Mountain Bike Lights For Under $50

NOTICE: I have an update on mountain bike lights.

Interested in a light setup for mountain biking at night for under
$65, $55, $50? Here are the features:

  • Two light system - one on the helmet, one on the handlebars
  • No bulky battery packs or cords
  • 190 lumens output for each light (380 lumens total) *
  • Blue-white light good for illuminating mountain biking terrain
  • 2 hours of full light, 2.5 hours of usable light
  • Uses high-capacity, light-weight lithium ion batteries
  • Durable LED light source good for 50,000+ hours
  • Tough, water-resistant housing
  • 4.1 ounces (116 grams) for each light with battery
* The retailer states 230 lumens but this is simply the output claimed by the LED manufacturer at 1 amp of current. A commenter at DealExtreme stated the output is closer to 190 lumens.
These features compare well with current bike light systems - as an example, compared to the NightRider MiNewt X2, you get more light (190 lumens compared to 150 for the MiNewt) but shorter run-time (2.5 hours compared to 3.5 hours with the MiNewt).

I believe most mountain bikers will be happy with this system. The two lights work well, one on the helmet for putting light where you look, and the other on the handlebars to light the way the bike is pointing. And coming from slightly different angles (handlebar and helmet) the two lights act to mitigate harsh shadows and provide a more 3-dimensional view of the trail ahead. I've used these lights for several rides and they work great. Here's what others have to say about these lights:
Now on to the details.


Lights



The light is a small TrustFire TR-801 flashlight with a super-bright LED made by Cree (the XLamp XRE Q5). This light has been discussed, favorably, on MTBR's Bike Lights Forum.

The flashlight is described as having a light output of 230 lumens, and while I think that's an overstatement, it does put out an amazing amount of light (one estimate is 190 lumens). Enough that one flashlight works pretty well for mountain biking, and two provides plenty of light. Crudely measuring the light with a digital camera it ran for 2 hours at 100% light output, with another 1/2 hour of usable light and the final 1/2 hour of light too dim for biking but enough to walk.





The light pattern is pretty good for mountain biking. The center spot is bright and wide enough to cover most single-tracks with an approximate 8 degree beam angle. The dimpled reflector creates a smooth, even spot (no holes or bright and dim areas). The perimeter edge of the spot could be softer, but it's not bad as-is. (Update: Unscrewing the reflector ring 1/2 turn or less increases the spot diameter and softens the edge.) The spill light is 2-3 times the diameter of the spot (I'd guess 30 degree angle, hard to see in the photo above) and while fairly dim, it's enough to get a good idea what's off to the sides of the trail. The two lights together doubles the amount of spill light.

The housing is anodized aluminum and seems rugged. The head and tail caps screw off for changing the battery. Both terminals have springs so the battery maintains contact even with vibration (i.e. bumpy trail). The caps have o-ring seals and I imagine the flashlight is water-resistant, but I haven't tested that. A glass "lens" covers the front of the light. A glow-in-the-dark rubber push button on the back turns the light on and off. With battery it weighs 4.1 ounces (116 grams).

Batteries



A light this bright uses a lot of power and thus needs a high capacity battery. The flashlight is designed to take an 18650 lithium ion rechargeable battery which gives 2-3 hours of usable light. As batteries go, lithium ions are light weight. I've been using protected 2500 mAh lithium ion batteries (blue item in photo above) with no problems.

The charger from DealExtreme is not expensive and works well. It can charge two batteries at a time. The charge cycle takes up to 4 hours if battery is run way down. The Charge light is red and blinks during charging and turns solid green when finished.

Note that this charger and batteries may not have the safety and regulatory approval of products sold in the U.S. I feel this represents only a small risk, but judge for yourself.

Mounting

For mounting to my helmet I first tried a LiveStrong rubber wristband. I looped it over one end of the flashlight then down through a vent, around a rib then back up an adjacent vent and around the other end of the flashlight. This method holds the flashlight securely to the helmet and works well. To aim the flashlight up or down place a shim under one end. The only downside is it's a bit of a hassle to remove and then remount the flashlight.

Next I tried a velcro strap mount from DealExtreme with a notched rubber block and two velcro straps. This worked pretty well, but tipped up and down with vibration such that I had to keep reaching up to re-aim the light - it helps if the flashlight is balanced in the block (not too far forward or back). But it was easy to remove the flashlight by simply undoing a velcro strap. The velcro strap attached to the helmet was too short, but it stuck OK hooks to hooks. It would be better to lengthen the strap or find a longer one.



Then I tried using two mounts and this worked better. Not much up/down adjustment, but I was able to get it set right for my helmet. Notice that the helmet straps run opposite directions so I could attach the "hooks" tail of one strap to the "loops" part of the other strap - it holds better this way.



Update: On one ride the light kept moving because the velcro mounts didn't hold securely so I went back to the LiveStrong band with a shim taped under the flashlight to set the right angle. Recently I switched to an elastic ski strap (shown below). It holds the light securely and is faster and easier to put on. You can get them at most ski shops or on the web, like BackCountry.com.



