Winter commuting: Bike light buying guide

Yes, that is a pitchfork.

This is the time when all bike blogs and other media outlets are telling everyone to wear reflectors, use lights and really make themselves visible. The problem is that we really don’t know whether we are visible or not, because we are always in the center of the action.

The other big question is the simple fact that there are no official ratings for lights. The manufacturers usually tell the brightness of their products and they use an unit of measure called the lumen, which Wikipedia describes as:

The lumen (symbol: lm) is the SI derived unit of luminous flux, a measure of the power of light perceived by the human eye. Luminous flux differs from radiant flux in that luminous flux measurements (such as lumens) are intended to reflect the varying sensitivity of the human eye to different wavelengths of light, while radiant flux measurements (such as watts) indicate the total power of light emitted.

Um, yeah. The main issue is that we don’t know what is a lot and what is not. The article tells us that “A 23 watt compact fluorescent lamp emits about 1500–1600 lm.” Which, again, doesn’t tell very much. Therefore we will try to categorize bicycle lights in three categories and we will compare them into a “standard” which I just now defined into a Maglite 3-cell LED flashlight.

Our reference, the 3-cell LED Maglite, pointed at a patch of snow. Science!

Funny enough, even Maglite’s own site doesn’t tell any numbers. According to the comments section at Amazon, which is a scientifically valid source of information, the flashlight should have 104 lumens. So that will be our starting point. Our scale of comparison will be as follows:

  1. 0-100 lumen or “less brighter than a Maglite 3-cell LED flashlight”
  2. 100-400 lumen or “as bright or a bit brighter than a Maglite 3-cell LED flashlight”
  3. 400+ lumen or “a hell of a lot brighter than a Maglite 3-cell LED flashlight”

To continue our Mythbuster-like scientific research, we took a pitchfork and attached three bike lights and pointed them towards a snowy backyard to define their differences. You’ll have to take the snow into consideration as dark surfaces do not reflect light as well as clean snow, but you will see how the light reacts much better on snow.

Category 1: 0-100 lumen bike lights – or lights to be seen and to survive in a slightly dim situation

2 LEDs can light a snowy backyard about 20 meters away.

The most common light being sold now are basic LED lights. They cost anything from €5 to €50 and some of them are good and some are terrible. Price will not always tell the difference, but there are basic points that are good: the LED lights are very energy efficient and their light is white and offers quite a good contrast.

These kinds of lights are suitable for urban commuting and riding in areas with street lights. The main purpose of these lights is to be seen, similar to the Reelight induction light I had in my commuter. To use these as the only light on dark roads can be risky and I wouldn’t suggest it unless there are no other options.

A good example of a light in this category is the Electron Twin Pack, that has a 2 LED light up front and a 5 LED rear light.

Category 2: 100-400 lumen bike lights – or lights you can use in most situations and be seen by many

Notice how the different reflector pattern changes everything.

If you are serious in your riding, wear cycling specific clothing or are planning to ride in darker and rougher environments, this is the category of light you’ll probably go to. Most of these lights are LEDs as well, but they can have older Krypton fluorescent lights as well – they still produce the same effect. The prices are about €50 to €150 and again, the quality and lighting pattern varies greatly.

The Krypton lights (like the one in the picture) usually have a wider pattern in their reflector, but their brightness is lower. If we compare, they are very similar to the LED Maglite so we could assume that its power is about a 100 to a 150 lumen. The LED lights in this category, such as the Hope Vision 1 LED (Maarten’s review coming this week!) produces 240 lumen for 3 hours on its batteries, according to the manufacturer. Remember, these numbers can be anything, just like the “80% more volume” on shampoo commercials.

These lights are ultimately still for mostly urban environments and gravel roads because of their limited power and short battery life. Many will buy these and use at a lower power level to conserve batteries and use them when necessary. I wouldn’t go into the forest with these alone, maybe use these as a backup.

In this category it’s best to do some testing and research to make sure you get your money’s worth. Check your local bike forums and shops for recommendations!

Category 3: 400+ lumen bike lights – or you must work in construction or like blinding people

The snow melted soon after.

If you’re the type of person who is planning to ride five hours in a dark forest full of roots and mud, you already have a light of this category or you are probably dead and the afterlife has a web connection.

The lights in this category usually go for about €300 to €1500, but they come with separate battery packs, changeable parts and ultimate performance compared to other bicycle lamps – or even any other lamps elsewhere. There are both high-power LED lamps and high-intensity discharge (or HID for short).

Thanks to the separate batteries, that usually are Lithium-Ion nowadays can keep the light on for several hours even at the highest setting that can go up to a 1000 lumen. Their patterns are also very wide and long, letting you to see much, much more than anything the other categories can even dream to offer.

These lights are battery-powered light throwers or portable suns and their purpose is to let you ride hard, fast and in the middle of the night in ultimate darkness. 99% of you people reading this blog will never need a light like this, but I will take it up since the 900 lumen P7 lamp we previewed (and is seen in the picture above) is so cheap at $80 that it’s almost crazy to buy a $100 lamp that has a third of its power.

So, there you go. If you’re buying a bike light, I hope our little guide can help you make a better decision!

Ride safe.

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By Markus Sandelin

Markus is a bike commuter gadget freak who is learning the ropes of the bike world, you can find him all around the web - but you can start with his twitter at @banton.