After almost 30 hours of research and testing, we picked the ~$55 Cygolite Metro 360 as the best bike headlight. Why? It can flash for visibility while simultaneously illuminating the road, it's dead simple to mount and it outperformed more well-known competitors that cost $20-$30 more. We also recommend the $34 Planet Bike Superflash Turbo 1 W taillight. It's the newest update to Planet Bike’s Superflash series, which received high praise from many publications, including Bike Radar, Bicycling and Gear Junkie.
Who should get a bike light? And why?
If you’re gonna ride at night, you’ve gotta get some lights. They’re vitally important to keeping you safe, and it could be illegal to ride in the dark without a headlight depending on which state you live in. What really tips the balance for me is knowing that if I get into an accident at night and don’t have a light on my bike, even if the driver is at fault, it’s still possible to be held liable.1 One of the experts I consulted on this piece, Jim Burakoff, the general manager of the San Francisco Bay Area’s BART bike station system and 10 year car-free commuter, very succinctly sums it up: “Compared to the consequences of not being seen, bike lights are incredibly cheap.”
What makes a good headlight?
All lights worth considering will have both steady lighting and strobe modes. The steady beam is necessary to illuminate the road in front of you, and a strobing pattern is what makes you visible to the cars around you. Some lights, like our pick, can do both at the same time. That’s actually a useful feature to look for. What aren’t terribly useful are side cutouts, a design feature that allows a bit of light to spill to either side of the headlight in addition to illuminating the way in front of you. The idea is that this makes you more visible to traffic on your left and right. Sometimes you’ll see the housing expose a bit of the bulb to each side or otherwise notice “gills” cut into the sides, which are both intended to serve this purpose. These gills can be a nice feature to have for sure, but are neither necessary nor significant enough to base any buying decisions on.
Jim Burakoff explains: “Once someone is looking at you straight from the side, there’s a good chance that things have already progressed pretty far towards an accident. A light without these side windows can still have a pretty great viewable angle and may be just as effective the majority of the time.”
Brightness is measured in lumens, and this is the most prominent number you’ll see advertised on the packaging. You’ll want something with at least 100 lumens. Anything less and you’ll risk not being able to see on dark streets without street lamps. But there’s also such a thing as too bright. I spoke to Scott Karoly, a veteran sales associate from Alameda Bikes, who told me that while you can spend $100+ on a 700+ lumen light, it’s total overkill and can even be a hazard on normal roads: “Those are for mountain biking at night and are really only useful for the trail when it’s pitch black. I mean, if you had an 1,800 lumen light on the street you would get a ticket.” He personally uses a 650 lumen light but only on the lowest setting. As we continued our research, lights in the 200-350 lumen range revealed themselves to be exactly what we were after—plenty of illumination, even for darker paths, but not so bright the cost started ballooning out of control.
It’s also important for a good light to install easily and stay on tight while you’re biking, but it should also be easy to take off when you arrive at your destination. Otherwise it makes a tempting target for opportunistic thieves. For ease of use, a handlebar mount is a no-brainer. (As is an all-in-one, tool-less mounting unit.) Helmet mounts are another option but not everyone uses a helmet so it’s a nice bonus at best.
You’ll want to make sure that your lights are weather-resistant should you find yourself stuck in a downpour. They should also be able to handle some abuse from accidents and drops.
Surprisingly, I found that battery life isn’t all that important. Karoly told me, “If you commute, even five days a week… just recharge it on your day off. I don’t have to charge mine except maybe once a week. And a lot of these have a little light on top and the button will turn from green to red when you’ve got 20% left, 10% left, so you know when.” Battery life still weighed into our decision making, but suddenly 3-4 hours of burn time didn’t seem like such a pitiful amount.
How we picked our headlight
Up for consideration were the entire product lines of 29 different brands. We narrowed the field according to our criteria laid out above, and then also eliminated options that were powered by CR2032 batteries (the ones that look like giant watch batteries) because they’re not bright enough and are expensive to refill.
Similarly, we eliminated lights designed only for visibility (only a blink mode), because it’s better to have a light that can illuminate the road when you need it to.
