Riding in the dark
Daylight hours are getting shorter, but that doesn’t mean you need to park your bike until spring. After the sun sets, there are still great opportunities to hone your mountain bike skills, indulge in a new adventure, and get a fierce workout. Riding during the day affords you the opportunity observe and maneuver technical sections such as gravity drops, rock gardens, narrow planked bridges, dips and tight turns interspersed with trees, roots, saplings and low overhanging wood vines. At night, those same obstacles will challenge your maneuvering skills with the added excitement of darkness surrounding you.
How to Prepare for a Mountain Bike Night Ride
So how do you prepare for a night ride and have a grin from ear to ear instead of a harrowing trudge hike back with broken equipment or an injury?
5 Tips for Mountain Bike Night Riding
- Get your bike tuned up.
- Get a bright light or lights.
- Level up on protective gear.
- Know your limitations.
- Ride with a buddy or group.
I have been mountain biking since the early days of fat tire clunkers in the 1980s. Lights and other safety equipment were bulky and expensive. My primary focus was on the ride and investing in lightweight bulletproof components. The thrill of night riding hooked me early and carries forward its mystique today. Back then, trails were few and far and between so riding a familiar trail by day became a new trail entirely at night. Fast-forward today– older, wiser, and injury recovery much slower, the thrill is still there, but the sense of self-preservation tempers the flame.
See Gopro clip:
1. Get your bike tuned up.
So the first step in preparing for a night ride is to get your bike tuned up. Go seek the technical expertise of your local bike shop (LBS) if you are not a do-it yourself person or have your own equipment. You can do the self-check of nuts, bolts, cables, and drivetrain if you are handy and have the tools like a torque wrench and other tools.
Riding in the dark with the jarring impact of roots, and rocks will loosen a bolt or nut real fast and may put you in danger or make the ride miserable with a long walk back to the trailhead.
So torque those nuts using one of these available Park Tool Ratcheting Click Type Torque Wrench TW-5 available on Amazon (order through our link–it costs you nothing and we earn a small commission, helping us with the cost of this website):
Also, a good reference guide from Park tools or the manufacturers recommendations for torque settings will really come in handy. Refresh sealant for tubeless tires, air up tires and bring spare tubes, pump, or CO2 cartridges.
2. Get a bright light or lights.
Get a set of good lights to get you to and back. One light is fine starting out, but as rides become more frequent get a second as a spare and additional line of sight visibility.
I rode out with an uncharged light by mistake!
While coming back with the ride leader, the ride back was tense and nerve racking as a bike length of separation reduced visibility fore and aft and front to near nil. Those minor roots, rocks, depressions, dips and close-cropped saplings challenged me to avoid them. Get 500 lumens or higher from a named manufacturer with at least 2 hours of run time. I say named manufacturer as no name lights may run the risk of fire like batteries in Chinese hover boards!
I have a NiteRider MiNewt Pro 770 Endure Headlight– the highest 770 lumens setting; you can count on having 2.45 hours of illumination.
With the lower settings you get a slightly dimmer beam, but longer run times: Med 5:00hrs 500 Lumens; Low 10:00hrs 250 Lumens.
See how it lights up the trail at dusk and dark areas of the trail:
3. Level up on protective gear.
There are a lot of available options but foremost is a helmet, clear lens safety glasses, riding gloves and hydration pack. Using full fingered padded gloves ease the jarring and fatigue over bumps, roots, protection from dismounts and abrasions and scrapes. Clear lens safety glasses protect your eyes from debris, low lying branches, UFOs hurled by the rider in front of you or the occasional dismount into the bushes. Dismounts happen fast and your reaction time to avoid the obstacle is not in your favor. Bring a hydration pack like Camelbak Ambush Mil Spec Antidote Hydration Backpack or the like to carry water, phone, wallet and extra gear.
Next level of protective gear are crash padded equipment. I have had dismounts where I was unable to unclip fast enough from my pedals and landed on my hip. So I now wear padded cycling shorts such as the Sweden’s POC Hip VPD 2.0 Shorts Body Armor. The shorts have impact areas for hip and tailbone protection through a Visco-elastic Polymer Dough (VPD) which is soft and pliable and molds to you from body heat. The VPD pads absorbs the impact protecting soft tissue.
POC also offers rated lines of body armor from helmet, knees, shin, elbow, chest, and shoulder spine protection.
I recently picked up a POC Spine VPD 2.0 Jacket which protects the chest, spine elbow and shoulders all rolled up into one. There are other body armor manufacturers, however, independent reviews were favorable for the POC VPD 2.0 line up. I will use this on unfamiliar trails and navigating difficult terrain.
Next in preventative protective posture levels are reducing exposure from West Nile, Zika and lyme through mosquitos and ticks. I use long pants over my cycling shorts, dri fit long sleeved shirts and insect repellent. I found the Columbia Omni-Shade sun protection pants are lightweight, loose and will fend off the mosquitos, scratches and skin abrasions from a close body blocks with a tree or an improper dismount into the bushes. The long sleeve dri fit shirts will keep you cool. Maybe not fashionably cool but cool nonetheless.
Last is to spray clothing and exposed areas like wrists, neck and entry points along the dri-fit shirt and pants to minimize mosquito bites and ticks. Ben’s 30% DEET tick & insect; insect wilderness formula or Sawyer Picaridin insect repellent pump bottle offer 8 hours of protection and are applied before a ride.
4. Know your limitations.
Next, know your limitations and risk tolerance. Night riding visibility is severely reduced. Even with a light, closing speed and limited line of sight of obstacles or trail features will appear quickly within your field of vision. Slow down to a comfortable level to approach obstacles or trail features with caution. In this short Gopro clip see the crossing of a narrow plank bridge over a 6 foot deep streambed.
Don’t allow your ego to exceed your skill level in keeping up with the faster riders. Their acceptable level of risk and skill level may be different than yours. There’s nothing wrong with hanging back to negotiate the trail and talk along the way while building up your stamina and bike handling skills.
My risk tolerance when I was younger was wearing just a helmet and leather gloves, bombing down a downhill trail by just the light of the moon. Which I do not recommend. My fear factor was low based on my youthful exuberance and knack for bouncing back from injuries pretty quickly. Now a days I need to continue earning my rides by being more strategic in self-preservation. I enjoy riding as much as I can. I detest the slow rehabilitation from an injury.
5. Ride with a buddy or group.
Last tip. I recommend riding with a buddy or group. It is great to team up with a riding buddy or build camaraderie amongst your peers. With a buddy or a group there is safety in numbers like additional lights and visibility along the trail path.
Check at the start of a rare group night ride at Devil’s Den State Park, Winslow, AR:
As a team you can rely on each other in case you flat out or crash. Also, you have witnesses to validate and share the experience. Did you see me endo off that ridge and double roll onto a possum in a poison ivy patch? In my Memphis Hightailers group, we have a weekly night ride called “Dirty in the Dark”. We often toast the end of a good ride with a beer or cookout and tell tall tales of the trail on how one of us got away from the fiercest beast of the woods. Someone in the group usually points out it was a just hopping armadillo.
Now armed with some night riding tips, are you ready to ride? Check the bike, level up to appropriate gear protection levels, check your ego and risk tolerance, and don’t ride alone.
Now as your mom would probably say, “Go outside and play!” You won’t regret it!
Have you been on a night right? Please share by commenting below! We’d love to hear any other riding tips or good trails to check out. Keep up with all of our travel, camping, and cycling tips by following us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest (lots of cycling pins). Leave us your email (blue box below the post) to subscribe to our weekly newsletter and never miss a post!