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Lighting Up the Bikes for the Darker Half of the Year

You may have noticed that September 21st just passed. The Fall Equinox snuck up on me recently and Mrs. Money Mustache and I suddenly found ourselves riding our bikes home from various events in the dark. Since there’s no such thing as a “biking season” and a “non-biking season”, that means we had to adapt ourselves to the changing conditions. This reminded me that the same thing might be happening to You, too.

For the past few years, we had been making do with old LED camping headlights as our source of night-time bicycle illumination. They did the job, but this year with all three of the family members on bikes, I decided it was time for a safer and more visible arrangement. It took a bit of research, but I found some bike lights that seem to be a good mix of performance, convenience and price. Instead of hoarding the findings for myself, I figured I might as well share them here in case you are in the same boat.

It can actually be a bit tricky to choose the right light system, because these days you can set yourself back anywhere from $1.99 to $600 in the process.  The two dollar light might help you be seen as you weave your way home from the pub, but it won’t light up much of the road in front of you, and it will probably use only a disposable watch battery as its power source. The $600 light will blaze up the entire mountainside (as well as the next few closest mountains in the range) as you plummet through the 2000 foot descents in those all-night mountain bike races. But it will require fussy mounting, weigh in at almost two pounds, and the battery depreciation alone will raise your cost per mile of cycling to almost Lexus levels.

In the middle of this range are some happy lights, but mounting and charging options are inconsistent, and meaningful measurements of light output are sometimes non-existent. So I did my best, bought three systems for the family bikes, and I got lucky because the results have been great.

I selected one fancier high-intensity light for Adult rides, like my own night-time grocery runs or times when I find myself needing to ride home from Boulder at 2AM on a January night. Then I got two other lights for use around town. As a family, we generally don’t need to go further than about two miles after dark. Visiting friends, the library, a night event at school or a play downtown. So it would have been overkill to buy three of the bigger lights.

To keep it short, here’s what I ended up with:

The bright one: Niterider Minewt 150/Cherry Bomb Combo*. It’s a front and back light combo set for $70.
This is a handlebar-mounted light with an internal Lithium battery that you can charge with any USB cable (and it comes with a power adapter and cable too). Runs for 3 hours on maximum brightness, 4 on medium, 6 hours on minimum. Subjective evaluation after using for a couple of weeks: Pretty Effing Bright, and I wish these were invented back in my work commuting days! It also came with a similarly kickass rear flasher that makes your bike look like a police car.

The normal ones: Niterider Mako 3.0/Taillight 5.0 Combo (front and back set for $20).
The format is the same, but the lights are just not as bright. The “Mako” front light has exactly the same handlebar mount as the Minewt above. But it takes 2 AA batteries (just use your own high-power rechargeables in it once the provided alkalines expire).

Claimed run-time is 50 hours on solid mode, 100 on flash, but I bet this is bad documentation on their part – those sound about right for the rear flasher portion of this set. Since the headlight brightness is almost the same as the MiNewt on low, I’m going to guess about 6 hours of run-time between chargings (to be updated after further riding!).

I find it is still bright enough for 20MPH riding on roads and bike paths, it just doesn’t shine hundreds of feet ahead like the bigger light. Similarly, the rear flasher is just the standard brightness that most cyclists have, as opposed to the “Holy Shit! What is THAT!?” effect of the Cherry bomb in the pricier set. Significant Bonus: the Mako light has a flashing mode that the Minewt lacks, allowing a highly noticeable “police car” effect from the front as well, if you are riding somewhere with enough ambient light and you want yourself to be more visible. It even works during daylight hours.

To top off this review and make it more quantitative, I took the lights down to the Money Mustache Lighting Laboratory to measure the light output and take a few photos of light output for comparison. Here’s what I came up with:

Light NameBrightness
@Beam Center
(Lux reflected
from white wall
@12 feet)
What it Looks Like
Typical LED camping headlamp3
Mako 3.0 Bike Light29
Minewt on Low Mode35
Minewt: Medium Mode68
Minewt: High Mode136

Pictures were taken with an SLR camera with fixed aperature/shutter settings, so the camera would not automatically adjust to the different light levels to make them all look the same.

Overall, we are all pleased with our new lights and they are already in heavy use. The handy thing about these lights is that they all use the same handlebar mounting bracket. So the super-bright light can be fitted to any of our three bikes as night-time errands require. And when all lights are not all needed, Junior ‘stash has taken to attaching BOTH of the Mako3.0 lights to his own handlebars and setting them to flash mode, for maxiumum Police Car mode. That’s fine with me, since a visible kid is a safer kid.

Advanced Option: After publishing this, many readers piped up and taught me that even my 150-lumen light isn’t all that bright. A car headlamp, for example, is about 3000 lumens, although your pupils automatically dilate to compress changing light levels it doesn’t actually appear 20 times brighter. You can get a set of three 200-lumen LED flashlights with batteries for about $20 at Costco, and you can get 700+ lumen lights at dealextreme.com: http://dx.com/s/magicshine

Just note that while you will get more brightness for your dollar, the mounting system may be a bit more fussy, so this option is better for people who enjoy light mechanical tinkering.

Also on this topic (from last November): How to Ride your Bike All Winter – And Love it

 

*As usual, I’ve used commission-paying links that Nashbar provided to me for these lights, since it does not affect the price to readers.

  • David February 17, 2019, 10:57 pm

    I favor the multiple weak light strategy for the reasons.

    1 – Tiny concentrated lights are really hard on the eyes, so many people’s bike lights are so bright they are harder to look at than cars (since car headlights, while overall brighter, aren’t as concentrated of light sources). I want cars to be comfortable looking at me.

    2 – The weird multi-light setup is attention grabbing. I think a high up helmet light is also helpful in this regard.

    3 – Multiple (solid) lights means someone can tell my speed easier than with a single light point. That’s a good thing.

    Reply
  • ray allen April 5, 2019, 2:14 pm

    This light from ebay (https://www.ebay.com/itm/Bike-Front-Light-T6-LED-USB-Rechargeable-Germany-STVZO-Bicycle-Cycling-Head-Lamp/263680936499?var=562814987213&hash=item3d649bca33:m:mF2rHL8cigNle_AH7AW5gRA) is the only light that I’ve found that has both a focused light beam (like a car headlight) and a user replaceable rechargeable battery that lets me carry a spare battery to avoid riding home in the dark.

    I searched local bike shops for a headlight with a focused light beam, but the local bike shops were fixated on selling me the highest output light that incinerated everything from the leaves on the ground to the twigs in the top of the trees. The same bike shops told me to “just buy two” lights when I asked about replaceable batteries.

    I don’t have an emotional attachment to this light, so if someone finds a better light for commuting than this one that has the features that made me choose this light, I’m willing to switch.

    Reply

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