Utilitaire Curiosities: How We Light Up the Night

In order to officially complete the Utilitaire 12, at least two rides must be completed in the dark and thus, require lights.

What do people use to ride in the dark? Some people, not part of this challenge, use nothing. Boo. Bike ninjas are all over. At least, I think they are. I have a hard time picking their silhouettes out of the darkness.

Most people who commute and utilitaire, however, end up adopting some type of front and rear lighting system to get them through dark times. Literally dark, I mean.


I have a front lighting around-town system with which I am quite satisfied. Prior to my current setup, I used an older Nite Rider MiNewt X2, a bright front LED light with a rechargeable battery. I liked this light, except:

  1. The cord had some issues which eventually caused some of the wires to become exposed and I ended up covering them with electrical tape; and
  2. One day it stopped working, never to work again. It gave me three good years of service, though, so I can’t complain too much.

In the interim, Felkerino loaned me a rechargeable Ixon IQ from the Dining Room Bike Shop. We use the Ixons a fair amount on brevets. That light was bright and worked well, except it took a little effort to remove the attachment system from one bike to another.

Ixon IQ headlight

Fortunately, I did not wait long for a new light. Soon after the death of the MiNewt, I won a Light ‘n Motion Urban 180 Commuter that is my go-to, go-anywhere light. This light is fantastic because:

  1. I won it.
  2. It easily attaches to any of my bikes. It’s also easily removeable.
  3. The light does not have a separate battery pack and recharges via a USB port. This makes it easy to charge either at home or at the office.
  4. The run time of this light is several hours, supposedly up to eight on the lowest setting, which is still decently bright. I haven’t tested it over an eight hour ride in darkness, but it has lasted several hours in the dark, which is all I need from this light.
Light ‘n Motion Urban 180

Neither Felkerino nor I have any hub generator lights. People love their generator lights, but we’ve found that, since we are jostling multiple bikes for multiple purposes, the portable rechargeable battery lights work well for us.


As for rear lights, I haven’t found a perfect system. I like to use two rear tail lights when riding at night, but many of the lights I’ve used have not been bright enough. I found an easily attachable runner’s light, but it doesn’t hold its charge well and the brightness of the light fades quickly.

I have a couple of older Cateye rear lights that serve both as a light and reflector, but I realized that the light they cast is rather dim.

Inadequate primary rear light. Sorry, Cateye.

On my Quickbeam’s Tubus rack, I’ve attached a German-made Spanninga rear light. This light is awesome and I’m totally satisfied with the brightness of it, but it does not move easily from bike to bike.

Spanninga and backup Cateye light on the Quickbeam

I probably should just bite the bullet and purchase another Spanninga, but I’d like to find a light that is bright, hold its charge well, and moves easily (via clip or something) from one bike to another. Also, things like lights fall into the “not much fun to buy” category of bicycle gear. I prefer to take from what’s in stock in the Dining Room Bike Shop.

Reflective Vests

This year, I finally got serious about wearing reflective gear when I commute. I realized through watching other runners and cyclists at night on the trail, that those who wore some kind of reflective wear in addition to lights were a ton more visible than those who only used lights. I figured, the brighter the better and, even if I look nerdy in my vest, at least I have a better chance of showing up in drivers’ headlights.

My current reflectivewear of choice for commuting is a bright orange fabric vest with two big reflective horizontal stripes. Felkerino picked it up for me when he went to PBP in 2007.

Reflective Vest

The vest closes in front with two smallish velcro patches, making it easy on and easy off. It also stows easily in my Carradice.

Reflective Vest – Front

My backup system is the RUSA reflective sash. I feel a bit like a crossing guard when I wear it, but it’s easy to thrown on and takes up very little space in my bag or pannier.

Crossing guard uniform. RUSA Reflective Sash

I do not think the sash is as bright as the orange vest, but I like using the sash in the summertime because the vest can get a little warm, even though it is not a heavy fabric. I’m still searching for a better or brighter summer reflectivewear solution. I think I may have one, but I haven’t tested it yet, as it is not yet summer (ha ha!).

What’s in your nighttime arsenal? I want to hear about it.


