Updated Oct. 23, 2019
As light and battery technology continues to improve, we want to keep you up to date on what we’ve seen as some of the best light options for riders looking to extend their time in the saddle as our available daylight wains with the change in season. We’ve found some great discussion on LED technology over on our “Lights and Night Riding” forum and it got us thinking about some new lights we’ve run across in the past few months. With many options on the market, finding the right light for your needs will take a little research, but here are some of our favorites.
What to look for in lights for mountain biking
Front bike lights can be split into two categories, to see with and to be seen lights. The first category is more similar to a car headlight or flashlight that throws a beam of light to help the rider see while in motion. The next category works like a reflector or taillight which is meant to enhance the rider’s visibility to avoid getting hit by a vehicle or other traffic. This article will cover lights to see within the sweet spot range of $100-$300. There are other very expensive lights and much cheaper ones but we’ll tackle those in subsequent stories to help you find the best bike lights for you.
The industry standard for measuring brightness is Lumens similar to horsepower ratings for an engine. It is the true measure of visible light and for reference, a 100-watt incandescent light bulb emits around 1600 lumens while car headlights emit about 3000.
A mountain bike needs about 700 lumens minimum of light to ride safely on a dark trail at about 20 mph. A road rider can get away with about 400 because the surroundings are better lit and there is less hazard on the path. The other key factor is beam pattern or how the light throws and spread the available lumens. A laser, for example, is useless for riding it’s needle focused. A car headlight, on the other hand, spreads the beam nicely over a very wide area. In general, one needs a big, even beam pattern that allows one to see 25 yards down the trail while illuminating some of the side areas of the path.
Unfortunately, there are many manufacturers that claim lumens but when mtbr measured them, the actual lumens were only half of their claims. This used to be common practice several years ago and we’ve weeded out many of these lights from consideration. Only lights that deliver what they claim are included in our recommendations
Helmet, handlebar or both?
For trail riding, it’s best to have both but if one can only have one modest light, a helmet light is best. A helmet light will follow the rider’s eyes to help them see through corners and switchbacks.
If one has a very powerful, wide beam light, then a handlebar light works very well. 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.
Battery life and charging
No one wants to be plunged into darkness half-way through the evening commute – so of course battery life is an important consideration. The vast majority of bike lights are now USB rechargeable, usually with a rubber bung covering the port to ensure weatherproofing.
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 2+ hours at full power. But with modern technology, the lights are bright enough to be run at half power for 4-6 hours.
Best lights for mountain biking
Blackburn Countdown 1600
The Countdown 1600 offers some great new technology to help keep confidence high when you’re out in the dark, while a backliit display keeps you in tune with current battery usage. Featuring six power modes, the Countdown 1600 gives you plenty of options depending upon your current ride needs.
Run times and mode options include: Blitz 1600 lumen, 1.3 hr runtime; High 1200 lumen, 2 hr runtime; Medium 600 lumen, 4 hr runtime; Low 300 lumen, 8 hr runtime; Pulse 300 lumen, 12 hr runtime; Strobe 300 lumen, 12 hr runtime.
Charge time via USB comes in at a claimed 4 hours, but an 80 percent charge can be achieved in just 10 minutes, according to Blackburn. The Countdown’s mount allows for easy adjustability of the beams angle making on the fly adjustments safe and simple. Lastly, the Countdown 1600 comes in a light yet durable aluminum casing assuring it will last many abusive rides.
Who’s it for? Riders looking for the ability to switch up to 1600 lumens for short periods during a ride but want a bright light in a small self-contained package with easy to read run-time information.
Niterider Lumina 1200 Boost
The Lumina line is one of the most established lights in the business starting with 400 lumens many years ago. They’ve provided a robust, heat-dissipating chassis that has stood the test of time. The mount is first-rate and cinches down on the bar securely while allowing adjustability for proper aiming.
The light itself is bright and it is stable, as it dissipates heat properly to provide a consistent beam throughout its runtime. Sealing is excellent, as this will take you through a season of wet weather without any issues. The heat sink materials are nicely integrated with a shock-absorbing rubberized material, so this light can take a few hard knocks.
Now, it pumps out an impressive 1200 lumens and it’s still as reliable and compact as ever.
Run time is 1 hour for 1200 lumens of 3 hours for 500 lumens. The light remains cool even at the highest level since it has good cooling both inside and outside of the case.
And there’s something to be said about a company that has employed dozens of people in San Diego, CA for the last 25 years. They’ve stayed true to form designing and building lights right here in the U.S. under the leadership of their founder Tom Carroll
Who’s it for? Riders looking for a pricepoint light with no extra bells and whistles from a proven manufacturer.
Bontrager Ion Pro RT
Bontrager has a fascinating line of Ion lights. This latest one called the Ion Pro RT sporting 1300 lumens in a compact package. It’s packed in a robust, reliable package with a nice switch and versatile bike mount.
Beam pattern is bright and even and the output is an honest 1300 lumens. There is side lighting available which is handy for side visibility for the commute home. Wireless technology allows the use of a remote Bluetooth switch as well.
You’ll get 1.5 hours of runtime with 1300 Lumens in the highest setting and 3 hours of run time with 800 lumens at a lower setting, so you can adjust the output for your conditions. And the best news of all is we’ve measured these lights in the lab and the output lumens is exactly what they claim.
Who’s it for? Riders looking for a clean simple light with a solid, focused beam pattern for and good run time for off-road riding.
Cateye Volt 1700
1700 lumens is a very good achievement as they keep making this dual lens chassis more powerful. Battery life on high is 2 hours with a powerful 3100 mAh battery. Charging time is 5 hours with a 1 watt USB or longer with a standard phone charger, as the light can detect and take advantage of more powerful USB currents.
The beam is shaped as well, with squared-off edges to track the trail better and use the light more efficiently.
It sports quality construction that CatEye has been long known for. The mount is the old bike computer ‘radiator clamp’ type mount and it works perfectly for this application. It accommodates all handlebar sizes and the light can be cinched down very securely.
Output is 1700 lumens indeed with a run-time of 2 hours at the highest setting. It is an honest output rating but it does get hot so run it at the highest setting when you are descending with airflow and cooling.
Light and Motion Taz 1200 Black Raven
The Light & Motion Taz 1200 is all about beam pattern. We’ll even go out on a limb and say it has the best beam pattern of any self-contained bike light. The only thing that held it back was it wasn’t quite bright enough when it was initially introduced at under 1000 Lumens. The beam pattern is so big that it needed a lot of light to execute good throw an even spread.
With the Taz 1200, now it is bright enough. It’s ideal for riding fast or even used by itself. For the ultimate speed setup, complement it with a bright helmet light and you’re off to the races.
Of course, it is self-contained without replaceable batteries, so run time is the limiting factor. Although it is a flashlight style light, it is too big and bulky with the non-removable mount to use as a flashlight.
But if it’s an uncompromising self-contained performance that you want, the Taz 1200 delivers with a bright, even and wide beam pattern that even has a pleasant yellow color tint that allows you to see shadows and trail contours clearly.
The Taz is the best light produced by Light and Motion because it is small, self-contained yet has a great beam pattern with a big lens. The light emitted by the Taz is big, bright and artifact-free.
Who’s it for? Riders looking for a well thought out light for off-road riding. Great for singletrack with it’s yellow-tinted beam and wide beam pattern.
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