issues. Everyone I know that runs cheap lights has problems sooner or later.

    • Duncan s says:

      Scott, Clay, I have had same experience. Cheaper lights go wrong in time (battery loss, no indicator of time left, connection failure or blow out etc). BUT if I was out in snow, or worse, wet and near freezing I would take a backup. Whether that is 2 sets of cheap lights or my ‘nice’ set with a cheap backup, getting out there is the thing. And a helmet light is not a backup as (normally) they have less life. I’d take a cheap backup I had tried once over spare batteries any day. A spare battery for a ‘name’ can cost (much) more. 20miles from home in pitch dark, no thanks. And no fun for the buddy whose lights work either.

  • Greg says:

    I run an Light and Motion on my bar and one on the helmet. They are expensive but I haven’t seen anything that compares. EVERY ride at least one person will stop us and ask what lights we run. We don’t ride at 80%, we actually set new PRs on most night rides. The lights seem to focus your attention and force you to look through corners with your helmet light. The L&M lights are bright, great pattern and 3 years with no noticeable decrease in the long battery life.

    No, I am not sponsored and don’t work for L&M. Yes, I am a fanboy after running their lights for 3 years. There is no such thing as too much light but you can have a lot of light that isn’t efficiently delivered.

  • WC says:

    You qualified your comment by indicating “snowy conditions” which I take to mean extreme reflection of any available light. That may be ok where you ride. In my night riding in dark oak woods with roots, you will be glad for the most light you can get. My helmet light tends to expose the shadows made by my handle bar light, both 2000 plus lumens.

  • Duncan s says:

    But on the article: a night helmet, sure I guess… A second bike for night? Just sort out the mount for winter and leave it (40 grams?).

    • Francis Cebedo says:

      >> But on the article: a night helmet, sure I guess… A second bike for night? Just sort out the mount for winter and leave it (40 grams?).

      True, true…. this is more the case if one already has a few bikes and there’s a bike that’s more burly and elements ready with fenders and with maybe a couple powerful lights.

      Flashlight style lights have indeed made light mounting much easier.

  • Charles Coker says:

    I used to do a ton of night riding and the occasional 24 hour race..
    Back in the early 2000s I had a high end shop and ran L&M,Niterider and Jet Designs HIDs mainly. I still have access to shop employee purchase pricing through a buddy and want to get some lights. I ran a bunch of different setups but for me, for technical singletrack I preferred a very bright flood on my helmet. Hated two lights, bar and helmet light was distracting to me. Looking around recently at lights. With what I have seen from LED advancements over the years and having a lot of experience with “tactical” lights the last 10 years I am hard pressed to believe I need to spend 3-400 on them. I don’t want super cheap low end stuff but I have to think there is a sweet spot out there for lights where you can get a quality helmet light with a battery pack with 2-3 hrs run time for under 200

  • Stuart says:

    2015 You better choose £200 lights from a good brand, these are the best on the market.
    2016 You better choose £220 lights from a good brand these..,.. etc
    There’s best lights have always cost around £200 to £300

    So if you were blown away by £200 lights in 2015, then those lights should be around £100, surely not?

  • Michael says:

    Try a Fenix 1400 lumen headlamp. I bought one for about $100 and carry spare batteries with me, each battery will run the light at its brightest setting for a couple of hours. It has both a wide angle flood and a spot and they can both be on at the same time. I also have the highest end Niterider light mounted on my bars. It’s a killer combination and I regularly go on 6 to 8 hour night rides with no fear of being stranded without light. I also carry a very bright pocket flashlight in my pocket to help when I need to change batteries or work on my bike.

  • GettingUpThere says:

    Wish the article would emphasize the importance of NOT SHINING THOSE BRIGHT HEADLIGHTS INTO THE EYES OF ONCOMING CYCLISTS, and not just lip service in last lines under headline of Learn How To Set Up Light. VERY DANGEROUS.

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