Garmin Varia RTL510 Radar Tail Light: A First Look

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As evidenced by past reviews, I'm a sucker for new gadgets.  I love that new gadget smell and this new gadget from Garmin is no exception.  However, unlike most of the shiny, unnecessary bling, this one has a legitimate reason for going on my bike. 

I currently live in a great spot for cycling.  We have miles and miles of two lane country roads right off our door step and seemingly endless gravel a few miles from home as well.  I like to stick to country roads, paved and unpaved, due to lack of traffic.  

I ride hundreds of miles, many alone, far from home exploring the always exciting American midwest farm fields, grain silos and of course the ponds, lakes, wildlife, swamps and the occasional tree tunnel. It's quiet and relaxing, except for that occasional country fellow that thinks he is Dale Earnhardt.  Spoiler alert: He isn't.

A little backstory: Two weeks ago I was riding alone about 20 miles from home on a typical gravel road through a farm field.  I heard a vehicle behind me making a lot of noise and thought it might be wise to get out of the way in case it was one of those country fellows drinking the day away while driving his Jeep.  Not long after pulling off the road, this wannabe Nascar driver ran out of talent and went into the ditch across the road from me.  Did that stop him?  Of course not, and why would it, he was in a Jeep.  He carried on, weaving about, in and out of the corn field mud until he was out of sight.  My only regret was not getting a picture of his tag number and calling the cops.  I think I was just frozen in awe of his drifting skills <so. much. sarcasm.>.

Anyways, enough ranting and back to the original intent of this post, the new Garmin Varia RTL510 Tail Light.  Right, so the moral of that story was that I wish I had it a couple of weeks ago as it would have alerted me to the wannabe hoonigan on that country road.  

I've now ridden about 150 miles with the Varia RTL510 on my seatpost and I must say that I'm really, really pleased with how well it works.  Garmin did have a previous radar tail light available, the Varia Rearview Radar, but I did not pick one up for a few reasons, some vain, some legitimate.  

The original Varia was large, heavy and ugly.  The brand new version isn't some artsy, sleek masterpiece that adds to any custom boutique bike frame, but it is a vast improvement.  

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The legitimate reasons were from a purely functional standpoint.  The original lights were not very bright at all, especially in the day time. The brightness and lens for focusing that brightness has been improved on this new version.  It isn't as bright as a light light the Lupine tail light, but it is at least as bright as a majority of the lights out there, including the popular Bontrager Flare tail light, with a much longer battery life.

On top of lack of lumens, the battery life of the original was far too short for longer rides, or consecutive rides where in between ride charging isn't an option similar to the short life of the Bontrager Flare R, another connected 'smart' bike light.  The new Garmin Varia RTL510 addresses this issue with a 15 hour day flash mode, plenty of battery life for an epic day of riding or multiple rides without the need for topping off the battery.  The steady-on and night flash modes have a much shorter battery life, but I'm only concerned with day flash to get the attention of drivers.  You have to take advantage of when they look up briefly after sending a text message after all. 

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On busy roads I don't see this light making a bike ride any more relaxing. A steady stream of cars is assumed on most congested roads, but the country roads I mostly ride on are another story.  You might get passed by a half dozen cars, and then not see another car for 30 minutes.  That inconsistency can lead to relaxing your awareness while on your ride, but a loud beep from the Garmin will hopefully snap you out of your pedal turning meditation and maybe move over a bit more to the right side, just in case.

In the week or so that I've used it, I have become quite attached to the device.  It has not missed a single car coming up behind me, and it's nice to see it accurately showing multiple cars as well. While country roads can be mostly free of traffic, they are not free of potholes, and after a brief glance of your six, it's nice to have the extra reassurance of the radar showing no traffic coming up behind you before swerving to avoid the wheel swallowing pothole or lovely smelling road kill.

There are a couple small first world complaints that I have, but I believe most can be attributed to human error.  One such issue I ran into was a difficulty connecting to the Garmin 1030.  I was getting frustrated on my way out the door and hit a bunch of buttons and settings, so that may have played a role too.  The other issue is that it is still fairly large, but in a vertical orientation on this version of the device.  If you don't have much exposed seat post, mounting may become an issue.  It may be possible to mount it on the seat stay, but I doubt that the radar function will work properly in an angled orientation as opposed to being perpendicular with the ground.

As of writing this, I have no intention of riding without the Garmin Varia RTL510.  It just works and works well.  It may be a bit large and not the most sleek tail light out there, but extra piece of mind on a ride is worth a small compromise these days.  Unfortunately, the roads aren't getting any safer these days thanks to cell phones so I try to use as many tools as possible to be seen and be aware of my surroundings.  Currently my tool kit for staying safe includes bright clothing, following the rules of the road, staying alert and not the Garmin RTL510.  

In the coming months I will post a follow up to update you on how well it holds up over time as well as any additional pros/cons discovered.  Until then, have fun and stay safe out there!


As always, please let me know if you have any questions or would like a specific function(s) reviewed/explained.  

If you found this review helpful, please consider purchasing this device (or any fitness device for that matter) by clicking the link directly to the REI product page below.  It helps support this website as well as our gear reviews and cycling/adventure habits!  

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