Finally, we cut out performance headlights like the ones covered in this MTBR roundup because they’re just too bright and too expensive. This basically narrowed our search to models in the $40-$100 range, a much smaller haystack. Yet we were still left with far more options than could be reasonably tested.
We then turned to previously existing reviews of lights to get whatever information we could. Wirecutter contributor Brent Rose did a roundup comparison to find the best bike light under $100 for Gizmodo. Bike Radar also has a good roundup of the best road bike lights. Lights that received less-than-favorable reviews were stricken from our list. This BlogOverflow review was also quite good, but popped up after we had already narrowed down our list of contenders. Good thing they arrived at very similar conclusions!
Given the wide variety of options, we felt that we should really ask a lot of our light. In addition to looking for a product that delivered on all of the above, we required that testing candidates have buttons that were easy to operate even with gloves on, but that were not so easy that they’d turn on inside of a bag.
We also gave bonus points to lights that charged via USB, because they don’t create waste. The rechargeable lights should also have some sort of battery light indicator to let you know when it was time to recharge.
And finally, it had to have a warranty from a reputable company that exists outside of the ether of the internet. This meant excluding sketchy offerings such as this one that’s only on Amazon and has some questionable characteristics according to user reviews.
Our final headlights selected for testing consisted of the $40 Planet Bike Micro 2W, $55 Cygolite Metro 360, $80 Light & Motion Urban 200, $80 Knog Blinder 2, $85 Serfas S250 and the $90 Niterider Lumina 350.
How did we test?
First I photographed the beam spread of each light. Brightness is one thing, but where the light is directed and how it illuminates is equally important. The first camera setup involved looking over the handlebars in a cyclist POV. All lights were set on their highest output level, and I found pitch black territory on a secluded path in the forest at night. Camera settings of f/3.9 and ISO 800 did a nice job of revealing specific objects each beam could see, though it was difficult to accurately capture all of the ambient light each headlight gave off on film. Every light provided adequate illumination to see in the dark. Here are the results:
To get another look at how our products distribute light, I mounted each bike light on a tripod. We then set the tripod three feet away from a dark wall (an approx. distance from the road to your handlebars) and projected the beam upwards. This way, I could get a clear look at exactly what the shape of the beam would look like were I to look directly down on it from overhead. To photograph, I found that an F-stop of 3.9 and shutter speed of 400 was the sweet spot for capturing the shape of the beam without letting ambient light from streetlights interfere.
I also wanted to make sure battery life was as advertised. To test, I charged all lights to capacity (or put in brand-new batteries in the case of the Planet Bike) and set them in a dark closet. I ran them on the closest output settings possible, around the 200 lumen range. I took a snapshot with a security camera every minute and after 9.5 hours went back and found the exact image and timestamp at which they faded or turned off.
And finally, we wanted to check the durability of a handlebar mount. Turns out Oakland, CA, is an extremely fertile testing ground. Gaping potholes, cracked asphalt and general debris litter the road. The only better place to evaluate whether a light would stay in place would be the moon, or perhaps the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
Here are the before and after results:
This mount test was an important exercise in determining our best taillight as well. Testing battery life at 100+ hours seemed like an exercise in futility. And aside from making sure that the light was visible to angles to the side as well as the back, beam spread didn’t come into play as much as a bright, attention-getting blinking pattern. But a light pointed at the ground due to a crummy mount does you no good.
We narrowed our taillight choices to AAA-battery-powered lights with 100+ hours of battery life in blink mode and 1 W LEDs. That’s as bright as I found before getting into USB-rechargeable territory, and 1 W packs a lot of punch in a taillight. This brought our options down to just three:
Niterider Cherrybomb – $35
Blackburn Mars 4.0 – $16
Planet Bike Superflash Turbo – $34
Of the three, the Niterider is the only one that didn’t survive, pointing full towards the ground by the end of my three laps.
Our headlight pick
The Cygolite Metro 360 is a clear standout. During testing, it ran neck and neck with the Niterider in terms of performance, but it has a few more lumens and is $30 cheaper so it’s a better value.