  1. Lessee… I use an ixon IQ as well for front headlight duty, and actually this winter added the use of a Light & Motion Solite 150 mounted to my helmet. The two in combo is GREAT for Frederick county inky blackness.. particularly turns. Having the ixon fork mounted– I had a couple of scary ‘well.. I THINK the road goes here OH CRAP’ moments… and having once too many discovered I needed to lock the brakes at 25 mph to avoid a culvert… added a helmet light. Now light goes where my head goes! I wouldn’t have any compunction in using the Solite by itself either.. and as the name’d indicate.. it really is super light- and it’s fantastically bright to boot- AND it has sidelights for visibility.

    I use electrical tape sealed super blinkies on my other road bikes for rear lights- and save for the hard to turn on button on them.. they work just fine.


  2. Until I went over to the generator/Edelux headlight camp my Ixon served me well. I used a simple fat rubber band to mount it to my handlebars; simple and easy to move around from bike to bike.

    My tail lights are the rando standard: the Planet Bike Superflash. Cheap, easy to mount, and seem to last a long time on AAA batteries. No flashing at night; steady does it!


  3. timely post…I’m still trying to decide what lighting system to use on my new rando bike — I elected not to put a dynamo hub on the front wheel and I’m not a big fan of the sidewall dynamo

    looking at battery powered systems – rechargeable or other


  4. I know that messenger bags aren’t for everyone, but as far as night-visibility goes, I’ve been pleased with Chrome’s new Night Series bag: http://goo.gl/XiXdx
    FWIW, I think they also have Night editions for their rolltop backpacks and maybe some other bags as well.

    For rear lighting I have a Portland Design Works ‘Danger Zone’ light that’s been just fine. Very bright – good Amazon reviews convinced me to go with that particular one.


  5. I go with a helmet mounted Light N’ Motion Stella headlight. It recharges fast, is as bright as the sun (I try to look away from on-coming traffic on the trails), and has never run down while I am using it. For the rear I have a helmet mounted Planet Bike blinky. It attaches to a small vecro strap that I found at the Rootchopper Institute of Bicycle Detritus.

    Some WABA people gave me battery powered head and tail lights for my Bike Friday one night (even though it was obvious that I already had one of each on me). The headlight is a “be seen” light, And my recumbent has an old Cateye tail light attached to a bag on my seat back.

    My winter outer wear is a dark which is cause for concern. I have an assortment of ankle/wrist straps that I wear to help with visibility. I also almost always have my Orteilb panniers and handlebar bag on my bike. These and my Zimbale saddle bag have big white reflective patches.


  6. 2 Ixon iQ in front and 1 Smart for the rear for our tandems, We are very satisfied with this and use the possibility to shift the IQ from low to high setting = making the light stronger and longer, when we do down hills in a brevet. The Smart is a new thing and might have to have new batteries. How long do the Smart last?


  7. For brevets I have a Schmidt hub and B&M Lumotech IQ Cyo headlight. As a backup, I carry a Dinotte headlight with a 4 AA rechargeable pack. Depending on the distance I may toss in another set of fully charged AA batteries. For local night riding I have a B&M Ixon IQ Speed with a separate proprietary rechargeable battery. It served as my main headlight for the first year of brevets. Taillights – best one for me is the Dinotte which also uses the same 4 AA pack set up. I have a couple of other taillights (Cateye) as well. A reflective triangle hanging from the saddle or attached to the back of a rack trunk is helpful. I recommend serving as a volunteer on a night brevet where you can drive your vehicle a quarter mile behind some randonneurs (not as a support car, just checking or sweeping). It gives a new perspective on what works and what doesn’t as far as making yourself visible to motorists.


  8. Front: Exposure Joystick on helmet + Dinotte 200 on handlebars; usually have Dinotte on flash on roads and steady or off on paths. This seems more than enough to spot road hazards, alert drivers of my presence, and detect ninja walkers/riders on the W&OD. Run times are more than enough for 45-50 min each way. The Exposure is self-contained – a bonus for a helmet light.

    Rear: Old Blackbun Mars on back of helmet. On bike 1, 3 PBSF/Viewpoint knock-off (seatstays and seatbag). On bike 2, Portland Bikeworks (?) reflector+ taillight on fender, Dinotte at rack height, backup large Cateye blinky. The Dinotte is visible at least 1/2 mile (based on chasing another rider with one on the W&OD). On a century ride last fall, another rider had an Exposure tail light system that was quite visible, even in noontime daylight.

    Small blinkies are useless on roads IMO. Drivers won’t see them with sufficient warning time (based on my experience overtaking cyclists with them). They’re fine on paths/trails for warning other cyclists (slower closing speed).

