Light Bar Buying Guide

Light Bar Buying Guide

Last Updated August 20, 2020 | Meghan Drummond
Contents

Light bars are a great addition to any off-roading vehicle. Not only do they look great, they’re also practical. Lights improve your visibility for off-roading at night. They can also make setting up camp a little easier when you’re overlanding.

Some types of light bars include special features that make them specially geared towards your favorite off-roading routes. With so many options, it can be tough to figure out exactly what the best light bar is for your off-roader.

Here are some of the top light bar features, as well as our recommendations for every purpose.

Light Bar Features

Features are what differentiate one light bar from another. Some brand-specific features are hard to quantify. But there are many features that offer an apples-to-apples comparison. Understanding these features and how they can improve your vehicle makes selecting a great light bar easier.

Waterproof

Even if you’re not a die-hard water fording fanatic, you most likely care about waterproofness. Light bars are especially desirable for poor weather conditions, when visibility can be the difference between wrecking and making it home safely. In most situations, your lights need to be at least somewhat waterproof.

A yellow Jeep with a bumper mounted light bar in the snow

How waterproof an item is (whether it’s your phone or your light bar) is measured by an “Ingress Protection Code.” IP67 is an example of what an ingress protection code looks like. Each of the two digits in the IP code offers some information about what type of protection you can expect.

The first number tells you how well the item protects against solid particles. So, something with a first digit of “2” would prevent anything larger than a finger from entering. Most light bars have “6” as their first digit. This indicates that they’re dust-tight and is the highest first digit available.

The second number indicates how well the item protects against water. Most light bars will have a second digit ranging from 5-8. Here’s what each of those numbers means.

IP Waterproof Ratings
IP Second DigitRoughly Equates To
5 Can withstand water jets. This means you could hit it with a hose repeatedly while washing the car and it wouldn’t harm it or its operation.
6/6K Can withstand powerful water jets. This means that you could spray it more intensely. 6K was added to indicate an increased pressure rating.
7 Can be immersed in up to 3 feet of water for 30 minutes.
8 Can be immersed in up to 3 feet of water. Is different than a 7 rating in that the water’s temperature can fluctuate more without negatively harming the device. Also allows for other environmental effects.
9 The highest possible rating. At this rating even high-pressure and high-temperature spray downs are safe. That means you can pressure wash your light bar. This can be convenient for those who frequently end up with a hard mud coating during off-roading endeavors.

For most people, a rating of IP67 is more than sufficient, but appraise based on your needs and the weather patterns where you’ll be traveling. Remember, exposure to snow and ice is basically the same as immersion.

Lumens

Most light bars measure their brightness in lumens. Obviously, more lumens equals more brightness.

It’s easy to get swept up in finding the brightest light bar, but it’s better to figure out how much light you’ll actually need. Brighter often equals more expensive, and you want to make sure your dollars are going towards features you’ll actually use. Here are a few comparisons to help you assess how many lumens you’ll need.

A standard halogen headlight produces 700 lumens normally and 1,200 when you put your high beams on. HID headlights are closer to 3,000 lumens. In your home, experts recommend approximately 5,000 lumens to adequately light up 250 square feet.

While there are light bars that can produce over 20,000 lumens, most people will never need that kind of brightness. (You should also be mindful of what’s legal in your area).

The other measurement to keep in mind for brightness is light warmth. A white light will appear brighter than an amber light, even if their lumen count is the same.

Color warmth is measured on a separate scale. Unfortunately, most light bars don’t advertise their kelvin color temperature. This scale is measured between 1,000 and 10,000K. The brightest lights will be about 4,000K, while direct sunlight is 4,800K. Lower numbers indicate light that’s warmer but not as bright. Your candlelit dinner would earn a kelvin score of around 1,900K, and is probably not the light you would choose to do fine detail work in. On the other hand, a kelvin score of 5,000K would provide a bright, day-like light.

Beam Type

Light bars can come in five beam patterns: Driving, scene, combo, flood, and spot. While all of these patterns have practical uses, the most popular are flood and spot. This combination offers the best mix of breadth and distance.

An image showing the different types of beam patterns

These beam types are measured by degrees, and some include a level of adjustability. If you drive in a wide variety of locations and terrains, you may really care about the adjustability of your light. For people looking for both near and far visibility, an 8-degree spot and 90-degree flood light pattern is more than adequate.

Image showing an 8-degree spot and 90-degree flood light

Curved vs Straight

For longer light bars, an important consideration is whether to get a curved or straight light bar. Curved bars are better at lighting up a large area. This is great for people who love off-roading that involves a lot of technical prowess. Getting a wider range of visibility is important for overcoming trail obstacles.

Curved bars don’t get the best distance though, which makes them less desirable for any speed-based applications. A straight light bar will get much better distance.

Size

Light bars come in a wide range of sizes. Small light bars can fit almost anywhere. People frequently mount them in their spare tire, around their license plate, or on their tailgate step. They also make great bumper toppers.

Light bars can also get to over 50 inches in width. Larger light bars are more expensive, but they’re also brighter.

Some manufacturers create light bars that can be expanded. This gives you the option of adding to your light bar later if you don’t get one that’s wide enough right away.

