When Should You Use 4WD? (Four-Wheel Drive Guide)

Most towing vehicles – pickup trucks or full-size SUV’s – come with a 4WD option. In some new models, the vehicle manages 4WD options for you. In others, you – the driver – need to figure out when to use the four-wheel drive.

So, when should you use four-wheel drive?

You should consider using your 4WD capabilities in the following scenarios –

  • Off-roading (duh!)
  • Slippery road (ice or snow)
  • Towing or carrying very heavy loads, especially uphill or downhill.

Why is that? And can there be other times when you’ll need to engage your 4WD system? Read on to find out.

What Is Four-Wheel Drive?

Sometimes referred to as 4WD or 4×4, four-wheel drive is a type of drivetrain with two axles that comes equipped in trucks and other heavy-duty vehicles.

(If you’re not sure what a drivetrain is, it’s basically the part of your vehicle that takes the power from the engine and into the wheels. Having watched a bunch of videos about how transmissions work, I can tell you it’s complicated. But fortunately, since I’m not trying to become a mechanic, the details don’t matter as much at this point.)

As the name suggests, in a 4WD, the four wheels of the vehicle get equal torque or power from the engine. Unlikes a 2WD where the drivetrain complex delivers the energy only to the two front wheels.

Some vehicles come with on-demand or part-time four-wheel drive while others can switch to this drivetrain any time (known as full-time), typically through extra gears.

What’s a 4WD good for?

Any vehicle going on a paved road will do just fine with just two pairs of wheels taking the toll of actually moving the car. Usually it’s the two front wheels. Your drivetrain will get the power from the engine to the two front wheels. That’s where something called the differential will make sure the power is distributed between the two wheels in a balanced way (not always equally – depending on the vehicle’s movement).

Works perfectly ok on paved road with no steps or bumps. Once you go off road, you could find yourself traversing terrain where one – or more of your wheels – are not touching the ground. Ouch. If you only have two wheels that can actually make the vehicle move, and both are not making contact – or not enough contact/friction/traction – with the ground, you’re stuck.

That’s when being able to propel the vehicle with the two other wheels can come in handy. Without it, you’re stuck.

What else is 4WD good for?

Being able to get torque to all four wheels can be helpful in other situations too. Even on paved road.

Essentially, with all four wheels turning and balancing each other, a vehicle can get more traction. That makes fighting against gravity easier and safer. The heavier the load (towed or hauled), the more important can this be, especially when driving uphill or downhill.

More traction is also a good idea when the road is slippery. Again, even more so when carrying weights. Slippery road means less traction. 4WD can balance that out, providing more friction and potential traction.

Which is why trucks and large SUV’s often have 4WD – especially heavy duty trucks.

On-demand 4WD vs. Full-time 4WD

What is the difference between on-demand four-wheel drive and full-time four-wheel drive? Essentially, with on-demand or part-time 4WD, two-wheel drive is the default. If you need additional traction or plan to go off-roading, though, you can switch to four-wheel drive.

Another feature of part-time 4WD is the 4-Low and 4-High settings, which let you switch gears. 4-Low has a low-range gearbox so you can control your vehicle if you’re stuck somewhere or need to get out of rocky terrain.

4-High lets you reach 60 miles per hour to safely traverse slick terrain. Then there’s full-time four-wheel drive. If your vehicle has this setting, then you can off-road with four-wheel torque whenever you want. This is less common than on-demand or part-time four-wheel drive, though. Modern vehicles may not include it.

AWD vs. 4WD

It should be known that four-wheel drive is often likened to all-wheel drive or AWD. Back in the 1920s, the two terms were essentially interchangeable. That is no longer the case. Vehicles with AWD can typically not go on “real” off-roading, even if they can handle various types of terrain.

Instead, the goal is to provide traction, so there’s often not equal torque from one wheel to another. Instead, the other two or three wheels will overcompensate to make up for the one with the least traction. With hydraulic anti-slip technology, AWD is common on everything from 2×2 to 8×8 drivetrains.

To achieve the goal, AWD vehicles transfer the power from the engine to all four wheels via a front, rear and center differential. A real 4WD drivetrain employs two differentials – one for the front wheels and another for the rear.

Which Vehicles Come Equipped with Four-Wheel Drive?

You’re far more likely to see four-wheel drive on trucks and SUVs than cars. These vehicles are designed for off-roading and driving in various terrain, where with cars, that’s very often not the case.

Many of the most well-known vehicle manufacturers continue to produce trucks with both part-time and full-time four-wheel drive. These include:

Do you really want to rough it?

We have no plans to do anything too crazy with our future vehicle. Our plans include traveling and towing but limiting off-road to dirt roads. Yes, sometimes there may be obstacles to traverse.

