Has this ever happened to you: You went off-roading in your 4×4 and lost track of time. On the drive back through the wilderness, you learned the hard way that high beams are meant for paved roads, and moonlight isn’t very effective in a dense forest. You need off-road lights, but which ones should you buy?
There are a few things to look for when choosing off-road lights:
- Bulb type
- Beam patterns
- Color temperature
- Mounting position
We’ve all seen a rack of lights on the front of a Jeep, but that’s not the only type of off-road lights you can buy for your vehicle. Let’s explore each category of off-road light, so you can decide what type of lighting is right for you.
Table of Contents
- Bulb Type
- Beam Patterns
- Color Temperature
- Mounting Position
- The Best budget Off-Road Lights
- Off Road Driving Lights
- Off Road Flood and Fog Lights
- Magnets or Bolts?
- Light Up the Dark with the Perfect Off-Road Lights
This aspect often goes overlooked, but there are several different bulb types that can be used in off-road lights. There are pros and cons to each. You can break bulbs down into three main categories:
That’s right; you can get the same types of bulbs for your overland rig as for your home. Here are some of the benefits for each type of bulb, along with some issues to be aware of:
Although various wattages and shapes exist, the basic structure of the halogen light bulb has gone unchanged since Edison figured it out 100 years ago. Halogen bulbs are tried and true. They offer plenty of light and are very cheap to replace compared to the other two. Most vehicles come with halogen bulbs as their standard low beam and high beam headlights.
The problem with halogen is that you’ll be replacing your bulbs far more often. Halogen bulbs simply don’t last as long as the other types. That might be fine if you only go off-roading once in a while, but if you use them often, you’ll end up replacing them so much that it would have been cheaper to splurge on a different bulb.
The other disadvantage to halogen is that it is extremely inefficient, at just 3.5%. What does that mean? Only 3.5% of the energy produced by a halogen light bulb is used in actual light. The rest of it, the vast majority, is wasted as heat.
HID, or High Intensity Discharge, is a more advanced type of light bulb. The technology is somewhat similar to halogen, but it instead uses tungsten electrodes and noble gas.
Although rarely used in homes (fluorescent is the better home fit), HID was primarily developed as a new way to do halogen lighting, while solving some of its major problems like durability and efficiency. Today, it’s sort of middle of the road. It’ll last longer than halogen and is still a bit cheaper than LED.
LED (Light Emitting Diode) off-road lights may be a little more expensive than the others, but they last exponentially longer. Fork over the money once and it’ll be years until you need to replace them. They also last a lot longer on a charge than halogen and HID. Plus, they’re usually brighter as well.
If you’re serious about off-roading and overlanding, there’s no substitute for good LED off-road lights.
To choose the right off-road light beam pattern, you’ll need to consider what you want to use them for. Do you drive in the rain or snow? Are you in the dusty desert? Consider all of these things when you pick out the different beam patterns.
There are four different types of beam patterns:
- Flood lights
- Fog lights
- Driving lights
Flood lights are designed to either replace or work in tandem with your headlights. They light up a wider area but don’t have as much distance as high beams. They can even be used as backup lights. Keep in mind that if they’re replacing factory-installed lights, they need to be street legal.
Fog lights are typically mounted below the headlights to illuminate the ground in front of you. They don’t have much distance, but if you go out during snow or fog, you’ll be thankful you can see the ground in front of your vehicle.
Spotlights are more like high beams but with a much narrower focus. These are best used to see far into the distance. However, like an actual spotlight used in stage shows, they do a poor job of illuminating anything outside their focus.
Driving lights aren’t as focused as spotlights, but they are stronger and have a wider pattern. They’re basically the high-beams your vehicle comes with, just more of them.