For the handlebars, the mount from DealExtreme works very well. The beefy, rubbery body grips the bar when the thumb screw is tightened, but I have noticed it will loosen over time. For larger diameter bars just bend the screw and wrap it with tape to protect your bar. The flexible jaws hold the flashlight quite nicely, but the TR-801 may slip all the way through so I used the wrist strap to attach it to my bike in case it does slip out.



Ordering

I purchased all of the parts from DealExtreme out of Hong Kong. I couldn't find better prices. Shipping takes about 2 weeks. Here is the parts list:

CostQtyPriceDescription
$25.002$12.50TrustFire TR-801 Flashlight, Cree Q5-WC LED
$7.991$7.99TrustFire Protected 18650 Lithium Battery, 2500mAh (2-Pack)
$10.901$10.90UltraFire 3.6/3.7V Battery Charger
$1.801$1.80Universal Bicycle Mount
$4.122$2.06Universal Nylon Mount for Flashlights and Lasers
$49.81 TOTAL


Options

If you want to go super cheap you could go with one light. For one light I recommend putting it on the helmet since it's more important to have light where you look than where the handlebars are pointed. I have tried a single light on the helmet and it works pretty well. But a second light, battery and bar are less than $21 and I feel it's worth the price to double the light.

You could also add a third light - either two on the handlebars or two on the helmet. Putting two lights on the helmet might start to feel heavy, especially for long rides. Putting two lights on the handlebars and aligning the spots side by side would give a wider beam for wider trails or better side to side vision. The two handlebar lights could also be aligned one above the other giving good light close and farther down the trail.

If you need longer run-time, you may want to buy more batteries and/or a multi-mode flashlight. The batteries are only $4 each so it's a cheap upgrade and they're pretty easy to change. The TR-801 is also offered in a 5-mode (High / Medium / Low / SOS / Strobe) version for $16.42. A 3-mode TR-801 (High / Low / Strobe) is available for $18.20, but it uses the P4 Cree LED which outputs less light than the Q5. The strobe and SOS modes are not very useful for a bike light and annoying for riding. I don't have any of these lights so I can't vouch for them, but I didn't spot any reports of problems in the reviews or comments so that's a good sign.

Currently I run a TR-801 on the helmet and a UltraFire C2 5-mode light on the handlebars because it has a wider beam (just a fluke) and the 3 power settings allow me to conserve power when I climb and on the streets on my way to the trails (the helmet light is off). But this 5-mode C2 was buggy and took some tweaking to get it working well. If you want multiple power settings I feel the 2-mode (High / Low) C2 is a better choice - it worked good out of the box and doesn't have any annoying flashing modes. The TR-801 is not available in a 2-mode version, but new versions crop up regularly so check DealExtreme if this interests you.

If you want to tinker you can modify the lights with different optics, regulators, etc. You could even use a larger battery pack that goes in a CamelBak or on the bike and run wires to it, maybe even wire in a remote control. For more ideas, check out the MTBR Bike Lights forum, or the Bicycle Lights forum on CandlePower.

Revisions:
11 Nov 2013 - Updated DealExtreme links.
14 Nov 2011 - Added ski strap info and photo, for large bars bend mount screw, updated prices: total was $55.56.
04 Dec 2009 - Added spot size and LiveStrong band updates, prices dropped: total was $64.40, added section for reviews.
15 Dec 2008 - Added charger & battery risk note.
30 Oct 2008 - Added light output graph, updated run-time spec, added options for more batteries and multi-mode lights, add forum links.23 Oct 2008 - Added asterisk clarifications to feature list, added link to MTBR discussion, added photos: flashlight, beamshot and battery with flashlights.

8 comments:

Miles - Lindon, UT said...

Awesome - I was looking at a $429 light setup at mad dog yesterday. I'll take the $65 option. Thanks Kris.

dug said...

engineer

KanyonKris said...

Miles - I added a few addenda in asterisks so make sure those changes don't bother you.

dug - guilty as charged.

Jon Paul Baker said...

Thanks much! I've been looking for an inexpensive lighting option as well. I ordered a Thorn accessory bar last week to mount lights on. Now I have lights to try.

Eric Wright said...

Have you ever taken these out on the road? Do they throw far enough to account for the higher speeds of road riding? I'm thinking of breaking out the fenders and rigging up some lights so I can get some quality road miles before I go to work.

Chad said...

I am looking at getting a bike light setup. Would you change anything or buy any different components now that you have been using them for a few years? If not I'll probably just buy everything like you have it on your shopping list.

KanyonKris said...

Eric - I feel the flashlights throw light far enough for road biking. If you want more, see below.

Chad - I still use the flashlights for night riding. On a few downhill sections of my local trails I can go fast enough that I wish I had more light to see farther ahead. But 95% of the ride it's enough light.

DealExtreme has had some good bike lights for a while that are even better than the flashlights. My friend has one and it's worked great and is amazingly bright. The kit comes with light, battery pack, charger, mount for just under $80. He has one of these bike lights on his bars and a flashlight on his helmet. This one looks the best to me:
http://www.dealextreme.com/p/mj-808e-ha-iii-cree-xm-lt60-3-mode-1000-lumen-led-bike-light-set-4x18650-57100

KanyonKris said...

Here's a review of the DealExtreme bike lights:

http://www.light-test.info/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=97:magicshine-mj-808e-mj-808-eastward&catid=34:rowerowe&Itemid=55&lang=en