The Off-road Adviser


It’s a way of life – not just a hobby

When to use low range in your 4×4?

When to use low range in your 4×4?
When to use low range in your 4x4

This is a question that I am seeing more and more as people become aware of what low range does for their 4×4. While the answer to this question may seem obvious, you might be surprised as to how many people don’t know when they should use low range.

Here are some examples of when you should use low range:

-You’re crossing water deeper than your air intake height (the average height most factory air intakes are mounted at).

-Your vehicle becomes stuck in mud or snow where your speed is too high for all four wheels to maintain traction on the surface.

-You’re climbing an incline that’s steeper than about 45 degrees where all four wheels can’t keep enough weight on them to maintain traction.

-You’re rock crawling and you need maximum torque at the wheels to maintain traction on a steep incline where your speed is too low for all four wheels to maintain traction.

One thing I see people do frequently is use low range on dry pavement (where there isn’t enough weight on the tires or momentum to make it necessary). A recent example of this:  I was driving along on loose dirt with my wife in 4 high and we were approaching a hard right-hand turn which had deep, loose dirt on both sides of the trail that continued as far as we could see. I took the turn as fast as possible (watch those ruts!) and then caught some really good momentum going straight up another hill before the trail turned left. To maintain that speed, I shifted into 4 low and held the gas pedal to the floor. Doing this on dry pavement would have been a mistake as all four wheels were spinning with no traction from the loose dirt below them. The tires had more than enough momentum though and once we reached a hard-packed trail on our way back down, I put it back in 4 high and let off the gas again without any issues whatsoever.

The point of this story is simple: Use low range on loose surfaces when driving at speeds where you don’t have enough weight for all four tires to gain traction or be able to roll over that surface easily (like sand). Driving at greater speeds will not cause damage if you’re already going fast on a surface where your tires have more than enough momentum to keep going forward. However, if you’re driving at those speeds on a loose surface, you might as well put it in the right gear for that terrain and use all four of those tires to propel you through it instead of just two or three. Another example of being able to do this is when climbing steep inclines where there isn’t a lot of traction between the tire and the surface below.

Driving up a steep hill in low range with very little traction can cause damage though because you’re turning your drivetrain into a brake by spinning the tires without gaining any real ground. This applies even more so when rock crawling on steeper hills where maintaining balance is crucial to prevent yourself from rolling over.

what is the difference between 4×4 low and 4×4 high?

4×4 high is for normal use on dry surfaces both on-road and off-road. 4×4 low is intended to be used when you need maximum torque at the wheels, or better yet, no torque at all if it’s a surface with very low traction where you’d rather just spin your tires than drive forward (like loose dirt or mud).


What is 4×4 Low used for?

4×4 low is commonly used in rock crawling when maximum torque at the wheels is necessary to maintain traction on a steep incline. If your tires lose momentum and you’re unable to maintain climbing, it’s easier to go ahead and let one or two of them keep spinning while you build up speed, than it is to try and turn around and find higher ground. Another example is in the snow where you can’t gain any momentum going uphill because there isn’t enough weight between the tire and the surface below for all four of them to gain traction. In these scenarios, it’s acceptable (and even recommended) for two of your tires to be spinning while you get some momentum going before shifting into 4 high for that additional weight that comes with momentum to get through the powder.

That’s all I’ve got for now and I hope this was helpful if you were unsure when to use 4×4 low in your four-wheel-drive vehicle.


Should I use 4×4 high or low in the snow? If

you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle, you should understand the difference between low range and high range. Both settings allow your tires to turn more RPMs than they would otherwise be able to in 2WD, but only low allows the engine to add torque. Because of this, 4×4 low is often used off-road on loose surfaces or on high traction surfaces where maximum torque is needed at the wheels while 4×4 high is for higher speeds on dry pavement or hardpacked trails.

What about while driving in snow? Is there a time when you might want to use 2WD instead of 4×4? You absolutely can – if it’s very cold outside and roads are salted or sanded then there won’t be much ice and snow accumulation even though it’s winter. In this case, 4WD would likely only hinder your acceleration and not provide any additional traction over 2WD. If you live in an area where the temperature never gets cold enough for ice and road salts are ineffective, then driving on roads covered with fresh powder would be a great time to use 2WD instead of 4×4 so that increasing RPMs doesn’t spin your wheels and cause you to lose momentum without gaining ground.


what is a differential lock?

A differential lock, or otherwise known as a locked rear diff, is when you manually engage the front and rear driveshafts at the same speed. If this happens while you’re moving forward at any speed, your vehicle will essentially become a very expensive sled with no ability to steer. To do this safely, you must be completely stopped before engaging your differential locks because once it has been engaged, nothing matters except keeping the wheels from spinning by whatever means necessary until you’ve come to a stop.


Is low range better than all-wheel drive?

