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Off-Road Lighting 101
The year is 1970, and Pete Brown — an off-road enthusiast from Saugus, California — is thinking. He’s been chewing on something for a while now. Pacing back and forth in the place where many do their best thinking: the garage. Aside from the warm, dusty winds outside, it’s quiet. A fine Saturday afternoon to stare at your rig and think.
A few weeks prior, while camping out in Parker, AZ, Pete had blown past a sharp turn on the trail, getting himself momentarily lost in the deep, velvety darkness of the remote desert. The missed turn was a small mistake that he had easily corrected before long. But what if he hadn’t? Something about it had stuck with him. Like a sliver you know you can pluck if you just keep at it, the event got him thinking.
Then, it got him acting. He placed an order for a set of aircraft landing light bulbs. He fit each bulb into a custom metal case. And then, he mounted the bulbs to his rig, one by one. Next, he wired them to the vehicle’s power supply, and finally, he lit up that garage like it was Christmas morning.
He never missed a turn again.
It didn’t take long for Pete’s idea to get noticed. First, it was his friends admiring his handiwork and asking for lights of their own. Then, Pete and his wife began attending off-road races to inform athletes and enthusiasts in the crowd. Before he knew it, Pete was taking a very different kind of sharp turn — quitting his day job, getting a much bigger garage, and firmly establishing himself and his brand KC HiLights as the leader in a whole new category: off-road lighting.
Fifty years later, Pete’s lights aren’t just aircraft bulbs in homemade casings anymore. Over the decades, the KC brand has done a lot to build upon its off-road lighting legacy, setting trends and lighting the way for off-roaders to maximize the performance of their vehicle so that they can adventure further. Along the way, others joined the industry with ideas and technology of their own to push the category forward.
The result is a market bursting with options. To navigate some of the off-road lighting fray, we spoke with Taylor Ulrich, Marketing and Content Manager at KC HiLites, to walk us through lighting setups for three popular off-roading use cases.
Whether you’re an off-road beginner or veteran, your vehicle’s auxiliary lighting needs will vary greatly based on where you are and what you’re doing with your vehicle. If you’re an overlander, mountain biker, or backcountry hunter whose off-road pursuits take you on forested trails, you’ll want to consider the following lights for your setup.
Bumper Lights - Located on the front bumper of your vehicle, bumper lights add power to your forward-facing visibility, blowing out your traditional headlights so you can see more and see further.
Ditch Lights - Placed at the corners of your vehicle’s hood just below the windshield, ditch lights increase your peripheral visibility. These lights work with your bumper lights to make those tight turns in the forest a lot less blind.
Scene Area Flood Lights - When you arrive at your destination, having scene area flood lights mounted on your vehicle is useful for setting up camp and avoiding hazards. These are often mounted on a roof rack.
Going the extra mile: If you overland in groups a lot, it can be really nice to have a chase light mounted on your vehicle to make you easy to follow. If you’re the leader of a group of vehicles, having an overhead light bar to light the way ahead for everyone is also a nice to have. For ambient lighting when you’re just hanging out at camp, rock lights under your vehicle can look really cool.
One huge difference between the forest trail use case and the dunes use case is speed. When traveling at high speeds, the lights on your vehicle become warped, illuminating different amounts of land than they would standing still. This trick of physics can be compensated for with auxiliary lighting. If you’re someone who enjoys rippin’ in the dunes with your Jeep or side-by-side vehicle, you’ll want to consider the following lights for your setup.
Chase Light - When you’re out in dusty conditions where other drivers are moving fast and having fun, it’s just as important for you to be seen as for you to see. A chase light mounted in the back of your vehicle will alert fellow drivers to your location, keeping you safe if you need to stop.
Overhead Light Bar - Mounted above the windshield, an overhead light bar adds depth and distance to your visibility — a valuable thing when traveling at high speeds in the dunes, where it’s easy to outrun your own lights.
Ditch Lights - Duneing often involves taking sharp turns, for example, at the crest of a sand bowl, you still want to see what’s below you to your side as you come back down. Ditch lights mounted at the top corners of your hood keep those tight turns well-lit the entire time.
Going the extra mile: Some side-by-side vehicles come with limited interior lighting, and adding a dome light is smart to illuminate the cab if you need to stop and find your seatbelt, plug in a comms cord, or adjust your helmet. Finally, mostly just because they are undeniably awesome, colored rock lights are a great addition to a dune-ready build.
Most people choose to rock crawl during the day, and lighting might not be an obvious need. But it's a complex activity, where plenty of things can go wrong. One thing can lead to another; perhaps something breaks and needs a tricky repair, or someone gets stuck for too long, and suddenly it's sunset. Auxiliary lights can be a lifesaver in these scenarios. If you’re an avid rock crawler, you’ll want to consider the following lights for your setup.
Bumper Lights - Flooding more of the area in front of your vehicle, bumper lights eliminate some of the shadows that rocky terrain can create with only traditional headlights, getting you a clearer picture of what obstacles lie ahead.
Rock Lights - Mounted up inside each wheel well, rock lights illuminate obstacles on the ground all around your tires and are invaluable when rock crawling after dark. Pro tip: when mounting these lights, think about where you, the driver, want visibility but also think about your spotter on the trail and where they’ll want visibility. They’ll be using your rock lights, too.
Knuckle Lights - These are a newer option but rising in popularity. Because knuckle lights are mounted to your vehicle’s steering system, they turn when your tire tires turn, making them an incredibly useful addition for rock crawlers.
Going the extra mile: It’s not uncommon when rock crawling for you to need to back up and reapproach an obstacle. These situations make auxiliary lights in the back of your vehicle, like a rear-mounted lightbar, useful for yourself and/or your spotter.
For Pete Brown, having an extra light on the trail was the difference between missing a turn or not. But off-road lights help you do so much more than avoid getting lost. Lights help you stay on the trail so you don't widen it over time. They help you see obstacles so you don't do undue damage to your vehicle. And they work as a beacon for animals, so you can avoid killing anything you shouldn't. In short, off-road lighting helps you tread lightly.
It also helps you express yourself. Part of the reason there are so many options on the off-road lighting market is that — like everything in the off-road space — these objects are tools for self-expression. Just like when you swap out your tires when you add auxiliary lights to your vehicle, you make it a little bit more yours. You customize your rig, and then you take it out into the world for a customized experience on the trail.
What will your build show you?
Photos by Aaron Tromp. Special thanks to KC HiLites and Darren Parsons for capturing the off-road light setup on Darren’s Jeep build for this article.
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