Lumen wars


The bin-o-lights/Craig Medred photo

No bit of technology has done more to transform the winter trails of the darkest state in the nation than the tiny, light-emitting diode (LED).

LED headlights on fat-tired mountain bikes now light up the pitch blackness of the Alaska wilderness the way the headlights on snow machines once did, and some snowmachines outfitted with light bars or “light cannons” can almost turn the long, dark night into day.

Where once the problem of night travel was seeing into the darkness, now the problem is sometimes being blinded by the light.

“Got to have a light bar on your bike and one on your helmet,” skier Tim Kelly observed a couple of years back when the LED beam was just starting to probe deep into the darkness of Alaska. “That will give you more lumens than a car.

“I’m the ‘bad-guy skier,’ the skier that gets yelled at by skiers for blinding other skiers. No mtb’er has ever yelled at me.”

That would be “mtb’er” as in mountain biker, especially fat-tired riders, who’ve been deep into the Lumen Wars for a few years now. The desire for light, light and more light started with halogens raged through HIDs (high-intensity discharge) lamps and finally found nirvana in LEDs.

Brighter than your car

Traditional, low-beam headlights on a car produced about 700 lumens. Even some nordic skiers today would feel underpowered with that level of light, and serious winter cyclists dismiss it as inadequate though few of them travel fast enough to need to see the length of a football field and more.

Greg Matyas – a lifetime Alaskan who grew up on skis, gravitated to bikes, finished in the top-three in the Iditarod fat-bike race one year, and became best known as the chief of Fatback bikes, a driving force in fat bike design and innovation – now considers 800 lumens the minimum, and that’s the low setting on his blow-away-the-night Lupine lamp.

The German company has long been a world leader in LED bike light design, and LED cycle lights have driven the R&D for most of the outdoor sports. Lupine’s Wilma 4 – 830 lumens, 360 grams and $644 when costs are corrected for inflation – won top marks from in 2007.

Today, in the photo with the Gear Review story, it looks like an oversize chunk of metal and plastic strapped to a bicycle handlebar. Lupine’s 900 lumen, modern-day Piko is a third the size, if that.

So much has changed in a decade.

The owner of Speedway Cycles in Midtown, Matyas will now happily sell you a Gemini Duo light for almost a quarter of the price of that old Wilma at $169. The light produces about twice as many lumens as the Wilma 4, is about half the size, and weighs only 190 grams.

And it is just one option among what are now dozens of lights in a market dominated by price point on one end and light output on the other.

If you want to go completely nuts, the $799.95 Cateye Volt 6000 kicks out a night-killing 6,000 lumens. That’s twice as much light as you get out of a single, xenon-bulbed, automobile headlight and more than four times as much light as comes from a halogen bulb in your car, according to the 

There are reasons people now regularly complain about being blinded by the light or lights of oncoming traffic on some Anchorage area ski, bike and foot trails.

Low beam, please

Some night blasters are fully aware of this problem of being blessed with technology, though others appear clueless.

“I try harder to avoid shining lights at those without lights so as to keep from messing up their night vision any more than necessary,” said cyclist Jason Lamoreaux, one of the former. “I just generally try to dim/reduce it down to the lowest level possible where I can maintain my own safety and that of those I am encountering.”

Too much light was rarely a problem even 15 years ago when costly HID lights still dominated the trail scene, and 6,000 lumen bike lights were beyond imagination.

NiteRider, a leading U.S. light company, premiered the Pro 600 LED in 2010 with the promise that you could “crank up your lumens to the maximum of 600.” It retailed for $499.

Many at the time thought it was some sort of light saber, but the price made most pause. Not to mention that run times and batteries were both issues.

Matyas raced the 350-mile Iditarod Invitational from Knik over the Alaska Range to Nome in 2012 with a pathetic, 80-lumen headlamp lighting his way. He finished third.

He had his reasons. There aren’t many places along the Iditarod Trail to recharge batteries, and the choices of AA-powered LED lights were at the time limited.

Iditarod mushers in those days were still using headlamps with fragile incandescent bulbs powered by D-cells in heavy plastic cases. Musher Brian O’Donoghue still has one of the expensive-for-the-day, machined-aluminum reflectors mounted to a cheap, Ray-O-Vac headband.

state of the art

A state-of-the-then-art from near the beginning of the new millennium/Brian O’Donoghue photo

Incandescent bulbs had a bad habit of burning out at the most inopportune times – in part because headlamp builders were over-amping them to try to make the lights brighter. Everyone carried spare bulbs.

