In the off-roading world, when you ask the general populace about the subject, there are two things that define a truck: big tires and lots of lights. In this special Ford Truck Enthusiasts article, we’ll take you through some of the technologies and ideas behind such lights. Much of what you’ll read may surprise you, but we hope to enlighten your mind when it comes to lights for your Ford truck. Yes, it wouldn’t be a lighting article without a light pun or two.
OK, enough bad comedy. Racing into the deserts and rocks around the world require many different types of lights for these unique situations. Drivers typically want the most light they can get for the environment they’ll find themselves in. If you’re running down a desert trail at over 90-miles per hour, you need light shining as far down the trail as possible. However, if you’re rock-crawling around Jackhammer in Johnson Valley, California, you want to get lights on the rocks so that you can get the contrast and plan your route. Simply put, there really isn’t one “go-to“ solution that handles every lighting situation.
First, let’s talk about the different types of lights you can get. We should start off with the three most well-known: halogen, high intensity discharge (HID) and light emitting diode (LED. Halogen has been the industry standard for decades and is usually what will come stock on low-end trucks and cars.
Halogen is simple and inexpensive, but not drastically bright even with the best lenses in the world. It’s certainly not bright enough to go racing through the desert, like Chris Isenhouer and his 1969 Competitive Metals F-100 (which we’re featuring in this article) often do. The other disadvantage is their lifetime. Even though the chemical reaction between halogen gas and tungsten is reversible, they will only last about 250-hours.
The next type is high-intensity discharge, and it’s exactly what you’ll need when speeds reach over 100 mph.
“The HID light opened up the whole world of what a light can do,” says Trent Kirby, operations manager of Baja Designs. “Because it produced more performance and a brighter light in the same power consumption of a halogen bulb, it opened up the world to different types of beam patterns. It allowed us to go beyond your traditional Euro beam and spot lights.”
The difference is how the beam of light is created. HIDs use the electrical arc of two tungsten electrodes inside a tube filled with gas and metal salts. Once that arc starts, the metal salts become plasma and increase the light produced by the arc, and it begins to reduce the power consumption of the light.
The ballast you must use is needed to start the arc and maintain it. But, the power required to drive the ballast is within the typical automotive electrical system, including vehicles that used halogen lights originally. It also lasts longer than halogen, with most systems lasting to about three- to five-thousand-hours.
“We like to cater to each driver’s needs,” says KC HiLites‘ Nick Isenhouer. “Some need the long-range strong beam of an HID where as some need the wide-spread fill of an LED.” HIDs also come with the disadvantage of requiring either an internal or external ballast and waterproofing. Also, even the initial surge and warm-up of the plasma can take time. For many years, HIDs were your only real choice after halogen until LEDs came onto the scene.
“LEDs brought forth another huge advancement in performance and being able to design an optic that has a really good near-field light, but [you’re] also getting distance out of the same package,” says Kirby about LED lights. LED is the latest and greatest technology in off-road lighting right now. It uses a two-lead semiconductor light source that works like a p-n junction diode.
If you don’t know what that is, imagine two plates sandwiching two types of conductive material. One material has electrons from the voltage applied to it while the other material has electron holes. When enough voltage is applied, the electrons recombine with the holes and produces energy in the form of photons and you get light.
Thanks to their size, you can now package a lightbar that contains different types of beam patterns in one piece. “With halogen and HID, you couldn’t combine multiple patterns into one product,” adds Kirby. “You couldn’t have one eight-inch light that was both spot and driving–it was one or the other.” LEDs are very, very bright and are very, very small. Thanks to that, you can package a light in any combination you need and save room on the vehicle.
However, a LED does produce a lot of heat, and that’s why you’ll see some massive heatsinks on LED lights and bars. Manufacturers also must take that into account with their circuit boards as well. So, while the LED is smaller, it’s still going to need a way to drive away heat, and that can make the housing that much larger than the LED itself. Even with all of that, the lifetime of a LED light is sometimes as high as fifty-thousand-hours. When you take the size and life of an LED, you can see why more racers are going to them.
So, if you’re the guy who’s just starting off in off-road racing, what should you concentrate on? What type should you choose, and where should you put your lights? Both KC and Baja Designs agree that you should focus on the front of the truck under the dust line. “We offer a wide selection of both to fit any and all lighting needs,” says Isenhouer about KC’s lineup. “It’s all about the right combination to turn that night to day.”
A roof-mounted light bar is cool-looking, without a doubt, but the reality is that you’ll end up blinding yourself from the dust that rolls up and over the hood from the front tires. These dust particles will reflect the light back at you and you won’t be able to see a thing, slowing you down, or worse. So, both Kirby and Isenhouer agree that you should put your lights in and around the grill and front bumper areas.
LEDs are a good idea, too, since a lot of manufacturers will allow you to expand the lights as you need them. Baja Designs offers the ability for the user to replace lenses and o-rings when or if they need to for all their LED lights. KC HiLites now has the Flex LED that’s offered in single, dual and full-light bars from 10 to 50 inches. This also means, if you’re intuitive and can fabricate, you could make your own lightbar pattern by combining several Flex lights together and angling them to what you need.
So, OK, that’s great for charging from Vegas to Reno in the middle of the night; but what about those who crawl at night? This is where a light bar on the roof can come in handy. Rock-crawling and racing have their own unique challenges when it comes to lighting.
It’s more about getting a good idea of what’s ahead of you and sometimes what’s just above your roof as you crawl around Ocotillo Wells and the like. It’s also about getting depth perception so you know how to approach a rock challenge or obstacle during the night. If you get your truck or rig at a weird angle, being able to reach up and adjust a light bar to point where you need it is an amazing advantage to have. It allows you to tackle those tight and technical sections, but can still shine light down range.
However, there is one very important thing to always consider: Buy quality from a light business that has a name and will stand behind their products and not just give you a free replacement when it burns out. Be it Baja Designs, KC HiLites, Rigid or evenVisionX, buy a product that isn’t from a fly-by-night company that offers you cheap products on Facebook or Instagram and calls it “selling direct.”
Companies that sell cheap products don’t care how long it lasts. They don’t even test them. The brands we mentioned previously do tests on the bench, in the field and, many times, will test your lights that you just bought before they leave their doors.
In closing, when it comes to your off-road lights, you should take what you’re going to be doing into consideration. A rock crawler will need a different light setup than a desert racer. A street truck needs a different rig than a race truck. Even if you’re buying lights that are there to “look good,” you need to buy from a company that will stand by and guarantee their product
Engine: Mullenix Racing 408 CI LS
Engine Management: Holley EFI
Transmission: Culhane Racing TH400
Cooling system: CBR radiator, CBR oil coolers
Shock Package: Sway-A-Way 2.5 Coil overs, 4.0 Front Bypasses, 5.0 Rear Bypasses
Front Suspension: HRT Motorsports Center Mount A-Arms
Rear Suspension: HRT Motorsports 4 Link, Dirt-Tech Pro Housing
Hubs: 2.5 CNC Front Hubs, 3.25 Rear Hubs
Axles: Sway-A-Way 36 Spline
Rear Gear: Evan Weller Racing 10-inch
Wheels: 17″ RaceLine Wheels Monsters
Brakes: Willwood 6 Piston
Wiring: TRH Wiring
Seats/Belts: PRP Full Head Containment Hard Shells, PRP 5 point belts
Tires: 39″ BF Goodrich Baja T/A Projects
Fiberglass: McNeil Racing Custom 1969 Ford F-100 Hood and Bedsides
Lights: 7 KC HiLites Carbon Fiber Pods, 20-inch LED Flex bar, 2 LED Apollo Pros