Beginners: MTB night riding guide

The evenings may be getting darker earlier, but that’s no reason to stop mountain biking. In fact, it opens up a whole new (albeit less well lit) world – night riding! Rachel Sokal gives us the low-down on what you need, what to expect, and how to get started.

If you’ve ever wondered what those mysterious lights were in your nearby woods and parklands, now you have a possible solution to the mystery. Image copyright Ant Jordan

Night riding

No, I’m not paraphrasing the 80s high-tech crime-fighting TV series, but the practice of riding your mountain bike at night. It might not be very imaginatively named but luckily it offers much more than its name suggests.

For most people who are restricted by normal 9-to-5 working hours, once the autumn comes the opportunity to ride in the week is curtailed by a lack of daylight. So, unless you are happy to be limited to riding just at weekends or spend your evening on a turbo trainer in the garage, then you might want to give night riding a try.

There’s actually nothing more to it than the name suggests except for one key thing; some lights. And good ones at that. Lights that you’ll want to be able to ride off road at night will be much brighter than even a very well lit cyclist uses on the road.

1. Light it up

Good lights used to be heavy, expensive and last only an hour or so but bulb and battery technology means that you can now get lightweight, convenient and reliable illumination that offers you more brightness than a lot of car headlamps.

Designs vary; some are a single unit with integrated battery whereas others have a battery you carry on your bike or in your pocket. Brightness varies a lot too, as does weight. It all comes down to how much you want to spend as prices range from £100-500! This time of year there are loads of light reviews about in magazines and websites, it’s definitely worth reading up before you fork out.

Rachel’s light set up – a big light for the handlebars, and a lighter, smaller one for her helmet. Image copyright Ant Jordan

Some people use one light mounted on their bars whereas others opt for an additional, smaller one on their helmet. Having a second light offers a few important advantages; you can see round corners before you turn your bars which allows you a bit more warning about what’s to come next, you can easily see what you’re doing if you stop to fix a puncture or raid your rucksack for provisions and most importantly, you have a back-up if for any reason your main light fails.

On the downside is the cost of a second light and for some, the extra weight on their helmet, although this has never bothered me.

Other than lights, in theory it’s no different from riding in the day yet it feels much more exciting. You’ll probably go much slower but it seems loads faster, everything rushes up on you when you can only see as far as your light beam.

2. Keep your eyes peeled

The trails look really different and your local woods offer much more than you ever think they do in the day – there’s certainly no need to get in the car and head to a trail centre or a national park to have a great ride. Despite the darkness you’re likely to see things that you wouldn’t normally see, be it wildlife or canoodling couples – in my experience, whatever it is, it tends to be more surprised than you.

3. Stay relaxed on the bike

I’ve also noticed to my cost that riding rocks and roots takes on an extra challenge at night, you need to keep nice and relaxed on the bike so if you hit something you haven’t seen you don’t go flying. It’s a good skill to have anyway and riding at night makes you really practise it.

4. Layer up

It is worth taking an extra layer with you. If you do have to stop for a puncture you find you get cold much quicker than you do in the day.

Even familiar trails look and feel very different at night. Image copyright Ant Jordan

5. Bring someone along for the ride

Most of the time I take a friend or two as well. Firstly, it’s much more fun. Secondly, it’s much less scary (The Blair Witch Project anyone?).  And finally, it’s safer and more sensible than riding alone.

Just be careful when you stop for a chat; if you have a light on your helmet and you turn to look at your riding companions, you could end up dazzling them.

On the odd occasion I’ve gone on my own I’ve made sure someone knows exactly where I’m going and don’t deviate from my planned route. I don’t fancy crashing in the dark and no-one knowing where I am.

6. Try racing in the dark

If you fancy even more excitement and want to race at night there’s the aptly titled From Dusk to Dawn 12 hour race every October where the whole event takes place at night. And, of course, if you ever take part in a 24 or 12-hour race you’ll get to ride in the dark unless you’re very good at organising your team mates to do the night laps whilst you sleep through.

But I recommend not waiting until then.

It’ll be dark later today and that’s a good enough excuse for me.

Want to know what to expect? Check out this video, courtesy of Olly Townsend of Cloud9Trails – it certainly makes us what to give it a go!

Taming the night from Oliver Townsend on Vimeo.

Headline image copyright Ant Jordan.

Follow Rachel on Twitter @24hrSokal


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