Safety: How To Ride A Motorcycle At Night

How To -



“I’m scared to ride in the dark,” is one of the chief concerns we hear, even from riders with a few years under their belt. You shouldn’t be, here’s how to ride a motorcycle at night, safely.

Once the sun goes down, it’s not just your vision that decreases, so does that of everyone around you. Check out our article, Eight Ways To Make Your Motorcycle More Visible for advice on helping other road users see you.

The Danger With Darkness
With reduced vision, it becomes much harder to spot hazards, judge corners and plan ahead. And planning ahead is essential for safe riding.

Making matters worse, nighttime brings additional hazards for the motorcyclist: drunk drivers, animals in the road and decreased temperatures.

After the sun goes down, many rural routes also become nearly abandoned, meaning help from a passing motorist becomes even less likely.

If you’re heading out into the night, you need to keep all those factors in mind. Here’s what you can do to make sure you stay safe.

Increase Your Vision
To increase your vision, make sure your headlights are properly adjusted. First, consult your owner’s manual for instructions; this could be as easy as grabbing a big round headlight with your hands and twisting up and down or could involve removing fairing pieces and twiddling screw adjusters. Every bike I’ve ever encountered has had some sort of adjustment.

Once you’ve figured out how to do it, go find a dark, level parking area with a big, uncluttered wall in front of it. Park 100 yards or so from it, sit on your bike in your usual gear, making sure your weight is taken by the suspension, giving it its normal sag. Now, alternate between high and low beam. Low should illuminate the area between your bike and the wall, high should hit the wall from the ground up. Spend time adjusting your headlight, then hopping back on your bike until you achieve the proper setting. Out on the road, pay attention to your illumination and make sure you’re happy with it. If you aren’t, tweak it a little further.

It sounds obvious, but make sure you’re keeping your headlight lens clean and free of moisture or other occlusions. A little dirt, dust or condensation can have a major impact on the efficacy of your headlight.

You should also check to ensure your headlight bulbs are relatively new. They grow dimmer as they age. As a rule of thumb, replace yours every year or so, if you’re riding regularly.

Want to upgrade your headlight? Brighter bulbs are available for most reflector-type lamps. Just stick your bike year, make and model in Google, followed by a “headlight upgrade” or a similar search term. For instance, here’s a ton of advice on upgrading the headlight on a Monster owned by RideApart staffer Sean MacDonald.

If you have a projector-type headlight, you can perform an HID conversion relatively easily, but you will need some knowledge of working with electrics. Consult an owner’s forum for model-specific reviews and recommendations.

Aftermarket auxiliary lights are probably the most effective (and expensive) upgrade though. This Baja Designs kit for the Triumph Tiger 800, for instance, costs $680, but takes advantage of the latest LED technology to add 3,600 Lumens. You can’t get brighter than that.

Address The Dangers
A car coming at you on a dark road with it’s high beam on? Focus your vision on the white line painted on the road’s right to avoid being dazzled. It tracks the path of the roadway, so you’ll be able to follow the corners and track the line.

The headlights of other vehicles aren’t just a distraction though. Following another vehicle? Look ahead into the area illuminated by its headlights to see further ahead. You can also look out for approaching vehicles; their headlamps will make them apparent much earlier than during the day time. They can also silhouette potential obstacles and hazards, allowing you to identify and react to them sooner.

Late at night, be aware that the prevalence of drunk or otherwise impaired drivers will increase. Do all the bars in your area let out at the same time? Avoid the road for the hour following that period. Always be on the look out for drivers behaving in an unpredictable manner and give them plenty of room. And, always keep them in front of you; you can control your special relationship with another vehicle if it’s in the front, not if it’s in the rear. Be especially careful at redlights, stop signs and at an intersection, where impaired drivers are known to speed through without stopping. Flash your brake lights while stopped, keep your bike in gear, look in your mirrors and be ready to move out of the way if you spot an approaching risk.

Animals are even less predictable than drunk drivers. They can leap from brush at the roadside at the last second, giving you no time to take evasive maneuvers. On a bike, even an animal the size of a raccoon or possum can cause you to crash, while deer and moose can be fatal. The trick here is to be aware of what animals are prevalent in your area, become familiar with the places you can expect to encounter them, then be on watch for them. Slow down, it’s the best way to ride safer.

