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22 tips when mountain biking in the dark

You’re having a blast outside on your shiny hardtails, and suddenly you realize you have to head back as the sun is about to disappear. It’s time to change your mindset. That’s because you might be missing out on a lot when you limit your shredding expeditions during the daytime. Biking can be just as fun, if not even more exciting after dark.

Night riding has caught on among many mountain bikers, adding another dimension to this endeavor. Imagine what would become of a typically challenging singletrack when you explore it when the sun is down. It may be unsettling at first, but once you give it a shot, you will find that extra dose of thrill would be worth it.

mountain bike wheel at night

Going nocturnal enables you to see what you thought were familiar surroundings in a different light, quite literally that is. But before you start hitting the trails in the dead of night, it will do you good to heed the following tips for your maximum enjoyment.

1. Keep safe

We know that biking at night can be precarious so it’s always a good idea to err on the side of caution. Let’s face it, not all environments are safe for night riding, or are they any less dangerous altogether. Nonetheless, there are things you need to place a special attention to when considering an adventurous ride through the night.

When you set out in the darkness, tell at least one person about your plan. Don’t forget to bring an emergency bivy with you and a warm drink. You should go easy on your speed as well such that you don’t get ahead of your lighting. This will give you sufficient time when an obstacle presents itself all of a sudden. And besides, it can get pretty overwhelming at night when you ride alongside other cars on the road.

2. Light up

Lights will obviously be your primary gear when you venture out at night. If you’re the type that thrives in limited illumination, you can perhaps ride using only a 400-lumen helmet light, that is considering your familiarity with your route. Otherwise, an 800-lumen light is the minimum recommendation for an exciting shredding adventure into the dark.

In between breaks, keep your helmet lights on while turning off the ones on your bike. This will not only help you save on battery power, but also prevent overheating. Many high-lumen lights depend on the cool airflow such that when the bike is not in use, they tend to heat up.

3. Prep your bike during daytime

It’s better to plan at least a day ahead before a night ride. Check your bike’s condition such as the wheels, which should be aligned and fitted correctly. Your tires should be inflated according to the recommended pressure for your bike and the corresponding weather condition. For instance, less psi is required when riding on cobbles to provide more comfort.

Your brakes should also get a once over. Brake pads and blocks typically have wear indicators so it will be easy to know when it’s still good or not. Furthermore, your chains should be lubed up and the bolts have enough tension.

4. Glow in the dark

Wearing neon or reflective clothing will complement your lighting gear in increasing your visibility at night. There are apparel options that offer full reflective properties. You can also have this effect on the pedals and spokes, the up and down motion of which is said to have more impact in catching the eye of motorists on either side of the road. A reflective tape you can stick anywhere on your bike can do the job as well.

5. Approach road obstacles carefully

It’s not unusual if you may find it difficult to navigate roads in the dark, which is otherwise not a problem during the day. Darkness has its way of seemingly changing the landscape and your sense of direction. It’s essential that you stick to familiar trails so that you will not get lost in your own backyard, so to speak.

Inner corners can be barely visible at night so you must avoid cutting tight into them. You should also make room for a bumpy road by softening your suspension. This way, you will have better traction. During winter, when snow ceases, the colder temperature at night can turn it into ice. As such, you should proceed carefully to avoid mishaps.

6. Choose your route wisely

It won’t be as easy to explore unfamiliar terrain in the dark than you would during daytime. As such, you should be acquainted with the areas you will ride on. Street signs may not be as legible, but you will somehow be able to navigate the roads that are you used to if you know them in the first place. Look for roads with dedicated bike lanes, or those with lighter traffic to keep you safer.

You can also make your local trail center as your first night venture. This will have more controlled situations such that it would have fewer stumps and potholes that can otherwise cause you to crash by accident. You should only challenge yourself with technical trails once you’ve gained enough confidence from your previous night rides.

7. Bring a spare

You can’t rest on your laurels and simply rely on your bike and everything will be fine and dandy. It’s best to bring an extra flashlight or any spare light. It will be very difficult for you to ride when your lights have gone out, especially when you’re already deep in the woods where there are barely light posts around.

8. Layer on

Regardless of the season, you can always assume that it will be colder at night. Aside from using a reflective type, you can wear a jacket and a pair of gloves to keep you warm and protect you from the wind chill. In this case, you can also put on layers with something made of wool.

9. Place your lights where they should be

When cycling in the dark, you must have at least two lights at the forefront. One would be mounted on your helmet, and another on the handlebar. This will be crucial when spotting an obstacle and scanning the trail sections ahead.

For your helmet, choose something lightweight so that it will not shift during a bumpy ride. If you have to make do with just one light, you must opt this over a bar-mounted type. It will illuminate tight corners as the light will focus on where you direct your vision. A light that is only placed on the handlebar will probably miss these spots.

Remember to mount the handlebar light properly so it will not be entangled with the suspension setup and brake line. The corresponding batteries can be attached where your center of gravity is using a ski strap, instead of placing them on the top tube. A bar-mounted light produces shadows with more depth, which can aid in your perception at night.

10. Beam higher

As a rule of thumb, your helmet light should point towards your field of vision. This will facilitate your navigation, especially around tight corners and near drop-offs. It is literally your guiding light, which makes you become a more confident rider.

You must avoid aiming your lights close to your front wheel because it might be too late to react to any obstacle that comes your way. When you beam the light a little farther on the trail ahead, you will have the same ease of riding during the day. In any case, focusing the lights where you’re comfortable in, may take some trial and error on your part. Ultimately though, the light should hit the spot that will still give you enough time to avoid any bump or hurdle ahead of you.

