Not Taken Lightly: The Overlander's Guide to Off-Road Lighting

Not Taken Lightly: The Overlander's Guide to Off-Road Lighting

by Garrett Davis

The world of off-road lighting has become a fascinating little corner of the overland/off-road industry for me. What was once a steady, uneventful category ruled by a handful of brands has exploded with hundreds of new brands and an unfortunate race to the bottom with near-identical-looking light bars and pods. I mean, when’s the last time you went even a few days without seeing an angry-eyed Jeep covered with enough LEDs to light a major sporting event?

I know I’m coming off a little cynical here, but it’s out of love, I seriously nerd out on this stuff. In all seriousness, there have been a lot of legitimate innovations made here over the past decade or so, and some great brands have managed to keep pushing forward through the sea of eBay knock-offs -- which is what we’re going to focus on here today.

How to Find What Works Best for You

You ever find yourself faced with so many options that you just end up picking none at all? Well anyone who has dipped their toes in the water shopping for off-road or auxiliary lighting is probably familiar with this. All the different bulb types, beam patterns, brands, sizes, and intended use cases are enough to make your head spin.

As much as the uninitiated would be forgiven that most lights would sorta just be one-size-fits-all, when it comes down to finding what would really suit your needs best, that is often far from the truth. You’ve got your choice of fog lamps, cornering lamps, rock lights, floodlights, driving lights, pencil beams, and spotlights – each available with LED, halogen, or HID bulbs in a whole range of different color temperatures from amber all the way to blue-ish white.

So with all that being said, the real question here is to ask what sort of driving, trails, and environments do you find yourself on -- and more importantly, where and when you feel your current lighting is failing you. Personally, I get the most use out of them at dusk. That last hour of fading light can make it tricky to spot rocks and dips in the trail while there’s still just enough ambient light to make even your brights just about useless.

Picking a Beam Pattern:

Light beam pattern chart

The speed you tend to travel is more telling here than anything. The faster you’re going, the sooner obstacles in the distance will be coming at you, so the sooner you can spot them the better. This is perfectly illustrated in the chart above from our good friends at Rigid Industries.

For tight, technical trails and rock crawling, you’re going to need a lot of diffused area lighting immediately in front of you and around you. For making your way down moderate or winding trails and roads (especially when crossing animals are a danger), additional driving lights and floodlights are very handy for lighting not only the path directly ahead, but to the sides as well.

For high-speed travel, you’re going to want a tight, focused beam to scout out what is directly in front of you. While I don’t see too many of us overlanders participating in the Baja 1000 with our rigs anytime soon, again, spotting crossing animals, fallen trees, or other debris is very important -- especially since our rigs just seem to get heavier and heavier.

Let’s Talk Color Temperature:

Ever notice that and Le Mans racers and rally drivers tend to run yellow or amber lights, but Baja trucks seem to run more white lights? Well it’s not just an aesthetic choice, there are good reasons for doing so. Yellow and amber lights tend to offer better visibility in bad weather, as these light frequencies are able to penetrate water as opposed to reflecting off of it, giving you better visibility in rain, fog, and to be able to more accurately gauge puddles.

That’s why these amber lights are so popular in Europe where it rains all the time, and not so much in the dry desert (though you still see them sometimes). Hunters also tend to favor yellow/amber lenses in their glasses as they say it allows the eye to pick up movement a little better. I can’t confirm that, but I’m inclined to take their word for it.

LED color temperature chart



Another thing to note on light temperature is that the more blue you go, the more grating it tends to be for people who may be in the path of your lights. Blue light tends to be more fatiguing on the human eye, hence why many people in offices will adjust their monitor’s color balance towards the warm side.

Another effect that bluer lights can have on you as the driver is that some colors can appear less “natural” colors begin to appear. Reds in particular tend to wash out as brown or black in temperatures above 7000k.

LED or Halogen?

Rigid Industries LED light pod

AKA new school VS old school. LED light bars and pods may be reaching meme status in some circles, but they have become a staple of the industry for very good reason. They’re more power efficient, can be packaged in more space-efficient ways (ala light bars), and pack a lot of punch for their size in terms of brightness. That being said, there are some old-school holdouts for the classic big round lights on the bumper. I myself straddle that line with some classic round Hellas on my bumper and a slim lightbar up top. Best of both worlds.

Still, there is no arguing that LEDs are firmly the future -- and with all the power demands your lights are competing with such as fridges, air compressors, and winches, your batteries can use all the help they can get.

One factor to consider for the cold-weather travelers out there, though, is that LEDs don't tend to produce enough heat to melt snow/ice off the lens of the lights. My colleague and Montana resident Stephan pointed this out as the reason why he switched back to filament bulbs. 

Are Off-Road Lights Difficult to Install?

Wiring off-road lights

That depends. Depending on the vehicle and where you install them, your average light bar or a pair of light pods can be wired up in an afternoon with a little elbow grease and a few choice expletives. Things can get a little more involved depending on where you’re installing the lights, how many you have, how many other powered accessories you’re running, and how you want to handle the switching for them.

A simple toggle switch in the cabin is no big deal. Even tying into your factory wiring for them to come on with your brights is pretty easy in many vehicles. Where it starts getting complicated in terms of wiring is when it comes to handling the load of a lot of high wattage lights and how many other accessories you’re running.

Also, while installing lights on your bumper is usually a pretty straightforward affair in terms of routing wiring, a light bar on the roof can pose some challenges for clean wiring depending on what you drive. Whereas wiring lights on the roof of my Jeep was a piece of cake, routing the wiring from the roof in a modern SUV or wagon can be a real pain, and can really open you up for leaks if not done properly. I found this out the hard way while running my wiring through where my factory roof rack attaches, and then down under the A-pillar cladding, weaving through a sea of airbags and then through the dash and firewall. Not a fun job.

What Are Some Trustworthy Brands?

Baja Designs light pods

Between our team here at Overlander and Expedition Overland, I don’t want to say we’ve seen it all but… Yeah, when it comes to lighting we really have seen it all. I’ve been there with the cheap lighting kits, and if you actually want to be able to rely on your setup, it’s just not worth it. The headaches are real.

The thing is, buying from a reputable manufacturer doesn’t even necessarily mean paying big bucks. You can get a solid set of lights from KC HiLights for under $100, a great set of light pods from Rigid for just over a Benjamin, and so on. Great deals considering both of these companies also offer advanced lighting systems that can very quickly get into the four-figure territory -- and have the performance to back it up.

Baja Designs is another great company, having gotten their start in offroad racing over 25 years ago, and still are one of the most trusted names in the game today, making a name for themselves as “the scientists of lighting” by racers who run their systems. Then you have brands like ARB who to me epitomize the phrase “If you’re going to do something, do it right.” If I see ARB’s name on something, I have plenty of confidence that I can rely on that product, and that really says something about their reputation.

A Quick Note on Safety and Legality

Your headlights were specifically designed with cut-offs in order to light the road ahead of you while not also blinding oncoming drivers or pedestrians -- the lights mentioned here are not! Running your off-road lights on the street is illegal in many states and countries for this reason, and is also what we within the industry call "a dick move."

It's not a bad idea to get to know the local laws where you'll be travelling in this regard. In California for instance, auxiliary lighting is prohibited from use on public roads, and technically are supposed to be covered when on the street. Enforcement of these laws can be touch and go, but I have gotten a ticket for having uncovered lights before.

Jeep with light bar on

So what are you running for lighting? See anything we missed here? Have a question on your setup? Drop a comment below!


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