If you’re cycling at night, whether on lit roads in town, on unlit roads or off-road, it’s important to be properly prepared.
There’s the obvious, such as lights, but there are other steps you should take to make riding at night safer and more comfortable.
We asked Matt Woodcock, training manager at Cycling UK, and Chris Bennett, head of behaviour change at Sustrans, for their advice on how to ride safely at night.
And if you’re a mountain biker, we’ve got tips for trail riding at night too.
1. Use appropriate lights
“There’s a legal requirement during the hours of darkness (dusk to dawn) to have a front white light and a rear red light,” says Woodcock. You can read our guide to bike light laws in the UK for more information.
The lights you need for cycling to work in town are very different from those you need to ride on unlit country lanes or off-road. If there’s decent street lighting on your route, the lights you need on your bike are more about making sure you’re seen by other road users, while on dark roads or pitch-black trails you need lights to illuminate the road or trail ahead of you.
“If you’re riding along unlit country lanes, you’ll need a different lighting setup to riding in an urban setting – or you may need to have a mix of lights if you’re riding though both environments,” says Woodcock.
So whereas a lower power blinky might work as a front light in town, you’ll need a much more powerful front light for a mountain bike ride or country lane – anything from 400 to 800 lumens on the road and even more off-road, depending on where you’re riding and how fast you’re going. In all cases, you should have a red rear light.
It’s worth having multiple lights too. If you’re riding on the road, you can use one flashing to alert other road users and the other constant to light your way. It’s also easier for approaching vehicles to work out how far away a constant light is than a blinking one, so a second rear light is useful too.
“Helmet-mounted lights are used by many cyclists as they not only directly illuminate your line of vision, but they’re also handy to see with if you need to carry out any bike maintenance,” says Bennett.
Off road, a helmet light will light up turns and hazards better than a bar mounted one because it points where you want to go, rather than where the bike is heading, and is mounted higher up. But keep it lightweight, a heavy one will be uncomfortable and may shift your helmet around as you move.
2. Ride where you can be seen
Upping your visibility on the roads at night isn’t just a question of lighting yourself up. In general, drivers are looking ahead, so you want to make sure that you’re in their field of vision.
That means riding a little way out into the road – around 70cm to 1m. That way you should also avoid the worst of the obstacles at the side of the carriageway, such as potholes and drain covers.
“When cycling at night, ride in the right position to be seen clearly. Make your intentions known to others earlier than you would in daylight,” says Cycling UK’s Woodcock.
3. Add reflectives
“The other legal requirement is to have a white reflector (front), red reflector (rear) and pedal reflectors,” Woodcock points out.
“Studies have shown that having reflectors on your pedals, or ankles, will help you stand out more because other road users notice the elliptical movement of the pedal strokes,” he continues.
Bennett suggests you go beyond this to up your visibility. “On top of the legal requirement to have a front white light, a rear red light, plus reflectors at night, you should ensure that you’re seen from side-on,” he says.
That’s something to consider when buying bike lights – do they offer any side visibility? Reflective detailing on key parts of your kit or on a cycling backpack if you’re commuting, can also help.
“Reflective gear has been shown to be seen better than hi-vis wear at night,” adds Woodcock. “Having reflective piping on your clothing, especially your gloves, will help others see you and your hand signals.”
4. Don’t dazzle oncoming vehicles
Some high-powered front lights have brighter beams than car headlights. “Be aware of the dazzle some powerful lights can cause to others, so ensure that you direct your beam of light down to the road surface to avoid blinding drivers,” says Woodcock.
Some road-specific lights have a beam pattern shaped to avoid dazzling other road users. If you’ve got an off-road-ready front light, it’s a good idea to dial down its brightness or switch to a flashing mode if you have to ride on the tarmac for a while. That will conserve your battery too.
Germany has stricter rules about the beam pattern for front lights than other countries, to avoid dazzle, and you can find lights that are designed to comply.
5. Have backup lights
Make sure you’ve fully charged your lights before heading off at night and select a light mode that should give you the burn time to comfortably complete your journey. Remember, claimed run times from manufacturers aren’t always accurate.
As we’ve already covered, it’s useful to have a second front and rear light, so you can run both on a lower power setting than your main lights to up battery life. That way you won’t be left in the dark if one does stop working.
Once your eyes become accustomed to the dark, it should be possible to dim your lights on less tricky terrain or where there’s street lighting, saving the brightest settings for technical trail stretches or unlit roads.
If you’re planning to do a lot of night riding, it might be worthwhile investing in a dynamo front wheel and light set, so you’re independent of battery power. A modern dynamo hub is very efficient and adds minimal drag.
6. Ride with caution
If you’re new to night riding or are venturing out onto unknown terrain, take it steady.
“Keep an eye out for hazards, such as slippery leaves, and where possible stick to riding on familiar road routes or else opt for better-lit paths,” says Bennett. It’s easier to hit unseen obstacles at night too.
Even if you know the route you’re riding, it will look very different at night. So don’t plan to take on anything too ambitious and don’t try to thrash it.
If you’re riding with others, leave enough space between you and the rider in front so that your light won’t cast their shadow ahead of them, making it difficult for them to see their way. Also, if you’re riding in a group, avoid dazzling the rider behind you with an overpowered rear light.
7. Wrap up
You don’t need us to tell you that it’s likely to be colder at night, but make sure you’re properly prepared for the conditions. If you’re planning to ride regularly through the colder months, investing in decent winter cycling kit will make all the difference.
Even on a summer night it can get chilly, but a ride at close to zero degrees in winter can be a very unpleasant affair if you don’t have the right kit. Swapping to full-finger winter gloves, tights and thicker socks will help keep your extremities warmer.
Mist or fog will chill you too, so it’s worth having water-resistant outer layers, even if you don’t expect rain. If rain is forecast, a quality waterproof jacket is essential.
8. Let someone know where you’re going
Let someone know where you plan to ride and how long you expect to be out for, particularly if you’re heading off-road.
There are far fewer people out at night to spot you if you have a mechanical or are injured, especially if you’re venturing off the beaten path.
You’ll also cool down quickly at night if you aren’t moving – another reason to wrap up or carry an extra layer in the event of an unexpected stop.