Basics of Auxiliary Lighting for the Off-road Adventure and Camping Rig

Bravo1782

Adventurer
When examining the insufficiencies of many vehicles used in off-road adventure travel, auxiliary lighting is usually one of the first addressed. The reality is, traveling at night, particularly on back-country roads and through parks, can be downright treacherous; unexpected hazards can range from lumbering quadrupeds, poor signage, uneven roads, and even other people. Something as simple as a wrong turn can make a simple late-night drive into camp a total nightmare, so it’s important to have a good system for auxiliary lighting.

In this article, I’ll address what I consider the four most important categories of auxiliary lighting, wiring up your auxiliary lighting, installation considerations, and product selection. It’s worth noting that this article is written from the prospective of someone who uses his or her vehicle as a camping\adventure rig. If you’re using your vehicle as a work truck, rock crawler, prerunner, etc, your lighting considerations are likely very different. I could talk ad naseum about all the different applications of LED auxiliary lighting, but I’m just going to discuss the four most relevant to me.

Auxiliary Lighting: A Primer
There is some light bar terminology that needs to be addressed before moving forward.

Pods vs Bars
LED auxiliary lights generally come in two types: pods and bars. Pods are generally small, compact, low-wattage LED lights that are perfect for minimizing the footprint of the light and working in smaller places. LED bars start at around 24” long and grow from there. They usually consist of a double row of LEDs and have far more power than a pod. There are some single-row options utilizing more powerful LED elements, and some of those may be more appropriate based on your application.

Straight vs Curved Bars

LED light bars come in two styles: straight and curved. Straight bars seem to be more common and direct all light forward. A curved bar has a smooth radius to the entire length of the bar, providing a large spread of light and more area illumination.

Spot vs Flood vs Combination
All light bars fall into one of three general lighting categories: spot, flood, or combination. A spotlight is set up to be able to throw its power in a much tighter pattern with minimal light diffusion. This makes it an ideal light for long-range illumination, such as through a field or down a road. Floodlights are set up to diffuse the light to provide more area illumination with less focus, making these ideal work lights or area lights. Combination lighting is generally only available in a LED light bar; these lights are the best of both worlds. A combination LED light bar will have a center section of spotlights ideal for long range illumination and two outer sections of lights set up for a flood pattern. This gives the user the long-range illumination and flood illumination all in one compact package.

Four Major Auxiliary Lighting Applications

Forward-facing Auxiliary Lighting (FFAL)
The first (and most obvious) auxiliary lighting consideration is forward-facing auxiliary lighting (FFAL). Having powerful FFAL is a game-changer for late night excursions; whether you’re navigating into a campsite, traveling backcountry roads, or just providing lighting for a late-night project in a remote location, having good FFAL is essential. Since this is such a common need, there are numerous aftermarket brackets and solutions for this problem. Most aftermarket bumpers come with some sort of accommodation for FFAL. If there isn’t a custom bracket available, with a bit of ingenuity, DIY’ers can find a solution for their rig.
The easiest way to address this need is with an LED light bar, and for most people, a combination light bar is best. Exactly how you install that light bar is ultimately up to you. Currently, I am running a curved 40” ANNT combination light bar hidden behind the grille of my F-150. The combination bar gives me the variety lighting I need, the bar radius provides an immense amount of area coverage, and the 40” bar fits perfectly in front of my radiator.
The large number of LED light bars available means there is likely one to fit your application. There are too many custom brackets and mounts available to discuss here and if something doesn’t exist to fit your needs, one could be easily made.
Wiring a FFAL light bar is simple; for the novice, a store-bought wiring harness including all necessary relays and switches can be purchased fairly inexpensively and easily installed. The DIY-type, like myself, can make a custom harness and use whatever switches and relays they want.
FFAL is a primary and essential need of the vehicle–based adventurer. Being able to see where you’re going allows you to conquer the dark in a way that standard headlights just can’t do. Plus, with all the bracket hardware on the market, it is an easy need to address and there is likely something for every application.