Mounting Options

A bumper mount for a light bar

Most of the time, the mounts for a light bar will be sold separately. This is mostly because while light bars can be used on any vehicle, the mounting points will vary. Jeep owners with tubular bumpers often prefer to mount a small light bar directly onto the front point under the grille. Likewise, some accessories, like roof racks, come with light bar mounts already included.

Most vehicles have three obvious mounting locations: The grille, the top of the hood, and above the windshield. All of these have practical applications, but they may also have legal consequences.

Price

Though not really a feature, it is a specification that will likely factor into your purchasing decision. Light bar prices range dramatically. The “best of the best” light bars can cost over $8,000 while bargain-priced options may retail for less than $100.

With light bars, like with so many things, you get what you pay for. A high-end Baja 500-ready light bar will have features you simply can’t replicate less expensively. The question you need to ask yourself is how likely you are to use those features.

Brand Features

Brand is also closely tied to price, but you’re paying for much more than a name. Off-road manufacturers have added unique features to their off-roading lights that are brand-specific. These features may make one of these brands stand out as the off-road lighting company for you.

A row of round lights mounted in front of a windshield

Baja Designs is a premier off-road lighting company. If you’re looking for the brand with the most awards, Baja Design should be on your short list. In addition to offering LED light bars, Baja Designs is also the first company to introduce laser light bars. Baja Designs is the go-to lighting source for professional off-road racing teams.

Rigid Industries is another great off-roading company. Their top-of-the-line light bars are called the Adapt series. Adapt light bars use a GPS module to change the focus of the light based on your speed. This unique feature is especially useful for people who travel at a wide variety of speeds and don’t want to constantly adjust their lights.

No off-road lighting guide would be complete without mentioning KC HiLites. If you’ve been looking around at off-roading lights, you’ve likely noticed the KC’s. They offer many off-road light bars with round lights. Though these round lights have been their signature offering for over fifty years, KC has kept up with the times. Their Gravity Pro Series keeps the classic look but adds improved modern performance.

Light Bar Options

Once you’ve narrowed down the features you’re looking for, there are still going to be a lot of options for great light bars. Here’s a list of some of our favorites broken down by feature.

Small Light Bars

Small light bars are the most versatile for mounting locations. If you’re looking for a light that looks right at home on your hood, your front bumper, or your grille, then a small light bar may be the perfect pick.

Obviously these aren’t capable of producing as much light as their larger siblings, but they can be a valuable part of a total lighting solution.

Curved Light Bars

Curved light bars can light up a wider plane. This makes them a great choice for rock crawling, or even for camping. Any time you’re not traveling in a straight line, a curved light bar is likely a better choice. Unfortunately you do sacrifice distance, so these aren’t your best pick if you need to see far ahead.

Waterproof Light Bars

Fortunately, most light bars these days will have some degree of waterproofing. Baja Designs’ light bars are IP69K, which allows them to be waterproof up to 9 feet. In addition to the obvious advantage of not killing your lights when you’re water fording, you can also pressure wash them. ZRoadz also offers IP69 lights. Several of Rugged Ridge and Rough Country’s lights offer IP67 waterproofing.

Brightest Light Bars

If you frequently drive in low-light, or no-light, conditions, brightness is probably high on your list of desirable features. All of these light bars boast lumen counts in excess of 20,000. More than enough to light up the night.

Light Bar Accessories

There are a lot of pros to adding a light bar to your off-roader. There are also a few cons. But these cons can be mitigated, or even eliminated, with just a few accessories.

In many states, it’s illegal to drive on public roads with your light bar. This results in the need to mount/dismount your light bar. Or, you’ll often have to cover it. Most companies now make and sell light bar covers just for this purpose. Light bar covers come in purely practical designs as well as statement-making ones.

Bright LED light bar mounted in the center of a Jeep’s grille

Adding anything that affects the aerodynamics of your ride can have an unintentional effect on noise. Dampeners and wind blades help to alleviate some light bar related noise.

Most importantly, you’ll need to make sure you have everything to get your light bar up and running, from wiring to mounts. For selecting accessories, a lot of people simply pick a brand and stay within it. This makes a lot of sense. KC HiLites’ light covers will always have the best fit for a KC HiLites light bar.

Light Bar Tips

Besides features, there are some other things to consider before and after you purchase your light bar.

  • Light bars get their power directly from your vehicle. Pay attention to the type of connectors and how much power your light bar will be taking.
  • Measure twice is a good recommendation even when no cutting is involved. Measure the area of your vehicle that you want to mount to, and make sure your measurements are consistent.
  • You can absolutely mix and match across brands. Sometimes that can be the only way to get all the lights you want. But in general, buying from the same brand can create a more polished overall look. Check out all of the lights offered by a brand to see if they’ll be able to help with your future lighting goals.
  • When it’s time to clean your light bar, the best way is with a gentle handwash. This is generally the best way to clean all of your vehicle. If you’re going through an automatic car wash, it would be best to dismount all off-roading accessories, including your light bar.

A light bar is a great addition to any off-road vehicle. By focusing on the right combination of features, capability, and price, you’ll end up with a lighting setup you can enjoy for years to come.

Light Bar Buying Guide

Light bars are one of the most popular off-roading accessories. Not only are they practical, but depending on what you’re looking for, they can also be attractive. Whether you need a small light bar for your tailgate or a large light bar to make off-roading a breeze, these are some of the top features to look for.