Can You Drive in 4-Wheel Drive All the Time?

Having the capability of 4-wheel drive is extremely helpful in all sorts of different situations. But if you are new to having a 4-wheel drive vehicle, you might be wondering whether you can keep it in 4-wheel mode all the time. 

So, Can you drive in 4-wheel drive all the time? You should only use 4-wheel drive when it is needed for the terrain you are on. It is possible, but it can be damaging your drivetrain if you use it while on flat, smooth surfaces. These are easy for your tires to grip without losing traction and you’ll prevent a significant amount wear and tear on your vehicle.

Can you drive in 4 wheel drive all the time?

Sometimes it may be as simple as forgetting to switch it back to normal, and at other times we may think it’s fine to leave it in 4-wheel drive for a while since we may need it again soon. But being aware of this setting and only using it when necessary is a crucial step to keeping your vehicle in top condition, while also staying safe on the road. 

When You Should Use 4-wheel Drive

Four-wheel drive is a feature that should only be used when needed. There is no added benefit to using it on a smooth, flat surface where it’s not necessary. It won’t allow for better handling or keep you any safer. With there being no safety or functional benefits to it when it’s not needed, make sure you are diligent about switching back to 2-wheel drive.

There are specific scenarios when 4-wheel drive makes the drive easier, and there are others when the conditions are so extreme that without 4-wheel drive, you may not even be able to operate your vehicle properly.

When you are heading out to a campsite or traveling through harsh weather conditions seeking your next Overlanding adventure, there will most likely come plenty of times where a 4-wheel drive will be necessary. 

Extreme Weather Conditions on the Road

One of the most common reasons people buy a 4-wheel drive vehicle is for the weather conditions they face. Anyone who lives in a snowy region understands the struggle of a 2-wheel vehicle struggling to get up even a slight hill when the roads are covered in snow and ice.

There are many different types of snow, and they all cause different issues. Whether it is a slick road due to sleet and freezing rain or you are trying to push through an unpaved section of thick, heavy, compact snow – 4-wheel drive is going to be your best friend.

Deep Mud or Water

When you’re traveling through rural areas on your next adventure, you may hit an area that is high-risk for mudslides or rushing water. Any time there is a layer of water on the road, the tires are unable to meet the surface adequately, which can lead to hydroplaning.

If you are in a flooded area or traveling through a section in the country where a mudslide has caused inches of water and mud, you will want to switch into 4-wheel drive.

Extreme Dirt or Sand

Desert areas are not typically where one would assume they would need to use 4-wheel drive. Most people think of giant snowbanks they need to get through or steep hills in a monsoon. But the desert can even be a place where the 4-wheel drive is necessary.  

When dust storms occur, the sand can start to build on the roads. So, even if you are not planning on off-roading at any point, you still may need to tag in your 4-wheel drive system. If the sand begins to build, it will create a slippery surface that will be hard for a 2wd car to manage. Only use 4-wheel drive if you notice an extreme amount of sand in your path, and you begin to feel the slickness of it. 


4x4 vehicle on 4wheel drive terrain

The best rule of thumb for using 4-wheel drive is to use it whenever your tires cannot grip the pavement. So, if there is no pavement – you are probably going to need 4-wheel drive. Whether you are heading out to a muddy field, venturing through sandy deserts, or traversing over rocks and running water, 4-wheel drive will be necessary.

The main thing to remember when considering when to use 4-wheel drive is that it is meant for specific conditions. If your tires are unable to meet and grip the pavement for any reason – that is when 4-wheel drive will need to be deployed. 

One exception to the rule is if you need to haul a large load at a slow speed. If you are hauling a heavy load, especially if you are going up or downhill, the 4-wheel drive feature can help you maintain control and increase the grip and traction of your wheels. This should only be used when needed, and at slow, steady speeds.

What Happens When You Use 4-wheel drive Incorrectly?

Four-wheel drive not only aids you during slippery conditions, but it needs those slippery conditions to work safely. Using 4-wheel drive when it’s unnecessary on dry, flat pavement can cause broken front axles, harm differential gears, or the differential case, causing long term damage to the drivetrain.

You will also notice your gas tank running on empty much quicker than when you use 2wd. The use of 4-wheel drive requires more fuel consumption. So, using it when you don’t need it may not only cause you additional money for repairs but also in extra fuel. 

Lastly, it can even pose some safety concerns. If you are using 4-wheel drive on a flat, paved road, and you hit a turn too fast, it can cause slipping or spinouts from the tires. If you have a top-heavy vehicle such as a Jeep, this is especially important. You never want to take a turn too fast while you are in 4-wheel drive. 

4-wheel drive and Speed: How Fast Should You Go?

One danger of using the 4-wheel drive is that drivers often get a feeling of invincibility. A snowstorm is still a snowstorm, even if you have 4-wheel drive. It doesn’t mean that going your usual 70 mph on the highway is going to be a smart idea.  

You should still drive with caution in climate situations, going slightly slower and allowing more time to stop. As previously discussed, sharp turns can be an issue when in 4-wheel drive. Even if you are using 4-wheel drive properly, never take a turn too fast.

Technically, you can drive at normal speeds in 4-wheel drive and not have it cause a problem. But since you don’t want to use it unless the conditions require it, you will typically be going at slightly slower than usual speeds when using it.

Switching Between 2wd and 4-wheel drive

Since you don’t want to use 4-wheel drive when it is unnecessary, you may be asking yourself the safest methods to switch back and forth. 

The key to going from one to the other is to anticipate your needs. You don’t want to shift from one to the other in the middle of a steep hill or while you are driving at high speed. If you see a large hill approaching or the snow starts coating the road, and you know you have a way ahead of you with snow-covered streets, you should switch to 4-wheel drive right away.

If you must switch suddenly, try to find a spot to safely slow to almost a stop before you shift to 4-wheel drive or back out of it. 

Making Sure You Use 4-wheel drive Sparingly

Four-wheel drive is a safe, useful, and innovative way to take on some harsh elements and open up your possibilities for where your next adventure may take you. Never use 4-wheel drive if you don’t have an immediate need for it. And when you do use it, make sure you still stick to safe driving practices to ensure your safety and the safety of your vehicle.

James with daughter on the trails

About James...

Hi, I’m James. If I’m not working on this site, you can often find me outdoors roaming the trails. I’m an avid hiker, mountain biker, and overlander. I’m excited to share my passion for the outdoors with you.