How to Use 4-Wheel Drive on Your Jeep

Like if this guide is helpful
How to Use 4-Wheel Drive on Your Jeep

Jeeps are almost synonymous with 4-wheel drive, in part because, while the Jeep was not the first 4-wheel drive vehicle, it was the first to really popularise the technology. The original Jeep was an American military vehicle designed for World War II, and civilian versions soon followed. The brand has been popular ever since. But the word 'jeep' has also been used in several other contexts and is sometimes used to refer to other light off-road vehicles of similar design. So in some sense, jeep really does mean 4-by-4. Operating a 4-wheel drive does take some skill and must be learned. Further, there are many different types of 4-wheel drive, and some confusion exists about what the different terms actually mean. To get the most out of the technology, it is important to know how different kinds of Jeeps perform in different conditions, including when driving them on pavement, ice, and snow.

What Is 4-Wheel Drive?

Simply put, 4-wheel drive means that four wheels, rather than two, are powered by the engine. There are several different versions of this technology, and each version handles somewhat differently. Knowing how to drive a 4-wheel drive Jeep depends in large part on knowing what kind of 4-wheel drive the vehicle has.

What is 4-Wheel Drive For?

While 4-wheel drive was originally designed for off-road use, more recently, different models have been developed for on-road use in wet or snowy conditions. When all four wheels have power, the vehicle as a whole has more power and better control. However, the different versions of this drive are not interchangeable. A technology designed for off-road use cannot be used on pavement, while one designed for use on pavement cannot be used off-road.

For example, road vehicles are designed to be able to adjust how much power goes to each wheel in order to compensate for changes in power demand during turns. When the same car goes off-road, if a wheel spins in loose gravel it tricks the car into acting like it is turning. The wheel stuck in the gravel gets a lot of power, but cannot use it, while the wheels that actually have traction get less power and the car as a whole gets stuck. Jeep has many different versions of 4-wheel drive available, and new versions are added every few years, each with its own method of operation. Perhaps the best way to begin to keep track of the options is to pay attention, first, to what kind of driving each was designed to do.

Types of 4-Wheel Drive

There are many terms in use for a vehicle that has four powered wheels. Common terms besides 4-wheel drive include part-time 4-wheel drive, all-wheel drive, and 4-by-4. Many people treat these as synonyms, and indeed there is a lot of overlap. Yet the words each have subtly distinct meanings and do not always refer to the same car. For example, a 4-by-4 has four wheels and all four are driven, and is therefore a 4-wheel drive vehicle. On the other hand, a lorry with eight wheels can also count as a four-wheel drive vehicle, even though it is not a 4-by-4. And within each category are multiple variations that Jeep, and other brands, have developed for their own vehicles.

Adjustable Transmissions

Adding to the confusion is the fact that many Jeeps have adjustable transmissions. Part-time 4-wheel drive is designed exclusively for off-road use, so the vehicle converts to 2-wheel drive using a switch or a button. Full-time 4-wheel drive is designed exclusively for driving on pavement, the idea being to give the driver more control in wet or snowy conditions. Some can be converted to off-road mode as needed, however. All-wheel drive is essentially a 2-wheel drive vehicle with an on-board computer that can engage the other wheels as drive wheels as needed, such as when the car hits an icy patch. A major part of the difference between the different 4-wheel drive options is how the vehicle can be converted from one mode to another.

Wheel Drive Variations

This table shows the basic categories of 4-wheel drive options. Each is listed with a brief description. Note that Jeep has its own names for specific technologies within these groups, and often adds new options with new names.




Part-time 4-wheel drive

The driver can shift between 4-wheel and 2-wheel drive

When on pavement, use only the 2-wheel drive option

Full-time 4-wheel drive

Designed to use 4-wheel drive on all surfaces, but may have multiple settings

May have settings that are inappropriate for off-road

Automatic 4-wheel drive

Two-wheel drive that automatically shifts briefly to 4-wheel drive, as needed

Used almost exclusively on pavement

Shift on the fly

Drivers can shift between 2-wheel and 4-wheel drive while driving

Shifting is usually only possible at lower speeds

High 4-wheel drive

 Designed for use at ordinary driving speeds

May not have enough power to climb through deep snow

Low 4-wheel drive

Designed for hauling heavy loads at low speeds

Increases risk of skidding

Note that these categories overlap to some degree. Many 4-wheel drive vehicles can shift between high and low options, while others only have the high option. The term all-wheel drive is sometimes treated as synonymous with automatic all-wheel drive but in other cases is used to mean a variation on full-time 4-wheel drive.

Using 4-Wheel Drive on a Jeep

There are several different circumstances under which 4-wheel drive might be used. There are therefore several different ways to using 4-wheel drive. Full-time 4-wheel drive works well on pavement, but there is an art to using part-time 4-wheel drive on the roads. Sand and snow each present different challenges, and the simple act of braking is decidedly different off-road than on-road.

