Other than keeping warm, the thing that probably most deters people from riding in the winter months is the prevalence of darkness in the morning and evening. In a car, lighting the way is easy; just flip a switch and the headlights turn on. Bicycles don’t normally have built-in headlights, so it’s up to owners to find lights.
Bike lights generally fall into two categories: lights to be seen with and lights to see with.
Lights to be Seen With
These lights are smaller and use regular AA batteries. They can be seen for several hundred yards and cost between $20 and $75. Their light output is usually in the range of 50 to 200 lumens and battery life is typically dozens or even hundreds of hours. Some have flashing modes to grab attention.
Lights to See With
These lights are very bright and provide plenty of light to see the road in front of you. They generally have a separate, rechargeable battery pack to provide higher power output. Their output is usually 500+ lumens and they can cost between $150 and $500. Battery life is typically less than five hours.
One issue with these lights are the batteries. The batteries are just like those in your phone or laptop; they degrade over time and eventually must be replaced. I found this out the hard way when my $350 light kit needed a new battery after a couple years which was going to cost me…wait for it…$300. Ouch. So I decided to go a different route. I bought a high output flashlight (a JetBeam BC40, around 800 lumens) and made a little mounting bracket to attach it to my handlebars. This type of flashlight uses CR123A or 18650 Li-ion batteries which are rechargable and relatively inexpensive to replace when they eventually degrade. The batteries and charger will probably run you around $50. If you’re interested in going this route, there are a variety of flashlight mounts for bikes which you can buy for $5 to $10 instead of making your own.
Although there are some “heavy battery” tail lights, most are AA battery powered and work just fine because, as tail lights, they only need to be seen. Most come with a solid mode where the light is always on and a number of flashing modes designed to grab attention. I like to use two tail lights. One is attached to my rear rack which I set to flashing. The other is a “clip-on” light which I attach to my backpack and set to the solid mode. The reason I use one flasher and one solid is because judging the distance of a flashing light can be more difficult than a solid light. Having one flashing and one solid gives me the best of both worlds.
There are a variety of other lights available which can increase visibility and make your bike look cool. Helmet mounted lights can provide extra visibility at a higher level which may be more visible to drivers, especially those in taller vehicles. Spoke lights and valve stem lights increase visibility from the side and many come in different colors which create a cool circular pattern as you ride.
Whatever your lighting needs are, there’s a combination of lights that will work. For better lighting systems, there’s definitely an initial investment required, but it’s probably no more than a couple tanks of gas.