When it comes to off-road lighting, light bars are about the coolest option available. Not only do they look good on your truck during broad daylight, they’re very useful when the sun goes down. Of course, there are other options besides LEDs if you are in the market for some off road lights. There are also some things you should look for when buying lights to make sure you don’t waste your money.
What follows is a breakdown of off-road lighting options, pros and cons, and buying advice. If you like this post, be sure to share it on Facebook!
What Are The Major Off-Road Lighting Options?
When it comes to discussing your lighting options, it all starts with choosing a type of light or bulb. There are three kinds:
- LED bulbs, or ‘light emitting diodes,’ are solid-state devices that are highly resistant to damage from impact or vibration. Of course, they’re the most expensive option as well (in terms of up-front costs).
- Halogen bulbs are the most common type of headlight bulb found on the modern automobile. While halogens suck up a fair amount of electrical power, they’re affordable, powerful, and generally reliable.
- HID lighting, or “High Intensity Discharge” lights offer the highest levels of light output per watt of power when compared to LEDs and halogens. They’re also established, reliable technology.
The other choice to make has to do with mounting options and/or use. If, for example, you want a light that mounts to your vehicle’s exterior, you can choose between:
- Full width (or nearly full-width) bars, which are often 5-6 feet wide, typically mounted to a vehicle’s roof (although some are mounted to the vehicle grille or bumper), and which provide an extraordinary amount of light
- Mid-length light bars mounted to grilles, bumpers, grille guards, and light bars, which offer styling, excellent amounts of light, and which are far more affordable than full-width bars
- Smaller, foglight-sized squares (or circles or rectangles) that are sort of like little light pods. They’re frequently mounted on grill guards, bull bars, bumpers, and/or fender
- Handheld lights that can run off a battery or a standard 12VDC cigarette lighter plug. Some of these lights can be mounted on the vehicle and removed for handheld use as needed. Others are designed to ride inside the vehicle, being pulled out for use as needed
Which Bulb is Best for Off-Road Lighting?
As far as bulbs are concerned, it’s important to think about how you’re going to use your lights. If you need power to see across a field, for example, you probably want HID. If you’re looking for affordable lighting that you can use occasionally, halogens might be just fine. If you’re a regular off-roader who needs light for the trail ahead, LEDs might make the most sense.
Here’s a breakdown of each type of light that will help you decide.
Halogen Off-Road Light Pros and Cons
Halogen bulbs are very easy to find on modern automobiles, which means replacements are affordable and common. Unfortunately, halogen lights don’t pump out as much light HID or LED systems, so they’re not the ideal choice if all you care about is visibility.
Halogen bulbs also use a lot of “juice” (electricity) during operation and aren’t very efficient. Halogen bulbs also give off a slightly yellow colored light that isn’t as “crisp looking” as the other two choices. Halogen light patterns can’t be put into sharp focus as easily as LED or HID lights, so you’ll get more of a light bulb effect with halogen off-road lights rather than a flashlight-type beam.
But the upside with Halogen bulbs is that they aren’t very expensive. They also have a decent lifespan – up to 1,000 hours – and a replacement bulb is a $10 item (at most). The light fixtures are less costly than LEDs as well…you can very easily buy two sets of halogen lights for the same price as one cheap LED light.
Basically, if you want lights for occasional off-roading and/or you’re on a budget, halogens are a perfectly rational choice.
LED Off-Road Light Pros and Cons
LEDs are the newest type of bulb being used in off-road lighting, and they’re even making their way into brand new vehicles as replacements for traditional halogen headlights. The main reasons that LEDs are growing in popularity are:
- They’re energy efficient. They use about 1/10th the amount of electricity of a similarly bright halogen bulb.
- They’re compact. A small array of 5 or 6 bright LEDs puts out more light than a much larger halogen bulb and assembly.
- They’re durable. LEDs are essentially small circuit boards. They’re not particularly vulnerable to damage due to impact or vibration.
- They last a long time. An LED bulb can last for 20-40k hours – that’s a few vehicle lifetimes. Your LED lights should last longer than your vehicle (and its replacement).
- They’re stylish. LEDs can be made in different colors, designed to fit very specific shapes, etc.
The downsides of LEDs are mostly their high cost (relative to halogens) and their temperature sensitivity. While costs are falling quickly, LED off-road lighting is pricey compared to halogen lighting. What’s more, LED lights must be made with a high quality heat sink attached or they will burn out prematurely. Many of the least expensive LED lighting systems use inferior heatsinks, leading to failure after very short periods of time.
HID Off-Road Lighting Pros and Cons
The main advantage of HID (High intensity discharge) off-road lights is their incredible brightness. Top end HID lights will generally shine twice as far as a top-end LED in the same wattage range. While there is reason to anticipate LEDs getting brighter over time, HIDs will likely be the brightest option available for years to come.