Rear-Facing Auxiliary Lighting (RFAL)

The next deficit is one I really enjoy talking about because it’s one of those “once you have it you can never go back” installations: rear-facing auxiliary lighting (RFAL), also called backup lights or chase lights. Most vehicles have some sort of backup light as part of the factory lighting system, but I have yet to find one that I would describe as adequate. Backing up, especially at night, can be tricky; there can be all sorts of hidden hazards that are easily missed without proper illumination.
For RFAL, I tend to prefer a pod-style light in a flood pattern: you don’t need a ton of power for this application as the space you’re trying to light isn’t terribly large, and you’re generally not moving very fast. In the past, I have run small 18W flood pods mounted to either side of my trailer hitch on the back of my F-150. I am currently working on a custom bumper and will likely integrate the lights into the bumper.
As with FFAL, there are too many installation options to discuss here, but here are a few things to consider: installation of RFAL should be installed in a manner that best suits your needs. Most commonly, they’re integrated into the bumper; aftermarket bumpers generally already have provisions for RFAL and many stock bumpers can be easily modified to accommodate RFAL. Some users may make the light “dual purpose” and mount them in the back of a pickup truck bed to provide both RFAL and bed illumination (particularly advantageous for users with “headache racks” and flat beds).
Wiring RFAL is a little more tricky as most readily-purchased wiring harnesses that I’ve seen do not accommodate the long run necessary to reach the back of the vehicle, so inevitably a little bit of custom work is necessary. Make sure to consult a good ampacity guide to make sure you’re using the right gauge wire. There are a couple of wiring options available: I’ve seen some people wire the lights to turn on when the vehicle is shifted into reverse although personally I prefer to run the lights on a switch to be able to turn them on and off at will. I don’t want to blind people with my RFAL in a situation where it’s not necessary, and sometimes I like to leave my RFAL on to provide illumination while setting up camp. Usually the wiring can either be run through or along the frame of a vehicle to keep it protected.
RFAL is a huge game changer and those that have gone through the trouble of installing some small rear-facing pods will often wonder how they ever got along without them. Backing up at night is now much easier and much safer with the added illumination.

Area Lighting
This is a recent entry for me, but I have found a growing need for good area illumination in my application. Generally speaking, area lighting is diffuse-patterned flood illumination on all sides of the vehicle. This is less for navigation and more for area inspection and work lighting. Many people can easily solve this problem with lanterns, flashlights, and headlamps, but integrating it into a vehicle adds a degree of flexibility and hands-free operation not afforded with other solutions. Plus, an area can be illuminated without even getting out of the vehicle. This is great for someone like me that needs the area illumination to set up camp and work late at night, but it could also be good for work trucks pulling late nights at a job sites.
Area lighting is another application where small LED light pods with good diffuse flood patterns can really come in handy. Generally, spotlighting isn’t necessary; you just want to illuminate your surroundings. The small pods also give you a larger degree of flexibility in aiming the lights to really fine-tine your application.
Installation and wiring comes with its own set of problems, as the lights will need to be integrated into a roof rack. Some roof racks come with provisions and attachments for this sort of lighting; otherwise, you will have to add your own. In my case, I am building a custom cargo rack, so I can easily integrate light tabs. Wiring can be challenging too, as long runs of wires are needed and must find their way to your relay. For truck owners like myself, this can be a little easier since you could run the wires down the back of the cab to the frame. For someone with a SUV-style vehicle, you may find yourselves drilling holes in your roof.
It may be worthwhile to wire the left and right bank of light pods separately; it may be advantageous to turn off lights on one side of the vehicle, as to not disturb other campers or unintentionally over-illuminate a situation. It may also be worth considering two sets of switches; that is to say, one set in the cab by the driver and a second set in the rear of the vehicle for convenience.
While this may be a time-consuming and tricky install, the benefits make all the hassle worth it.

