These days you can’t swing a broken tie rod without knocking 14 light pods off the nearest angry-eyed Jeep Wrangler. The market is totally saturated with all sorts of near-identical looking light pods, light bars, and big, classic round lights.
There’s a trap I find myself falling into all the time, a condition I like to call Options Paralysis – When you have so many options available to you that you just end up picking none at all. Anyone who has dipped their toes in the water shopping for off-road or auxiliary lighting knows this well, as all the different bulb types, beam patterns, brands, sizes, and intended use are enough to make your head spin.
You have your choice of fog lamps, cornering lamps, rock lights, flood lights, driving lights, pencil beams, and spot lights – each available with LED, halogen, or HID bulbs in a whole range of different color temperatures from amber all the way to blue-ish white.
Man, that was exhausting just to type, let alone shop for. So let’s get into everything you need to know in order to shop off-road lights so you can narrow down which are best for your needs.
What Kind of Off-Roading Are You Doing?
The first and most important place to start is with what it is you’re actually doing with your rig. My take on lights is that less more, as not only is it a bit tacky to bolt on as many lights as you can fit, but that leads to wiring and power consumption headaches. A few well placed and properly spec’d lights can provide all the light you’ll need.
When determining what beam pattern is right for your needs, it’s best to frame it in terms of the speed you’ll be going.
If you’re rock crawling or making you’re way around tight, technical trails, then you aren’t going to benefit as much from narrow spot beams, you need good visibility of what is in your immediate vicinity.
Recommended Beam Patterns:
- Fog lights – See rocks and obstacles low to the ground immediately in front of you.
- Flood beams – Wide and more spread out beam designed to light up wider scenes further out than flood lights. Often used as work lights, light night time trail repairs on your buddy’s rig.
- Rock lights – These are often placed underneath and around your rig, pointing down so that you or your spotter can see what your tires are doing.
Even if you’re rock crawling, though, you often are traversing fire roads and washes to get to and from the serious stuff. Also just good for secluded back roads (where legal to use). Treat these like brights, don’t blind people.
Recommended Beam Patterns:
- Fog lights – Mount as low as possible to help see under fog layers, amber lenses are handy here for better vision in poor weather.
- Driving lights – Think of these as a second set of brights. Mount these at headlight level or higher.
- Spread beams – Similar to the above, just with a wider side-to-side spread instead of longer distance.
At high speeds, you need to be able to see as far ahead as possible to be able to prepare for obstacles, whoops, or dips that are coming at you quick. Side to side vision here is still important mainly for animal spotting, but less of a priority, as your vision needs to be focused on what is directly in your way.
Recommended Beam Patterns:
- Spot beams – Also called pencil beams, these feature very tightly focused lenses for extreme long distance vision. These are used a ton in the trophy truck community where they often see speeds over 100 MPH at night off-road. These are most effective when mounted on the roof for extra distance.
- Spread beams – These throw light similarly to how your standard brights might, but with more light and an even wider pattern. Since you don’t need the extreme range, this is mostly for spotting turns and possible animals.
- Cornering lights: When it comes time to make tight, fast turns, you need to be able to see wide to the sides without taking much time to focus.
Let’s Talk Color Temperature:
Ever notice that rally cars and Le Mans racers tend to run amber or yellow lights, but Baja trucks seem to run more white lights? Well it’s not just an aesthetic choice, there are good reasons for it. Yellow and amber lights tend to offer better visibility in bad weather, as these light frequencies penetrate water as opposed to reflecting off it it, giving you better visibility to rain, fog, and to more accurately gauge puddles.
That’s why these amber lights are so popular in Europe where it rains all the time, and not so much in the dry desert (though you still see them sometimes). Hunters also favor yellow/amber lenses in their glasses as they say it better allows the eye to pick up movement. I can’t confirm that, but I’m inclined to take their word for it.
Breaking It Down by the Numbers:
In LED lights especially, you see the color temperature listed out in degrees Kelvin. Lower values mean warmer colors, higher numbers mean cooler colors.
- 2500k-4000k – Amber to pale yellow
- 4300k-6000k – Pure white to blue-ish
Another thing to note on color, the more blue you go, the more grating a color it is for people who may be in the path of your lights, and the less “natural” colors you as the driver see become. Reds in particular tend to wash out as brown or black in temperatures above 7000k.
Bulb Choice Pros and Cons:
The three most common choices you’ll be faced with (in order) are LEDs, halogen, and HID. Each have their advantages, so this largely comes down to personal preference for what you’re looking to get out of your rig – however, I have to say that LEDs objectively have more upsides than any of the others. There’s a reason why they’ve become so popular.
- Cheap to produce
- Longest lasting on average
- Most energy efficient by far
- Most efficient in terms of packaging (most light output for taken space)
- Can be difficult to seperate knock-offs
- Not everone cares for the look
- Often come in too blue a color temperature for some people
- Classic looks
- Bulbs are usually replaceable off-the-shelf
- They were on Marty McFly’s truck in Back to the Future
- The most choice for any budget
- Least energy efficient
- Lowest light output given their size on average
- Classic looks of the halogen
- Cooler color temperature on average (including pure white, my favorite)
- More energy efficient than halogen
- Require a ballast that may or may not be built into the housings
- Not as efficient as LEDs
- More expensive than halogens while not matching LEDs for output
A Note on Safety and Legality:
The headlights on your car are designed specifically to light the road ahead while not blinding oncoming drivers. These auxiliary lights and light bars are not designed with this in mind. Don’t be That Guy™ who drives around on the street with your off-road lights on. I’ve said this many times, and I’ll say it every chance I get: No one is impressed by your ability to flip a switch on your dash. Leave those lights off if you’re around other people.
As for legality, be sure to check your local state and county laws on running these lights on the streets — and I don’t mean driving around with them turned on. In many states (including California) it’s illegal to have aftermarket lights uncovered while on public roads. Your mileage may vary on whether this is actually enforced, but I have been ticketed for it in the past.
What do you think? Anything I missed? Have a question for your own setup? Drop a comment below!
Be sure to check out my off-road lights install guide!