The Best Bike Light Review
What's the best bike light? We combined extensive laboratory testing with a year of field testing in four U.S. cities to create the most comprehensive bike light review available. In order to identify the best products for specific applications we measured the beam pattern, brightness, portability and battery life for each one, and rode thousands of miles on crowded city streets, rural roads, and trails. The 20 contenders we tested are a selection of the most popular and highly regarded products on the market today. They range from powerful/heavy models that shine a super bright beam to inexpensive safety models with flashing/strobe effects to help cars see you. Read on to learn more about the results of our testing, our methodology, and our recommendations for the best products available today.
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Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
We have contacted all of the companies in this current review and noted any upgrades in the reviews, if applicable. A complete review was performed in June 2014.
The Cygolite Expilion 800 was the best overall tested. Competition was tight, but the 800 edged ahead because of its bright beam and, more importantly, the quality of that beam. The NiteRider Lumina 550 was just behind because it cast a more tunnel like beam to the Expilion's broad, even beam. The one downside to the Expilion is that it is noticeably more difficult to remove than the Lumina series. It also costs a bit more. If you are looking for a little more value, and a product that is easier to remove, we strongly recommend considering the Lumina 550. One note, the Lumina scored almost identically to its more expensive sibling, the NiteRider Lumina 700.
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Analysis and Test Results
Safety: The #1 Reason to Invest in a Bike Light
If you bike on city streets, you already know the inherent risks of riding a bike in traffic with nothing to protect you from impact other than a helmet. Cars often don't see cyclists in the day, but at night, the risks are even worse. Much as flashing beams have been common on motorcycles for daytime, the use of flashing front and rear bike lights can reduce your risk of accident in daytime as well as night. Data from New York City and the National Highway Institute show that 70% of bike accidents are frontal collisions and that 72% of bike accidents occur at intersections. This data and our field testing experience in four U.S. cities indicate that a front bike light has a much greater influence on your safety than a rear one.
The graphics below suggest that wide and/or bright beams increase your visibility to on-coming motorists and reduce the probability of an accident. Some people consider helmet mounted models to be safer because you can point them at turning vehicles and they sit higher above the road (and thus may be more visible to oncoming motorists). However, we were unable to find any traffic accident data to validate this belief.
Our Testing Methodology
As you would expect, the biggest part of our testing process was using each product extensively in real-world conditions. These tests took place in four different cities in the U.S., over a wide range of streets and paths, including everything from heavily trafficked urban streets, to dark rural roads and mountain bike trails.
To augment our hands-on testing, we then photographed each contestant using the exact same camera settings to allow you to see the relative differences between competing models. You can see each one in our test here on our Beam Comparison page. Note the importance of beam pattern. Click on an image to zoom in.
Lumens Are for Light Bulbs, not Bike Lights
Every product in this review includes a spec for lumens, but we recommend ignoring this because lumens measure light energy in any direction. While lumens are a good way to assess a household bulb, they are a poor measure of the quality of a focused beam. We believe our beam photos give you a better sense of the quality of the lens optics and relative brightness, than the manufacturer's lumen's specification.
We also photographed each model's beam pattern on a standard target to compare beam width and how evenly lit each beam was.
Left to right: Bell iPulse, Light and Motion Vis 360+, NiteRider Pro 1800
Lastly, we tested each contestants battery life, seeing how beam distance degrades as battery strength weakens, as well as overall battery life.
How to Choose the Correct Product for You
This review compares all types of bike lights. We group each one into one of the following categories, based on mount type:
Different Types Available
The type of design which will be right for you depends on your riding habits. After being out riding and testing, we split the selection of products tested into two main types:
Every contestant we tested offered a strobe mode which can be set to flash on and off. A flashing strobe increases your visibility to oncoming traffic, thus offering a key safety feature (especially for small safety lights whose beam may be too dim to stand out without the flashing mode). Just like motorcycle riders use a flashing beam to increase daytime riding safety, you can use a flashing beam both day and night to increase safety.
However, on a dark night when you are relying on the bike light to illuminate the road ahead, a flashing strobe is annoying.
The higher end bright beam models typically offer several levels of brightness and one or more flashing strobe mode.
The normal mounting location is on the handlebar. However, a minority offer the option of mounting on a helmet as well. One model in our test, the Light and Motion VIS 360 is designed exclusively for helmet mount.