    My fair weather (no precip) commuting is often on a road bike (no rack), so I’m wearing a backpack (REI Novarra) which has some reflective bits but precludes some of the benefit of a reflective vest. I do try to wear bright tops (yellow non-reflective vest) to be more visbile in daylight.


  9. Great post! Surprised you said the ixon was hard to move between bikes. They share mounts with planet bike lights and you can pick up ones for $3-5. But if you have a free Light & Motion 180 the point is moot!


  10. I use a Shimano dyno/Cyo/Topline on my Trucker, and recently picked up a Supernova Airstream battery light for my roadbike. PB Superflash on both bikes. The Airstream is silly bright and can easily be run on one of the lower settings most of the time.


  11. Dear MG,

    I get lights as part of a bike build and they become a permanent part of that bike’s kit. I have bad luck switching lights from bike to bike. I suppose I’m just not organized enough….

    I’ve ended up with a SON front wheel for each of the regularly-ridden bikes in the fleet. I like them. Schmidt SON + headlight (in historical order Lumotec, Schmidt E6, Fly IQ (still in use on my wife’s bike), B+M Cyo (still in use), Schmidt Edelux (Still in use)).

    I’ve never been left in the dark by hub generator lighting systems in thirteen years of moderate to heavy night-time use. I’ve killed one hub generator (a 1999 SON. After a spa trip to Germany, it worked again, and is still churning out amps for my brother), and one light over the years (a recent Edelux with a wiring problem).

    Both of my commuters have fenders and are internally wired to power rear LED lights. Both have Seculites in the back, but the Pixeo XS is a fine little (battery-powered) light and I’d use it instead if I were putting a bike together and I wasn’t excited to run wires to the back.

    I’ve never felt the Seculites were underpowered for my (suburban) commuting efforts, but the B+M Linetec rear light is quite bright, as is the Cateye LD570, and they’d make a good supplemental light.

    Best Regards,

    William M. deRosset
    Fort Collins, CO


  12. I recently set aside my Niterider tri-newt which has sufficient brightness, but I was looking for something a little simpler to put on and take off, and the tri-newt with it’s separate battery pack just took too long. So up front now is an Cygolite Expilion 350 which is super-easy to put on and take off, is rechargeable, bright enough, and has a good run time. I’ve tried many taillights, but currently really like a PDW Radbot 1000 because it is bright, attention-getting, and comes with a rack mount included, and the rack mount appears to be offer solid, yet easily removed, attachment.


  13. I’m relieved to hear that you don’t use hub generator lights! I didn’t want to be the only one….

    I’m contemplating getting either a Light ‘n Motion or Cygolite headlight. I currently have Blackburn Voyager 3.x headlight, and a Planet Bike Blinky 3 tail light. And I think you’ve seen my Sam Browne reflective sash and Nathan ankle cuffs. I would love to have a cute-looking vest like yours, but I guess that means I need to qualify for PBP to get one.


  14. My NiteRider just recently developed the same cord issues! And I think it’s almost exactly 3 years old too. And sometimes it turns itself off, probably due to the cord issues. Need to replace it soon, I think. It has been a solid performer up until the cord issue, but the separate battery pack is a bit of a pain.

    Rear blinkies are standard planet bike superflash. I got a superflash turbo for xmas, and I’ve found it runs through batteries about 5x as fast, so I’m back to the regular superflash.

    I have a light n motion vis 360 – helmet mounted lights, front and rear. The front is blindingly bright on the brightest mode and starts warning me about low battery after only 30 or 40 minutes. I think the rear is really bright too – I can see the red flashing off of things in my rearview mirror from what seems like a good distance away.

    I like it, overall, though the charge doesn’t last long imo, and that makes it an expensive back-up lighting system. But one I’m glad to have, and one that’s automatically travels from bike to bike, as long as I remember to wear my helmet. (Which I pretty much do, because I feel naked without my mirror, which is attached to the helmet. My helmet has so much bling on it at this point, there’s not much helmet visible.)


