How to Tow an Automatic 4×4: 5 Essential Tips

Towing an automatic 4×4 can be a sensitive procedure, and sometimes the smallest mistake can cost you a lot of headaches (and dollars) later on. When you’re preparing for your next overlanding adventure, damage to your vehicle is the last thing you want to deal with.

So, how do you tow an automatic 4×4? Here are 5 tips to keep in mind:

  • Know Your Options
  • Protect your transmission
  • Know What You’re Getting Into
  • Obey the Law
  • Value Your Vehicle
flat towing a 4wd jeep wrangler
Photo Credit: J Forsell of Wyoming

First, just to put your mind at ease…

Can You Tow an Automatic 4×4?

Yes. An automatic 4×4 can be towed, just like any other vehicle. But the method you should use depends on a lot of factors, such as your budget, the make and year of your vehicle, the time you’re willing to invest in new skills, and more. Consider the following tips to decide how you should do it.

Know Your Options

The simplest option for towing your vehicle is to use a flatbed trailer. With this method, the vehicle is completely off the ground and basically sitting still, so there’s virtually zero risk of damage. That’s why just about every car you can buy can be towed on a flatbed. Other options include:

  • A tow bar. This is a sturdy metal frame, usually in an “A” shape, designed to securely attach one vehicle to another for towing. They’re a lot lighter and less expensive than flatbeds, along with being easier to store. They also make connection and disconnection somewhat easier.
  • A tow dolly is almost like a flatbed cut in half. It hitches to the back of the coach vehicle and keeps two wheels of the towed vehicle off the ground. These dollies are best used with front-wheel drive vehicles since the rear wheels aren’t connected to the drive shaft.

Can You Use a Tow Dolly on a 4×4?

Technically, you can tow a 4×4 with a tow dolly, but it’s far from ideal. When only two of your four drive wheels are on the ground, you risk serious damage to several of your vehicle’s components—more on this below.

tow dollie 1

Protect your transmission

If you’re new to towing, be warned: towing an automatic vehicle with any of its drive wheels on the ground can damage the transmission beyond repair. 

While tow bars and tow dollies often come in handy with manual transmission vehicles, using them with an automatic 4×4 can be complicated. Some vehicles are not meant to be towed with wheels on the ground at all. Check your owner’s manual in case your vehicle falls into this category.

Dollies – Disconnecting the Drive Shaft

As mentioned above, using a tow dolly with a 4×4 causes two of the four drive wheels to spin, while the other two remain motionless. You can do this without causing damage, but only if you take a rather major precaution. 

The safest way to tow an automatic 4×4 with a tow dolly is to have the driveshaft temporarily removed. Since the wheels will no longer be connected to the engine, they can roll along the highway without damaging the inner workings of the car. For the purposes of towing, it essentially becomes a front-wheel-drive vehicle. 

Not interested in having your trusty 4×4 dismantled like this? Well, that’s one of the many reasons why a tow dolly is not ideal for this type of vehicle. We’ll discuss some other reasons under tip #3.

Transmission and Tow Bars

A tow bar keeps all four wheels of the towed vehicle on the ground. That means that, during your trip, the wheels of your 4×4 will be turning while the engine is off. This isn’t much of an issue with manual transmission vehicles. But your 4×4 is automatic, so you’ll have to be much more careful about how you proceed.

Even when an automatic vehicle is in neutral, the turning of the wheels can cause components inside the transmission to turn, as well. But automatic transmissions are only lubricated while the vehicle’s engine is running. 

No matter how green you feel when it comes to the inner workings of cars, you probably know that unlubricated machines can be seriously bad news. The friction between the unlubricated components can cause so much damage that the transmission fails completely. 

Some vehicles have systems in place that allow you to disconnect the wheels from the transmission, to avoid this problem. Again, check your owner’s manual to make sure you know your vehicle’s capabilities.

Lube Pumps

You could also use a lube pump, such as those sold by Remco. These pumps draw power from the coach vehicle’s battery, allowing them to actively lubricate the towed vehicle’s transmission even though its engine is off. 

With the transmission well-lubricated, the wheels can turn the components without damaging them. So, in most cases, using a lube pump will allow you to use a tow bar with your automatic 4×4, worry-free.

Just remember you should carefully select your lube pump to make sure it matches the make, model, and year of your 4×4. If you’re not sure, there are tools online to help you make this match.

Know What You’re Getting Into

So, you know your options, and you know some of the risks you should avoid. But which towing method is best for your situation?

As mentioned, flatbeds do away with almost every towing-related problem, at least when it comes to the towed vehicle itself. But the simplicity of this solution comes at a cost. 

For one thing, you’ll have to make sure your coach vehicle is properly equipped to deal with the combined weight of the flatbed and the 4×4. That’s a lot to pull down the road and going over a vehicle’s towing capacity can have major consequences. The coach vehicle may also suffer more wear than normal. Its engine and brakes will need to work harder than normal to manage all that weight.

  • Safety. Hauling a flatbed trailer can also be tricky, and if you’re not careful, dangerous. Even if you do everything else right, the act of driving with a flatbed behind you might take more finesse than you realize. If you’ve ever seen a jack-knifed tow truck, you’ve caught a small glimpse into the risks that can come with this method of towing.
  • Cost. There’s also the cost of buying or renting the trailer. Renting might mean your vehicle gets loaded up with lots of others and hauled to a predetermined location. But buying will cost you thousands of dollars, not to mention the space to store it and the expense of maintaining it.

Other Options

Tow bars and tow dollies are less expensive by far, and they’re easier to store than a bulky flatbed. But you do still need to store them—both at your campsite and back home, when you’re not using them. You’ll need to think about how much space you have to work with.

And while the devices themselves are relatively low-cost, the precautions you’ll need to take can really add up. A lube pump to use with the tow bar might be up to $2,000, and unless you can remove a drive shaft yourself, you’ll pay a pretty penny for the procedure. And then you’ll have to put the driveshaft back on just to use your 4×4.

Many people find that using a tow bar is the best balance between expense and hassle. You’ll need to weigh your options (and, once again, consult your owner’s manual) to decide what’s right for you.

Obey the Law

Picture this: you’ve considered your options, done all the hard work, and now you have your towing set up already for the open road. Time to get going, right? Not so fast. To keep yourself and everyone else safe, you need to make sure you’re familiar with the laws regulating towing.

Most states, for example, require you to make sure there are visible, working taillights on either the coach vehicle or the towed vehicle. You also need to make sure your license plates are clearly visible. There are a number of other common towing laws, as well, but the ones you need to follow really depend on where you live. 

Take some time to learn your state’s towing laws, and the laws of any states you’ll be traveling through. You’ll be good to go in no time.

Value Your Vehicle

You might have heard from your overlanding buddies that a manual transmission 4×4 is the way to go. Don’t let them get you down. There are pros and cons to both manual and automatic, and there’s no clear winner. It might seem like towing your automatic 4×4 is going to be a big, expensive hassle, but don’t worry—you’re an overlander! 

The journey is what matters, and with a bit of research and patience, you’ll be on your way to your next adventure in no time.

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.