Criteria for Evaluation
Below we discuss our results for the criteria used to evaluate each product. We describe methodology here. We summarize our four award winning contenders at the bottom of this page.
The brightness is generally considered to be the most important criteria for safe nighttime riding. Whether your goal is to illuminate the road ahead, or simply to be seen by oncoming traffic, a bright, wide, evenly lit beam is ideal.
Maximum beam distance ranged from Knog Blinder 4 at a mere 9 meters to the NiteRider Pro 1800 with a distance of 172 meters.
The NiteRider Pro 1800 was the absolute brightest and the Expilion 800 was the second brightest. The amount your spend will have a direct correlation to beam distance. All the products we tested over $60 could manage to shine at least 100 meters distance. In the less than $60 category, only two contenders succeeded in shining the full length of a football field: the Metro 360, with a wide impressive beam shining 135 meters distance, and the Planet Bike Blaze 2 Watt which could shine a long distance, but the beam is so narrow that it was not competitive. Most of the low cost competition selling for less than $60 shined less than 50 meters.
As you can see in the photo comparison below, the less expensive NiteRider 550 shines further, but the Cygolite 800 shines almost as far with a much more broad and even beam pattern.
In the budget category, we think the Cygolite Metro 360 will hit a sweet spot of balancing reasonable price (Amazon sells it for under $50), and yet still very strong performance. The typical competitor in the $20-60 had a very narrow or dim beam, or both. Not so with the Cygolite 360, which produced a bright wide beam, blowing away the competitors in the under $60 street price range. The Planet Bike Blaze 2 watt is nearly the same cost as the Cygolite Metro, but was not nearly as bright and has a very narrow beam.
For those who mostly ride in a well lit areas, and are looking for a small and effective safety product, the ultralight Knog Blinder 4 was the clear winner. While it only scored a 6 out of 10 on beam quality, most of the low cost competition scored much worse due to narrow beam or optical anomalies. While the Blinder 4 is not very bright (we scored it 2 out of 10 on brightness), the beam is wide, evenly lit, and in strobe mode presents a visible alert to oncoming traffic.
Both for safety, and for seeing what's ahead of you, the best lens optics create a beam that is wide, evenly lit, and projects far into the distance. We measured each products beam diameter, distance, and photographed its beam pattern. The photos below should give you a sense of the variation in bike light optics.
Of all the contenders tested the NiteRider Pro 1800 has best overall beam pattern. It blows the rest away but also is by far the heaviest, most expensive at nearly $300, and the most time consuming to remove owing to a large, separate, battery pack. Based on our testing, we think most people looking for the best option for commuting will narrow it down to a showdown between the Cygolite Expilion 800, (available at Amazon for just over $100) and the NiteRider Lumina 550 (which sells at Amazon for under $80) (the NiteRider Lumina 700 would also be a contender to look at, but we think the Cygolite 800 outperforms it for about the same street price).
We scored portability on five variables:
We put most of the emphasis on the first two: how easy is the light to remove after locking your bike up at a rack and the size and weight. Many of these models cost over $100 and you will likely want to quickly remove it from your handlebar at the end of your commute.
Smaller size and lighter weight are universally desirable attributes. More weight makes it harder to pedal. Larger size (and heavier weight) are more burdensome to carry and store when not in use. The designs we tested here range from 1.3 oz. to 18 oz. and approximately 2 cu. in. to 23 cu. in.
The NiteRider Pro 1800 was the largest, heaviest and most time consuming to move. While it is the highest scoring overall because of its awesome beam quality and distance, it received a score of 1 for portability, so that (and its $300 price tag) could scare many commuters away.
Among top overall performers, the most portable were the Light and Motion Urban 700 which scored a 9 and the NiteRider Lumina 550 which scored an 8. The Urban 700 is one of the easiest design tested to move from bike to bike and install. It also comes in a relatively compact package for its beam power and easily slides into most pockets. The NiteRider is a little heavier but is among the easiest to slide on and off the bar mount. With a little practice, the NiteRider can easily be removed with one hand and has a smooth on and off glide. The Expilion 800 stumbled here: it takes much more hand strength than the competition to release; removing it requires a very firm push on the release tab, much more force than competing products required. After some practice, a person with stronger hands should have no problem. But if you hands are less strong, cold, or you are wearing gloves, removing the Cygolite 800 can be a struggle.