The Cygolite is brighter than any other model we tested. You can see from the overhead photo the unique beam spread it has—at first I thought it had to be a flaw, but once I turned it on in the forest it made total sense: nothing else covered the foreground and middleground as broadly while still reaching into trees down the path and to the right.
It had longer battery life than everything but the Niterider, which ran an hour longer. If battery life is your main concern when purchasing a light, you may want to consider if spending an extra $30 is worth an hour of time. But I felt the Cygolite was still a better option because it was cranking out 40 more lumens at the setting I had it on, still provided a solid 3 hours of run time, and as an unexpected bonus I noticed that the light never fully turned off during the entire 9.5-hour test. It faded at hour three, but still provided a touch of illumination. NiteRider snapped off at precisely the 4 hour mark. While I wouldn’t claim that the Cygolite was usable for the last 6.5 it remained flickering, I’d still rather have that bit of light to guide me home rather than get stuck navigating my way in pitch blackness.
Remember side cutouts? We mentioned they wouldn’t weigh into our final decision making, but as luck would have it the Cygolite has cutouts in the housing that let the light illuminate to the side as well as the front, a welcome safety feature.
It offers a few additional settings that have extremely practical applications. One is called Dayflash mode which is a piercing blink meant to be run during daylight hours. Throw it on if you feel like you need it, or use it so cars can see you better in snow or rain. Steadypulse mode runs a blinking pattern simultaneously with a steady beam, perfect if you’re alongside traffic at night. It’s kind of baffling that more lights don’t do this; it’s such a practical feature.
And finally there’s a walking mode, perhaps the one thing that’s overkill if I had to nitpick. It’s a very low-level output setting meant to preserve battery life if you need to get off and walk. The good news is that the mode doesn’t reset every time you turn it off… it’ll be on the same setting where you left it, so no pesky cycling through five different options to get to the one you want every time you turn it on.
Since it’s a brand-new iteration of a former model, its user reviews are just starting to roll in but they’re overwhelmingly positive so far. Scott recommended it by name at the store. Its predecessor, the Metro 300 is very well loved, receiving a 4.7/5 star average rating from 97 reviewers with not a single 1 or 2-star review.
The Bicycles sub-blog of StackExchange was one of the few editorial sources we’ve found that’s also had a chance to take a look at the Metro. They rated it Best Value, writing that, “The Metro series is one of my favorites. It’s just the right size, has Cygolite’s special steady-flash pattern which is great for riding at night on city streets, and is a great value… you’re unlikely to find a better light for this price.” The Cygolite is a slam dunk.
A brighter, more expensive option if you really need it
If you need something brighter, you could get this year’s Metro 500 for $70. It’s just a brighter version of the Metro 360, but 500 lumens is pushing the line between useful visibility and excessively bright so we can only recommend it for people with the darkest of commutes. At the time of this writing, last year’s Metro 420 is also on clearance for $60, making it brighter for the same price (though you miss out on walking mode, which is no big loss). Alternatively:
The headlight competition
The Blinder 2 is Knog’s very first commuter headlight. This is the only model I felt had some unnecessary tech. There are four modes—narrow beam, wide beam, both together and blinking—and each mode has two settings, Hi and Low. That’s 8 settings, which is a lot to tinker with while you’re riding, and I don’t understand why you would separate narrow and wide beams. I can’t envision a situation in which I wouldn’t want both. That said, the Knog illuminated well but moved around a little too much in our mount test. However, the dealbreaker is that it only gives you an hour of battery life at 200 lumens. That’s just not enough, considering less expensive models on our list are running 2-4.
The Blinder 3 is their next model, and it comes out this month. We’ll test it when it hits shelves, but unless it has a lot more battery life and is a lot cheaper, it’s hard to see it being better than our pick.
NiteRider was the number one brand recommended to me by all my experts, and overall it lived up to the hype. What it comes down to is that the Cygolite does the same thing just as well as the similar NiteRider Lumina 350 and is $30 cheaper while giving you extra features like the Steadypulse mode and side cutouts.
The Light & Motion 200 is easily the best-looking light in the line up, slim and compact. I also thought it performed really well. But again it has 160 fewer lumens than the Cygolite, slightly less battery run time and is still more expensive.
