'Root infested hell track' or 'technical bliss'... individual perceptions affect the way we each view different terrain. When you discover a new track that looks way scary but obviously has been ridden by others, then one day you too should be able to ride it with confidence. The question is, 'how to get to this other universe'? A grunty set of night lights lets you hit the trails after work, eat like a horse and drink like a fish well into, and past, the winter solstice. Eat a few carrots, pop some vitamin D and Robert's your uncle. A regular nocturnal sortie with a group of chums punctuates the week with a dose of camaraderie while the masses drain the brain over reruns of Gilligan's Island.
Riding at night breathes a renewed sense of discovery into your favourite, perhaps tired, local trails. 4WD tracks become virtual singletrack under the narrow beam of your light. Even slow descents buzz your senses making you feel like Nicolas Vouilloz charging downhill. Add in an urban alley, a flight of stairs, a short hike-a-bike and you soon enter the realm of "dang, I had no idea this could be so much fun." And then there's short lap night races in the forest with your local club, as well as 12 and 24 hour team and solo races to get the adrenaline pumping.
Choose tracks that you've ridden in daylight, preferably ones that are relatively easy and not too long. Technical tracks become very tricky and may take longer at night. Ride with others - agree to regroup at specific points and stay in contact when there's any hint of exposure. The back marker can easily miss a turn or make like a lawn-dart over the bars.
It's winter and the sun has gone to bed so you're unlikely to be comfortable riding in a Hawaiian shirt. You'll probably overheat on the climbs and freeze on the descents so aim for versatility with your garb. Think about thermals and a windproof vest, or my weapon of choice the Baked Alaska, a pair of Montezumas 3/4 length shorts and a lightweight raincoat, plus a beanie and gloves to protect your extremities. Glasses with clear lenses help prevent bugs from invading your vision.
Crashing isn't a given, but the consequences of getting it wrong in the dark are very uncomfortable. After any prang take a few moments to conduct an inventory check - lights, cables and connectors. It's assuredly unnerving to crest a roll at speed or hit a corner and be suddenly plunged into total darkness as a loose connection jiggles free. Find room in your pack to stash some duct tape and a commuting-style headlight - both as a backup and to help administer first aid to your riding lights. A tail light is essential on the tarmac but on the trail also helps those behind to follow your lead.
You'll shell out NZ$150-500 or more for a grunty LED light and lithium ion battery. With that you get a lightweight, robust unit throwing out plenty of candles and with over 3 hours burn time. Check out Seeing the Light for more.
Helmet mounted lights shine in the direction you're looking, rather than where the bike is pointing. However they produce less shadowing than the handlebar versions so it can be more difficult to spot terrain changes and obstacles. If you're limited to a single light then go for the helmet mount. A combination of both is a fabulous money-no-object solution.
It really is a long way home if your battery runs empty while you're still having fun in tiger country. Know your rig's burn time and plan your ride to 75%. Identify bail out options as a contingency for being forced to limp home with a mechanical or flat battery.