What are the Best Bike Lights for Unlit Roads?

Finding good, reliable bike lights for riding on roads at night that do not street lighting is an essential item for all cyclists, especially for bike commuters.

The best bike lights for unlit roads are ones that have at least 600 lumens on the front, can be moved easily and have a USB power supply. 600 lumens is bright enough to light up your surroundings while a USB power supply means that you can carry a power bank in case the batteries run out.

However, there are a couple more factors to consider if you are riding on unlit roads, as we will have a look at in the points below.

Front vs Rear Bike Lights for Unlit Roads

The first big point to note is that you do not need the same power in both your front and rear bike lights when riding on unlit roads, or just about anywhere for that matter.

As mentioned above, a minimum of 600 lumens is recommended for a front light without any street lighting. You should find that this lights up the road or track ahead of you for about 20-30 yards.

However, you can use a much less powerful rear bike light for unlit roads since you only need to make yourself visible to other road users. As this can be done with a less powerful LED bike light, then you don’t need the same power as in the front light, making it cheaper for you to buy, too.

Seeing vs Being Seen

I currently use a front light with 600 lumens I use since I used to ride along a cycleway through the woods. When I started on that route, I had a tiny front light with just 200 lumens of output.

This was where I learned the key difference between ‘seeing’ and ‘being seen’ while bike commuting. Although my old light was bright enough to make other road users aware of my presence while riding on street-lit roads, it did almost nothing when it came to riding on unlit roads.

After a few months of riding happily on roads with my 250-lumen front light, I found that I could barely see more than a few yards ahead of my front wheel, which made riding home just plain scary, especially through woods with branches and other things falling onto the track in the winter storms.

After getting a much brighter 600-lumen front light, I could immediately see all my surroundings and a good 20-30 yards in front of me, making it much safer and easier to ride home, and I’ve never looked back.

Avoid the Temptation of Cheap Bike Lights

The reason for my initial purchase of a 250-lumen front light was simple: price. I did not realise just how much difference these lumens could make to my ride, and I did not need the extra brightness initially since I had lit roads to ride along.

However, I spent only $20 on my 250-lumen front light, whereas it cost $90 for my 600-lumen light.

Spending 3.5 times more felt like a sting at first, but I soon realised the value when it came to commuting home from work in the dark on unlit sections of my journey.

Flashing and Modes

Another point about spending a little more on bike lights is that they will usually come with several modes if you spend a bit more.

This is great for making yourself even more visible when bike commuting in the dark. In fact, I almost exclusively use the flashing function on with my rear bike light when riding to or from work as I feel that it makes me much more visible to other road users and cyclists than just a solid beam alone.

If you go for a super budget option, you may not have the flashing option at all. 

rear bike light on seat post
My current rear bike light.

USB Powered Bike Lights

I cannot recommend USB-powered bike lights highly enough for riding on roads without any street lighting. This is because they are always easy to charge in just about any modern-day setting, with USB charging points and sockets plentiful in offices, houses, public places and even on public transportation.

Having these readily available charging points, combined with a simple cable, means that you can get the power into your light to make sure that you will always get home with enough light to see on the darkest patches of road.

The other bonus to USB-powered bike lights is that you can get a USB power bank to carry with you as a back-up option in your bag when bike commuting. This means that you can either stop and charge your bike light for a short time to give it some ‘juice’ to help you get to where you need, or just plug in your power bank and charge on the move.

To perform this last type of charge, however, you would need something like a smartphone case on your bike to hold your charger in place while riding.

I should add that you would also want to have a bike light with a charging connection that holds well since my current light, the discontinued Cateye Nano, has an extremely frustrating charging point that barely holds a USB cable even when stable. By contrast, the 1100-lumen Lezyne Macro Drive XL bike light that I bought for my wife’s poorly lit cycle commute connects to a USB cable firmly and could easily be charged on the move with a USB power bank.

If looking into a USB power bank for this reason, make sure you get a super-fast charging one to speed things up if you are on the move. This would mean less time spent waiting for your lights to charge in the cold and dark, which seems worth the extra money alone!

Dip to Avoid Dazzling

You would also want to get a front bike light that can be easily moved or ‘dipped’ when riding on unlit roads. Similar to car headlights on roads without street lighting, having extra powerful front bike lights can still cause problems for drivers in oncoming vehicles.

I would suggest front bike lights that have a strap similar to a watch attachment for the best options when it comes to dipping. This is because this kind of light can be attached in such a  way that it is firm, yet also easy to move.

You may also find that you want to fix these kinds of lights to your helmet, which makes it even easier to dip but obviously means looking to one side or down at the road temporarily.

Before I forget, my current front bike light actually has a dipped option, meaning that I can avoid dazzling other road users without having to move it, although I still have to press the button. In addition to the dipped function, the same light also has a swivel mechanism to turn it left and right, as well as up and down, making it a very versatile bike light for use on unlit roads. 

If you can, look for a front light has dipped mode, swivels from side to side and up and down to give you the maximum flexibility (and safety for others) when on your cycle commute.

front cycle light lighting up path ahead
A pretty blurry shot of my front bike light on my bike commute home!

Related Questions

How bright is 400 lumens? 400 lumens on a bike light is roughly equivalent to the brightness of a 4.5w LED light bulb in your home. This would make these lights good as a front light for cycling on roads with street lighting, or simply for a powerful rear bike light.

Are flashing bike lights illegal? No, flashing bike lights are not illegal and they can be used by cyclists on roads and off. However, some regions ask riders to use a solid front beam when riding through areas with street lighting, although a flashing rear light should be fine.

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