In mountainous areas or even out in the desert, you can expect nighttime temperatures to dip deeply below daytime temperatures. Ride somewhere during the day and you may be sweating, while at that same place at night, you could literally be freezing. In 50-degree temperatures, a 55 mph wind blast will make it feel like it’s 25 degrees out. Check weather forecasts and prepare accordingly. A pair of silk glove liners, a balaclava and a windproof jacket liner stashed in a bag, pocket or under a seat can be a huge help.

With the road less populated, you should also prepare to fix any common mechanical problems yourself. Attach a small LED flashlight fitted with a lithium battery to your keychain or stick one in your toolkit. Quality lithium batteries have a 10-year shelf life and provide more illumination while LED lights require no bulb replacement and are more rugged. I carry a Maratac AAA on my keychain; it’s brighter than a three D-Cell MagLite.

If you have Halogen lights, also carry a spare bulb and everyone should have spare fuses and a fuse puller in their tool kit. You can’t ride at night if you don’t have a headlight. A taillight bulb is also a good idea.

Because you’ll have a harder time spotting debris, your chances of a puncturing a tire increase. If you have tubed tires, install Slime in them right now, it’ll help prevent punctures. If you have the more common tubeless items, carry a can of Fix-a-Flat. It’ll get you rolling again in 60 seconds; much better than fiddling with a puncture repair kit on the side of a dark highway with cars speeding past. You can fix your tire for real when you get someplace safer.

For purposes of not getting mown-down by an 18-wheeler, be especially careful to stop somewhere well off the road and, if possible, illuminated. Leave your lights on if you’re anywhere a car could veer off the road and hit you, just be aware of battery life.

Still, the best safety advice we can give you applies during the daytime too: only ride as fast as you can see. Always be able to come to a complete stop or to take other evasive action within the distance you’re able to see ahead. That way, should a deer leap out or a drunk driver veer into your lane or if you suddenly spot a patch of gravel, you’ll be able to avoid that hazard rather than hit it.

Related Links:
Ride Safer: 10 Common Motorcycle Accidents and How To Avoid Them

Ride Brighter: Baja Designs Squadron Lights

Ride More Visibly: 8 Ways To Make Your Motorcycle More Visible

  • Mark D

    One of the scariest rides I’ve ever had is when I lost track of time messing around on the roads north of SF. By the time I realized how late it was, the sun was already just about down, and I was only at Stinson beach. The remaining trip back to the GG bridge is 10 miles of completely dark, sand-cover switch-backs whose righthand side is a sheer, couple hundred foot cliff into the pacific ocean. Seeing as when you ride switchbacks, you need to look where your motorcycle is not yet pointed, I had to look off into the darkness and track the white line with my peripheral vision. Once the read end slipped out from me on a patch of sand or rock-slid rubble, and I thought to myself, “Well, at least flying off a cliff into the Pacific ocean on a motorcycle is a poetic death!”

    Luckily, after a few miles, a Mini came up behind me; I let him pass, and he took the rest of the ride home at a good clip, thoughtfully illuminating the way for me!

    Lesson learned? Dark country switchbacks can be dangerous, so keep an eye on the clock!

    • Brian D

      I had a similar problem the first time I spent an evening in Santa Cruz last winter. I hit 17 around 9PM and about halfway up the hill back to SJ I ran into a wall of fog. Visibility dropped to maybe 20 feet. The fog wasn’t the biggest problem as all of the sudden the IQ of every driver seemed to drop 40 points while their need to get home right that second jumped exponentially. I don’t know how fog affects the visibility of my safety gear but the number of close calls I had in that 12 mile stretch leads me to believe its next to nothing.

      • Mike Hubbard

        I never ride on 17 if I can help it!

    • Stuki

      Dark switchbacks are the worst. I have yet to find any non active (BMW K16) lights that handle them well. Leaned over into a sharp turn, you need the headlight to point “upwards”, which is somewhat far from ideal when going straight…..

      I’ve never tried the new K, but the theory is Germanically brilliant. All bikes made for any other purpose than shaving the last gram of weight off them, should have them.

  • Martin

    As mentioned in the visibility thread, I’m a big fan of giving the high beams a couple of quick flashes when approaching intersections at night.

  • michaelmatos

    Loving this series of articles! I’m actually scared to ride during the day! I always head out late night to escape the madness and love the emptiness and lack of vehicles on the road. I feel more in tune, more alive at night.

