At first glance, night mountain biking may appear to be an extreme extension of a sport that's already in the category of healthy but semi-dangerous activities. It can be challenging, yes, but it can improve your overall riding skills, and as the days get shorter, it may be your only option for midweek rides. And while you do need to take a few extra precautions, night riding is easier than you might think.

Biking after sundown has given me a whole new perspective on my favorite trails; even those that I've grown to find boring during daylight take on a newness and excitement after dusk. Shadows make small bumps look big, and sometimes I can't quite get the fix on the depth of a drop-off until I'm flying over it, making for hard and awkward landings.

But while I have to slow down a bit, night riding has sharpened my reactions, and plenty of times I've been fooled into doing something easy that I was too intimidated to try in daylight. And nothing beats the nighttime solitude on otherwise crowded trails.

"I like the night because there usually aren't any hikers on the trail, and hardly any other riders, so it's a chance to truly escape from civilization," says Mike Lawless, a cross-country racer from the Boston area who's been hooked on night riding for many years. "And even though night riding is different from day riding in many aspects, the hills are still just as steep, so you can still get a great workout."

Night lights
The most important thing you'll need for successful night riding is a good set of lights. The $15 department-store lights that use C batteries might be good enough for a paved bike path, or to make you visible to cars at night, but if you're going off-road, you'll want a serious source of candlepower.

Some basic shopping advice: Plan on spending anywhere from $100 to $500 for a reliable lighting system. They come in two primary types: Handlebar-mounted and helmet-mounted. The handlebar-mount lights come in single, double and now triple beam.

They're usually stronger than helmet-mounted lights (which are single beam), but shed light only where the handlebar is pointing, whereas helmet lights illuminate the area you're looking at. Serious riders, like many of the racers who participate in 24-hour mountain-bike races, use both set-ups.

If you decide to do any road riding at night, you'll definitely need a red taillight (head and taillights are required by law on bicycles at night). You should also purchase some reflective clothing, which has come a long way since the bright orange vest. Specialized jackets and pants actually look normal in the daytime but become highly reflective at night when light hits them.

When you head down to your local bike shop, you may feel like you need a scientist with you to explain xenon bulbs, NiCad and NiMH batteries, ohms, watts, lumens, lux and battery memory. But the shop employees should be able to answer any questions you have. Most lighting technology is comparable among high-end manufacturers. Your buying choice will probably come down to cost and desired features (like dual or single beam, an adjustable-width beam, and battery run time). [pagebreak] Night school
Are you ready to take on the night yet? Here are some tips to help make the nighttime the right time:

  • Always ride with a buddy so there's someone around in case you get into real trouble. Since you can't always find a partner to ride when you want to, at least let a friend or family member know where you're going and when you expect to return (remember that you'll be riding a lot slower than you do during the day). If none of your friends are willing to brave the night with you, then check the local bike shops for postings on groups that ride at night. If that doesn't pan out, start your own group.
  • For your initial after-dark adventures, stick to trails that you know, and promise yourself that you'll slow down and have fun. No matter how well your lighting system works, a steep drop-off or cliff can give you a nasty surprise. It takes time to develop fast reactions, so in the meantime, chill and enjoy the night.
  • In addition to the mandatory spare tube and bike-repair tools, you should also carry a small flashlight and a roll of electrical tape -- both can come in handy during backcountry emergencies. If you crash and break your light mount, you can tape the spare in place. If you break your light entirely, or your batteries run out, you can use the flashlight as a replacement.
  • Most lights have different power settings, so it's important to monitor your battery run time so that you don't get stranded. To conserve battery power, shut your lights off if you stop to talk or rest, and run the lights on low when you're on easy sections of the trail that you're familiar with.
  • Obviously, nights can get quite chilly, especially during the fall and winter months -- even in temperate areas. Dress smart -- wear clothing that's warm and dry without being bulky.