11. Relax

One thing you should note, especially when it’s your first time to ride at night is to learn how to relax. Obviously, you have to start slow until you build up the confidence. This may take a few rides to achieve. In any case, you should trust in your abilities and the preparations you made to ensure your ride will be smooth-sailing. It may be very daunting initially, but if at least you’ve been biking regularly during the day, your muscle memory will help you perform the task just as well at night. It will also help if you concentrate your weight on your legs instead of your seat to better absorb impact from sudden potholes.

12. Be equipped

It will help if you can fix a mechanical in case something comes up during your bike night. You have to bring the necessary tools such as a spare inner tub, chain breaker, tire boot, etc. Other extras such as a small first-aid kit with alcohol wipes and plasters should be kept handy. After all, accidents can occur at the most unexpected moment. Being able to address a bad injury right away even with a simple remedy can buy you some time to go to a clinic for proper treatment.

13. Understand the light

Manufacturers usually indicate the estimated run-time of batteries, but the best way to know for sure is to test it yourself. Take a shorter ride for starters and check how long the lights last. This way, you can adjust accordingly in your succeeding trips.

As mentioned earlier, you don’t have to turn on your lights at full power throughout your trip. You can dim the one on your helmet while climbing a hill because the light on the handlebar will suffice.

14. Embrace the dark

You shouldn’t be fazed by the least amount of daylight available during winter. In fact, it should not get in the way of your riding plans at night. It may be pitchblack in the winter months beginning at 3pm, but it also means a lot of wasted riding opportunities if you skip on night rides. The darkness provides you a different experience of riding, listening to nocturnal sounds, and looking up in the sky and marveling at the sight of countless stars.

Mastering your bike at night is an added skill that can only do you good as an all-around cyclist. You will even enjoy unfettered access to otherwise busy paths and trails as more individuals, including pets would choose to stay home or camped out by the fire at this time.

Riding in the night somehow changes how you perceive speed and distance. Our brain seems to adapt to the sensations better to compensate with the limited visibility of the passing scenery. As such, you feel you’re biking much faster than you actually are. And with the lights making your surroundings appear flatter, it will seem you are also covering more distances at night.

15. Refrain from wearing headphones

It is often that you see riders wearing their headphones while on their mountain bikes, seemingly immersed in the music that’s on their playlist. While it may be quite innocuous, there can be a problem if you have both ears covered. It decreases your alertness and may not hear important danger sounds such as a honking car, or an emergency vehicle passing by. Therefore, it is suggested to turn on just one side of your earphones so that the other can still remain sensitive to outside noises. At the same time, you should also keep the volume at a moderate level at most.

16. Get rear lights

If you plan to ride off-road, make sure to equip your bike with a rear red light regardless if it’s mandated in your locality or not. It is said that “rear-ending” comprises a good percentage of collisions where the driver inadvertently hits the transport in front of him because it was not properly lit on its backside.

17. Lights should be ready to go

Whether you are using a rechargeable light or a battery-operated one, you have to be aware of its estimated hours of operation. As such, you should bring either a backup light or extra batteries, to ensure you remain well-lit on your trip.

In any case, you can save on your batteries by dimming your lights as you ascend steep terrains. This can be done because you’ll be slower when climbing, and it enables you to avoid rocks and protruding obstacles on the surface. Moreover, wrap your batteries such that they are kept from getting cold, which can cause it to drain faster.

18. Bring a friend (or meet a new one)

While it’s perfectly ok to ride alone at times, it would be best to do it with someone, especially during the night. Unless you are used to being a lone wolf cyclist, having a riding companion can make your trip worthwhile as you rediscover your local trails together. In case of an emergency, there will be at least one person you can count on to help you when you take a tumble.

If you decide to join evening rides organized by cycling clubs, you get to widen your social circle with like-minded cyclists. It makes such rides even more fun and something you will always look forward to doing each time.

19. Maintain your distance

At night, you should allocate enough distance from others. With your lights on, they can cause shadows in the dark, which can be disorienting. This will affect those who are biking in front of you that are you closely tailing. Don’t forget to dim or turn off your head light if you stop for a chat with a fellow night rider.

20. Wear clear glasses

A pair of eyewear is just as necessary as when you’re riding during a sunny day, albeit you should get a transparent one for night use. That’s why you will find cycling glasses that have interchangeable lenses in order to cater to different weather conditions. It may seem like one of those passing trends. More than anything, it is vital to protect your vision not only from the harmful rays, but also from flying debris that can go straight in your eye.

While you would have mirrored or polarized lenses to combat the glaring sunlight, there’s the yellow lens for overcast or gloomy weather, and clear ones for a rainy day or night ride. Clear specs do not only protect your eyes, but ultimately provide better visibility in the dark.

21. Stay protected

The thrill of the unknown adds to the allure of cycling. Novel opportunities may present themselves at every turn. Bike nights can be risky as any time, but the darkness of your environment gives you a sense of vulnerability, especially when you are alone. You might run into something unpleasant, such as a stranger with dubious motives, or a wild animal on the loose. It won’t hurt to stay protected by carrying a personal safety weapon like pepper spray, which can make a big difference between life and death.

22. Remain on the grid

It may seem a breather to grab the opportunity of taking a break from your mobile devices. However, you will still need to depend on your phone because again, you never know when you will be in dire straits. Make sure it is fully charged before you leave.