Ditch Lights

This is another recent endeavor for me; in meandering through a few of my favorite forums, I stumbled upon the idea of ditch lights. Ditch lights are small (generally flood pattern) lights facing at roughly 45° from the front of the vehicle. The principle is to provide strong side illumination while navigating at night to keep an eye on the side of the road. In my case, since I live in the Midwest, this is particularly handy for keeping an eye out for deer “eye shine;” nothing ruins your night faster than a collision with a large, corn-fed deer. Ditch lights are also awesome for illuminating poorly displayed signage: I couldn’t tell you the number of turns I missed at night because I couldn’t clearly see a road sign or turn off (particularly in state parks).
This is yet another application where flood LED pods would work well. However, depending on your application, spotlights might be good for aiming further down the road. I’m currently testing a set of floodlights and I’m very pleased so far, but eventually I’d like to try out spotlights to see how well they work in this application.
If you own a Jeep Wrangler, you are in luck; there are tons of windshield mounting brackets available for ditch light installation; the rest of us have to fend for ourselves. I’ve seen some people remove their mirrors and integrate a bracket between the mirror and the door itself. For my F-150, I only found one or two companies that make brackets for this application and they wanted a king’s ransom for their parts. For me, it was much cheaper to break out my welder and make my own. I chose to mount mine back by the hinges of my hood, by the windshield cowl. It took me some time and effort to get everything lined up with the appropriate clearance but in the end it was absolutely worth the effort. The 45° angle of the ditch lights minimizes harsh hood glare and puts the light right where you need it.
Wiring is also pretty simple: since you’re working in the engine bay, a store-bought harness could be used. Alternatively, a homemade harness could be fabricated pretty easily.

Building your lighting into a system
If you know you are going to install several auxiliary lighting systems, it may be worthwhile to plan the installation early to avoid a rat’s nest of wires cluttering your engine bay. There are tons of ways to consolidate your relays, fuse blocks, and switches into a more user friendly and aesthetically pleasing install. Remember: a little bit of planning goes a long way in an electronics-oriented project. Draw some simple wire diagrams and do a little bit of research. No matter what plan you come up with, make sure you leave plenty of room to expand. Build a solid background of basic 12 volt automotive wiring. Know what a relay is and how to use it! Poorly-wired accessories aren't just unsightly, they're down-right dangerous!

Final Thoughts
I have discussed several different options for auxiliary lighting that I have found to be mission-critical for my rig. These additions have made my vehicle more capable of handling the situations I put it in, or find myself in. However, your mileage may vary. You may find there are applications that I haven’t discussed that are essential for your specific use. The enormous variety of LED lights and brackets on the market ensures an excellent selection of lighting options. With that said, I hope this article gave you a good foundation to consider your future lighting needs!
 

4x4junkie

Explorer
Good article... Though unfortunately LED lights don't work well for me (too much glare) so I stick with halogen lights (except for rock lights... I'll use LEDs for those, they seem to work OK for that)
 

kojackJKU

Autism Family Travellers!
No led for me either for aux. forward lighting....at the moment. I may switch to light cannons later...but Sticking with HID for now. LED bars are not what I want....they don't work for my intended useage. I do have LED flood lights for back up lights. and scene lighting. I love my truck lites as well. But LED bars are not that great.
 

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AFBronco235

Crew Chief
I've found that my LED lightbar works well for my 91' Bronco. Its a combination bar, with the center reflectors giving a good spotlight patter forward and angling out to the sides. I would describe the outside LED reflectors acting more like many spotlight spread out over an are than as a diffused light, which is what makes them better than most HID, imo.

I'm also glad to see someone who takes a serious look at lights and lighting systems. I grew up in an area where having to rescue a buddy late at night because he was farming the fields till the sun went down could lead to some interesting adventures and being able to see while you're driving down a muddy dirt path because that's the only way to get to the field with a creak running along one side. The lightbar also works great as an area work light, for the same reasons you listed. I do plan on adding some auxiliary flood lights around my roof rack for that reason and a backup light as well. I had one previously on my stock tire swing arm, but when I got the new bumper mounted tire arm, I didn't swap it over.
 

Bravo1782

Adventurer
There are some advantages to the HID and Halogen lights, for sure. We could have a long conversation on different temperatures and what spectrum is best for what applications...it can certainly turn into a really intense conversation.

