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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.