In the ultralight category, the NiteRider Lightning Bug 3.0 was the lightest, the Knog Blinder 4 was the most compact. That said, these didn't score any higher than some of the bigger lights because they require two hands to install and are slower to get on and off.
Mount Type Impacts Portability
The type of mount has a tremendous influence on portability because many commuters install and remove lights multiple times a day. Helmet mounted designs (like the Light and Motion Vis 360+) are the most convenient for commuting because they allow you to either remove the product from the helmet (if you lock your helmet with your bike) or keep it attached to your helmet, which requires zero additional effort compared to a handlebar mounted model.
Our favorite handlebar mount is found on the Light and Motion Urban and Nightrider Lumina series. The Light and Motion uses a tool-less adjustable rubber strap that's attached to the light; the low profile mount comes with you when you remove it. This has the advantage of being quick to transfer from one bike to another and it leaves your handlebar uncluttered when it's not attached.
The majority of the designs we tested slide onto a mount that is fixed to your handlebar. Some require a tool to install and are a pain to move from bike to bike. The NiteRider Lumina series went on easily and, once installed, allows it to easily slide on and off with one hand. An attached mount is best for mountain biking because it can be cinched very tight so that it stays in place through the extreme vibrations encountered while jumping and thumping off road.
For mountain biking, the need for long battery life and very high brightness force most good mountain bike model designs to use large external batteries that are relatively time consuming to install. For this reason the NiteRider Pro 1800 was the least portable tested. The table above lists various characteristics about each mount, including whether it is tool-less, attached, and/or can swivel.
The ability to swivel a handlebar mounted model can be tremendously useful for commuting because it allows you to illuminate street signs, find house numbers without stopping or turning your handlebar, and mount the it in atypical locations. Of all models tested, the Light and Motion Urban 700 has our favorite swivel mount because it spins 360 degrees.
Battery type also has a significant influence on ease of use. Batteries are usually either integrated into the design or mounted externally. USB rechargeable batteries are the most convenient because you can charge them just about anywhere, including from portable solar panels and battery banks, and you don't need to carry batteries or spend time buying them. The Knog Blinder 4 was the only product tested with a very convenient feature; a built in USB charger.
NiteRider Lumina 550, have illuminated power buttons that make it easier to adjust levels on the go. This is a small feature that our testers wish were incorporated on every model.
We don't rely on manufacturer claims: we test battery life ourselves and plot maximum beam distance over time. You can read the full details of our testing methodology in the How We Test section of this review. For a deeper education in battery life, read our Headlamp Review and our article on Why Headlamp Claims are Deceptive.
There are three key considerations in battery life:
Beam Power over Time
As you can see in the graph below, beam power is not consistent over time. Most lights are only their brightest for the first 1-5% of their overall run time. For the remaining 95-99% of the time, they are either slowly degrading, degrading fast and then holding steady, or a combination of the two. Keep this in mind when planning your night ride. Some products like the NightRider Pro 1800 lose their strength early but then give almost 5 hours of powerful illumination. Many others slowly degrade and then fall off a cliff after just over an hour.
Rechargeable vs. AAA and AA battery powered
When looking at our scores for battery life, you may be surprised how our Editors' Choice award winner the Expilion 800 scored only a 3 and the highest scoring for battery life were often the lowest scoring overall, like the Cateye HL-EL135. Keep in mind two things. First, the times are measured for the product in its brightest mode. The Expilion 800 only runs for 1.4 hours in bright mode but can be made to last much longer in low mode. Second, the models with the longest battery lives require replacing AA batteries. Yes, the Cateye lasted 55 hours in our test, but it did so with a very dim beam to start with and requires replacing batteries. Most commuters will prefer a USB rechargeable models because those products typically had the best beam performance, and even though they only last 1-2 hours in high mode, they are easy to recharge at the end of the day.
Of the rechargeable models, the NiteRider Pro 1800 with its massive external battery, lasted the longest at almost 5 hours and did so with an impressive 100 m of beam distance. Of the remaining USB rechargeable models, most lasted about 1.5 hours before either drastically degraded or shut off altogether.
While we can agree that a bike light is an essential bicycle accessory, it can be difficult to select the right one for you and your wheels. Top of the line products are rechargeable and will provide a very bright and high quality beam, making you stand out to other vehicles on the road in dark settings. However, they are also expensive. Obviously, it's hard to put a price tag on safety. Yet, if you ride on well-lit streets, you might not need the strongest, brightest light. Hopefully the results from our rigorous testing of the models in this review will help you trim down the selection to the top product for your needs.
