Last Updated on February 7, 2023 by Paul S.
The reason you picked up a 4 wheel drive SUV is to get into some cool adventures or even to just make it home safely in the snow. We will guide you in this article on when you should be using 4Hi and 4low and some more critical info when driving your 4 wheel drive vehicle.
Not all 4 wheel drive vehicles will have a 4Hi and 4low. These settings are typically used only for vehicles that will be taken off road. Vehicles like the Wrangler, Tacoma, Gladiator, and 4Runner come to mind. So if you have a 4 wheel drive auto setting chances are that you do not have 4low and your 4 wheel drive system can automatically detect when it’s best to use 4 wheel drive.
We all know what 4 wheel drive is but what is the difference between 4Hi and low? The difference between the two is that they use a different gearing ratio to deliver torque to your wheels. When you are in 4low (lower gear) you will be getting low speed but high-end torque. In 4Hi you will be receiving less power to the wheels but they will be able to operate at a higher speed.
Now let’s get into when you should use 4Hi and 4low!
Table of Contents
When to Use 4Hi
It is best to use 4HI at higher speeds on low traction surfaces or when you need to get through something quickly. That something may be a water crossing, a short run of mud, or some sand.
4Hi has a larger gear ratio that allows you to operate your 4 wheel drive at speed.
4Hi is going to be used when there is snow, rain, or dirt roads present and not too many obstacles. These surfaces are low friction surfaces that allow your 4 wheel drive system to operate freely. If you use 4wd on dry pavement it could cause drivetrain binding.
With all of that said, it is recommended to be aware that because you are on low friction surfaces your stopping distance is going to increase. There is nothing your 4 wheel drive system can do in stopping your vehicle quicker. Many people get too confident in their vehicles on icy roads because they have a 4 wheel drive system.
Max Speed in 4 Wheel Drive
The max speed you want to drive in 4 wheel drive is going to be 55 mph. This max speed is typically provided in your driver’s manual and it’s to protect your transfer case from failing.
When To Use 4low
Use 4low when you reach an obstacle(s) that will be difficult to drive over and there is a chance of spinning your tires. For example, it could be a boulder field, an icy/muddy hill, or even when you are going down a tricky descent.
4low will drop your gear ratio and deliver slow power to your wheels. This allows you to crawl over obstacles and provides you less of a chance to spin out on slippery surfaces.
The recommended maximum speed is 10 to 20 mph. If you go over this speed or the recommended speed in your vehicle’s manual you are at risk of causing damage to the engine and overheating the gearbox. One of the reasons this can happen is that your engine has to work harder to get the tire to spin one complete revolution compared to when you are driving in 2wd. If you ever try to go fast while in 4low you will hear your engine roar!
Frequently Asked Questions
Can You Drive in 4 Wheel Drive On The Highway
It is not wise to use your 4 wheel drive on the highway. It could be useful if there is snow or a lot of rain but if the road is dry your 4 wheel drive system could be in jeopardy.
You will also have to keep up with the speed of traffic on the highway and that is typically at a minimum of 65 mph. That could be well over the maximum speed you should be driving while in 4Hi.
If you have to drive on the highway then ensure that you are in 2wd and save the 4 wheel drive for the trails or snow!
How to shift into 4 Wheel Drive?
It is very easy to do but there are some things required prior to shifting into 4 wheel drive.
One of the first steps is to check what speed you are at in order to shift it to 4Hi. 4Hi will always be your first option before you get to 4low.
Then if you need to go into 4low you will typically have to stop the vehicle and put it into neutral and then put your gear stick into 4low. Typically putting it into 4low takes a lot more strength than 4Hi so be aware of that your first time.
Here is some quick guidance on some popular 4 wheel drive vehicles and how to get the 4wd engaged.
Jeep Wrangler and Jeep Gladiator: These vehicles can be shifted into 4Hi from 0 to 30 mph. If you need to go into 4low you will need to be in neutral and at a stop. It will be very similar to the instructions above.
Jeep Renegade, Compass, Grand Cherokee: All of these vehicles have full time 4×4 system. To put them into 4low you have to stop the vehicle, shift into neutral, and then press the 4low button. These vehicles do not have a shifter like the Wrangler and the Gladiator.
Toyota Tacoma: This is a dial system and it is located under your radio. You can go into 4Hi while driving under 50 miles per hour. To go into 4low you will need to stop the vehicle and put it into neutral.
Toyota 4Runner: You must be going below 50 mph to shift into 4Hi and must be stopped and in neutral to transition into 4low. 4runners could have a shifting stick or a dial.
Please note that these requirements are for the most recent versions of these vehicles. The older versions may have a different requirement to get into 4 wheel drive so be sure to reference your driver’s manual.
How do I turn off 4 wheel drive low?
This is a common question for new 4 wheel drive owners. If you forget how you got it there it can be confusing on how to back it out of low.
First, make sure you are stopped and in neutral. If the vehicle is moving it will not be easy to get it into 4Hi and you could cause damage to your gearbox.
Second, if you have a gear stick you may need to put some force into it to either shift it up or down wherever it says 4H. You may have a dial system so you will need to rotate that dial to 4H.
Finally, you can shift it to 2wd and be off on your way.
If you still can’t get out of 4low. Confirm the vehicle is stopped and in neutral gear. If you need help to shift it then ask for some help. If it still isn’t moving there may something wrong with your gearbox and you will need to take it into the shop.
How Often Should I run my 4 Wheel Drive?
It is best to run your 4 wheel drive at least once a month. Many manuals say to drive in 4 wheel drive for at least 10 miles. But be sure to only drive it on the trail or on low friction surfaces (sand, snow, water) to ensure you do not cause any issues with your drivetrain.
Do I need 4 Wheel Drive low?
In my personal experience, I do not think it is necessary unless you plan on doing really hard trails. I do easy to moderate trails in a Jeep Wrangler and I only put it into 4low just because I can. I have run the same trails in 4Hi and have never had an issue. If you plan on running your vehicle on more difficult trails then 4Low is a must!
If you are on the fence between an AWD or a 4WD vehicle and need it for snow then check out our article AWD or 4WD for the snow?