Winter bike lights for commuting
November 6, 2017 9:17 AM   Subscribe

Looking for experienced winter bike riders with bike light recommendations: what works for 60 minute commutes (each way) in cold winter temps (down to 0 F / -18 C)? Ideally I'd like front and back lights that are USB-rechargeable, quick-release, 120-min+ runtime, steady & pulse options, and a long lifetime. For the headlight, I need something that's bright enough to illuminate (not just "be seen").

I have several sets of lights that are awesome for spring through fall, but none quite work for the cold + dark combo of northern winters. I typically end up using more than one set of lights, or stopping midway and switching out lights, and I'd love a set-up.

My newest favorite lights (Lights and Motion VibePros) are not good winter lights - they basically just don't turn on when it's below 30 F. My backup lights (Serfas thunderbolts) work okay in the cold, but don't have a great run time when on steady, and the headlight isn't great for illumination. My backup-backup lights (yes, I usually have three sets of lights) are AAA-based, so they're ok in the winter cold, but they're cheap and weak - so, not good enough for my regular use. I can use a portable battery pack to charge the USB ones while riding, but I really don't want that extra complication.

So, what's worked for you? Are there good USB-rechargeables that'll tolerate cold long enough for my commute? Figure out how to install dynamos? Invest in higher quality battery-operated lights and use rechargeable AAAs?

I am not interested in using disposable (or "pseudo -disposable") lights that require single-use AAA-type batteries, or hard-to-find "replaceable" coin batteries. I want something that'll work well and last a long time. Cost is not a big issue.

My commute is ~60 minutes each way, but I can recharge lights at work if necessary. Pretty soon, it'll be full dark both ways on my usual commute, which means I use steady lights the whole way (which eat up even more battery). I keep the lights inside to charge/store.

Specific product recommendations greatly appreciated.
posted by chemicalsyntheticist to Travel & Transportation (16 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
I have been happy with the Wirecutter recomendations. Rereading their review it seems to meet all of your criteria. Personally, I have been very happy with them during my rainy, dark, 60-70 minute bike commutes during the Portland Winter.
posted by munchingzombie at 9:24 AM on November 6 [2 favorites]


Though it's not a bike light, per se, my Torch helmet works in those temperatures--and in the sleet and freezing rain around those temps. My commute is only about 20 minutes and I don't charge it every day, but I'm not sure how long it goes on a single charge. You don't have to worry about taking the lights on and off your bike, which is great in the cold if you lock up outside.
posted by crush at 9:25 AM on November 6 [1 favorite]


But if you're after illumination, not visibility, it's not great.
posted by crush at 9:26 AM on November 6


I swear by Cygolite. They are eye-searingly bright, even in broad daylight, fully USB, quick release (the bracket stays on the seat post/handlebar), and compact. I just bought my son a set because he commutes by bike to school and back. We each got one of their Combo sets. Available at a lot of retailers as well as online.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 9:27 AM on November 6 [3 favorites]


Can't tell which country you're from, but I think MEC ships anywhere so I'll recommend what I've used for winter (and other) cycling for six years in Ottawa, where normal winter temperatures are often colder than -20c.

These lights are fantastic. They're inexpensive compared to most other USB-rechargeable lights out there, they hold a charge for a pretty long time and give a good amount of warning when their batteries are getting low, they're super bright, to the point where I regularly get compliments from random passersby about the quality of my lights, and they fit on all handlebar sizes without futzing with a mount (I really, really hate bike accessory mounts. Hate them). I buy them in sets of two so I can keep a charged set in my bag for mid-ride switches/to cover for general laziness or bad planning on my part. They're inexpensive enough that this is possible.

Front: MEC Quattro USB LED light.

Back: MEC Plasma USB LED.

I get about a week of use out of these for a 20-minute each way commute and haven't ever had problems with them in cold weather. I'm on my fourthish (or maybe fifthish?) season with the first Quattro I got and I use it year round. The Quattro has fantastic illumination for my city's pitch-black unlit multiuse pathways.
posted by urbanlenny at 9:44 AM on November 6 [1 favorite]


For 5 or 6 years I also have been using Cygolite set for illumination and visibility. Very happy with the performance. My cold weather was Boston, half hour one-way commute, all winter, except 2015**. Temps in Boston occasionally dropped to 0 degF, but it's mostly 20-35 degF over the winters.

** 2015 was the year of too much snow and ice, so I bought a t-pass for a couple of months.
posted by turkeybrain at 9:45 AM on November 6


I'm now using a dynamo setup which is the best thing ever, but last year, I used this front, Light in Motion Urban 700. On high, it's kind of a blinder. I used it on the lowest setting and it was still super bright. This was a 30 minute commute in Minnesota winter. I could make a day or two before recharging. For the rear, I used a Bontrager Flare 3 I got from Secret Quonsar. It was super bright and I used rechargeable batteries in it.
posted by advicepig at 9:55 AM on November 6


I've gotten a year and a half of daily use down to 5F (possibly lower?) with a Light & Motion Urban 350 and Vis 180 Micro. I usually recharge them daily at work whether they need it or not, and run them whether it's dark or light.

