by Ed Tyanich
I have a fascination with lights that borders on obsession. Our house contains a countless array of headlamps, flashlights, battery chargers, and bike lights.
The reason for all the lights is that I love to travel in the dark with my own light source. From October through April I spend eight to ten hours a week in the dark running, skiing, biking and even paddling my kayak on flat water.
There are many reasons for this strange behavior. First, I am usually out running at 5:00 to 5:30 a.m. Getting the miles in during early morning hours is what works best for me. After years of running in darkness I have become very comfortable with it. I love the solitude, the stars and moon, the occasional display of Northern Lights, and the sun gently lighting the eastern sky with the promise of a new day. In this process of being out in the dark I have searched high and low for the ideal lighting system. This month I will review two new products in my quest.
Ultrarunners have been very creative in developing lighting systems for racing at night: All makes and styles of headlamps; flashlights ranging from hi-tech waterproof lights, like Pelican and Bucklight to Rayovac and Eveready sportsman models; even headlamps mounted to pack buckles. Some runners avoid headlamps because of the weight or the light sliding around unless the head band is very tight. Others avoid headlamps, claiming vision depth of perception is altered, due to a light source so near the eyes.
The quality of the headlamp greatly influences the comfort. Petzel was the first manufacturer to add a center strap that goes on the top of your head and connects to the circular headband. This center strap adds considerable stability. Many brands of headlamp now come with a center strap. The depth perception problem is more individual. The only time I have noticed this is on a steep rocky downhill section of trail. My solution is to have a hand held light along for these sections. By holding the light to the side at about waist level, normal depth perception returns.
Hand-held lights have problems of their own. Having an irregular arm swing while holding the light, as well as hand and arm fatigue are common. An elastic band or two can help so the grip can be relaxed.
Newest in lights seen during ultras are florescent. Fluorescent lights provide soft, even light without any of the harsh highlights or spot blindness that can occur after following a bright narrow beam down the trail.
Fluorescence provides a wide but not too distant lighting pattern. The fluorescent light I have been using was purchased at WalMart for $7.95 on sale. It is called simply the "4-function" lantern. In addition to the fluorescent tube, it also has a spot light on a rotating head as well as a flashing orange strobe that is useful for night running. The spotlight is not very effective, as only one light may be used at a time. This light runs on four AA batteries and has a handy belt clip. I have found the battery life to be in the four to six-hour range during winter running. The light clips to the waist belt of running pack or to the pocket of my Ultimate Direction Aquifer vest. The stability is fine, although the batteries do have an annoying rattle when pounding downhill. The light range is limited, about two to three strides ahead. I found the light too dim for steep rocky descents, however the addition of a hand held or headlamp with a brighter beam will solve this problem. I don't know how durable this light will prove to be. I have had no problems running with one since Christmas. Where this light excels is on gentle terrain where foot placement is not quite so exact.
The other light reviewed is at the other end of the spectrum from my $7.95 WalMart florescent. The NiteRider Digital Explorer headlamp is impeccably constructed. A high quality, rechargeable nicad battery pack, waterproof light-head with four light settings, daylight safety flasher, SOS beacon, and automatic reserve setting are some of its features. NiteRider advertises that they build tools, not toys, and that they supply lighting systems to Search and Rescue Teams, the military, and law enforcement. The NiteRider is definitely not a toy and the price reflects the seriousness of the product: $189.95 suggested retail. The Digital Explorer is billed as the best all around performer in NiteRider's line of three light heads and five battery options. The Explorer comes with the explorer headband and the battery pack attaches to the headband. For those preferring less weight on the headband, a version equipped with a long cord for belt mounting is available. The long cord version is $10 more or an optional extension cord can be purchased separately.
While the flasher mode and SOS feature are interesting, the light and battery pack are what piqued my interest. Of the four light settings, the lowest is designed only for reading in a tent or writing in your journal. This lowest setting is very dim, although better than no light. On the second lowest setting, light will automatically default to when battery reserves get very low. This setting allows 20 minutes to get out of the woods or access another light source. This setting is minimal lighting but sufficient for most trails. The other two settings, one at four watts the other at six watts are plenty bright to run with. In fact, the six-watt setting is the brightest light I have used for running. The light pattern is very good with no shadows or dim areas. Although the six-watt setting casts a very bright beam, it is more of a flood light pattern rather than a narrow spot. This makes running much easier and safer, particularly on the downhills
The NiteRider battery pack is very high performance. It comes with a plug and forget charger to maintain a full charge without over charging or over discharging. The result is convenience and extended battery life with a 1,000 charge capacity. Battery burn times are two hours on the six-watt setting, three hours on the four-watt, five hours on the three-watt, and eight hours on the 1.5-watt. An eight-step LED fuel gauge gives precise measure of how much battery storage is left. This is plenty of burn time for most training runs, however during a 100-mile race it would come up short. Extra battery packs are available although fairly expensive at $49.95 suggested retail. One viable option to make the Digital Explorer race ready is the Guide battery case. The Guide battery case retails for $39.95 and allows the use of D cell alkaline batteries. Five D cell alkalines will provide 10 to 15 hours of burn time on the two higher settings. Nicad rechargeable D cells and an overnight charger are also available for $79.95. The Guide case is heavier and must be carried in a pack or vest pocket. A flexible cord runs from the Guide battery pack to the lamp head.
If all these options sound confusing and expensive, they are. However, by selling individual components, NiteRider allows the buyer to create an almost custom lighting system that will out perform anything else.
Is NiteRider worth the price? The answer depends on the user. If a lot of night running is in your future and a waterproof lighting system will be used for paddle sports and skiing, then the answer is yes. If the only night running to be done is the occasional race then I would probably opt for a less expensive system such as the Petzel Duo. I will continue to use a headlamp as my main light source with a good hand held for standby and in situations when more light or a different angle is needed. I will also experiment with the usefulness of a fluorescent light in varying conditions.
The Bites portion of this month's column refers to the new "Screamer" valve from Ultimate Direction. The "Screamer" valve comes standard on their new rolltop" SportTank," and 80-ounce hydration bladder. It is also sold as a retrofit on existing "SportTanks." I have never been much of a fan of bite valves. The coordination required to bite with just the right pressure then suck the water up through the tube all while trying to continue to run and squeeze in an occasional breath was beyond me. I had resigned myself to using push pull valves. When Dana Miller of Ultimate Direction had me try the new "Screamer" valve, I was hooked with the first drink. It is idiot proof. Feel the ridges, bite down, and drink. Be ready to quench your thirst, as the "Screamer" valve delivers a liter of fluid in 17 seconds. According to the folks at Ultimate that is twice as fast as the most popular bite valve and 65 percent faster than the closest competition.
The retrofit kit is very simple to install. Just cut off the existing tubing just above the red elbow at the "SportTank" outlet and plug in the new fitting. A high volume drink tube has the connector fitting on one end and the "Screamer" valve on the other. The "Screamer" valve retrofit kit retails for $9.95.
NiteRider can be reached at (619) 268-9316 for further information and local dealer listings. Ultimate Direction can be reached at 1-800-426-7229