Check out this great video for more on Beam Patterns:
Not all light bulbs give off the same color. Color temperature can range from amber to pure violet. The color is determined by the temperature in Kelvin at which the bulb burns:
- 1,000K – Pure amber
- 3,000K – Closer to yellow
- 6,000K – Pure white
- 10,000K – Blue
- 12,000K – Pure violet
Most off-roaders use either amber or white lights. The color you should choose depends on the conditions you plan on driving in:
White lights typically feel brighter than amber and are great in most driving conditions. However, they exhibit poor contrast and do not fare well in bad weather. Why? The light bounces off snow, dust, and rain—making it very hard to see. It’s like using your high-beams in the fog.
If you typically adventure in nice weather conditions, white lights will give you the most visibility.
Amber light has almost the exact opposite effect of white light. Amber has a slight dulling effect and makes it a little harder for you to differentiate between trees and the animals in them. However, it’ll visually reduce dust and rain to a minor inconvenience.
If you plan on going out in bad weather or trails with lots of dust, you definitely want to go amber.
If you can’t decide if you should get amber or white off-road lights, get both! Many white lights come with amber filters that can easily be installed over them. This will reduce your brightness output only slightly without making you buy a new set of amber off-road lights. That way, if an unexpected snowstorm hits, you can just pop on the amber filters and get out of there safely.
Here’s a great video that will talk you through choosing Amber or White Offroad lights:
Where you mount your off-road lighting mostly depends on what kind of vehicle you have and what purpose the fixtures serve. In general, the higher the mount, the further the distance. In other words, where you install the lights depends on the beam pattern. Here’s where each one should go.
Since you use them to see the ground in front of you, fog lights should be very low on your front bumper, just above the wheelbase.
Flood lights are still installed relatively low, but closer to the headlights. These help you see up close in normal conditions. Have them nearby the headlights, so when the headlights just aren’t cutting it, your flood lights can pick up the slack.
Since driving lights are more or less next-level high beams, these should also stay either right next to or just below your factory headlights. They’re meant to work together with your headlights.
Spotlights are typically mounted as high as possible. The higher the mount, the farther you can see. In fact, seeing a huge rack of spotlights going across the roof of a Jeep may have been what brought you here in the first place. They’re certainly the most recognizable off-road lights thanks to their position on the vehicle. And let’s face it: they look awesome!
Once you know the type of lights you want, you’ll need to decide how many fixtures you want. The number of off-road lights you’ll need depends on a variety of factors:
- Typical conditions you encounter
- Your preferred lighting conditions
- How often you’ll be using them
If you don’t go out often, just a couple roof-mounted spotlights and two flood lights will probably do the trick. But if you go out all the time, the lack of consistent brightness might get annoying. Stick a few more lights on your rig! Plus, if your vision is less than ideal, it makes sense to go for more lighting. That rogue deer jumping out in front of your vehicle at sunset will thank you later.
You might be thinking: my vehicle already comes with good lights; why do I need new ones?
While it’s true that off-road lights can get expensive fast (especially if you buy a huge spotlight rack), it’s well worth the price to have at least a couple. Having that extra vision is truly priceless. There are some cost-effective ways to get off-road lights without paying an arm and a leg:
- White lights with amber filters as described earlier
- Installing 3 or 4 spotlights instead of a full rack of 6 to 8
- Sticking with your factory installed fog lights, if available
- Purchasing LED bulbs to save lots of money in the long run
There are plenty of ways to get the value of extra lighting for off-roading while staying in your budget.
The Best budget Off-Road Lights
Now that you’ve learned how all of the different off-road lights work, hopefully you have an idea about which ones you want to purchase. There are a few different options and some aren’t going to be critical to your overlanding experience.
Let’s go through some of the best budget priced off-road lights on the market.
There are mainly two categories of spotlights for Overlanding. First is the bar style lights that you often see above the windshield. Second are ditch lights which are generally mounted on the hood and face outward. Ditch lights will give you better visibility on either side of your vehicle which is a big advantage when running a trail in the dark.
These are two solid choices for budget bar lights:
Ridgehorse 42 Inch LED Light Bar
The Rigidhorse 42 Inch LED Light Bar is a great choice for overlanders on a budget. The single row will give you plenty of extra lighting to get to your destination and will fit well if you have a roof rack on your truck or jeep. You’ll have the option of a beam or flood light pattern.