I've read that some people haven't had great luck with the silicone strap mount, but it's worked well for me so far with removing and attaching it at least five times a week (though it's generally a two-handed job). The buttons can be pressed with heavy gloves. The most annoying thing about the Vis 180 Micro is that I had to order a cheap plastic doodad to attach it to my rear rack instead of to my seatpost; that adapter wasn't included or available in stores.

I've been considering getting one of those camera-light combos, but I don't think the lights on those will be as nice as the L&M lights. The steady-pulse light setting is terrific. Best of both worlds, IMO.

The Cygolites are similarly reliable. I don't like the mount or blink patterns as much, but that's purely a personal preference, and they're just as good.
posted by asperity at 11:01 AM on November 6


Nearly five years ago, I got a generator bike light setup for my birthday. I see and am seen. It's amazing. I haven't charged a battery or fiddled with my lights in any way in nearly half a decade. I still rave about it.

My partner researched every option that was available at the time:

- SRAM dyno hub
- Busch & Müller Fly RT Plus headlight
- Busch & Müller tail light as well.
posted by aniola at 11:07 AM on November 6 [2 favorites]


I've had good cold weather performance from the Bontrager Flare R (rear) and the Ion 700 (current model is 800 lumens). Also, as mentioned above, the Light & Motion Urban 700. I like to run a bar-mounted light and one on my helmet.

Both headlights, on low, provide plenty of light to be able see as well as being seen. On high, you'll see a lot of detail - it's practically daylight in front of you. Both have flashing modes which will annoy folks at night but are good for being visible in the day.

The Flare R is, in my opinion, the best taillight made, because its bright, focused light lets you be seen in the daytime as well as night. I know you're talking nighttime here, but I highly recommend running one of these all the time.
posted by altcountryman at 11:29 AM on November 6


I commute year round in Denmark.

Seriously consider a hub dynamo with good lights.
No more temperature issues and no more charging/changing batteries.
What a relief.
I have a SON dynamo hub and it rocks, but it is expensive.
Shimanos or Shutter Precision's offerings are supposed to be OK too.
If you decide to go this way, I can recommend Busch & müllers IQ-X front light (expensive) and Spanninga's "Elips" rear light (not too expensive). Comes with stand light so you'll be visible even when standing still. Best rear light I've seen by a long shot.
posted by Thug at 12:26 PM on November 6 [2 favorites]


Oh sorry, I didn't see that Dynamos were an option. Get a Dynamo. Always charged. Done.
posted by urbanlenny at 1:43 PM on November 6 [1 favorite]


I'm going to join the chorus: dynamo lighting, front and rear. I commute and ride in Seattle and made the switch several years ago. The difference was—well, I won't say night and day, 'cause that'd be awfully punny—astounding.

SON are the gold standard, but I decided that something with 90% of its capability at less than half the price was good enough, and haven't regretted it. I did go with the SON Edelux light however. The dynamo's biggest drawback is that you must have the wheel built around the hub. It. Is. Worth. Every. Penny. I had both my wheels built through Universal Cycles, since their Portland location made for quick shipping, but kinda have the itch to learn to build wheels myself, just for the fun of it. For tail lights, I've used both Busch & Muller and Spanninga. Both work great.

Having a light designed to cast a beam like a headlight is truly well, eye-opening, as it were. The beam cuts off higher up, like a car's thus saving the eyes of oncoming traffic and putting more light on the road where it does you good. Additionally, generator lights are always on, and don't blink. Blinking lights, as a reminder, are a terrible idea. They've been linked to target fixation in the impaired—leading to things like drunks steering directly into you—and are also inherently difficult for the human brain to triangulate distance. There's a reason they're illegal most places, especially at the rear. People like them for the front, but most of us also severely underestimate how easy it is for someone to glance over our direction between flashes. Also, front flashers are incredibly rude to oncoming bikes, and a genuine hazard for riders with photo-sensitive epilepsy.

At any rate, I was so impressed with my generator hub that I immediately kitted out my other bike, and will no longer own one without a generator, as in 'not open to debate'. You pedal, and you have lights, always. It's that simple. Even better, both front and rear lights now generally come with capacitors, so they'll tay lit for about five minutes, plenty of time at intersections and stop lights.
posted by los pantalones del muerte at 2:06 PM on November 6 [2 favorites]


I love my Cygolite front light, and it's shown no performance issues during Denver winter riding. The battery life is ridiculous, in a good way. It mounts to a bracket that stays on the bike (I actually use a form mount rather than a handlebar mount). And it's great for both illumination and visibility.
posted by rhiannonstone at 3:25 PM on November 6 [1 favorite]


Another vote for Light & Motion Urban. I use two of the Urban 500 on my bars, in order for cars ahead to percieve my oncoming distance. They have sidelights embedded. Powerful lights, rechargeable, quick release, and half the price of the 800. Made in USA if that matters to you.
posted by artdrectr at 11:57 PM on November 6


Thanks to all of you for some great suggestions! In case it's of interest, I wanted to update my comment on the VibePro lights:

My newest favorite lights (Lights and Motion VibePros) are not good winter lights - they basically just don't turn on when it's below 30 F


I contacted Lights & Motion support a while back, and they think this problem is likely related to the mounts rather than due to the cold. They are working on a new mount and plan to have them available in December. I don't know if it'll actually solve the problem - but I'm optimistic.
posted by chemicalsyntheticist at 9:40 AM on November 9 [1 favorite]


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