Off-Road Lighting Shootout - Brighter Nights

    Halogen vs. HID vs. LED

    In the early days of automotive history, if you wanted to drive and see after dark, you had to strike a spark and light a flame for illumination. Many headlights were fueled by oil or acetylene, and we can bet that their yellow, sooty flame didn’t provide a whole lot of brightness. Things started to improve when electric headlights were invented in the late 19th century. However, getting a relatively delicate filament to survive over early bumpy roads proved to be challenging.

    Fast-forward about a hundred years, and the demand for extended night vision has only increased—especially in abusive and lengthy desert racing. Long races require driving at night, and quality lighting can make the difference between running at cruising speeds or excelling to race-winning speeds. Technology has brought us better light sources and improved optics to get the light projected out in front of us. Now, we also have multiple types of light sources and housings that can survive the temperature and vibration extremes of today’s off-road environments.

    There are three common types of light sources you’ll encounter when looking at off-road lights. These are halogen, high intensity discharge (HID), and light emitting diode (LED). Each type has its advantages and disadvantages, and each may be appropriate for the various applications from weekend wheelers to competition Trophy Trucks.

    Halogen Lights
    Many production vehicles have used halogen headlamps for decades. These gradually replaced the former sealed-beam headlights. Halogens cast a far whiter hue of light than the sealed-beam bulbs, so they illuminate further and with more clarity. Common power ratings for halogen off-road lights are 100, 130 or 150 watts. For the average wheeler, these are the most economical performance lights you can choose.

    HID Lights
    High intensity discharge (HID) lamps produce illumination from a gas-filled bulb where an intense plasma is formed to create light. HID lamps are more power efficient than halogen lamps, and can generally provide the equivalent light output using only about 25 to 35 percent as much battery current. The lights offer output similar to that of a 150-watt halogen, but are generally rated at only 35 to 50 watts. Quality can vary widely, as can cost.

    LED Lights
    The latest form of automotive lighting is that from light emitting diodes (LEDs). These tiny semiconductor devices are the most efficient form of lighting, as they draw relatively little electrical current for the amount of light they produce. They also have high service lifetimes (typically in excess of 10,000 hours). LEDs can be manufactured to produce several different wavelengths of white visible light and multiple colors. Several types of LED off-road lights currently exist on the market, including large lights with traditional reflectors and multiple LED array lights.

    Lenses and Optics
    When shopping for lights, you’ll find a range from budget lights at discount stores to top-tier racing lights from a number of manufacturers. Like most things in life, specs are about both quantity and quality. You want a unit that produces a lot of light, but can also efficiently emit that light out front in a focused pattern that is useful to your needs. Your greater purchase dollars buy you better housings, reflectors, and lenses to reach these goals.

    We spoke with Michael DeHaas, President/CEO of KC HiLites, about choosing lights for off-road applications. He commented that buyers commonly misunderstand the types of lights available by beam pattern, and how to choose a set to light the locations where they need illumination, based on the terrain and travel speed. For instance, it makes little sense to use long-range lights that shine very far ahead in a small beam width to allow you to navigate some twisty forest roads. A wider pattern with less throw would be far more useful in such an application.

    Rock Lights
    If you like to run tough trails at night and need visibility across obstacles below you, the addition of rock lights under your rig will make a big difference after darkness falls. Years ago, we bought the cheap 55-watt rubber-cased tractor floods for ground lighting. However, these days, the answer for rock lighting is almost always LEDs. You don’t need near the light you have aimed out front. What you want is a set of multiple lights that bathe the ground under your rig with soft illumination.

    A Basic Comparison
    Lamp Type Halogen HID LED
    Cost Lowest Medium to high Highest
    Light Output ~25 lumens/watt ~100 lumens/watt ~150 lumens/watt
    Distance of Reach High Highest Medium/High
    Power Consumption High Medium Lowest
    Illumination Color Slightly yellow White-blue Varying whites, colors
    Lifespan Lowest Medium Highest