While the need for more light is obvious for racers, anyone can benefit from extra illumination while venturing out after dark.
Author: Craig Perronne Main Photo: Bink Designs
Spend any amount of time after dark cruising around the desert or exploring trails and two things become readily apparent: stock headlights simply suck, and it is very dark out there. While OEM headlights and their technology have greatly improved over the years, they simply are not built to illuminate large swathes of remote terrain. The need for greater lighting capacity off-road is readily apparent to everyone from a Trophy-Truck driver barreling across the desert at 140 mph or one of us mere mortals poking along at a much more leisurely pace. Thankfully there have been rapid advancements made in off-road lighting, making them a far cry from the dim, yellow lights of generations past. Much of it has been driven by motorsports and the constant desire of drivers to go faster once the sun has set over the desert. Great for us is that all of those advancements in technology are now available to us whether we wear a helmet strapped into a racecar or are just out in a play car or daily driver. The full array of what is currently available can be somewhat confusing as lighting technologies continue to evolve and come on line. Luckily we are here for you to explain what is out there, whether it is new or old, and some of the pros and cons of each. If you are in the market for some new lights to expand upon the hours you can play in the dirt, the following should be worth a read.
A great place to start is to upgrade existing lighting on stock vehicles. This can be replacing the whole headlight assembly, such as with this IPF replacement for the Jeep JK, but more than likely will be replacing the factory bulb with a better one. We have had good success with PIAA bulbs as well as Sylvania Silverstar Ultras. Upgrading the bulbs is a good first step for anyone looking for better lighting, but make sure to install bulbs in a wattage your original wiring harness can handle. It is a cost-effective way to add a bit more light and additional lighting can always be sourced later on. Sealed Beam Ever since Humphry Davy passed electrical current through a thin strip of platinum in 1802 producing light, the concept for the standard sealed beam light has been pretty similar. A thin metal element is protected by a glass bulb filled with an inert gas to prevent oxidation and, once energized, produces light. Surprisingly, that same technology is used in many of today’s modern automotive lights. While advancements have been made in reflector technology and the gases used inside of the bulb, the concept is much the same. Early versions of automotive headlights were incandescent with filaments that decayed from their first use. They became dimmer and dimmer until they eventually stopped working, usually leading to replacement of the whole headlight. Their yellow glow and lack of light output is probably familiar to anyone who bought a car during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Advancements in the sealed-beam design came with the advent of better bulb technology that used halogen gas. This caused a chemical reaction that extended the life of the light by redepositing small amounts of metal back onto the filament. The halogen gas also produces a whiter light that is brighter with more output. Next was the use of xenon gas. Like halogen, xenon is brighter and can appear either as a bright white or the familiar purplish/blue tint often seen on those trying to appear as if they have HID lights. Both are better options than earlier technology with halogen bulbs now being the norm on many vehicles straight from the factory. Many off-road lights use this same technology, with the main benefit being its low cost and proven design. However, the major drawback is to create more light, a higher-power bulb is needed that in turn draws more amps. Already not the most efficient design, this can lead to a very power-hungry light, and adding a slew of them only compounds the problem. The small metal filaments can also be somewhat fragile and break in the vibration-intensive arena of off-road motorsports. However, their price point makes them attractive for someone not looking for a full-tilt racing application as they can still produce plenty of light.
One of the unique aspects of LED lights is that they can be made almost any size, making them easy to mount practically anywhere. The compact Squadron LED light from Baja Designs is even available in a flush mount housing or with a more traditional bolt-on mount expanding mounting options even further. These small lights still create plenty of illumination with the KC LZR Series CUBE putting out 2,600 lumens in a spot beam pattern. Their small size makes them perfect for UTVs or other vehicles where mounting options are limited High Intensity Discharge Lights The next evolution of lighting is High Intensity Discharge (HID) lights. In lieu of a single metal filament, HIDs use two closely spaced electrodes inside of a hermetically sealed quartz glass tubular capsule. Once energized, an arc passes between these two electrodes and through a metal vapor. To bust out the science on you of how they work, the free electrons colliding with an atom in the vapor momentarily knock an electron into a higher orbit of the atom. When that electron returns to its proper orbit, it emits a bit of radiation. The wavelength of that radiation depends upon the type of metal vapor used and the energy zone of the electron, but gets converted into light.