If you found this review useful, you might want to check out our Dream Bike Gear List.
Ask an Expert: Cameron Millard
Colorado transplant, Cameron Millard, moved from Maine ten years ago to live an active lifestyle in the Rocky Mountains. Embraced by a community of hard-core cyclists and surrounded by world-class mountain bike events such as the Leadville Trail 100, Colorado Trail Race (500+ miles), and the Vapor Trail 125, he took to the sport of endurance mountain biking and continues to cross those finish lines. For three years, he has raced the Vapor Trail 125 in Salida, Colorado; the 125 mile race has a 10:00 pm start mandating experience and skill that is limited by the glow of a bike light or two. In 2013, he rode his mountain bike over 560 miles with 70,000 feet of elevation gain along the Colorado Trail; the rules are simple- it is a self-supported race, no pre-arranged support except for post office mail drops, and no breaking laws along the way. More than six days spent biking this trail was life changing for Millard. Who better than Millard to offer expert advice on biking at night around town and while entered in endurance races?
Are your expectations for a bike light that you cruise around town with the same as what you will race with?
I am happy to cruise around town with some very basic lights, mostly for visibility from cars. Racing requires much better lighting systems that can illuminate a single track and remain bright all night.
For commuting and biking around town, a less expensive light system is sufficient. For racing and overnight rides, I recommend considering how long you will be out, how much light you will need (short summer nights and full moons), and what type of system will accommodate your needs. Be prepared to spend hundreds of dollars or more on a top racing setup.
Riding at night is awesome and the level of your interest/commitment/riding style will determine the kind of lighting you need.
How did you transition from racing in daylight to signing up for overnight bike races?
I've been night riding since high school, when rides would last until after dark. 24 hours of Moab was my first experience racing at night. The 24-hour format is kind of going away, but plenty of rides and racing still take place at night. Riding my bike at night is the best way to increase the progression of endurance riding; it makes sense to ride at night if you want to cover long distances.
With the experience you have of racing in the Vapor Trail races 3 times, how do you measure the risk of night riding?
There is a lot that can go wrong at night. Doing the Vapor Trail and Colorado Trail Race both involve a lot of night riding through technical terrain- this demands serious focus which can be a challenge, especially when you are accustomed to sleeping at night, not riding a bike for many miles at night. Its exhilarating to shred single track at night; it's a whole different experience than riding during the day. My riding partner and I did a lot of night riding this summer, mostly because it was convenient with our work schedules. Trails I have ridden a hundred times can be way more challenging at night; it is not without high risk.
Is it challenging to ride a long race that transitions from daylight to dark?
Good bike lights are critical to vision and mental acuity during the night. I combine good lights with transition sunglasses to help shift to lower light conditions. During longer events that start in day light, I would only have enough mental stamina to ride until 10 or 11 pm before I began to feel cross eyed. Excellent lighting is essential.
During full moon light, I have raced (uphill) without my lights on but you definitely need them when descending.
What is the difference between biking with a headlamp versus a bike light?
Bike lights can be configured to go on the handlebars and the helmet; the mounting systems are the distinguishing difference. Bike lights will typically be more powerful than standard headlamps and offer more focused or diffuse beam patterns depending on whether they are meant for the helmet or handlebars.
What are the most important features to look for in a bike light?
A bike light should be powerful with light quality that is appropriate for the terrain and conditions. I like a wider spread pattern on the handlebars and a focused light on the helmet. I value lightweight, durability, and simplicity for racing. There are many good light manufacturers. My preference is for Ay-Up lights for single night races and Dinotte lights for multi-day endurance racing. I've experimented with different systems: wearing a headlamp, finding a balance between weight and necessity which resulted in sub-par reliability, and have had experiences with lights going out during night races- that is a terrible situation to be in! You always want a back up light.
For mounting systems, avoid cheap plastic components. Rubber band style mounts are good.
Consider how often you will remove the mounting system- zip tie mounts are a hassle to remove.
Having at least 400 lumens is important, but so is run time, light quality, and beam pattern. I recommend trying a few different lights mounted on the handlebars, helmet, and both to find a combination that works for you.
Be sure to experiment with the lighting systems before committing to a race so that you know it suits the terrain, conditions, and your personal needs.
— Chris McNamara, Randy Spurrier, and Max Neale
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