Four-Wheel Drive High or Low – Which Do I Use When?


When taking a 4x4 vehicle off-road, it’s important to understand not just how a 4WD system works but also the difference between 4-wheel high and low gears.

Both offer more traction on uneven and unstable surfaces, yet you can still get stuck or in a dangerous situation with improper use of the high and low gears.

Let this quick review help you understand how and when to use 4WD low and high gears to crawl those rocks and go down that hill with total control and the full benefit of your off-road truck's 4WD capabilities.

4x4 High and Low - What’s the Difference?

The difference between 4-wheel drive high and low are the gears in the transfer case.

Just like in any other vehicle, these gears provide either more torque at lower speeds or less torque with the ability to drive faster and applies nearly the same way when driving off-road in a 4x4 based on the different conditions.

In either case, there is added traction that 4WD provides.

Whether to drive in 4WD high or low should depend on whether you’re driving at speed to cover ground or carefully negotiating an obstacle where more power and control of the vehicle overall is necessary.

You'll better negotiate different off-road scenarios in an off-road truck by learning the best times to use each.

When too much torque may cause tires to spin but not enough torque or too much speed makes traction harder, knowing the best approach is the solution for successful obstacle negotiation.

When to Use 4x4 High Gear

4WD high gear is generally good whenever you want to drive 30 mph or higher, though typically not faster than about 50 mph.

It’s the same as shifting into 3rd or 4th gear on the road when needing speed more than torque.

Attempting to drive your off-road truck faster in 4WD low is extremely taxing on the transmission which can be heard and felt as the transmission gets louder and the RPMs get higher.

Switching to 4WD high, RPMs go down, torque reduces, and you can safely drive faster on leveler ground.

It keeps all four wheels pulling collectively and makes avoiding getting stuck easier using forward momentum.

It’s also great for driving your off-road truck over trails and across fields where 4WD is needed but not so much torque, for driving through sand, mud, and snow where forward momentum is critical, and similar situations.

When to Use 4x4 Low Gear

4-wheel low gear is a powerhouse gear for your off-road truck when more torque and less speed is needed to get up, over, down, and through things.

Best used at speeds between 10 and 20 mph, 4WD low is geared to make each wheel more powerful while it slowly turns.

The wheels on your off-road truck may turn independent to each other when negotiating rough terrain and other obstacles, providing greater traction in these more challenging conditions.

For these reasons, 4WD low should also be avoided at speeds higher than 20 mph as turning becomes less accurate and the tires may drag or slide, worsening traction rather than improving it.

The times to use 4WD low gear to maintain traction and successfully negotiate obstacles include rock climbing when it's necessary to go very slowly but also need that torque to get over things and driving aggressive trails in your off-road truck when going faster isn’t really an option.

Another recommendation is to stay in low gear when descending steep inclines as the torque of the transfer case will help to keep your off-road truck rolling slowly and steadily without the need to rely on the brakes, which could unbalance the vehicle on extreme inclines.

4-wheel low moments are those when the last thing wanted is for a tire to slip and the real need is for slow, calculated traction.

Effectively Using 4WD High And Low

Though maybe only used a few times for average trail riding and easier off-roading, the 4WD low gear is always there if you need it.

Keep your off-road truck in high for most activities including driving through mud and snow or over sand and even shallow water fording; however, when you need high torque at slower speeds for more extreme obstacles, switch things to low gear.

Once you feel the difference low gear can make for scaling rocks and clearing other more extreme obstacles in an off-road truck, you’ll get an idea of when to use it and when to rely on 4WD high instead!

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