The Serfas S250 was the dark horse of the competition in that I hadn’t heard it mentioned by name or seen it in any shops. But it fit all of our requirements and had some positive feedback online so we checked it out. The biggest issue is that the mount failed, twisting completely downwards after only one of my laps down the bike lane of terror. I double checked to make sure I installed properly. I scanned the box for parts or padding I may have missed. I tried a second time, and after only one lap it fell again. Serfas is releasing a new version of this model later this month. We’ll take a look at it then, but for now it doesn’t come close to the performance or price of the Cygolite, so we’d pass on this one.
The Planet Bike Micro 2W is the only AA-battery-powered light in the lineup and has the fewest lumens, clocking in around 139. (It is labelled as a 2-watt light). Planet Bike came recommended by our experts as a budget option that works very well for many commuters.
But the mount on this model didn’t even make it to the test lap. I wrestled with figuring out the little latch for an eternity. When I decided I had figured out the proper way it worked, it didn’t fit my handlebars at all. I had my camera assistant take a look at it. We found an adjustable band on the underside but tightened it too far and then couldn’t undo it. It was so frustrating to try and figure out that we eventually gave up.
Yes, it’s cheaper than the Cygolite at only $40, and it’ll get the job done. But you get so much more value from the Cygolite in terms of light quality, brightness and ease of use that spending an extra $20 seems like a no-brainer.
What other headlights did we look at?
There are other lights and brands that almost made it to the testing round, but ended up being eliminated for various reasons:
Cateye is well-known and widely available, but every Cateye I looked at I thought was comically large. Their Econom lights, which are also liked online, are not only big but their lumen output wasn’t indicated anywhere in their literature… not a good sign. The Cateye Volt 300 has sixty fewer lumens than our pick and is the same price. Amazon says this needs 8 hours to charge; their website says 6. None of our final contenders take longer than 5 hours to fully charge. But they’ll sell you an optional “quick charge cradle” for more money, which is nonsense.
I purchased the Cateye NanoShot. I wanted to take a good look because it has a setting similar to the Cygolite Steadypulse. It’s heavy. I couldn’t imagine it staying in place on a rough patch of road, but even if it the mount is rock solid, factor in a whopping 8 hours of charge time and an unnecessary amount of illumination at twice the price of the Cygolite and it’s easy to set the NanoShot aside.
Blackburn is generally highly-regarded in Amazon reviews and the bike community as well. However, upon speaking with them, I found out their USB lights charge using proprietary technology, meaning that if you lost the little piece that plugs from your computer into the light you couldn’t just use any old USB cable you had lying around to recharge. You had to buy a new, Blackburn-specific cable. I felt that that was enough of a reason to disqualify them from competition; it’s easy to lose something you cart back and forth to work.
The brand Moon make a few models that people seem to be happy with in general, but I was unable to obtain samples. I looked into purchasing, but it would’ve taken weeks to get it from England, and a bike light that takes forever to arrive certainly isn’t a good pick anyway.
And finally, I wanted to look at the Lezyne Super Drive XL. There was a surprising lack of reviews online for this really gorgeous light, and I wanted to know why. Their handheld bikes pumps are top notch, and the one or two reviews I did find were both 5-stars on Amazon. They could also not be reached for a press sample, and I was informed online that they were out of stock when I went to order. Basically, it’s a unicorn.
We also eliminated dynamo lights, which are lights run on energy generated by your wheels. They can be a big commitment, both in expense and installation time.2
These didn’t make it to the test round:
Exposure Flash – Hard to find outside of a set, which will set you back $120. 260 less lumens than our pick at twice the cost.
L&M Urban 550 – If you want more lumens, the Niterider 550 is $30 less.
Light & Motion Vis 360 – Helmet mount.
Magicshine Eagle – The only Magicshine I found without an exterior battery pack, this was unreleased at press time.
NiteRider Lumina Micro 220 – The Cygolite has 130 more lumens for $10 less.
Niterider Mako 150 – The Mako series has side illumination, but it’s red, which could be confusing to cars who might mistake you for a cop bike or something along those veins.