LEDs don’t burn out, though if they are poorly designed they can cook the printed circuit boards on which they depend and fail. Properly designed, they will run for a long, long time. Lupine says its are good for about 17,500 hours or about two full years.

Sometimes technology truly is our friend.

Alaska cyclists, skiers, runners, snowshoers, dog walkers and any others who venture out after before 9 a.m. or after 4 p.m. this time of year in the state of the long, cold dark now enjoy lighting advantages their predecessors couldn’t have imagined.

You can walk into a Home Depot today and buy a 615 lumen, AAA-powered Coast headlamp – a light with a power output that would have cost more than a hundred if not hundreds of dollars only a few years ago – for less than $40

Or for another $20, you can snag a 1,000 lumen Nitecore headlamp powered by a modern, rechargeable, lithium-ion battery. 

Even more light power for even less money can be found online if you want to start shopping Chinese websites – China being a modern leader in LED technology.

But some warnings are in order here:

Quality control on cheap Chinese lights is not always the best, and lumen outputs are often overstated, sometimes grossly so.

Some of these lights are good; some are OK; and some are bad.

There is much truth to the old saying that “you get what you pay for.” But there is no doubt bargains can be found, too.

And if you’ve got friends who’ve been around Alaska a long time, there might be the ultimate bargain: the freebie.

Ask around and you’re likely to find friends with unused lights. Some Alaskans have boxes or bins full of perfectly good headlamps pushed aside by a slightly better new thing only to see it bumped by the marginally better next thing.

Technology, along with being our friend, is also seductive. No matter how many lumens you have, it’s always easy to be tempted by a few more as long as they’re lighting the trail ahead.

If they’re coming at you, well, that’s a different matter.







17 replies »

  1. I carry a small flashlight everyday anyway. I use it often, like a pocketknife, and can’t imagine how people get by without them. Anyway, I also carry a “tactical” light, for potential “tactical” reasons, though the most common use that gets is to quickly, intermittently, flash 1K of light down the street or trail when walking the dog to pick up eyeshine from moose that might be hanging out or bedded down in the shadows.

    As erak noted, other than that use, there is typically enough ambient light to easily go down a snowy trail, especially in town, and I personally hate walking around lit up like a Christmas tree. The Marines did nothing to change that lifelong preference, and probably made it worse.

  2. As lights of all types become more powerful and plentiful, the aesthetic experience diminishes. Bright lights are like cigars – only the user enjoys it. If you know where you are going you seldom need a light at night. I always have one but only turn it on it needed, which is usually never.

  3. I don’t know about bike lights, but I really like the new technology for weapon lights especially the big recoil resistant ones I have on a couple of shotguns. They even got compact ones for my Glock 19. I have AR pistol in 300 blk with a light and laser combo that is great.

  4. If you’re the ‘Buy American!’ type, you couldn’t buy (or even make) that cool Ray-o-Vac unit today from components made in the US.

  5. Could have focused on a real danger of LED lights: automobiles. Nothing like a souped up oncoming LED high beam to blind you from seeing someone walking at the side of the road!

    • yes, the downside of tech, though i think much of the problem at the moment is HID bulbs which scatter badly when put into the reflectors designed for incandescents. those replacement bulbs do more to blind other drivers than to light the road.

      but i’m sure increasing road problems are coming with LEDs given that laws on auto lights are governed by maximum wattage. LEDs can produce a lot more lumen per watt than incandescents. we can probably expect things to get worse.

      technology is our friend WHEN IT WORKS. sometimes, unfortunately, unintended consequences can make it our enemy.

  6. Maybe a better title would have been “LED Innovation”, yet Americans are obbsessed with Wars…
    We have the “war on drugs”, “war on poverty”, “war on crime”, “war on teenage pregnancy”, “fight against illiteracy”, and of course the “War on Terror”.
    A quick search on Medred News will yield nearly 20 titles in the last 2 years with war or warefare in the title.
    Everything from “Idit a War” to “Palin’s War” to “Gender Wars” and now “Lumen Wars”….
    “Between October 2015 and October 2017, the US fought terror in 76 countries, or 39% of the total number of countries in the world, according to data recently published by Brown University’s Costs of War Project.
    Perhaps the most striking detail, besides the US’ well-known heavy involvement in the Middle East, is the American military’s presence in Africa.”
    Currently China is building a state of the art military base in Africa right next to a U.S. base?
    What future does our climate of constant war hold for our children?
    I am reminded of a saying from the Vietnam War: “Make Love, Not War!”

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