28 October 2009

Some thoughts on helmet lighting for commuting

Fall is upon us and I've started racing the sun home in the evenings.

In this post, I'll cover some helmet-attached lighting options I've tried. For primary illumination, I prefer a good, generator based light mounted to the bike, however, having a light attached to your helmet can be very useful.

For me, helmet-attached lighting basically servers three purposes:
  • map/cue sheet reading
  • sign spotting
  • catching driver's attention
For commuting purposes, catching driver's attention is the only concern -- don't need to read a cue sheet or signs -- I know where I'm going. The sign spotting and cue sheet reading are specifically a randonneuring concern -- especially on unfamiliar routes.

Over the past couple of years, I've been experimenting with a number of different lights for commuting and randonneuring. Most of the lights that are designed to be mounted on your head seem to be geared around
hiking/camping. For what they are designed to do, they work very well. However, my complaint is that many of them weigh several ounces -- having an extra 3 ounces or so hanging off the front of my helmet is less than optimal -- for me, at least.

So, what I'm basically looking for is something light weight, bright, preferably with multiple modes (flashing, high, low, etc.) -- decent run time and easily replaceable batteries are a plus too.

Here's some of the stuff I've tried with their pluses and minuses:

Princeton Tec Scout LED headlamp: ~45grams (with batteries)
I picked up one of these right before PBP in '07 for reading cue sheets. First one filled up with water and died. I got a replacement unit which has held up very well throughout a number of rainy commutes and brevets.

+ Very light -- don't even know it's there
+ 5 modes (high/med/low/fast flash/slow flash) Fast flash is excellent for catching driver's attention. You could probably limp home on high if all else failed.
+ Decent run time -- manufacturer listed run times seem pretty accurate (High: 24 -- low: 48)
+- Adjustable angle. Handy for aiming, but real easy to bump out of place.
- Uses 4 CR2032 batteries -- not always easy to find and not cheap
- Switch is damn near impossible to operate with full finger gloves
- May not always be waterproof....

Planet Bike Spok light: ~16 grams (with battery)
As light as a puff of breeze. I've been using one of these for about the last 10 months for commuting. It's ok for commuting, but not great -- better as a map/cue reading light for randonneuring.

+ 2 modes (steady & flash)
+ Extremely light
+ Best thing going for reading a cue sheet, though not a concern for commuting.
+ Mfr advertised "100 hour runtime" -- on flash, of course. Run times seem pretty accurate.
+- Single CR2032 battery. CR2032 batteries aren't cheap, but at least it only takes one.
- Output is weak. Flash is ok for catching drivers attention, but is a little weak. No way you'd have enough light to limp home on steady.
- Not sealed from the weather at all. Remarkably, mine has remained functional through some pretty rainy commutes -- could be a problem long term, though.

TANK007 TK-568 Cree LED flashlight: ~75 grams (with battery & mount)
Basically, it's a tiny flashlight. I started experimenting with one of these little "torches" a few months ago and, well, I'm still startled by how bright it is. It's also handy since it can run on multiple battery types: AA (alkaline & rechargeable) and Li-ion "14500" 3.6v rechargeable batteries. I've been running mine in strobe mode (even in daylight) and find it certainly gets attention. Problem is, the strobe is so fast, it's kind of overwhelming, therefore, I won't run mine in strobe when it's completely dark -- just daylight/dusk/dawn/overcast/etc. Once it's dark out, I switch over to one of the steady modes.

I had a chance recently to really give this light a test on a night ride. It was unbelievable. So bright on high it drowned out my Lumotec IQ Fly. Worked extremely well for picking out street signs and providing spotlighting for high speed descending -- especially on unfamiliar roads.

So, how do you mount it? With a
Twofish Lockblock through the vents in your helmet. Or if you have a helmet with "channel" type vents, you can put a little velcro around the light and in the vents. Super easy to do and you can attach/detach the light very easily.

+ "HOLY CRAP" bright. Don't look directly at a reflective sign, or you'll blind yourself. Will light up street signs 100+ meters down the road.
+ 5 modes (med/low/high/strobe/SOS)
+ Versatile batteries -- can run on AA's or Li-ion "14500" 3.6v batteries
+ Easy to turn on/off and change modes (even with gloves).
+ Automatically remembers the last mode you left it in.
- Short run time -- only about an hour on high -- maybe two hours on low
- Strobe is seizure inducing.

Caveat Emptor: Have you ever read all the warning stickers inside your helmet? Yeah, me neither. Well, while reattaching my light the other day I actually read the warnings. Let me trim all the legalese fat out for you -- "if you attach anything to your helmet, you will die". Can't say you weren't warned.

Personally, I'll take my chances with a little light attached to my helmet. If the extra visibility helps keep me from crashing or one inattentive driver from mowing me down, I'll take the chance of the light piercing my skull like a can opener.


Kevin T said...

Nice variety of lights. The past few years I've gone back and forth between a Princeton Apex Pro and a Black Diamond (can't remember the model name) that has one big LED, flanked by two small ones, and runs on two AAs.

I take all the straps off and attach them to my helmets w/ zipties.

I did some single track w/ the Apex Pro the other night, and w/o snow on the ground yet, it just wasn't enough light. It's fine for riding on bike trails and stuff, but not single track over frosty roots. And it went through $10 in lithium batteries rather quickly.

I really like that Scout you pointed out. It could be the one to use in the summer!

bullcitybiker said...

Great post, -B!

Industrial-strength Velcro strips work really well. I've attached my Fenix L1D with the same Velcro for 18 months and I've yet to have the light even come loose.