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When to use 4WD, 4HI and 4LO – 4×4 owner’s confusion explained


Four-wheel-drive systems come in many configurations such as part time, full time, manual shift, on-the-fly shifting, and fully automatic. Each has its own requirement for how you engage and disengage it.

Four-wheel drive, also known as 4×4, enables all four wheels of a vehicle to get power from the engine and improves traction and steering control. These options are ideal for rough or snowy roads, and plenty of other off-road challenges.

Just because you have a 4WD doesn’t mean that it isn’t dangerous, there are rules. Here’s what we mean:

  • A 4WD doesn’t improve handling on ice or roads covered in snow. Should you drive faster than what the conditions you are in allow, you’re at great risk of an accident.
  • A 4WD doesn’t help you brake better or give more stability. It is best to brake and slow down before making a turn.
  • A 4WD allows the feeling of overconfidence, but it still could end up in a ditch if you are not careful.

What should you do if you get stuck?

It’s not ideal to shift between forward and reverse with an aim to rock yourself out of a muddy situation, instead, shift into 4HI and slowly accelerate your way out. Do not spin your wheels. If this does not work, rock the vehicle back and forth by accelerating and letting go.

Do not damage your drivetrain

Driving a part-time 4WD system on dry pavement can not only break the front axles, or shear the differential gears, but it can break the differential case apart. It is best to shift back into 2WD when on dry pavement.

How to engage and disengage your 4WD

Older, basic 4WD systems must be engaged manually on ce the vehicle comes to a stop and the transmission in either park or neutral, and it is important to note that you should never engage these systems while the vehicle is moving or expensive components can be damages.

However, 4WD systems these days shift in or out of 4WD by simply pushing a button, while other systems are fully automatic and shifts in and out of 4WD when the system detects that more traction is needed.

4HI, 4LO or Auto is what causes the most confusion for 4WD vehicle owners, so here is a break down of when to use them:

4WD systems last longer and work best when they are used often and maintained according to the recommendations of the manufacturer. If it isn’t used for many months, linkages and hub components could seize, seals and lube drains of gears might dry out. It is best to engage your 4WD every few months to keep it in a good working condition.

When to use 4LO:

  • For more torque (power) for heavy pulling at slow speeds.
  • When climbing steep grades at slow speeds and need extra power.
  • When descending a steep hill with a heavy load-the low gearing provides engine braking assistance.
  • Never use 4LO to get out of mud or snow as the extra torque can cause the tyres to spin.

When to Use 4HI:

  • On slippery surfaces and driving at street or highway speeds.
  • When stuck in snow, mud or ice.


When setting your vehicle on Auto 4WD, the system automatically will switch from 2WD to 4WD where need be. In 2WD mode, the power is sent to either the front or rear wheels. If the system detects road conditions that require 4WD, it will automatically shift into 4WD. The power then goes to all four wheels and will alternate between the front and rear axle to match various driving conditions.