What I'm trying to highlight in my write-up is an affordable, high-value system to add auxiliary lighting that has worked really well for me. Your average weekend warrior runs on a tight budget and if he can save money and still equip his rig well, then all the better.

Ultimately, there is no "wrong" way to equip a rig so long as the following criteria are met:
1) Your rig is safe
2) You use your rig
3) Your rig works for you
4) You have adventures in your rig
 

Robert Bills

Explorer
Several acquaintances have recently installed LED lights and discovered that radio frequency interference from those lights is wreaking havoc with their CB and Ham radios. Since LED auxiliary lighting is now so popular, it would be helpful if someone with expert knowledge and real life experience could address this issue.

My solution, thus far, has been to avoid all aftermarket LED lighting
 

Bravo1782

Adventurer
Really? I've been running LED's and a CB for a while now and I've never had an issue. That's really interesting.
 

HARDTRAILZ

Certified
I like having HID projector headlight along with quad beam mod so the low beams stay lit with the high beams, Spot round led pods inset in front bumper and a rarely used 32 inch combo bar on the basket up top. The headlights really are almost always enough, but the bumper lights work well to fill ditch lines and add some light in certain weather conditions. They say they are spot, but they seem more along the flood light type with the way they pattern. They are enough to drive by alone though. The overhead is used in grown up field and for some longer range stuff. With its mounting back up away from windshield top, it barely hits the front edge of the hood and gives zero glare on the windshield. Seems to give me all the FFAL I can truly use.




I have some Area - side and RFAL - rear lighting I would like to add in the future, but debating a rooftop change in basket style so they are in the garage. I got several led pods, small bars and some hella and piaa halogens to try and find a proper combo. Would like a light on each side and a couple rear ones. Looking into some surface mount for therear bumper since it was built with a 3x3 1/4 wall hitch tube spanning the framerails and I cant really safely recess lights into it without loosing strength for towing.

I previously had 6 halogen up front with 2 aimed at the 45 for ditch line and two smaller lower spots for driving/fog and two larger round long range lights. I feel like my LED was a definite improvement in usable light. I personally like the color temp better although I miss the yellow long range piaa i had for awhile when it comes to winter time. I dont miss the ditch lights with the bumper leds, they seem to fill as much for deer and critters as mentioned above. When really out in backroads and when crops are up and deer are moving the roof light does come in handy for really covering a good area for watching for eyeballs.

I know this is about aux lighting, but be sure you maximize the headlight out put first. Lots of retrofit projectors and HID/LED aftermarket options are out there and can be more than most people really need. Can also often do a bit of wiring and get lows/highs/stock fog lights to work in concert and not shut off in certain modes. These are great ways to maintain a stock look and aerodynamic while being able to see better.
 

4x4junkie

Explorer
Several acquaintances have recently installed LED lights and discovered that radio frequency interference from those lights is wreaking havoc with their CB and Ham radios. Since LED auxiliary lighting is now so popular, it would be helpful if someone with expert knowledge and real life experience could address this issue.

My solution, thus far, has been to avoid all aftermarket LED lighting
I've seen this issue myself, it's very real (and not just LED lights, but many USB chargers, inverters, and even 12V fridges, among other things).

Some certainly are much worse than others, but most do seem to put out interference at least to some degree.
 

pappawheely

Autonomous4X4
Never heard the term ditch lights but I like it. I have mine under my front winch bumper pointing to the side. I had them on my prerunner and now on my 4x4. I spend a lot of time in the desert were trails can be faint. When looking for intersections of trails at night it's possible to drive right past it without the ditch lights.



 
Several acquaintances have recently installed LED lights and discovered that radio frequency interference from those lights is wreaking havoc with their CB and Ham radios. Since LED auxiliary lighting is now so popular, it would be helpful if someone with expert knowledge and real life experience could address this issue.

My solution, thus far, has been to avoid all aftermarket LED lighting
depending on where the power is coming from there is a lot of variables the the this RF noise, though my intercom and race radio in my prerunner I got tons of noise without any lights on. Just the noise of the electronics running the engine. this was fixed my adding a Kenwood noise filter to the power wires to the radio and intercom.
 

