Darkness Visible

The next wave of night-vision and sports-lighting systems equips you to explore more—and sleep less

    Photo: Photo illustration by David Arky

THE LONG DAYS ARE BARELY BEGINNING TO WANE, but that doesn't mean you need to start making room in the garage for your summer gear. Trust us, playing in the dark is more fun than the StairMaster and C-SPAN. And it's not like you have to pick your way through the woods with a D-cell Maglite duct-taped to your bike helmet anymore. Manufacturers designing headlamps, task lights, and lighting systems suitable for gravity sports and the rigors of backpacking have shaved ounces off their products. Better still, advancing technology in the fields of LEDs and rechargeable batteries (many offering twice the power of their precursors) now spells unprecedented burn times and smaller power packs. Most units now also offer multiple brightness settings that give energy efficiency an added boost. Put simply, portable lights are brighter, lighter, and more efficient than ever.

All of which has outdoor athletes riding, climbing, and paddling into the dark seemingly en masse. Once an oddball event held yearly in West Virginia, 24-hour mountain-bike racing is now the fastest-growing branch of the sport. Yosemite speed climbers bivvy less and climb more, often zipping right past teams snoring away in the dark on their portaledges. And moonlit sea-kayaking outings are fast becoming the rage in urban harbors like San Francisco, where darkness adds a welcome element of solitude. In response to growing demand, in the past eight years the sports-lighting business has doubled in size. Which means there's plenty of illumination out there to choose from—even a stealthy night-vision option for you serious gadget hounds. To make your selection easier, we've assembled the best and brightest lights for nocturnal athletics and expeditions. Flame on!

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