Choosing a headlight

The first step is to decide what kind of light you need. Do you only get caught out at night every once in a while, or is a dark winding path part of your daily commute? Are you more worried about throwing a lot of light ahead of you to illuminate your track, or would you rather be more visible to cars approaching from the side?

Here are our top picks and what they're best for. Check out the full list of headlights if you're looking for something else to match your needs!

Recommendations last updated April, 2015.

Table of contents

The best bike light for commuters and casual off-road riding: Light and Motion's Urban Series

Everything about the Urban lights is nice. The build quality, the easy-to-use and sturdy mount, the optics, the extra side-LEDs, and all the other little details add up. Despite its name, the Urban is well suited to any kind of riding. Of all the lights I tested, I liked its optics the best. The lens spreads light very evenly, without any over-powering hotspots or any dead zones. Thanks to the amber side LEDs it also makes an excellent be-seen light, with over 180 degrees of visibility.

In July 2014 L&M released the Urban 2.0 series, available in 800, 650, 500, and 350 lumen versions, all of which are IP67 waterproof. I've personally tested the Urban 350 and Urban 800. The 350 is more than enough light for commuting, road cycling, and even unpaved paths. Compared to other lights in the 300-400 lumen range, it seems brighter because the well-designed optics make efficient use of the light. The Urban 500 is probably the best deal for your money though – it's more than enough light for most users, will last a long time on the low-power settings, only costs $100, and will likely be for sale on Amazon and other third party retailers for an even lower price soon. The Urban 800 is worth the extra expense though if you're doing long rides and need a medium-output for several hours, or if you're riding on singletrack or rough dirt trails.

There are a few more reasons to buy a light from Light and Motion. Their customer support is prompt, friendly, and helpful. Their lights are manufactured – with much of the assembly done by hand – in Marina, CA; one of the last light manufacturers to do all of their assembly in the USA. Additionally, they were the first bike light manufacturer to adopt the FL1 standard, an industry benchmark for flashlights that measures and verifies brightness, battery life, water resistance, and drop rating. L&M is advocating for wider adoption of the FL1 standard in the bike light market, so that consumers know that the lights they buy are truly as bright as the label claims.

Best bike light under $50: Cygolite Streak 310

The Cygolite Streak 310 is nearly identical to Cygolite's Metro lights, but in a smaller, lighter package. With a peak steady-burn intensity of 310 lumens, it's more than bright enough to light up the road even in places where street lighting is unavailable, and the Day-Lightning mode can boost its flashing output up to 500 lumens for daytime visibility. The Streak also includes Cygolite's steady-pulse mode to light up your path while still providing extra visibility at night. Retailing for just under $50, it's the most versatile light we've seen for such a good price.

I haven't tested the 310 in person yet, but last year's Streak 280 was one of my favorites, and the new Streak 310 has all the same features with a higher output, so it should be a great choice. With 30 more lumens, the Streak series is now on par with Cygolite's popular Metro series, but at a lower cost, lower weight, and in a smaller package.

The Streak 310 is also available in a combo pack with the Hotshot SL. The Hotshot is one of my favorite taillights and the most popular with this site's visitors. The combo retails for $75, making it the perfect setup for anybody who wants bright and affordable rechargeable lights.

Best value: Bontrager Ion 700

Bontrager's a new face in the crowd of high-end bike lights, and the Ion 700 took many by surprise when it debuted last year. It packs many well-designed features into one of the slimmest headlight designs on the market. The mounting is simple and easy to use, the beam is one of the smoothest and best-shaped of any light in this price range, it has a daylight visible rapid flash and a nighttime steady pulse option, and is USB rechargeable. It also has side visibility lights – though not as good as the L&M Urban's side lights, they're much better than the small cutouts found on the Cygolite Streak and Serfas USL-305.

With a 700 lumen output and a $100 MSRP (not to mention all the features listed above), this light is the best bang for your buck, surpassing many more-expensive lights. I've had trouble finding it for sale – Bontrager says it's been selling so well they're having trouble keeping up with demand – but it's available online with free shipping from Idaho Mountain Touring or directly from Bontrager with shipping fees. You can also click the "buy locally" link to find a Bontrager distributor in your area.

Slim, sleek, and the best mount under $50: Serfas USL-305

The Serfas USL-305 is a new favorite for entry-level headlights. Comparing very similarly to the Streak 310 for size, weight, and output, its sleek design and rock-solid mount makes it an excellent choice. The side visibility and output are very similar to the Cygolite Streak series, but the USL-305 is far easier to install and remove from your bike, and is quick to swap between bikes. If you have multiple two-wheeled rides, this may be your light.

The USL-155 offers a lower-cost option for those on a budget who mainly need a light to be seen by, and the USL-505 offers a brighter option for people riding on dark unpaved paths or who need a bit more battery runtime.

Best light with a removable battery: Cygolite Expilion Series

The Expilion 700 is another of my favorites, although it's now a bit out of date: the 2015 Cygolite Expilion series is out with an 850 lumen option and a 720 lumen option. Aside from a slightly frustrating mount, it's a very solidly built and easy to use light. The beam is slightly narrower than the Urban series' wide smooth beam, but the extra lumens make up for it.

The Expilion used to be one of my top recommendations, but Cygolite's Metro series is catching up in output (now offering 550 lumens in the brightest option). The Metro series has much better side visibility, making it preferable for commuting. If you're primarily riding on trails though, the Expilion is the clear choice: the beam is much smoother than the Metro series', and the runtimes are better as well.

One of the most appealing aspects of the Expilion lights is their removable battery. Lithium batteries last longer than NiMH rechargeables, but still wear out eventually. With a removable battery, it's possible to replace just the battery - not the whole light - and allows you to carry extras for longer rides. Unfortunately you have to buy the battery from Cygolite, and there's no external charger, so you can only charge the battery when it is inside the light. Compared to many lights with non-replaceable batteries these days, it's still an excellent choice.

Best commuter safety light: L&M Vis 360+ Helmet Light

Light & Motion's Vis 360 system is unique among bike lights. The Vis 360 has a 120 lumen headlight, and the Vis 360+ has a 250 lumen headlight. Both have an integrated taillight as well. The system is designed specifically (and exclusively) for helmet use. While many headlights offer a helmet mount, they tend to be awkward to use, with the light sticking up and catching on low-hanging branches, and a big concentrated mass causing a high center of gravity on your head. Few taillights are designed for helmet use at all, and while it's possible to hack something together with zip ties or velcro, it's often dubiously effective and rarely attractive.

The rechargeable lithium battery is built in to the taillight component, and a stretchy cord connects the small headlight component. By keeping the battery separate, the headlight is small and therefore does not stick up high above the helmet. Both the headlight and taillight have integrated amber side lights, which results in a true 360° of visibility.

A helmet light significantly increases visibility, as it's higher from the ground and can therefore be seen better than a bike-mounted light in busy urban environments with many vehicles and obstructions. I wouldn't use this as my only light – while the Vis 360+ puts out enough light to fully illuminate the road in most situations, helmet lights can be obscured by the angle of the rider's head, backpacks, etc. Used in tandem with a fixed headlight and taillight though, it provides a huge increase in 360° visibility.

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