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Most four-wheel-drive trucks rarely use the four-wheel-drive. But when you need it, you need it. But why are there so many different settings on the four-wheel-drive controls? Your truck may have 4HI, 4LOW, 4-auto, 2WD, AWD, and many more settings. When you’re tackling trails off-road you need to know when to use four-low or four-high.

All of the 4×4 switches can be confusing if you’re trying to decide 4-low or 4-high

The 4x4 controls on a Ram Rebel truck.
4×4 controls on a Ram Rebel | Dan Mayfield

Basically, it’s easier to get stuck if you don’t have four-wheel-drive. With the proper switches engaged, you’ll likely (but not always) be able to un-stick yourself. But when do you use four-low or four-high, or all-wheel-drive?

To be sure, crack open your owner’s manual and read about what conditions your truck is designed for. There are a bunch of reasons why some four-wheel-drive systems can only be used up to 55 miles-per-hour, or have other limitations.

When do you use four-wheel-high?

A Ram TRX truck likely in four-wheel-drive high for quickly blasting off road trails.
Ram TRX | Ram

Back in the day, we used to have to get out and twist the front hubs to lock the front axle to get into four-wheel-drive on a truck. Today, we hit buttons or switches. Those switches engage a second driveline to lock the transfer case and front wheels to the engine. The Ford F-150 Raptor or the Ram TRX are made for this type of system.

Of course, when you have four-wheel-drive engaged all four wheels will spin at the same rate. That’s great in mud, sand, or dirt, and sometimes snow. On the pavement, though, with all four wheels spinning at the same rate, you can scrub off tire tread easily. Most truck four-wheel-drive systems aren’t made to run at high speeds, 55 miles per hour may be the fastest your truck should go in four-wheel high.

A good rule of thumb for four-wheel-drive high is to use it when you simply need a little bit of extra traction.

What is the FWD Auto setting?

The Ford F-150 Tremor has a switch for four-wheel auto by the driver's knee.
2022 Ford F-150 Tremor interior | Ford

A lot of trucks like the 2022 Ram Big Horn offer a “4WD Auto” switch. In the auto mode, the truck will mostly be in two-wheel-drive mode, except when the computers detect slipping, and engage the system automatically. It’s a nice mix for most conditions. If you’re doing some more serious off-roading, however, especially in mud and sand, just click it into regular four-wheel-drive mode.

When do you use four-wheel-low?

Gray Jeep Wrangler JK "Rubicon" parked in the midst of a rocky 4x4 trail.
Jeep Wrangler | Cody Lannom via Unsplash

High is for high speeds, low is for low speeds and low traction. Most off-road packages, like in the Nissan 2022 Frontier PRO-4X, have a four-wheel-drive low switch. This is the maximum power mode, but for low speeds, like crawling through mud or deep sand. Four-wheel-drive low multiplies torque, which is great for climbing a steep hill, rock crawling, or when you’re going through mud. It’s a system that is generally reserved for serious off-road versions of trucks. For example, a Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road will let you drop into low, but a base model Toyota Tacoma SR won’t have it.

Most likely you’ll have to switch into neutral or park before engaging the low gear.

Only use four-wheel-drive low in slow-speed conditions, or you’ll eventually melt down your transmission. Some say no more than 15 miles per hour, other manufacturers will say 25. Your owner’s manual will tell you the maximum speed for your truck in four-low.

All-wheel-drive systems are all different, and not the same as 4×4

2022 Toyota RAV4 hybrid side view by a snow mountain
2022 Toyota RAV4 hybrid side view by a snowy mountain | Joe Santos, MotorBiscuit

Subaru is famous for having all-wheel-drive systems on its SUVs like the 2022 Subaru Forester. It is not the same as a four-wheel-drive, even if it does get you out of deep mud. Instead, all-wheel-drive systems are always on and either computers or a complicated clutch system send power front-to-back or side-to-side. These systems don’t have a 4-low or 4-high.

Toyota’s hybrid system is entirely different. An electric motor powers the rear wheels instead of having a direct connection to the motor. The gas motor powers the front wheels. The hybrid motor is in the back and not only provides extra hybrid power but gives your rear wheels some power when you need it.


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