In addition to the multitude of technologies used to produce the light, there are multiple light patterns that customers need to be aware of. The various light patterns are easy to understand when you see them together. The views in the accompanying graphic give you a birds-eye view of what each beam looks like on the ground. Standard headlights have a unique beam to illuminate the foreground well and then angle off to the right at a distance to minimize glare to oncoming traffic. The rest of the beams are symmetrical in their pattern. HID lights have the double win of producing more light than a halogen bulb while consuming much less power. This has helped make them a favorite of off-road racers as a multitude of them can be used to turn night into day without destroying an alternator or electrical system. The color temperature is also closer to that of natural daylight and can be varied as well. If there is a drawback of HIDs it is that they require the use of a ballast to carefully regulate the voltage going to the capsule of gas. This could sometimes complicate mounting, and usually meant that the lights were rather large if the ballast was mounted internally. However, as technology has progressed, ballasts have become smaller, making this more of a non-issue.
Some prefer the more traditional look of a round light making them initially shy away from LED light bars, but companies are now starting to produce lights that combine both LED technology with a more conventional housing. The PIAA 3.5- and 7-inch LED fog and driving lights are a perfect example of this as they use a rearward facing LED bulb firing into a unique computer-designed, multi-surfaced reflector specifically built to maximize output of the LED light source. Light emitting diode LED lights are the latest technology to show up onto the off-road lighting landscape. The Light Emitting Diode is unique in that it uses no filament whatsoever. Instead a very small semi-conductor chip is located in the center of the light source that has two regions separated by a junction. One region is dominated by positive electric charges while the other contains negative charges, with the junction acting as a barrier to the flow of electrons between the two. Once sufficient voltage is applied, the electrons can move freely across the junction, where a quantum of electromagnetic energy is emitted in the form of a photon of light. Each light source is housed in a small plastic bulb to protect it.
Another huge benefit of LED lights is their extremely rugged nature. The Rigid Industries E-Series light bar features an unbreakable and scratch-resistance lens that sits in a tough aluminum housing. They are also IP68-certified, making them impervious to dust and water. On top of this, there is no traditional filament to worry about breaking. Another benefit of light bars, such as the E-Series, that is often not discussed is that their low profile design allows for more air to enter the grill area when front mounted and less drag when roof mounted. Traditionally the drawbacks of LED lights have been that the front emitting nature of the LED bulb meant that they are harder to focus and emit less light than an HID. This led to them being more suited as floodlights or for slower speed driving. However, that has all changed in recent years as manufacturers have figured out ways to focus the beam of the LED through better reflector designs along with improving their output. The result is an LED that can now throw light a lot farther than earlier generations, as well as more of it. The benefits of an LED light are huge as with no filament to break they are nearly impervious to damage from shock and vibration. They are also extremely efficient and produce a bright white light while using little power. Their size and construction also allows a host of mounting options as they can be made in almost any size from extremely compact to large bars that produce a huge amount of light. And, unlike HIDs, they start up instantly with no lag. A host of lighting options now exist from quality halogen off-road lights to HIDs to LEDs. Ultimately, what will be the deciding factor for most is how to fill your realistic needs within your budget.
While HID lights used to be only affordable by affluent Trophy-Truck drivers, their prices have come down considerably and there are now options for a much wider range of budgets. Rugged Ridge offers a variety of configurations including a 5- or 7-inch housing in either composite or steel for different price points. The lights are also available in non-HID versions as well for even more cost savings.