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I wanted to share some information regarding light sources and beam patterns that might be useful when discussing lighting options or comparing products.

Candlepower and Lumens
Don't be misled by lights that are rated by brightness (candlepower).

Candlepower - ratings only measure light from a single point within a beam of light. A tightly focused beam of light may rate a high candlepower but if that light only falls on a very small area, the light will be less than useful. An extreme example of this would be a laser pointer. While the candlepower would be great, the light would be near useless for illumination.

Lumens - are a measure of potential light output. All 35watt, 4200K HID light bulbs produce essentially the same amount of Lumens. A light's candlepower or lumens measurement is worthless if the illumination is not where you need it.

Light Distribution - Terms

The most effective off-road light will provide smooth light distribution without Sharp Cut-Offs or Hot Spots.

A “Sharp Cut-Off” is where the light drops off dramatically, creating a horizontal or vertical line into darkness. With the pitch and roll of the vehicle, the sharp cut-off affects your ability to see where you need to see.

A “Hot Spot” is an intense concentration of light in a small area. Hot spots can be very distracting while driving off road; your eyes tend to focus on just that bright spot of light bouncing in front of you.

Light Color

The color of emitted light, or "Color Temperature" is rated in Degrees Kelvin. The most usable light for the human eye is sunlight, which is rated at 4000K-5500K. Don't be fooled by lights offering higher temperatures than this - they tend toward the blue spectrum, which is only good for a "cool looking" light. 6100K and higher bulbs produce fewer lumens than the 4200K and 5000K and are less usable to the human eye.




Light Sources

Halogen - like conventional incandescent lights, use bulbs with a filament. The major difference is that Halogen bulbs are filled with a pressurized gas to prolong the life of the filament and allow it to burn at a higher and brighter temperature. The have a color temperature of around 3200K, which makes them appear more yellow in color than sunlight or HID light.

HID (High Intensity Discharge) - lighting is a quantum leap forward in off-road illumination. HID lamps produce a daylight quality light (4200K-5000K) and brightness (3200 lumens). A single HID bulb produces the equivalent of 250 watts of Halogen lighting power, while consuming only roughly 45 total watts of electricity and generating far less heat. Instead of a filament, HID bulbs fire a charge between two electrodes encased in a Xenon gas filled bulb. Since the bulb has no filament, vibration does not affect its operating life of approx. 2000 hours. The benefit of internally mounting the ballast is easy installation and serves to protect the HID components from the elements.

LED (Light Emitting Diode) - lighting has been around for years but is new to the forward lighting off-road scene. Recent advances in technology have made it possible to produce high-output LEDs capable of reaching the performance and pricing of HID lighting. The lights have an extensive life (approx. 100,000 hours) and are very resistant to vibration. The benefits of LED lighting include smooth, even light patterns and the possibility of making the light assemblies in many varying sizes and shapes.
 

kojackJKU

Autism Family Travellers!
I always say that the outrageous lumens claims from the LED light makers are in accurate at best and down right ridiculous at worst. Case in point.....Take 2 30" rigid bars compared to my Hella 500s with HID installed. My buddy has the Rigids installed on his F150, we were on a long straight and he pulled next to me and both fired up our lights....this was 4 lanes of highway (nothing on the road at this time at night), he turned his rigids on, I was ok...there is a **** TON right in front of his rig.....then I fired mine up....more light to the ditches, and way more upstream! NO mine did not puke light close in...but that's good. The funny thing is he had 4 8" kc's with two spot/long range, and 2 driving beams before the LED. His wife commented before we hit the wide area of the highway that his LED are not near as good as his KC's....ANd I agreed. He is now in the process of ditching the uber buck rigid lights and going back to the KC's with 55w HID in them....4300k as recommend by me and his own eyes when he saw what my little cheap hella 500s put down the road.

I was looking at getting either the new Hella valuefit LED 7" light or the new IPF LED round light for my patriot, but for the cost to performance...I am just putting a set of 500s with the same HID kit in for it...Installing the selective yellow bulbs (which do work great contrary to popular belief by some on this site), in the factory fog lights which work really good but just need the yellow.
 
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