Backing up can be a pain even in the best of lighting conditions. But trying to back up in low light on a narrow 4WD track or on difficult terrain can make matters worse. Hitching up your trailer in the middle of the night is no fun either.
This is exactly the problem that auxiliary backup lights are designed to solve. Instead of fumbling with a flashlight or having to get out of your vehicle to find a safe path through the dark, you can back up through unfamiliar spaces with ease.
Plus, they can serve as added visibility on your vehicle in case there are other vehicles or people in the area who might have difficulty seeing you.
Types of rear lights
But first, let’s get clear on what we’re referring to when we talk about backup lights. With tail lights, stop lights, turn signals, and fog lights all situated together at the back of your vehicle, the terminology can get a little confusing.
And since some of these lights have more than one function, it’s important to know what your backup lights will be doing and how they’ll work with your other rear lights. This will determine how you wire them and what controls they’re attached to.
The main types of rear lights are:
- Tail lights: also known as rear position lamps, these produce a dim red light and turn on whenever your front lights are on. Their primary purpose is to show other drivers where you are on the road.
- Stop lamps: usually referred to as brake lights, these are red lights that light up when you use the brakes. They’re brighter than tail lights, and in some vehicles, the two functions are combined, with the tail lights turning brighter when you hit the brakes. In most countries, these must also be red.
- Center high-mounted stop lamp: the CHMSL is known as the third brake light, and serves as an additional brake signal when the other lights aren’t visible. It’s usually located inside the rear window on passenger cars, but in some vehicles, like the Jeep Wrangler, it’s found attached to the spare wheel mount outside.
- Rear fog lamps: these lights are turned on manually to improve visibility in poor lighting conditions. Although they’re not required in the U.S., they are required in Europe, so they may be found on some imported vehicles.
- Reverse lamps: reverse lamps, or backup lights, are used to illuminate the rear of the vehicle and provide a signal that the vehicle is backing up. In most cases, these have to be white, but in some countries they can be amber instead.
Depending on what kind of kit you choose, your backup lights will replace or supplement your reverse lamps, but they won’t impact any of your other lights.
What are backup light kits?
So, what are backup lights kits? Essentially, they’re a DIY kit that allows you to install a backup light as a replacement or a supplement to your car’s built-in reverse lights.
Let’s face it: most built-in reverse lights aren’t going to provide much illumination on the road behind you. Their main purpose is to allow other drivers to see that you’re backing up. But there are plenty of times when you need to back up in the absence of ambient light or street lights, such as when you’re out in the middle of nowhere in a 4WD.
Whether you’re navigating a trail in reverse or racing over sand dunes under the stars, backup lights make it easy to see what’s behind you.
They can also be handy in everyday situations, such as hitching up a trailer or boat in the dark, or squeezing out of a tight parking lot without hitting someone’s bumper.
You can put them on Jeeps, campervans, ATVs, or pretty much any other vehicle that you plan to use on or off-road. Backup lights don’t have the same restrictions as other types of auxiliary lights, so in most cases they’re going to be street legal.
Backup lighting kits are easy to install yourself, so it doesn’t require a big investment in time or money to upgrade your backup lights to something more powerful.
Since most modern backup light kits are made with LEDs, they’ll be brighter and more energy efficient than your existing rear lights, and are likely to last for years.
Backup light requirements
What do you need to know about reverse lights before you choose a backup light kit? In the U.S., all vehicles are required to have two working reverse lights. (In Europe, they’re only required to have one backup light and one rear fog light.)
These lights have to be white and have a more diffused beam pattern than front driving lights. A standard flood or spot light would be too direct and distract the drivers behind you, so you can’t just use any LED pod light as an auxiliary backup light.
Diffused lights have a beam of around 100 degrees, which means they’ll shine around any obstacles in your path, rather than directly on them.
Manufacturer-installed reverse lights are built to DOT specifications, including the legal standards for maximum brightness. Many backup light kits are DOT-compliant too.
Of course, this is only important if you plan to drive on paved roads and want your lights to be street legal. If you’re driving off-road, you can choose any lights you want.
Some off-road drivers mount a flood light or spot light on the back of the vehicle to help illuminate rocks, trees, and other obstacles. Others prefer a fog light, which creates a diffused beam that provides more visibility on either side of the vehicle.
Whichever type of light you choose, be sure to test them out before driving to make sure they turn on and off when you want them to.
You can easily test them out by asking someone to keep an eye on the lights when you tap the brakes, put on your turn signals, and go into reverse.
If no one’s around, you can turn the ignition on without starting the engine, and then put your car in reverse and put on the parking brake. Step out of the car (while making sure the parking brake is still on!) and see if the lights have turned on properly.
Another thing to consider is when exactly you want your lights to turn on. To be street legal, your backup lights can only come on when the vehicle is in reverse.
But if you’re driving off-road, you can hook your lights up to a separate switch so you can turn them on and off whenever you need them.
Backup lights can also be useful if you have a backup camera. LED lights have a color temperature of around 4000-6000k, which looks more like daylight than the yellow hue of halogen bulbs. This allows for better contrast and visibility on the screen.
How do you install backup lights?
Backup lights are some of the easiest lights to install on your vehicle. You’ll most likely be mounting them to your bumper or hitch, which may not even require any drilling.
If your backup light comes with a wiring harness, then you’ll have everything you need to get them up and running in a matter of hours.
We’re going to focus on auxiliary backup lights here, but if you’re installing replacement lights, then the process will be even easier.
First, find a suitable place for the lights, and if necessary, drill a hole in the bumper or frame where you want to attach the mount.
Then, attach the lights to the mount. It’s a good idea to aim them slightly down to cover the ground behind the vehicle that your built-in lights don’t reach.
Now comes the hard part: you’ll need to connect the wiring to your reverse light controls so that the lights turn on and off properly.
One option is to plug them into the vehicle’s electrical harness using a trailer connector, but you can also get creative and solder the wires together.
Of course, only take this approach if you’re confident in your wiring skills. If you run into trouble, follow the instructions in your light kit.
When you’re done, be sure to test the lights by turning on the vehicle and making sure that all of your built-in lights and auxiliary lights are working properly.
What are the best backup lights for your vehicle?
Choosing the right backup lights for your vehicle depends on where you want to take it. If you’ll be heading off road, then getting powerful LED lights that can double as a flood light or spot light will ensure you have enough lighting for any environment.
If you just want to replace your existing reverse lights with LEDs to get better visibility in parking lots and on paved roads, then you’ll find backup light replacement kits too.
Check out the selection at Inspired Engineering to see what lights are available for your vehicle. If you have any questions, just give us a call or send us an email for help!