It is a fact of four-wheeling that things don’t always go as planned. Sometimes we have to set up camp in the dark. Other times a trail fix has us blasting down a dirt road at night to catch up with the rest of the group. Fortunately there is a staggering array of off-road lighting options on the market to fit any need or budget, and we are here to help you make sense of it all. To start, know that lights fall into three basic categories: halogen, high-intensity discharge (HID), and light-emitting diodes (LED).
Halogen is the most common and least expensive option, using a traditional bulb that has a tungsten filament within halogen gas. The filament heats up and creates light. You can pick up a pair of quality halogen lights for under $100 at nearly any town in America.
HID lights use a reflector similar to halogen lights but take a lot of voltage (on the order of tens of thousands of volts) to arc across the electrodes. HIDs send an arc across a pair of tungsten electrodes to create light. This design is far more efficient than halogen lights and draws less amperage, producing approximately four times as many lumens per watt as traditional lights and lasting five times as many hours. If there is a downside to HIDs it is the expense and size.
LED lights draw even less amperage than HIDs, using a semiconductor diode that emits light when voltage is applied. LEDs also resist vibration and impact, since their construction uses no glass or filament. The biggest downside to LEDs is that they are expensive. The light is also hard to direct and focus, and the market is becoming flooded with overseas LED light bars of questionable quality.
Once you have decided on a type of light, what else should you look for? When choosing beam pattern, consider the speeds that your vehicle travels off-road. Faster speeds require long-distance lights with a spot pattern, while slower wheelers and crawlers can appreciate the wide beam of light from flood- and foglights.
Size and fitment are critical, as all HID lights used to use external ballasts, but as technology has advanced these ballasts have gotten much smaller and are now often integrated into the housing. This makes for a cleaner, more compact installation. The same concerns hold with LEDs, which can be had in various shapes and sizes. Also check to see whether the lights come with all the necessary wiring, switches, and relays or you must purchase them separately.
Top 5 Lighting Tips
Even the best lights won’t do you much good if you hook them up with some old speaker wire and electrical tape. We compiled a list of suggestions on how to maximize the reliability and brightness so your lights are there when you need them most.
Wiring: Even with the lower amperage draws of HID and LED lights, wiring is still critical. The longer the wires are, the larger they need to be to offset resistance. Use heavy-gauge wire to ensure minimal voltage drop, and always use grommets and insulation any time the wiring is exposed to sharp edges to prevent chaffing and potential short circuits.
Relays: Using high-quality relays is important for two reasons. First, it keeps the high current wiring out of the passenger compartment. Second, it allows for shorter wiring between the battery and the lamps for less resistance and voltage drop.
Inline Fuses: Always use an inline fuse or circuit breaker when wiring your lights. This could prevent an electrical fire should the wire fray and ground out. Not sure what size fuse to run? To find the amperage, take the wattage of all of your lights and divide by 12 (volts).
Good Ground: Make sure that you have a good ground on a clean, secure location on the frame. Even better, go directly to the negative terminal on the battery. Low current due to a poorly grounded system not only affects the light output but also reduces the life span of the bulbs.
Handling: Never touch the glass of a bulb with your fingers. The oils can cause hot spots that will lead to premature failure. If you do touch the bulbs, you should clean them with alcohol before use.