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Bicycle touring lights and lighting have come a long way in recent years, thanks to urban bike commuters riding home from work after dark, LED light bulb technology and the growing number of utility and recreational cyclists who want to expand their riding season into the darker hours.
Nowadays there are some pretty slick bicycle lighting systems with high output rechargeable batteries that would be perfect for a daily bike commuter who rides in the dark regularly. Usually these cyclists have their lighting systems charging up at work or at home. Excellent and innovative systems, but not applicable to cycle touring. I rarely see these high-end bike lights on touring bicycles and for good reason - bicycle tourists have little reason to ride after dark. Itís much preferable to set up camp or find a room long before nightfall. With a complicated light system, you are risking hundreds of dollars every night you go to sleep with your bike chained to a tree.
Cycling after dark has never had much appeal to me. Oh sure, before the big trip, I had fantasies of being ready for anything. But a few years of reality on the road have taught me that the after-dark riding is easily and happily avoidable. An expensive lighting system would be overkill and far more trouble than it would be worth.
For me, cycling in the dark happens in three different situations: 1) Long dark tunnels 2) A run into town for shopping or drinks after camp is set up 3) The inevitable day when everything goes wrong, thereís no place to camp and I end up riding on and on into the night looking for any available port in the storm. Only a few times a year do I actually require lights since I prefer to cycle during the day.
During these rare night-time rides, I prefer a simple blinking LED taillight and either a strap-on headlight worn under my helmet, or a handheld flashlight that mounts on my handlebars. Having one of each is best, since you will inevitably have to rummage through three different bags when the need for a light arises. The headlamp is most useful for camping, when you often need both hands free. The handheld torch gets more use in the city.
Be careful when selecting your rear blinky light. If it mounts on the seat post or rear rack, will it be visible when your gear is loaded on? How secure is it? After losing a couple of rear lights to bumpy roads or grabby fingers, I look for lights with multiple secure mounting options. A plastic zip-tie can keep your light where it needs to be. If you attach lights to your panniers, make sure they donít sag down. Remember that your lights will take all the abuse that you dish out on the bike. If the bike falls over, the lights may get crushed. Think of how often your helmet goes crashing to the ground before you buy that helmet light. And as always, consider the availability of batteries in the places you plan to tour. An expensive lithium battery is difficult to replace in many countries.
One thing we can all agree on is that cyclists in any place need to be visible on the road. Lighting is one part of this, and especially important after dark. But lights are not as visible during the day, when I do most of my riding, and this is where high-visibility clothing comes in. Truth be told, I am not a fan of florescent colored bicycle clothing. I prefer not attracting every eye within five miles when I step off my bike. I get stared at quite enough, and a bright green skin-tight jersey is only going to add to my already extremely weird appearance when I show up in a small village. But I do want drivers to notice me on the side of the road so they wonít run me down. One alternative to the flashing red lights or flashy bike clothes is a simple high-viz vest. They reflect light and are easy to remove when you get off the bike. Reflective Vest
In countries where I am not camping much I like a bike headlight that can be quickly removed and used as a handheld flashlight for finding keys in dark hotel hallways or for unexpected power outages. Better to not have the headstrap for hotel use, as you might accidentally blind people when attempting to have a conversation. This is basically a flashlight (torch) that can double as a bike headlamp.
Any kind of utility bike I have owned has had a red flashing LED tail light mounted on the rear rack. They use very little electricity and good name brand alkali batteries seem to last forever, even if you accidentally leave them on all night. When I rode my sporty road or mountain bike I would clip on a little red blinker for those evenings the ride ran long. A simple little light like this can save your life on dark nights.
I personally prefer, and usually travel with a headlamp that can be worn on or under my helmet while riding and on my head while camping. I look for the highest watts/brightest one where the batteries are standard alkaline or rechargeable batteries. I also like the batteries to be contained in the light unit or strap and not a separate battery pack. The downside is if you ride into an unexpected tunnel. If your headlight is not on your handlebars, you have to stop, get off, and find your lights. I have learned to ride in complete darkness in tunnels by braille Ė (long story) feeling the center seam of the road with my wheels and follow that for 3km. Better to stop and actually pull out your light and not be such a lazy ass rather than risking your life in some crazy super long unlit Chinese tunnel.
Planning on doing a lot of night riding on your next tour? Maybe you are crossing Death Valley in the summer or trying to set some kind of speed record? These lights appear as bright or brighter than a car headlight. If I were commuting to a regular job, I would have a bike with fenders and one of these lights permanently attached parked in my garage charging when I was at home.
I have used several brands of bicycle panniers and
highly recommend Ortlieb.
See Why I switched to Ortlieb waterproof Panniers?
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