If you are an off-roading enthusiast, you are probably fully aware that the factory headlights your vehicle came equipped with are not always bright enough to cut it.
Even with the high beams activated, factory headlights and fog lights rarely meet the demands of serious off-road driving, which is why aftermarket auxiliary lighting and headlight upgrades are some of the most common upgrades 4×4 owners make to their vehicles.
While auxiliary lighting, such as roof-mounted light bars and hood-mounted ditch lights are popular, it is also important to upgrade your factory headlights, as this easy switch can significantly improve your visibility on the trails, without breaking the bank.
Table of Contents
Upgrading Your Lights
HID and LED headlights are two of the most effective styles of aftermarket off-roading lights on the market today. These aftermarket headlights are designed to replace your dull factory headlights with significantly brighter alternatives that more effectively meet the demands of off-road and rural driving.
While both styles offer their advantages and disadvantages, this presents confusion for the consumer. To help you decide which style of headlight is the best option for your 4×4 vehicle, we are going to compare the two.
We will go over each style of headlight and explain the advantages and disadvantages of choosing either option. From there, we will also explain where either style of headlight is the most appropriate. Once you understand these two popular types of off-roading headlights, you will be able to make the right choice for your particular vehicle.
More importantly, you will be able to upgrade your current headlights to a more effective option that will improve your visibility and help you stay safe on the trails!
The popularity of LED lights is increasing every single year, especially with off-roading enthusiasts. Their compact size, impressive durability, long lifespan, energy efficiency, and most importantly, their brightness, are just some of the reasons why you now see LED headlights on trails, city roads, and everywhere in between.
Where LED headlights used to be extremely expensive, it is now possible to get a high-quality set of LED lights at an affordable price.
What are LED Lights?
LED stands for light emitting diode. Essentially, LED lights are a two-lead semiconductor light source. Electrical current passes through a microchip, which illuminates the individual LEDs to produce visible light. They produce light up to 90% more efficiently than traditional halogen headlights.
Advantages of LED Headlights:
- Shock and Water Resistance – Typically, LED headlights are extremely shockproof and water-resistant, which is great news for off-roading. Traditional halogen bulbs can fail when they are taken over the rocky and uneven terrain that is typical while off-roading. LEDs are also less susceptible to water damage than halogen lights, especially when they are submerged, which can happen if you are tackling particularly difficult trails.
- Easy to Install – Most LED headlights can operate on multiple voltages, without needing to be modified. This means they are much more versatile than halogen headlights.
- Compact Size – LED lights produce more directional light than other styles of headlights, which means they do not need as large of a reflector. This means they are available in more compact sizes and with an increased level of protective housing. Their compact size partially explains why LEDs are so popular for ditch lights, bumper lights, and light bars.
- Longer Lifespan – Given that LEDs create light via a non-thermal conversion of electrical energy, the do not burn out in the same way that halogen lights do. This means the lights are far more energy efficient and create far less heat. Where typical bulbs burn out with very little notice, LEDs will fade, which gives you the opportunity to replace them before they are completely useless. They also last much longer, which will save you time and money when it comes to replacing your headlights.
Disadvantages of LED Headlights:
- Partial Burn Outs – Unlike a typical light bulb, which will burn out completely, LEDs are susceptible to ‘dead spots’, which means some of the LEDs have failed. While you could argue that this is better than the entire headlight burning out, it is difficult to repair individual LEDs, which means you typically have to replace the entire headlight to address the issue.
- Inconsistent Pricing – Since LED headlight prices range so greatly, it can be difficult to know if you are choosing a high-quality headlight at a good price, or an inferior product. An LED headlight can range from $10 to well over $100.
- They Can Be Too Bright for Oncoming Traffic – In some cases, LED headlights are almost too good. While the extra brightness is really beneficial on the trails, it can cause issues for oncoming traffic when you drive your vehicle on regular roads. For this reason, it is important to check that the brightness is street legal where you live.
HID headlights, or high intensity discharge headlights, have been around since the early 1990s. While they have been a popular headlight option amongst serious off-road enthusiasts and professional rally racers for many years, their high prices have kept them out of the hands of most hobbyists. They are known for producing incredible levels of illumination that is typically twice as bright as the light created by traditional halogen headlight bulbs.
What are HID Lights?
HID headlights are also sometimes known as Xenon lights because this gas is used to fill the inside of each bulb. They are a type of arc lamp, which means light is produced via an electric arc between two tungsten electrodes. The bulb is filled with metal salts and gas. Once the arc is started, it heats and evaporates the metal salts, which forms plasma. This greatly increases the intensity of light produces by the arc itself.
As you can tell, HID lights are fairly complex, which explains why they tend to be so expensive.
Advantages of HID Headlights:
- Incredible Brightness – The main advantage of an HID headlight is the incredible amount of clear, white light they produce. On average, HID headlights are twice as powerful as halogen lights, but many will go beyond double the brightness. The light they produce is almost white, which increases visibility for the driver.
- Low Power Consumption – Like LED headlights, HID headlights use less power than traditional halogen lights. On average, they will draw 60% less power than a comparable halogen light. This means HID bulbs will generate more light with less power, which reduces the strain on your vehicle’s battery.
Disadvantages of HID Headlights:
- High Cost – As mentioned, HID headlights tend to be very expensive. While prices are coming down from when they were first introduced to the off-road market, they are still much more expensive than traditional bulbs and even most LED headlights. While you can find relatively cheap HID headlights, they are typically less durable, as manufacturers cut costs by housing the lights with cheaper materials.
- Startup is Not Instantaneous – Since HID headlights require a sort of ignition phase to light up, there is somewhat of a delay when you turn them on. Where LED headlights light up almost instantaneously, it can take a couple seconds for HID headlights to reach their full brightness.
Which Headlight is the Best Option?
The truth is both LED and HID headlights can work really well for off-roading purposes. Both tend to outperform the traditional halogen headlights most 4×4 vehicles come equipped with from the factory.
In terms of performance, HID headlights are really great when you need long-distance lighting. This is why they are popular for those that tend to drive at higher speeds. For example, if you live in a poorly lit, rural area and you are looking for a headlight that will give you a greater range of visibility, converting to HID headlights might be the right move. However, you do have to keep in mind that HID headlights can be fairly expensive.
On the other hand, LED headlights tend to cast a wider beam of light, which helps with peripheral visibility. For trail riding at lower speeds, this more dispersed light is really helpful. It is also worth noting that LED lights tend to draw far less electricity than other styles of headlights, so if you are someone that wants to have the ability to light up the trails while your vehicle’s engine is off, LED can last much longer without draining your battery. This can be really helpful for those that depend on their vehicle’s lights while they are setting up camp or repairing trails.
Take Advantage of Both:
Some off-road enthusiasts will get the best of both worlds by installing an LED light bar and a set of HID headlights, or vice-versa. If you are someone that uses your 4×4 vehicle in a variety of conditions, including both low and high speeds, mixing HID and LED lights is an excellent option.
There are even hybrid lights out there that feature HID lights for reaching out into the darkness and LED lights to illuminate the area immediately in front of the vehicle. However, it is worth noting that these hybrid light systems tend to be large, roof-mounted light bars, rather than headlights.
Whether you prefer LED or HID headlights, either option is likely to be a major upgrade over your factory lights. Choose the lighting option that appeals to your own personal preferences and always remember to choose a high-quality product from a reputable manufacturer!