In terms of cost, HID systems can often exceed the cost of similar (albeit not as bright) LED systems. But if you’re racing at night or in bad weather – meaning that you need visibility while traveling at high speeds – then you need HID lighting.
What Mounting Choice Makes The Most Sense?
After you choose a bulb, you’ll want to choose a mounting option. Each has pros and cons.
- Light bars mount to your roof, bumper, or grille. They’re great when you need a combination flood/spot light for your vehicle, and they look impressive too. The bars are usually designed to focus light further down the road in the middle, and to flood light outwards on the edges.
- Flood/Fog Lights mount low on the front bumper and are made to shine in front of your truck, flood the road with light and cut through the fog. They’re good sources of light when you’re trying to focus on the trail immediately in front of your 4×4.
- Spot Lights shine in a more concentrated area instead of covering a wide path. This means they can shine a lot farther ahead, letting you know what’s coming in the distance, but it also makes them less useful for driving at speed. Most of the portable or hand-held lights you can buy are spot lights.
- Driving Lights are an all-around light designed to shine farther ahead than flood/fog lights, but not quite as bright as spot lights.
If you’re looking for a light to supplement your vehicle’s headlights that’s functional in most situations, driving lights and light bars are the way to go. Otherwise, think about how you normally use lighting and choose between flood lights and spot lights.
Avoid Tickets – Keeping It Legal!
Believe it or not, some aftermarket lights aren’t legal to use on the street. There are laws about what kind of lights you can use on the road and whether they are DOT (Department Of Transportation) compliant. Some jurisdictions ban lighting that’s attached to a vehicle’s roof for onroad use. Some jurisdictions have restrictions on light brightness, etc.
Some good rules of thumb:
- Unless the weather conditions permit the use of your off-road lights, the best policy is not to use your off-road lights on city streets.
- If you replace any lights on your vehicle, such as the factory fog lights, make sure the replacements are DOT compliant, or make sure your state and local authorities don’t care about DOT rules.
- If you add lights to your 4×4 that you know to be illegal for onroad use, it’s a good idea to either disable them or cover them whenever you’re driving on the road. That way, a police officer is less likely to ticket you for a violation.
Finally, remember that most lighting rules for your vehicle are made and enforced locally. What may be legal for someone in Georgia may not be legal for someone in Arizona (or vice versa). Check your local laws before you buy and you’ll save yourself some heartache.
Off-Road Light Buying Advice
We’ve talked a lot about choosing the right type of light, but there are also some rules for choosing a good quality light. Here are some things to think about before you fork over the cash for any off-road lights:
- Go for quality. With some parts, the difference in quality between “cheap” and “expensive” isn’t tremendous. However, it makes all the difference in lighting, especially LED and HID lighting. A cheap LED light will use inferior heatsinks that will quickly lead to failure. A cheap HID will use ballasts that break after a year of use. Top brand names are a good idea, but the best indicator of a light’s quality is its warranty…
- Long warranties are best. If you’re buying a halogen light, it will be tough to find a product with more than 1 or 2 years of warranty (although they do exist). But when it comes to LED and HID lights, warranties should be at least 2 years and perhaps much, much longer (many manufacturers offer lifetime warranties). Beware the LED or HID light with a warranty shorter than a couple of years.
- Make sure you know what the warranty covers. Off road lights handle a lot of water and bad weather, so make sure the warranty doesn’t exclude damage from these elements. Lights that aren’t sealed correctly will short out when put through the rigors of a difficult winter, so be sure to review the warranty policy before you buy.
- Install your lightbar correctly. Skipping steps – such as choosing not to use the right grommets or forgetting to seal things up – can cause damage that the light manufacturer won’t warranty.
- Check reviews. Many light manufacturers like to talk about their IP68 rating, which many people think of as a bulletproof rating. However, there are countless examples of cheap lights with IP68 ratings and tricky warranties that consumers grow to hate. So before you buy, check reviews, search your favorite forums for mentions of the brand name, etc.
- Don’t overlook simple LED replacement fog/floodlights. A lot of companies are selling LED fog light kits that replace factory foglights. While these replacements don’t get the same amount of attention as big lightbars, they’re great for lighting a trail and helping you find your way down the mountain.
- Don’t forget to check your local regulations. Your local DMV office and/or police department can be a good resource, as can your local off-road shop. Ask questions before you buy, especially if you’re considering a light that you don’t see often in your area.
Finally, don’t forget to join Motostew and get your off-road lights at below retail prices. Our members can save hundreds of dollars on HID lights and LED lightbars – join now to see for yourself.