Night riding tips for mountain bikers

It’s that time of year again. With each passing day, the sun sinks in the sky a little earlier. For those of us with 9-5 jobs, getting out and riding after work without encountering darkness is impossible with the recent time change. But as we mourn the loss of evening light, we can also celebrate the dawn of another season and an opportunity to experience our favorite trails in a new way.

Though intimidating to new riders or those who haven’t ridden much in the dark, night riding can be a lot of fun. It gives a new perspective to familiar places and trails and is a great way to combat the winter blues. And there’s not much more exhilarating than flying down a stretch of singletrack in the darkness, with only a beam of light illuminating your way.

Of course, there are a number of things about riding at night that are different than riding during the daylight hours. Here are a few tips to get you started and ensure that you have a great experience.

1. Carry a spare.

Whether it’s a mini flashlight or a spare bike light, it’s better to be safe than sorry. You never know when you might be out longer than intended due to a mechanical or a host of other unexpected circumstances. Or maybe your light will have a technical malfunction. Depending on how far from civilization you are riding, having that spare could mean the difference between a continued ride or easy jaunt back to the parking lot and a harrowing, not-so-fun slog to get out of the woods in the dark.

2. Don’t get bogged down by lack of motivation.

We all know it’s really hard to get motivated to go out and ride when the air carries a harsh chill and there’s no daylight left. On these days, the hardest part of riding is getting out the door. But you’ll feel much better when you do, I promise.

3. Helmet-mounted vs bar mounted light?

Personally, I would argue for helmet-mounted lights all the time, especially if you ride a lot of tight, twisty singletrack. The pro is that a light on your head automatically points where you’re looking, so it’s easier to navigate around corners and safer if you’re riding off-camber trail near drop-offs. I find that helmet-mounted lights increase my confidence and enjoyment level when riding at night.

However, the advantage that a bar-mounted light has over a helmet-mounted one is that is does a better job of casting shadows that improve depth perception at night.

The best solution is of course one of each, but that means more expense, so don’t get discouraged if you only have one or the other. Any light is better than no light.

4. Aim your light slightly higher than you initially think. 

Many riders (myself included) tend to aim their lights a little too close to their front wheel. When you’re gearing up in the parking lot and setting up your lights, it somehow feels natural. But when you get out on the trail and are moving at a faster pace, you’ll quickly find that moving your light up a tad to illuminate farther down the trail will help you ride just like how you ride during the day – proactively picking lines rather than reacting to the trail as it appears directly in front of you. Obviously, getting the aim right is something that takes some experimentation, and you may find yourself adjusting your light throughout your ride.

5. Relax and go with the flow. 

Riding at night changes your depth perception abilities, so until you get used to it, you will probably find that you’ll need to ride a little slower and more cautiously. Don’t get nervous, just stay relaxed and loose, and let the bike move around underneath you. Trust your bike and your body – so much of riding is intuitive and muscle memory, and an advantage of riding at night is that it helps bring those senses out.

6. Get to know your light. 

Don’t trust manufacturers run times, and keep in mind that conditions like the cold can greatly decrease battery life. Go on shorter rides at first and pay attention to how long your light lasts (and carry a spare, of course).

7. Take a moment to stop mid-ride, turn off all lights and embrace the night sky.

One of the perks of riding at night is the chance to experience the world differently. Take full advantage of this. Embrace the darkness. Listen to the sounds of the night. Look up at the stars. Enjoy a moment of peacefulness before turning your lights back on and ripping down the trail.

8. Keep your lights charged for impromptu rides. 

Plan ahead and put your lights back on the charger as soon as you get home from a ride so that next time your buddy calls last minute and asks if you want to go ride, you have no excuses!

What are some of your tips for riding singletrack at night? Tell us in the comments!

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6 Comments

  1. Unfortunately riding trails in Cook County (Chicago, IL and surrounding suburbs) after sunset is illegal. I have lights and am reluctant to go trail riding because getting caught may result in an expensive ticket and requires a court appearance.

    • Night riding is technically illegal where I live and we do it all the time. I’ve never heard of anyone out on the trails at night trying to enforce that rule in all the years we’ve done it.

  2. I’ve ridden at night in winter for 14 years now. (I have a huge box of ancient light technology to prove it) The helmet light battery (I use a non-integrated unit on the helmet to reduce weight)is stored in a backpack as close to my body as possible, with insulating shop rags around it, as the temperature of the battery determines run time of the light. In extreme cold, it goes inside my jacket. On the frame mounting gets too cold for long battery run time.

  3. Carry a second or third light that requires batteries and carry a spare set. I carry a light that takes a 18650 rechargable and a 3 AAA insert. I carry a spare 18650 rechargable and a set of fresh AAA’s.

  4. Great tips ! , We plan night rides around full moons as well . I run a light on the bars and helmet seems to be the best way to go .

  5. I ride in south east Michigan, and when we start in the dark, we ride the trails backwards. Right of Way is granted to anyone riding the trail the normal direction, and collisions don’t happen because your lights show everyone where you are, It truly makes the trail different.

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