4x4Car Advice

Upgrading your 4×4 for driving in the dark

Driving in the dark can fraught with danger but it’s sometime unavoidable. If your vehicle is equipped with the right gear you’ll be able to make it safely through the night.

AUSTRALIA IS a big country. When you’re driving across it there are sometimes vast distances to be covered between sunrise and sunset, and when you consider the outback-touring season is usually from late autumn through to early spring, when the days are at their shortest, chances are you’re going to need to drive in the dark at some point to reach your destination.

Country roads and outback tracks can be swarming with wildlife from dusk til dawn, and it can be hard to spot errant ’roos, wombats and emus in the dark, as well as roaming stock. To minimise the chance of a wildlife strike you need to upgrade your vehicle’s standard lighting system… but this is still no guarantee you’ll make it through the night unscathed, so you’ll also need to equip your vehicle with protection equipment.

Lighting Upgrade

Chances are your vehicle’s standard headlights won’t cut it when driving in the Aussie bush after sunset; even if they’re particularly good, there’s no substitute for a set of quality driving lights and/or a light bar. But before you start looking for lights one of the first options for improving your vehicle’s lighting system is to upgrade the standard lighting system.

If you drive an older vehicle with halogen headlights, you can replace the standard 55W globes with 100W globes, which will offer a nominal improvement in light output. Combine these higher-wattage globes with a better wiring loom, such as the Super Loom from Piranha Offroad, and you will see a much greater improvement in light output.

You can replace the headlight globes with HID or LED bulbs, but the problem there is legality. Each bulb design uses a different reflector, and what works for one won’t work – or be legal – for another. In the case of HIDs, you’ll also need self-levellers and cleaners. So, replacing bulbs with a different type isn’t really a viable option.

Driving Lights & Light Bars

Some modern 4x4s are equipped with good LED lighting systems from the factory, but even these lights could do with a helping hand when driving in the bush, and there’s no substitute for a set of good quality LED driving lights.

Driving lights are usually sold in spot beam, spread beam or combination spot/spread beam kits. Spot beams are designed to offer a long throw of light down the centre of the road and are ideally suited to driving in the outback where there are long stretches of straight road and not much vegetation. As the name suggests, spread beams spread the light output to illuminate to the sides of the road and are better suited to driving on country roads where there are corners and vegetation. A spot/spread beam kit will consist one spot beam driving light and one spread beam driving light, which offers the best of both worlds; a long throw of light to see far into the distance and a good spread of light to see where the wildlife is lurking off to the sides of the road.

Some LED light bars are also offered with a combination of spot and spread beams, such as the ARB AR40, which is achieved through a combination of reflectors. The AR40 has five banks of LEDs, the outer two of which are a spread pattern and the three inners are a spot, providing good penetration down the road and as well as peripheral vision out to the sides.

As well as light output it’s important that driving lights and light bars are able to stand up to the rigours of driving along rough bush tracks or crawling through the scrub. Look for a lighting set-up that features tough housings and strong polycarbonate lenses. Also look for protection against dust and water ingress, and check to ensure the lights have a thermal management system designed to restrict light output if the lights get too hot, which can happen when the vehicle is stationary for long periods of time; this will prevent permanent light damage.

Finally, the importance of a strong and secure mounting system cannot be overstated. The lights should affix to the mounting surface in such a way that they don’t vibrate or work their way out of alignment, yet they should be easy to adjust if necessary. Also look for security mounting hardware; quality lights aren’t cheap so you don’t want someone with sticky fingers taking them off the front of your vehicle.

Frontal Protection

No matter how good your lighting system, there’s always the chance of an animal strike when driving in the bush, particularly at night, so you’ll need to equip your vehicle with quality protection equipment.

An unprotected vehicle can be left immobile after an animal strike, which can result in a potentially life-threatening situation, especially in remote areas. Steel bull bars provide the ultimate in protection, but modern alloy, and even some plastic bull bars, can also provide good vehicle protection. No matter what material you choose, go for a reputable brand such as ARB, Ironman 4×4, Opposite Lock or TJM, as these bars will have been specifically engineered to suit your vehicle and will have mounting systems designed to work in conjunction with air bag deployment. And look for a bar with tubing that provides protection for the entire front-end of the vehicle, including the cooling system, headlights and bonnet.

The underside of your vehicle can also be susceptible to damage from animal strikes, so vulnerable mechanical components such as the suspension and steering system also need protection. Many companies produce under vehicle protection systems for specific vehicle models including steering guards, skid plates, sump guards and transmission/transfer case guards. Look for a set-up that’s compatible with your bull bar and that provides adequate protection.

The Final Word

Even if your vehicle is fitted with the world’s toughest bull bar and the brightest lighting system, you still want to avoid animal strikes at all costs. If at all possible, avoid driving at dawn, dusk and through the night. If there’s no alternative, reduce your speed when driving in low-light situations and stay alert, scanning well ahead and to the sides of the road.


Dean Mellor

Dean Mellor