Niterider Mako 200 – Same problems as the 150. On top of that, our pick is $5 cheaper, has 160 more lumens, and uses Li-Ion batteries as opposed to the NiMH found here.
NiteRider MiNewt Mini Series – Separate battery pack.
Serfas 350 – Replacing the 250, unavailable at the time of writing.
Owleye – unreliable mounts according to one of our experts.
Princeton Tec Push – 3.5 stars.
Princeton Tech Eos-R – 70 lumens, $45.
So that’s it for headlights, but you also need a taillight to be really safe.
What makes a good taillight?
In order to settle on the Niterider Cherrybomb, the Blackburn Mars 4.0 and the Planet Bike Superflash Turbo we ran through the mount test above, we first narrowed the field by picking a red light. By having a white light on front and a red light in back, you are adding a level of communication: now the cars around not only see that you are a moving object but which way you are going to move next. We also wanted a light that had a clear housing so that the flash would be visible not only to the rear but to the side of the bike as well.
We wanted a removable light with a rock-solid mount and weatherproof housing. In wet weather, the place where your rear blinker sits is exactly where your wheel kicks up water.
Almost all of the headlights we chose for testing are USB rechargeable, which is a fantastic feature in a headlight. It allows you to get a brighter beam in a smaller, more affordable package and also prevents waste. There are USB rechargeable taillights as well. They start at about $40, but we found that this uptick in price is the cost of brightness that the average commuter just doesn’t need, so we didn’t focus on that type of taillight. Have you seen a 1 W taillight? They are crazy bright. 1 W seems to be bright as you can get before requiring a USB, so that’s what we went after.
Also, how annoying would it be to have to charge not just one but two lights? We’re trying to keep maintenance at a minimum, so our ideal taillight is something that can be stuck on a bike and forgotten about. The great news is that battery life for rear blinkers running on AAAs is insane—100-150 hours. Worrying about whether it will go out or how many batteries you’ll have to change is practically a non-issue.
We eliminated rear lights that run on CR2032 batteries because small batteries freeze in cold weather. In my experience, AAAs have been hefty enough to weather sub-freezing temps but I’ve had smaller ones stop working.
Our taillight pick
We chose the Planet Bike 1 W Superflash Turbo, which revealed itself to be a bombproof little device. First off, it met all of our criteria for battery life and brightness. Following that, it came highly recommended by everyone I talked to. I spoke at length to Keith Wall, a co-owner of Spokeland, the East Bay Bicycle Coalition’s sister co-op. He spends a lot of time tinkering with and fixing all manner of bikes and gear, and digs the Superflash “because it never disappoints you. Its runtime is legendary and it’s very bright for a light that runs on two AAA batteries.” Scott name-checked as well. “It is the best selling taillight we have, it’s really bright, and it has a random flash pattern so it’s never the same. I can’t imagine someone not seeing that,” he said.
And that brings up another thing, the random blinking pattern. There are hardly any taillights out there with random patterns, and it’s hard to explain how arresting a random flash is until you’re looking at it. I caught myself spacing out and staring at it often while testing, which is exactly what it’s supposed to make you do!
Another thing to notice about the Planet Bike is the round, parabolic reflector inside the housing.
Our three finalists all have this design feature. Ehow has a concise explanation of how parabolic reflectors are beneficial, saying they “are often used to focus a signal or wave that emanates in several directions… For example, the light from an open light bulb may be of little use in seeing across a large open field, but placing the same bulb in front of a reflective parabolic dish will direct its light in a single, more useful direction.”
Exactly. You need the light dispersing upwards, downwards and towards the front of the bike focused to the sides and back, right into the eyeballs of the people behind you and to the sides. There’s no special testing required; the difference is very noticeable to the eye. A quick demonstration performed in the aisles of my local REI had me quickly convinced that a sharper, brighter, more piercing light is created when it’s focused in this way.
The older generation ½ W Superflash was a good light, but it’s beginning to show its age in light of new advancements. So for $5 more, springing for the Turbo is the way to go. It also has a lifetime warranty, which is not something I expected for a $34 piece of gear.