  15. For commuting, I use a Planet Bike 2 watt superflash headlight and a superflash taillight. I use the headlight primarily “to be seen” during my one hour commute in an urban setting. However, it does put enough light on the road to safely see at speeds less than 14 mpg or so. In fact, they are so relatively inexpensive, I have used two at time for long night rides and they were certainly adequate to get by. On my randonneuring bike, last year I upgraded to using a hub generator and the Edelux. I can’t say enough about the combo, no batteries to lose power, a very bright shaped light, it signficantly improved the experience of riding at night. I have a write up on my search for a good night light and the results here: http://eprider.blogspot.com/2011/03/night-lights-part-2.html


  16. My route is mostly under streetlights so I just want to be seen. I’m using a Cateye hl-el530 in front and an old large cateye led in the back. I have a Black Diamond Icon on my helmet and a PB Superflash on the back of it. Usually the helmet light is on flash but if I do come upon a truly dark spot I can turn it to high which is sufficient for fast riding. For reflectivity the club vest is my new fave.


  17. Yo Mary, Nice vest; some great reflective material for sure. I made it through the winter without my dynamo lighting, somehow. I still don’t like the thought of being without it, but it’s a serious investment to fit a dynamo to a Pugs, as it requires a new fork with 100mm OLD, and a new rim (non-offset), and then the cost of lights. A reflective vest and cheap battery lights have sufficed. It’s more about being seen around town in the winter. If you wrote about reflective vests every day of the week, I’d be thrilled. Keep it up. Safe is cool, as are crossing guards.


    • Hard to imagine a Pugsley w/ a generator light. And regarding the vests: maybe I’ll take you up on that; I have several of them (for all seasons and reasons)!


      • There is a Pugsley aftermarket fork available with non-offset 100mm OLD, which readily allows the use of a dynamo. Salsa has the Enabler fork, geared more towards 29er’s to be fit with a fat tire up front for lower-cost fat-tire dabbling. The Enabler, unlike the stock 135mm front fork on the Mukluk, is spaced to 100mm for standard front hubs and dynamos. Beware, 80mm+ rims and tire will be too wide to fit between the fork ends of the Enabler without letting out some air, then airing back up when the wheel is in the frame. It’s all a bit complicated.

        A dynamo on a fatbike is quite possible and sensible (winter up here, you know). For a bike I’m not married to, but ride for transport, it’s a few too many bucks for

        I challenge you to a full week of posts about safety vests– the best safety for your buck.


  18. Mary, Nice lights, very modern. I am a dinosaur just getting back into biking, and beginning to adapt and update. I commuted in Northern Virginia back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, riding from Vienna into Ballston, Rosslyn or Foggy Bottom and then back out after work. As this was in the era before LED’s, I used a cobbled together six-volt system to power a headlight and a blinking taillight. The taillight had been made from one of the large, yellow lights usually mounted to sawhorses near construction sites. The rechargeable battery fit into a narrow Bike Nashbar cloth pouch which was velcro-ed under the top tube and to the seat tube. I simply took the battery out at night and put it on a trickle charge until setting out the next morning.

    Then came a second bike and the need for something a bit lighter. That was the era of the Turbo-Cat (based on the original small Cateye headlight. Instead of the 1.5 watt, 3 volt flashlight bulb in the original Cateye, the Turbo-Cat setup used the original housing but let me use a five watt halogen bulb and run it on my six-volt battery setup. Definitely not bad at the time, but you could “outrun the headlight” at speeds greater than about 12 mph. So I went back to the drawing board.

    The final project back then was a 12 volt system. The rechargeable battery weighed about two pounds and fit inside a tennis ball can, which fits inside a water bottle cage. The light was made from a 25 watt halogen bulb (used in track lights), which was mounted to the handlebar with normal automotive hose clamps. On a pitch-black night with no streetlights, the light produced a narrow, ca 20 foot wide beam, which lit the road about 100 feet ahead. I couldn’t outrun the beam. Even at top speed down a hill, I could still see every pothole or obstacle far enough ahead so as to avoid it. Then I went overseas and everything went into storage.

    I have just retrieved some of my “stuff” from storage, including the 12 volt system. After 15 years of non-use, I had to buy a new battery. The system works like a champ. As I am not commuting any longer and not riding at those speeds, I will probably give it away to someone who trains at night. In terms of downsides, the light produced, while very bright, lasts for about an hour before one has to charge the battery. Again, this was in the era before LED lights, which last for many hours.

    Currently I have a small AXIOM LED headlight, set on blink mode, in order to be seen. I don’t think it is strong enough to make much of a spot on the road, but then I am not riding under very dark conditions. For taillights, I have an old (ca early 90’s) Cateye LED light, and a recently acquired AXIOM LED light, set on slow blink, just to be seen. So far, so good.



  19. Thanks to everybody for their sharing their lighting systems! Awesome comments. I’m going to look into some of the recommended taillights.


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