Take this road for example, in Redwood National Park. This is the road takes you to the fabulous Fern Canyon –

Off road driving to Fern Canyon, in California

This isn’t a major obstacle for a truck or any SUV. In fact, we crossed these streams with a minivan and a sedan. We weren’t too happy doing so, especially since they were rented vehicles and we knew our insurance wouldn’t apply on a dirt road. Had we got stuck, it would have been an expensive ordeal.

My point is, many parks have dirt roads, and some may have obstacles like these. We don’t plan on taking a vehicle completely off-road though.

Some people certainly do –

The thing is, if you want to really go hardcore off-road with any vehicle, it goes way way beyond having and using 4WD. My brother is in the vehicle industry and every once in a while he takes employees on a day of off-road training with the company’s hardcore 4WD vehicles. There’s a lot of know-how required in real off-roading. You really need to know what you’re doing, or you’ll end up damaging your vehicle and possibly hurting yourself too.

So, When Should You Use Four-Wheel Drive?

If you go for real off-road adventures, you will definitely need a vehicle with proper 4WD system. The kind that needs to be engaged when you leave the road and disengaged once you return to paved asphalt. Also, if you’re going for adventure, you need to know what you’re doing – and that goes way beyond engaging 4WD.

If, like us, you’re planning on staying on the road, occasionally driving dirt roads with minor obstacles, you really just need the option to deliver extra torque and power to all four wheels.

In that case, you should consider using your 4WD capabilities in the following scenarios –

  • Slippery road (ice or snow)
  • Towing or carrying very heavy loads, especially uphill or downhill.

If you have part-time four-wheel drive and you’ve set the gears to 4-Low, you’ll have to go slowly. This is so you can avoid damaging your truck or SUV.

You should also set the vehicle to 4-Low if you’re driving through small amounts of water and/or mud, passing over rocky terrain, off-roading, navigating tall hills, and going through sand or wet snow. If you want to go faster, then you should switch your four-wheel drive to 4-High and proceed from there. With this setting, you can successfully navigate slick, wet terrain, deep snow or sand, gravel and rocky terrain, muddy paths with no clear road, ice and snow, and low-traction scenarios.

Why not keep driving in 4WD mode all the time?

Well, that depends on the type of 4WD system you have. If it’s the kind that you have to engage manually, you definitely don’t want to drive in 4WD mode on the highway. The 4WD transmission is costly and can have a lot of wear and tear, especially if you’re driving fast.

Driving in 4WD mode generates more torque to all four wheels. That’s not really needed when your cruising on the highway. It will take more fuel (gas or diesel) and cost you more though.

Some newer vehicles know how to switch 4WD mode on their own, so you can let the computer decide when the extra torque in all four wheels is needed and just forget about it.

Tips for Driving Safely with Four-Wheel Drive

These are tips that I collected while reading on the topic. If you have more, please share them in a comment (and thank you!).

Go slowly

Keep your speed down when using 4WD. The freedom of off-roading can be exciting, but you must remember that your vehicle is not invincible. While you can come to a sudden stop on an open, empty road, if you’re driving on other terrain, it’s not always as easy to brake. You may skid or slide before your vehicle finally stops moving. You should prepare for that by driving at lower speeds and always being ready to brake.  

The same is true when using 4WD to traverse snow or mud. Don’t be fooled into a false sense of security. Drive slowly and be careful.

Speaking of your brakes, they can get wet if you’re driving through conditions like snow, wet mud, and water. This may prevent you from stopping as intended, which can be dangerous.

Be careful when entering water

To prevent brake issues after driving through water and other liquids, slow down and begin pumping the brakes. You’re not trying to stop completely, but rather use the brakes in a low-speed, low-risk environment so they dry.

Do know that if you’re driving through snow or ice, your brakes will not function normally until you get back on terrain with better traction. That means you should plan your stops and turns well in advance and begin maneuvering early.

Watch it when making turns

If this is your first time driving a 4WD truck, then you might have a hard time making tight turns. When you do, it almost seems like the two wheels in the front are fighting against you. Many vehicles with four-wheel drive tend to behave this way, whether they have part-time or full-time 4WD.

You will adjust to it eventually, learning to accommodate for that pushing feeling so you can navigate safely. During your first few off-road trips, make wider turns as applicable while you adapt.  

Monitor the condition of your 4WD system

These systems tend to malfunction if not used often enough. If you’re only switching on 4WD for off roading and that’s something that happens once a year, you could run into maintenance issues.

Over to you

I hope you found this post helpful. Remember, this is just my way of jotting down notes as I’m learning about trucks, SUV’s and towing vehicles in general. If there’s anything you’d like to add (or correct!) by all means, please do leave me a comment. Thank you!

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