As a quick aside, Planet Bike also sells the 2 W Micro headlight and the Superflash Turbo together for $75. If you have a well-lit urban commute and money is an issue, this may be a viable option that’ll help keep you safe on the road, so long as you can deal with that awful awful mount.
The taillight competition
The NiteRider Cherry Bomb has the same specs as the Superflash Turbo (1 W; 100 hr runtime; retail of $35), and I liked the heft of it and its rock-solid housing. But the weight of it was also part of its downfall, as it was too heavy to pass the mount test. It just wouldn’t stay still, no matter which way I turned it or how much I tightened the screw. The blink pattern isn’t random, not a requirement, but it’s still just one step behind the Planet Bike. The 2012 Bicycle Community Blog comparison also found the light pointed in the wrong direction if mounted in the horizontal position.
I was hoping the Blackburn Mars 4.0 would be stiff competition for the Turbo. It has an advertized additional 50 hours of run time in blink mode. It did just fine in the mount test, and it’s only $16. It doesn’t have a clear housing for 180 degrees of visibility, but it did have extra side amber lights built in specifically to illuminate the sides, and that kept it in our lineup.
But the amber flashers faded quickly with distance, and instead just hindered the spread of the center LED. I don’t trust the housing on this as much as I do on the Superflash, which I feel like I could slam in a door a few times just for fun with no adverse effect. And reviews, while generally positive, consistently cite issues with battery life.
What other taillights did we look at?
To reiterate our logic behind not testing some very popular USB models, including the Cygolite Hotshot, Serfas Thunderbolt, Serfas Shield, Niterider Solas, Blackburn Flea, Portland Design Works Aether Demon and Light & Motion Vis 180, it’s annoying to charge more than one light on a regular basis. We wanted to keep this simple. For the average commuter, the extra bit of brightness you get was not a good tradeoff for the additional cost or hassle.
Knog Blinders are also in the USB family and very popular, but can’t compete with our top pick. The GT and the Standard don’t have clear housings, limiting their side visibility. My seatpost was also not tall enough to accommodate their vertical length. The 4V only has 3.5 stars and the housing fell off before I got it out of the package. The Road has a see-through stripe in the housing around the outside that lets some light out, but it seems more decorative than functional.
Portland Design Works Danger Zone – Half the runtime of our pick, half as bright, and retails for $4 more.
Portland Design Works Radbot – 70 hours less runtime.
Portland Design Works Red Planet – Not enough firepower.
Avenir Tail Spot – Only ½ W.
Blackburn Super Flea – 2.5 stars.
Exposure Flare – $70. 88 fewer hours of runtime with disposable batteries.
Cateye Rapid 5 – Less powerful LEDs.
Cateye Rapid 3 – Older version of the Rapid 5.
Planet Bike Blinky – Not nearly as bright.
Metroflash NightForce – One ½ W LED, 64 hours less runtime.
niceEshop Double Red – No LED specs, runtime details or lens info. Assuming they use CR2032s, there’s no way these can touch our pick.
Blackburn Mars 3.0 – Replaced by the 4.0.
Cateye Omni 5 – Less brightness, plus the above.
Blackburn Click – Wrong batteries, less brightness, no reflector.
Knog Boomers – The Wearable Rear Boomer isn’t as bright as our pick and has 64 fewer hours of runtime. The Boomer 1 W has 28 fewer hours of runtime. It’s $4 less expensive, but it’s still glitchy and requires a decent amount of seat post real estate, which you might not have. Bike Radar is lukewarm about the mount.
Knog Beetle – Takes two CR2032 batteries, which are costly and easily freeze in cold weather.
Sodial Ultra Bright 5 LED – Never-before-heard-of brand, zero useful specs listed. Untrustworthy.
Tioga Dual Eyes – Hard to find product from a company that doesn’t specialize in lights.
Topeak Mega Red – Same price as our pick, none of the reputation.
Wrapping it up
If you’re a bike commuter, get some lights. The Cygolite Metro 360 is the best headlight we’ve found because it gives you a lot of lumens at a reasonable price, is durable enough to stand some rough roads and is incredibly simple to use. The Planet Bike Superflash Turbo is the best taillight we’ve found, with a proven track record for quality and performance.