    • LS650

      At least when the weather is decent. Unfortunately, here in the Pacific Northwest, it’s getting to be the time of the year where night riding is a soggy, wet mess.

  • Piglet2010

    When riding in warm day/cold night conditions, I have used my rain suit over mesh jacket and pants to keep warm at night – I find this more practical than fiddling with removable jacket and pants liners.

  • HellomynameisAG

    When turning your bike into a streetfighter don’t buy fog lights as driving lights (I had no idea they were fogs, honest) because they look awesome and you got a great deal on them off craigslist. Oh and of the first night run don’t decide to pop over the george Washington and hit the palisades because you won’t be able to see ANYTHING with out street lights. Idiot. Led lights on order.

  • Kr Tong

    Has anyone found a decent solution to cornering at night?

    • runnermatt

      I assume you are referring to the light not following the bend in the road. If so, check out the dynamic headlight on the BMW K1600.

      • Kr Tong

        I have, and that’s a great feature but I’m asking for the rest of us. I think auxiliary lights pointed into the turn at lean is the only way to go, but that’s something you dont see on ANY sportbikes. So is it just not an issue for most people, do most people not find themselves on twisty roads at night?

        • jonoabq

          Try setting up two aux LED’s (floods) high up the tubes and adjust them to point slightly down and cross paths in front of you. You’ll get a much better spread of light out to the sides in the twisty stuff. Run them through a potentiometer so you can dial them down while riding in city traffic.

    • criminalenterprise

      An open high beam shutter on a HID projector retrofit will cast a wide, bright circle of light up and across the road in every direction. It’s a project to install but half my riding is at night. I wouldn’t want to own a bike without at least a HID auxiliary light. It’s easily the best $150 you can spend as a motorcyclist unless you never ride after sundown.

      • Kr Tong

        I’ve got HID Projectors installed. The problem is not how WIDE it casts, but how HIGH it casts.

    • LS650

      Slow down..?

      • Kr Tong

        That’s a problem not a solution.

  • Bryan Burnett

    Another thing to mention, deers and other critters become more active around the beginning and end of the day. So keep your eyes peeled on the edges of the road.

    • runnermatt

      Also, look for you can look for the movement of shadows in the road just beyond the reach of your headlight. Very hard to detect, but you will know it when you see it.

    • LS650

      An old saying about deer, and that I’ve seen to often be true, “Where there’s one, there’s two.”

      Many animals travel in pairs or groups, so if you see one, there are likely more ready to jump out from behind a tree or bush.

      • Michael Howard

        Exactly. This is how I did over $3500 of damage to my bike a few years ago. Saw a deer on the right shoulder and started braking just in time for a second deer to shoot out of the left ditch directly into my path. I had the instantaneous thought, “I hit a deer” and the next thing I knew I was picking myself up off the highway and looking around for my bike.

    • Michael Howard

      And keep your fingers over your brake lever.

  • Robert Glover

    I think the word you want is “spatial” relationship, not “special.” You can control your spatial relationship better with the vehicle in front of you. :)

  • Stef

    How often are there drunk drivers in the US? I’m never worried about drunk people driving. Is this me being naive?

    • LS650

      Unfortunately, here in BC I see drunk drivers at night all too often – I can’t imagine it’s much better anywhere else in a North America.

  • beefstuinit

    HID retrofits, even in projectors, shouldn’t really be advocated for. Projector design between HID’s and halogens is different. Yes it’s better than reflectors but it’s still garbage. The idea is better illumination, not just increased notice ability.

  • Randy S

    “Slow down, it’s the best way to ride safer”

    Buried the lead this time. Everything else seems helpful too though.

  • DaveDawsonAlaska

    It never dawned on me that riding at night was seen as scary or extra dangerous. I love riding at night, in the city especially but also out in the middle of nowhere under a full moon. One of my favorite memories is riding the PCH north out of SF watching the sun go down over the ocean then riding in and out of the fog and the clear skies, watching the ocean stretch out to infinity. God willing that’s something that’ll stay with me till the day I die.

  • Kean Campling

    I went out on the road at night (pitch black) for the first time and I swear to god I could have kill my local council. There was no cats eyes on the dual carriageway so I had to pretty much guess where everything was, and I couldn’t follow any cars because I was the only one there. Fucking madness.