Looking to buy the best mountain bike light for the front of your mountain or gravel bike? Then look no further, here in this buyer’s guide, we run through all the details you need to look for in a light and the kind of performance you should expect for your money.
If you're in the market for some bike lights there's a bewildering array to choose from, at prices ranging from a few quid to nearly a grand, so what's the best bet for your riding? To help you choose here's off-road.cc's guide to the technology and the options available for your front light.
Before we start, if you are looking for something more road orientated then our friends at road.cc have this light beam comparison engine for your perusal. We’ll get in on the action and add mountain bike lights soon. Road.cc’s beam test comparison data contains beam shots and data for over 40 of this year's 2018/2019 lights, as well as a load of historical data going back to 2015, so you can directly compare one with another.
What lights do I need?
To light the way properly on a night ride, we suggest three lights, one on your helmet, a brighter one on yours bars and of course a red rear one if you are going to be hitting the road at all. The better the lights you are able to afford the better quality your ride will be also, the brighter the lights are, the faster you will be able to ride and the more you will be able to see. A bar mounted light will light the way ahead far down the trail and the helmet mounted light will enable you to light the way as you look around corners. It's not all about raw power though, as we'll talk about below, too much power in the fog or rain can be counter productive and also be problematic for riders riding in front of you as you'll make them cast a dar shadow.
We really like wireless lights (see below) but if these are too expensive (...they are expensive) we’d recommend getting as powerful bar mounted light as you can afford and coupling this with about a 1,500 lumen wireless helmet light for ease of use. A wireless helmet light also couples up as a great torch on bikpacking or camping trips!
This is listed on any bike light in lumens and will range from 500 to over 4000. You’ll be able to light your way with something around the 1000-1500 lumens mounted to your bars, but upwards of 2000 is better. Your helmet light can be smaller (and cheaper) with 500- 1000 lumens lighting your path well. The bar mounted light needs to throw the light further and wider than the helmet mounted light, although not too far that light is wasted lighting up the bushes next to you! The helmet light can be more focused in its beam pattern as long as it doesn’t overpower the bar mounted light and flatten out the shadows which show undulations in the ground. With regards to the beam patterns of either light, its good to look for a light which has a seamless transition from more focused middle of the light to the outer edges, evenly spreading the light so there isn’t any patchy coverage which can be distracting.
LED powered lights are the most popular these days, they’ve come down in price and tick all the right boxes where bike lights are concerned, they’re super small, bright, cheap, don’t get too hot and are easy on the battery juice. There are different qualities of LED bulbs though so it’s something worth paying attention to as the same LED won’t be used in two lamps at radically different prices. Cree is a leading LED manufacture so any lights with these bulbs should be of better quality.
Wireless or not?
Some lights have an inbuilt battery so no cables are required to attach an external battery pack. Good examples of the wireless variety are the larger Exposure lights, like the MaXx-D, on the other hand, bright handlebar lights from Hope use a cable and a battery attached. There’s no right or wrong but in general, the wireless lights are less complicated and easier to mount to the bike but they usually carry a higher cost.
Lights that use an attached battery pack are usually set up with the light emitting part of the light attached to the bars with a longish cable connecting the battery which is then secured to your top tube. Pro’s of this set up is that you can detach the battery alone for charging and also there’s less weight on the handlebars as the LED part of the light will be a lot lighter than one that houses a battery.
Lights with separate battery packs are usually brighter handlebar lights as they require bigger batteries to ensure the required run time that can be more expensive to engineer into a sleek small package. You can get helmet mounted lights with an external battery too, riders generally attach the light to their lids and then put the battery into a backpack to keep the weight off the helmet which can be tiring on the neck.
Most off-road lights will offer at least three different modes and usually a flashing one too. You will be able to toggle between low-medium-high power, flashing and off. As lights get more pricey they will offer more options and even options to set the power output yourself. For example, Exposure lights allow you to choose between 10 different modes, each using a different ratio of power between high, medium and low so you can choose the best for your situation. A low light mode is useful for the road where the light may otherwise be too bright and a flashing option is great for those who want to use the same light for commuting and grabbing drivers attention.
Some lights come with a handlebar mounted remote that can be mounted near your grip so you can easily change the mode or function without having to reach to the middle of the bars for the light. Other lights without remotes may offer other functions to make this process easier, Lumicycle lights have an up/down flick style switch and some helmet mounted Exposure lights have ‘Tap’ tech where simply tapping the light changes the mode.
It’s pretty important to get a light with a visual battery gauge so you can see how much fuel you have left. These gauges range from a different coloured light to a digital gauge showing the remaining run time as minutes or a percentage. It’s up to you to decide how much battery life you need, for us lights that will work on full power for two hours is good enough for most of our night rides but everyone will differ in needs of time versus intensity. We particularly like ones that we can easily change the power mode on from ‘bright’ to ‘least bright’ depending on whether we are climbing on a fire road or tackling something more technical.
When you investigate light option make sure you pay attention to how long the light will work on full power. It’s all very well having a light in a small package that puts out an insane amount of lumens, but if that same light only runs at top power for 30 minutes, it’s unlikely to be that useful in the real world.
All lights should come with a wall charger, we are seeing more and more lights coming with USB compatible chargers so you can charge on the go from PC or car.
Mounts and brackets
Most light will come with both bar and helmet mounting options unless they are dedicated bar lights. Most use simple clamps so make sure that it fits wider diameter bars if you have them. Other use rubber O-rings which are easy to use and simple to install. With regards to helmet mounted lights, there is a wide variety of mounts. Some are small and use just one vent on your helmet like Exposure, but if you don’t have a central helmet vent it means you will have to situate the light on one side of the helmet which might be tiresome on long rides. Others, like this one from NiteRider is large and bulky, not ideal and there are better solutions out there. We suggest you investigate the mounting options thoroughly before purchasing and check the light will suit your current kit.
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