Riding in the dark is something you’ll need to be prepared for as a commuter if you wish to ride throughout the entire year, or if you simply have a work schedule where you’ll be commuting in the early hours of the morning or later hours at night. Much like severe weather, riding at night can be intimidating to those who have not done it before, but it’s not much different than riding in the sunlight! Today I’ll break down some basic tips for making yourself visible so you can not only get to your work and home safely, but also comply with your local laws. But first…
Remember: The Lights Aren’t Just for You!
One of the most common arguments for cyclists to not use lights at night is the same as why many drivers refuse to turn on their lights at dusk, dawn, or in inclement weather: “I can see just fine!” What you need to realize is one thing: the lights aren’t just for you! While you may think you see well enough thanks to ambient light from streetlights or the moonlight, the driver in the car coming up behind you at 45 miles per hour may not be able to see you at all! Lights on a bicycle aren’t just for you to be able to see, they are also so you can be seen.
The Two Types of Bicycle Lighting
There are two types of lighting you can use on your bike: active lights, which are lights that are actively powered by a power source (usually a battery), and passive lights, which are essentially reflectors and other reflective material that require a separate active light source to “light up,” so to speak.
Active lights – including white headlights and red taillights – should be the bare minimum you use on your bicycle at night, and are typically required by law after sunset and before sunrise (check local laws to be sure!). Passive or reflective lighting are great to use as well, but should not be relied upon as your sole source of light and instead should be used to supplement your regular lights.
Mounting Your Lights
Even the best light in the world will not serve much use if it is not installed correctly, so make sure you angle your lights properly. Headlights should be aimed in a manner that they light up the road ahead of you; lights angled directly down will be useless when moving faster than a walking pace, and lights angled upwards will be visible to other road users but will do nothing to light the road for you to see where you are going. As for taillights, a red taillight aimed directly at the ground or to the stars will not be visible by a car from behind until it is extremely close, whereas aiming a taillight directly behind you along an imaginary line parallel with the road will be visible from the longest distance.
As an additional tip, if you run two headlights, try angling them slightly away from each other. This will give you a wider patch of lit area on the road and will increase how much you can see.
Increasing Your Visibility with Reflective Gear
A common recommendation for night riding is to wear brightly colored shirts or hi-vis colors, but the unfortunate reality is that the color you wear does not have nearly as much of an impact as you would think in the dark. The best way to increase your visibility at night, in addition to lights, is to incorporate reflective gear into your setup.
In the warmer months of the year you may wear t-shirts or cycling jerseys, which don’t offer much in the way of reflective area. You can supplement your lights with an inexpensive and lightweight reflective vest to increase your visibility dramatically.
In the colder months, finding reflective gear can get a little easier as most cold weather gear incorporates reflective fabric into the designs. Most jackets will have some reflective striping incorporated, and others like my Sugoi Zap jacket shown below (along with matching helmet cover), are fully reflective under light but look like normal jackets in the daylight.
Increasing Your Bike’s Visibility with Reflective Tape
Adding reflective elements to your bicycle is another great way to increase your visibility at night, especially from the sides where your lights aiming front and rear are the least effective. Most bicycles already come with reflectors installed, but they are often removed immediately after purchase due to aesthetics or, particularly with spoke reflectors, being noisy. Fortunately, there are better alternatives like reflective tape! Reflective tape is cheap and comes in a number of colors so you can closely match your frame. Or, if you don’t want to permanently attach tape to your frame or can’t find a good color match, you can use reflective arm bands and Velcro straps instead for a removable solution, or invest in tires with reflective sidewalls.
Here you can see my commuter bike covered in black reflective tape from 3M. The tape is ¼” wide and was applied to a few areas of my rims, my frame, and my fenders. You can’t see that I have any tape on the bike at all when viewed in the sunlight, but with lights shining at it at night the bike glows. (Phone flash used to simulate car headlights).
A Note on Daytime Lights and Trail Lights
With batteries getting better and lights becoming more powerful, brands like Cygolite and Trek are pushing for cyclists to use daytime lighting. Many cyclists, myself included, believe that running bright flashing lights in the daytime can increase your visibility, and in my personal experience I have noticed a positive difference in how people drive around me since I started using daytime lighting, especially in heavily trafficked areas and bike lanes. However, due to their brightness, it is important that on the road and on greenways you do not use daytime settings for these lights at night! These lights emit incredibly bright flashes to grab someone’s attention in the daytime, yet they can temporarily blind a driver at night much like a car’s high beams. You can still use these lights, of course, but be sure to use the modes designed for nighttime riding. The same can be said about trail lights, which are designed to be used on mountain bike trails free of motor traffic and are typically much brighter than lights that are safe to use on the road; if you decide to use them on the road, use the lower settings that are approved for road use.
Coming up next week: Planning for the Weather: Commuting in high heat? Facing cold weather? I’ll have some quick tips on how to handle the typical weather you may encounter if you intend to become a year-round bike commuter!
Rob is a New England native who has been living in Charlotte, North Carolina, since 2012. Upon learning how to ride at the age of five he quickly found that everything is better on a bicycle, and hasn’t stopped riding since.