Using 4-Wheel Drive on Pavement

Part-time 4-wheel drive works very well in off-road situations, but on pavement these vehicles steer wide or otherwise handle poorly in 4-wheel drive mode. In order to use the 4-wheel drive option on wet or icy roads, shift into 4-wheel drive only when needed and allow for the difficult steering. Shift back as soon as possible. Jeeps with manual hubs can be left with their hubs locked all winter, even in 2-wheel drive mode, for convenience, but actually driving in wheel drive mode all the time could gradually destroy the Jeep. Snow is often easier in 2-wheel drive, because loose snow sometimes allows a single wheel to spin without traction, robbing the other wheels of power.           

Driving in Sand

The key to driving in sand is to broaden the wheels. Wheels designed for use on pavement are relatively narrow in order to improve both comfort and efficiency, but narrow wheels sink into the sand easily. Once the wheels are dug in a few centimetres, the Jeep does not have the power to climb up over the unstable berm to get out of the trench it has dug for itself. Reducing tyre pressure allows the tyres to spread out, rather like the sure, broad toes of a camel. The tyres do not sink so far, so the berm of sand is not a problem.

When driving in sand, steer as straight as possible so that the rear wheels can run in the ruts the front wheels have made. Turning requires the rear wheels to climb out from the ruts and back in, and they can do so, but the added challenge should be avoided when possible.

Driving in Snow

Four-wheel drive helps a Jeep start moving in snow by providing additional traction and power, but this technology does not do anything to keep a vehicle from skidding or sliding once it is in motion. The reason is that getting started requires overcoming inertia, something that is easier when all four tyres are grabbing actively at the road, but inertia is not the problem when a Jeep slides on ice. A tyre on ice cannot get traction at all, so doubling the number of drive wheels failing to get traction does not change the situation. The solution is for the Jeep owner to take exactly the same steps that the owner of a 2-wheel drive vehicle would for winter driving safety: drive carefully; steer into a skid if one occurs; take advantage of anti-lock brakes; use snow tyres; and if possible, add weight to the vehicle to increase traction.

Anti-Lock Brakes

Anti-lock (ABS) brakes do not work in some versions of 4-wheel drive, and ABS should not be used on dirt surfaces in any case. The reason is that dirt is too loose to stop a rolling wheel through traction. What stops a Jeep braking on dirt is that the wheels lock up almost immediately, the Jeep skids, and the wheels plough up little berms of dirt ahead of themselves. The little berms soon stop the Jeep from moving. Apply the gas, and the Jeep easily climbs over the berms and continues on its way. Since ABS systems prevent the wheels from locking, they effectively prevent the vehicle from braking on dirt at all. For this reason, 4-wheel drive systems designed for off-road use either do not have ABS or automatically disable it when shifting into the relevant mode. This is another reason not to use an off-road drive mode on pavement.

How to Buy a Jeep on eBay

Drivers can learn how to make the most of their vehicle's 4-wheel drive capabilities, but only if they have a Jeep. Fortunately, drivers looking for a Jeep can find one on eBay. Parts and supplies are also available through eBay.

Fining Jeeps and Jeep Parts Through eBay

To begin, simply type 'Jeep' into eBay's search box and then use the menu options to narrow the options by colour, model year, and any of several other characteristics. Alternatively, type in 'Jeep parts' and then use the menu options to specify which parts.

Buying Jeeps and Jeep Parts Through eBay with Confidence

Buying a Jeep, or even a part for a Jeep, is obviously a big decision. Make sure to gather as much information as possible from the seller before finalising the sale. If the vehicle or part is used, find out exactly what condition it is in and be prepared to return it if it arrives not as described. The seller's contact information and return policy are listed on his or her profile page.


Jeeps are popular, in part because their rugged strength gives the drivers a sense of power and freedom, as though they could go drive up mountains on a whim. However, having a car that can drive up and down a mountain does not do much good if the driver does not know how to use 4-wheel drive. Using 4-wheel drive actually requires two different skills. The first involves knowing enough about the vehicle to know which version of 4-wheel drive the Jeep has, what kind of driving it is good for, and how and when to make any necessary shifts between the different available modes. The other skill is knowing how to actually drive the vehicle under different conditions in order to take best advantage of the machine's capacity.

Some people like to add to this the skill of repairing a Jeep unaided in remote, off-road areas, reasoning that such self-sufficiency and preparedness is part of what Jeep ownership is all about. Actually, since most such mechanical problems are actually caused by reckless driving, a better bet is simply knowing how to drive well. Therefore, a final aspect of using a Jeep's 4-wheel drive can be added to the list: remember to use common sense.

Have something to share, create your own guide... Write a guide
Explore more guides