Night riders

Better headlights and shorter days are perfect recipe for nighttime mountain biking

Zach Urness / Statesman Journal /

Published Jan 23, 2013 at 04:00AM

It begins when you pop on your headlight, sending a tunnel of light into the darkening forest.

But mountain biking at night doesn't officially begin until you drop downhill, swooping between trees and around curves on trails that appear little more than wormholes into the abyss.

Yes, going for a ride in the mountains after sunset seems crazy. Yet the thrill of navigating below starlight, through a pitch-black forest where the eyes of animals glow in the darkness, adds a new element of adventure to an already fun sport.

“One of my favorite things about riding at night is all the animals you come across,” said Dan Shell, who works at Santiam Bicycle in Salem and leads weekly rides. “You'll see a lot of deer and even a porcupine running around, but the coolest thing is when you come across an owl. They'll sometimes follow your light for miles, probably hoping you'll scare up mice.”

Mountain biking at night is a semipopular activity among local riders, but during winter it becomes more pressing. The short amount of daylight makes it virtually impossible to work a full-time job and have enough time to ride midweek.

By adding a headlight to the repertoire, a group can head out at 4 or 5 p.m. and enjoy post-sunset riding for as long as their headlight batteries allow.

Night riding has become easier in recent years due to the improvement of headlights. The advent of LED lights, along with lithium-ion and lithium polymer batteries, has meant a brighter field of vision and a longer light source.

“The technology has gotten so much better the past couple years,” said Shell, who has been night riding for 10 years. “Even the cheapest lights today are three times as bright as the expensive ones in 2002.

The best part of the new technology is the batteries are a lot more efficient.”

The process is simple. The light attaches to the helmet with enough force to withstand the bumps of the trail. The cost typically ranges from $89 to $389.

Shell recommends the 500-lumen model for beginners because it provides a good field of light, but at around $150 doesn't break the bank. The battery can cost around $30 to replace.

The process of getting out during a winter night isn't confined to the light, of course. Warm clothes, gloves and a backpack are important accessories, along with backup lights and batteries, snacks, maps, a compass, water and other essentials.

The choice of where to bike depends on the rider.

A few popular places during winter include Corvallis' McDonald Research Forest, including Chip Ross Park and Dimple Hill, which are well-mapped and low enough in elevation to avoid most snow.

There are short trails in the west Salem area, including Spring Valley State Park, along with options in the Dallas area, Silver Falls State Park and Black Rock Mountain bike trail system in the Coast Range east of Salem.

The easiest way to get started night riding is joining a weekly riding group such as Shell's, which meets each Tuesday evening (depending on how much interest there is) at Santiam Bicycle.

Mountain biking at night begins when you pop on your headlight and speed through the trees, below the stars, during style of riding that adds a new level of adventure to an already fun sport.

If you go

What: Mountain biking singletrack trails after sunset

Gear: All the equipment you'd normally need for mountain biking, plus a headlight that fits on the helmet.

Cost of light: $89 to $389

Recommendation for beginners: An LED 500 lumen, costs around $150

Getting started: Dan Shell leads evening rides each Tuesday starting at Santiam Bicycle, although times and locations can vary. Call 503-363-6602 for more information.

The quote: “Mountain biking at night is more of a pure experience. It's just you and the trail. It can be spooky and nightmarish, but it's also very peaceful, because it feels as though there's nothing else, and nobody else, around.” — Pat Stephenson, of Monmouth, long-time mountain biker