Nocturnal Cycling – Essential Gear

By Jiri Kaloc

Everyone knows they need a good light for cycling at night but how many and how bright? And where should you place reflective elements? Let’s take a look at the basic gear to enjoy a night ride safely.

How bright should your lights be?

You should always take at least 2 lights on your bike for a night ride. One at the front to illuminate the road ahead and another in the rear so that vehicles behind can see you. Your front light should be white and bright enough for the type of night ride you’re planning. Here are the most common scenarios.

  • 100-200 lumens are enough for paved urban environments lit with street lamps
  • 400-600 lumens are good for country roads with predictable terrain but no other lighting
  • 1,000 lumens are needed for off-roading where the terrain is much less predictable

Just for comparison, a car headlight usually has between 700 and 1,200 lumens but lumens aren’t everything. Optics and focus play a huge role in where the light goes and how far you can see it or be seen while using it. When it comes to your rear light, you only need between 50 to 100 lumens so that others can see you from a safe distance.

Flashing or steady lights?

Whether you can even make a choice between using steady and flashing lights depends on the regulations in your country. Those who live in the UK are allowed to use flashing lights, on the other hand, people from Germany are prohibited. Here is an overview of the rules in several European countries.

Night cycling
Make sure you know the regulations in your country. © Profimedia
  • United Kingdom: Flashing lights are permitted for both front and rear use, as long as they flash at a frequency of 1 to 4 flashes per second.
  • Belgium: Flashing lights are legal for use on bicycles
  • Czech Republic: Flashing lights are allowed for both front and rear use, as long as they are used in appropriate conditions.
  • Netherlands: Flashing lights are not permitted for front us, but the regulations do not explicitly mention their use for rear lights
  • Germany: Flashing lights are not allowed for either front or rear use, as they are considered to be distracting to other road users
  • Austria: Flashing front lights are not permitted but the regulations do not explicitly mention their use for rear lights.
  • France: The sale of bicycles not fitted with legally compliant lighting systems may be considered an offence but the requirement for flashing lights is not explicitly mentioned.

So, if you have the option, which should you go for? There are studies suggesting that a flashing front light may be more visible than a steady one. But in a real-world scenario, there are other factors to consider. Most bike headlights are brighter than rear lights and they also often use wide beams without a cut-off, which might blind drivers or other bikers. Any rider who’s been on a path with a flashing light coming their way knows this. So, for a front light, it’s best to use a steady light in most scenarios.

For the rear light, the evidence suggests a flashing light is a clear win in terms of attracting the attention of other road users behind you. Choosing a rear light with a lower flash rate or pulsing pattern is preferable to reduce the chance of blinding other road users. If you want to maximise your visibility, you could even combine a steady rear light with a pulsating one and get the best of both.

Add some reflective elements

To further improve your visibility and allow others to identify you as a cyclist, use reflective clothing and accessories. Studies have shown that having reflectors on your pedals or ankles will help you stand out more as drivers will notice the elliptical movement of your pedals and know to approach you safely. For better visibility from the side, you can get reflectors inside your spokes.

It’s also a good idea to have reflective elements on your cycling clothes as well as gloves, a helmet or a backpack. A great way to accomplish this is to use reflective tape. It can not only be applied to fenders, frames and other bike parts but also to your own clothing. The more reflective elements, the better your chances of being visible to other people on the road.

Proper clothing

Aside from visibility, you also need to make sure you don’t get too cold. Temperatures at night can surprise you as they always drop, even in the summer. If you’re planning to ride regularly through the colder months, invest in a set of winter cycling clothing, it will make a huge difference. Swapping to full-finger gloves, tights and thicker socks will help keep your extremities warmer. Mist or fog can chill you too, so it’s worth taking water-resistant outer layers, even if you don’t expect rain.

With all of that, you should be ready to experience the nocturnal world of cycling. All that’s left before you head out is to plan your route. We have a few tips for you on that in the next article.