All Wheel Drive (AWD) vehicles typically have computer-controlled systems which activate and deactivate power to each wheel to send maximum torque to whichever tire needs it most based on the available traction. While this may sound similar to low range, it’s very different because AWD

already has that capability built-in whereas low range requires the driver to manually select high or low for torque at each wheel after manually selecting high or low for both front and rear driveshafts. If you’re looking to get better fuel economy and/or purchase a vehicle where maximum torque is not necessary at the wheels (overland travel on dry trails) then an AWD might serve you well. However, if a 4-wheel drive is something that you think you’ll use once every few months/year and want superior off-road capabilities like hill descent control (HDC), hill start assists (HSA), and brake lock differentials (BLD), then you might be better off with a 4×4 with low range.


What is hill descent control?

HDC is an electronic feature found on some newer vehicles which allows for automatic control of the brakes while descending hills or mountains at speeds under 25mph. It’s typically engaged by the push of a button and only works in low-ratio gears so that your momentum doesn’t overpower it and cause you to lose control on steep grades. By applying the brakes automatically when needed, can be helpful even if you’re used to driving down tough terrain without it because it takes most of the workload off your hands. If you’re new to driving off-road then this might be something looking into when searching for your first 4×4 vehicle.


What is hill start assist?

HSA is a feature found on some newer vehicles which hold the brake for a few seconds after you come to a stop, even on an incline or if your main brakes fail. This could be very useful in a situation where you’re stuck at the bottom of an extremely steep grade, have only one functional brake because you destroyed your other two by locking them up, and have no one around to give you a push from behind. With HSA, as long as it’s been engaged correctly then all you’ll need to do is let off the parking brake and quickly step on both the gas and clutch/brake pedals simultaneously while going in first so that your tires have something to grip onto. If the terrain is extremely steep then there’s a chance your RPMs will spin out of control, so it might be worthwhile to have someone in the passenger seat who knows how to use manual transmission in case you need to get towed.


What is brake lock differential?

A brake lock differential is a feature commonly found on vehicles that have off-road capabilities and allows for torque to be sent through all four wheels when one wheel either has no traction or loses traction completely. This can be very useful because even though you may lose only one wheel, you still maintain full control over your vehicle instead of possibly having two wheels (the ones with no traction) which could cause you to skid notably and potentially rollover if you’re driving up an extremely steep hill. This is also very useful when you have a rear slip or drop kit because it allows for more torque to be sent through your axle rather than only the wheel which has broken traction, allowing for even more grip.


What are some other benefits of low range?

The low range also has many other advantages besides off-road capabilities. By reducing engine RPMs, typically means less wear on parts, especially if you plan on using 4wd quite often. Also by providing slow transmission speeds while in lower gears, can allow your engine to get higher torque figures without needing to rev up into the powerband like in high gear (such as 3rd or 4th). If you’re looking for faster speeds with your 4×4 then low will also help you achieve this without having to use the high range, reducing the likelihood of your engine potentially overrevving itself. Also for those who tow heavy trailers or have heavy loads in their backseat, low gear can be used which can provide much more torque than higher gears at lower RPMs (just watch out that you don’t overheat because of too little airflow).


How to engage low range?

There are generally two different ways to engage a 4-wheel drive: through a transfer case shifter and/or through a transmission shifter. You should note that engaging 4wd via the transmission typically puts it into high gear due to its low operating RPM; however, if you’re looking for extra grip then the low range can be selected as well depending on the vehicle and transmission.

How to use a transfer case shifter to engage 4wd Low range?

The most common method for engaging low range is by using your transfer case shifter, which is typically located just next to your transmission. If you have a two-speed transfer case then it’ll either have two separate levers side by side or one lever with another notch below it. For single-speed transfer cases, there will be only one toggle switch or lever which you should do up if engaging low range. There are some vehicles where the shift pattern is different so refer to your owner’s manual on how to properly put your 4×4 into low gear. You should note that some newer vehicles don’t have a transfer case or you can only engage low range with the transmission shifter.


Why should I use the low range?

The main reason you should be using the 4-wheel drive in the low range is that it provides much more power and torque to your wheels than the high range would at lower speeds, reducing wear on your vehicle’s parts. Since you’re also working the engine harder when in low gear, this also helps keep up airflow into your radiator which prevents overheating due to less air being forced through the engine compartment. Low range is also extremely useful for off-roading purposes where steep hills are present since it allows for maximum grip once one wheel either loses traction or has no traction at all. It’s also very useful if an obstacle presents itself such as a large pothole, rock, or mud as you can break the obstacle’s hold on your vehicle and continue to power through. Finally, low range is also extremely helpful for those who tow heavy trailers because it provides much more torque which reduces wear; however, we recommend that you run in 4×4 high range if this is the case.


What are some disadvantages of using low range?

The biggest disadvantage of using low range is that once you’re already going rather fast (typically over 60km/h depending on gear ratios) there isn’t much point anymore to use your 4×4 since it won’t provide any extra grip and will only be an inconvenience for other drivers behind you, especially if what’s blocking your way has already been passed. Using low range is also pretty hard on your vehicle’s parts so you should only use it when necessary, especially if you have an older model with less power.


For those who would like to get to know the technical side of things, see this quick lesson:


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