Nilight 42 Inch LED Light Bar
The Nilight 42 Inch 240w LED Light Bar is similar to the Ridgehorse above, but has a dual row of lights. The dual row of lights is a great option if you’re not running a roof rack. That may be personal preference, though.
Here are some solid choices for budget ditch lights:
Side Shooter LED Pods
The Side Shooter LED Pods by FieryRed are tough, waterproof pod lights that can also double as flood lights if you choose. They come with a one year warranty, and you can also add expert installation.
Cutequeed LED Pod Lights
The Cutequeen 4 X 18w 1800 Lumens LED Spot Light is a 4 pack of LED pod style lights. For the price it’s a great deal for the budget conscious overlander. It includes mounting bars and additional accessories which is a nice bonus.
Nilight Ditch and LED Light Bar Combo
The Nilight Combo Led Light Bar Combo is a nice package. I like this combo because you’re adding a 20-inch bar to go along with a 4 pack of smaller lights. They’re all LED and more light is always better.
Off Road Driving Lights
I would consider these a nice to have, but not needed. Some folks really like them and a couple good ones include:
AUZKIN LED Light Bar Driving Lights
The AUZKIN LED Driving Lights are really bright driving lights also double as fog lights and come at a good price. They’ll not only work on your vehicle, but they’ll also easily attach to your ATV or dirt bike. These lights have heat dissipation technology and are fully submersible, which is great if you like to splash through the mud.
Nilight LED Spot & Flood Combo Bar Driving Lights
If your Nilight spotlights work well and you want to keep it in the family, they also make these two packs of the Nilight Driving Lights. Same quality, durability, and technology.
Off Road Flood and Fog Lights
Since flood and fog lights perform a somewhat similar function, it makes sense that their underlying technology and design are more or less the same. The big difference is where you decide to mount them. That being said, here are some quality lights for both purposes:
Zmoon Led Round Off Road Fog Light
The Zmoon lights are round to spread the beam as far as possible. They’re also small enough to mount anywhere you want. They make a great fog light at a budge price.
Nilight Amber 72W Double Row LED Fog Off Road Lights
The Nilight Amber 72 watt flood beam is a bright amber light that is great when you need lighting without the glare. If you do any winter off-roading or even dusty desert trails, then I’d seriously consider at least one set of Amber lights.
Magnets or Bolts?
Since off-road lights aren’t usually factory installed (except for some fog lights), you’ll need to mount them on your vehicle yourself. Some lights have magnets, while others require you to bolt them down. There are distinct advantages and disadvantages for each attachment method.
Bolting lighting to your vehicle is really the only way to go in my opinion. As long as you have the know-how and the vehicle is not a lease, go ahead and bolt that stuff down. This will prevent the fixtures from moving while you bounce around on the trails.
For most lights you will be able to use a bracket to bolt it onto the vehicle. These brackets are designed to work with the vehicle’s existing bolts. This means you won’t have to drill into the vehicle, which is always a good thing.
When it comes to driving spotlights, nothing beats bolting them to the roof rack or a custom bar way up high. They’ll stick with you through sludge and snow and show you every single pothole.
Magnets are undeniably convenient. Just take the light, stick it on, and you’re good to go. This is a good option for people without much technical knowhow and aren’t comfortable bolting. However, I don’t recommend using lights mounted with magnets for overlanding. You will lose them.
A major downside of magnets is that they’re not as strong as bolts. Even if they hold while your vehicle is stationary, they might fall off when you drive through all those bumps. If so, good luck finding that light again. In general, the more quality the light, the stronger the magnet. You get what you pay for, so splurge on the good stuff if you don’t plan on bolting anything down.
Light Up the Dark with the Perfect Off-Road Lights
Whether you’re looking for a simple stationary spotlight to help you set up camp, or a massive lightbar to illuminate even the darkest, dustiest trails (and make your rig look awesome in the process), there’s an off-road light to suit every overlanding style. Choose the one that’s right for you, and nothing will be able to stop you from having a good time.