Light up the night

by • December 23, 2013 • 61 NorthComments (0)219

Thanks to LED technology, we can love December again

LED headlamps improve night exploration in Alaska

Time was when December was, aside from the holidays, the worst month in Alaska.

Where America has it’s “hump day” to get over every week, the 49th state has it’s “hump month.”

Winter solstice is something of a northern D-Day. The thinking is that if you can simply survive until then, things will get better. Truly, they will. The oh-so-short days will begin getting longer. The sun will come back.

Seasonal affective disorder – SAD, as they call it – will begin to fade. But these were the bad old days.

Technology is a wonderful thing, and a little invention called the light-emitting diode – LED for short – is quickly becoming the best winter friend imaginable of Alaskans everywhere. No, we’re not talking about SAD lights here.

We’re talking about an LED about the size of a match head that can now be put in a headlamp and fired up to produce hundreds, even thousands, of “lumens,” as they say. Lumens are a measure of visible light.

The headlights on your car pump out somewhere around 1,000 lumens on low and 1,500 lumens on high. There are now headlamps and bike lights that will produce more light than that.

The one I used last winter one night scared a neighbor coming up the street toward a neighborhood ski trail. She thought a car was speeding down toward her loose dog and scrambled to get the animal out of the way. The “car” was me on skis with a relatively cheap, Chinese-made headlamp on my noggin.

These lights are now so bright and powerful that the only complaint one can make about them is that they are sometimes too bright and powerful. If you find yourself out in a big snowstorm, the reflection of artificial light off the falling snow can actually make it harder to see ahead, not easier.

Thus, the question of today is not how much light can you get, but how much light do you need?

On a pitch-black, moonless night, it’s nice to be able to light up the trail ahead with a couple thousand lumens, but is it really necessary? And what about other trail users?

Handlebar-attached bike lights are especially bad in this regard. They’re pretty much always pointing straight ahead down the trail. At least with a headlight, or a helmet-mounted bike light, one can aim the beam off trail so as not to blind oncoming traffic.

Today’s high-power headlamps seem to know no limits. Niterider, a U.S. brand, makes a bike light easily convertible to a headlamp that will pump out 1,800 lumens on high. The cost is steep – $350. You can blind the drivers of cars with that thing.

It’s a powerful light. But if you want to spend more, the German-manufactured Lupine Wilma – available in Anchorage at Speedway Cycles – will make the headlights on your car look like slackers.

MTBR.com,  a website that does very thorough light reviews, reports that the Wilma pumps out “a staggering, 2,340 lumens. And though $595 is not cheap, it’s actually a great value delivering a very competitive four lumens per dollar. That makes it the best value in the Lupine line and better (value) than some Chinese manufactured lights.”

The Chinese lights are the low-ball standard. You can find them on e-bay for $30 to $40. Most claim to produce 1,000 to 1,600 lumens, though when the light is carefully measured it often falls somewhat short of the claim.

Still, even 800 lumens or so is in the range of the low-beams on your car, and though the Chinese lights are sometimes criticized for their dependability, what can one expect for $30 or $40? The most common failures are tied to overheating, because the LEDs aren’t well protected against that, or inadequate waterproofing. Neither issue tends to be a big problem in Alaska in the winter.

If you’re a dog musher planning to do the Kuskokwim 300 Sled Dog Race out Bethel way – where if it isn’t 50 degrees below zero, it’s sometimes raining – it might be worth it to spend more on a better headlamp. Otherwise, it’s probably OK to go for the less expensive models.

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