4×4 Basics – What Driving Off Road Means

The first thing to explain when talking about the acronyms or denominations 4×4, AWD, and 4WD is that these basically refer to the traction systems in a vehicle. This is crucial for offroading. It can get pretty complicated but we are here discussing 4×4 basics from no knowledge to a basic understanding.

You’ve just bought a 4×4 and you’re excited to go off-roading. But with so many different types of vehicles, it’s tough to know what the basics are. This blog post will teach you everything you need to know before hitting the trails!

What vehicles should I be looking for? What do they all mean? How can I find one that suits my needs? These questions will be answered in this blog; we’ll also discuss things like axle ratios and wheelbase widths and how they affect your driving experience.

I’ll cover gear ratios, tires, suspension systems, and anything else that might come up when out on an excursion. There is no shortage of information–and while some may think this article is overkill, I think it’s great to have all the information in one place. So without further ado, let’s dive into what you need to know when looking for that perfect 4×4.

4x4 basics, Mad Digi

When looking for your ideal vehicle, one of the first things you’ll need to know is the difference between four-wheel drive (4WD or 4×4) and an all-wheel-drive (AWD). The easiest way to think about this is that 4WD refers only to the vehicle’s rear axle, while AWD covers both axles.

What does it mean? For starters, if you want more control on an off-road course or when pulling a trailer, 4WD is the way to go. It will help you turn and control your vehicle better in certain situations. However, with most manufacturers developing AWD systems that have two-wheel drive capabilities, it’s not very difficult these days to find a car/truck that offers front-wheel drive for improved fuel economy or all-wheel drive for better traction.

While 4WD gets you better control off-road, AWD will not do anything to improve your performance on the trail  It’s also important to note that front-wheel drive and rear-wheel drive are completely different animals when it comes to their overall capabilities in the dirt.

Normally most cars have a basic 4×2 traction, where the front wheels are the ones that move the car when propelled by the engine, while the rear wheels only follow the movement and spin freely.

In other words, “4×2” means that of a vehicle’s four wheels only two are drive wheels, only two wheels get power from the engine and the other two (usually the front wheels for pickups and off-road vehicles) are free spinning.

Owning a car gives you multiple possibilities, such as getting to work earlier or carrying out procedures that require a great investment of time and patience in public transport. However, there is also room for entertainment. Entertainment is the most important thing when off-roading. Because if it is not fun, then what is the point?

4×4 Off-Road Basics: Adventure And Expertise On Difficult Roads

4x4 basics, 4×4 Basics – What Driving Off Road Means, Mad Digi

Drivers who usually drive off-road, in terrains with extreme conditions, what they are doing is off-toading. The activity usually takes place on poorly defined roads with rugged terrain characteristics.

For this reason, to perform this adventure sport it is necessary to have vehicles with 4×4 traction, which are conditioned to overcome any difficulty you find on the road. Therefore, if you want to immerse yourself in this exciting world, you should clear your doubts about how 4×4 works and what 4H and 4L mean in a 4×4, among other related concepts.

How Does 4×4 Work In My Vehicle?

Normally, in the market, you will find cars with 4×2 traction. This basically means that only the front wheels move the vehicle after being driven by the engine. Therefore, out of the set of four wheels, only two have traction.

4x4 basics, 4×4 Basics – What Driving Off Road Means, Mad Digi

This type of vehicle works safely in urban environments but may have disadvantages when traveling on more difficult roads.

Well, manufacturers have found the solution: four-wheel drive, which provides a traction force that is distributed equally between the front and rear axles of the car (50% front and 50% rear).

In these models, which are usually vans and SUVs, it is the four wheels that move the vehicle using the same amount of force. To know how this system works, it is necessary to define different variants of all-wheel drive:

  • Those that have permanently coupled all 4 wheels to the engine. They are also called all-wheel drive and are the most efficient cars.
  • Those that have front or rear-wheel drive and only couple the other axle to the engine on certain occasions. In this group we can find those with central differential, that is to say, those that can use the traction on any road and at any speed; and those without central differential, which couples the supplementary axle when the road conditions are very bad and at low speeds.

4x4 basics, 4×4 Basics – What Driving Off Road Means, Mad Digi

At the same time, there are different complementary versions to the 4X4 system that you should know:

  • AWD traction: they offer four-wheel drive without driver intervention. It has a center differential that equalizes traction on each wheel separately to enhance vehicle control. It is more focused on comfort than on off-road thrills.
  • 4WD: similar to AWD, but with the difference that it is the driver who selects the locking of the two axles or only one. It offers the advantage of adapting the driving to the type of terrain.

How Do The 4WD Hubs Work?

The locking hubs allow, as the name suggests, the locking of the front axle of the wheels, their main job is to allow you to switch from 4×2 to 4WD.


When you lock the hubs what you do is connect the two half axles to a drive plate, locking them together.

How do locking differentials in a truck work? What is the difference between your standard differential and a locking differential? As you might have guessed, these are two very different things. A standard differential will allow for one wheel to spin faster than the other when going around corners or over bumps.

This is because power travels through both axles at the same rate. The problem with this design is that it makes turning difficult, especially on slippery surfaces like ice or mud. A locking differential works by sending power equally to both wheels when they are rotating at the same speed which allows for more torque to be delivered to each wheel individually.

That means if one of your tires starts spinning out while you’re turning, all four of them will continue moving forward instead of stopping.

4x4 basics, 4×4 Basics – What Driving Off Road Means, Mad Digi

Thus, the axles rotate together, and they will be ready for you to connect the 4WD, which transmits the power through a differential located in the transfer case. In older vehicles, the procedure must be initiated manually, i.e., get out of your car, turn the hub to its locked position, and put the transmission in the “neutral” position before engaging the 4WD.

On the other hand, in modern cars, you have automatic locking hubs that do not require much manual work. You just stop the car and put the transfer lever in 4H or 4L and move forward. The hubs will then lock automatically. Now that you know how the 4×4 hubs work it is important that you learn what 2H, 4L, and 4L mean.

What Do 4H And 4L Mean On A 4X4?

On some models, you can choose different driving alternatives. There are pretty much only 4 setups:

  • 2H: 2 wheel drive high. You drive with one axle disconnected, that is, only front or rear-wheel drive, depending on your car model. High is the gear ratio wherein high you can drive higher speeds.
  • 4L: 4 wheel drive low. You get the 4-wheel drive and lower the number of revolutions (speed). This is to maintain control of your car on rough roads. Low is a low gear setting where you have a much lower top speed but you have more control in lower speeds which is ideal for loose soil or rocky terrain.
  • 4H: 4 wheel drive high. You activate the 4WD function, which gives you the possibility to drive on low-grip terrain. In addition, the differential lock is activated automatically.

4x4 basics, Mad Digi

4X4 off-roading experiences are a stimulus to your adventurous spirit and allow you to enjoy panoramas that give you satisfaction behind the wheel. Don’t forget to take all the safety measures to do so.

Start from the beginning and form a solid foundation. It can get very complicated very quickly. That is why I have created this quick rundown on 4×4 basics and how to get started.

4×4 off-roaders are meant to be driven in all sorts of terrain, so you’ll want a vehicle that is comfortable with the dirt and has plenty of power when it comes time for powering up hills or passing slower traffic.

However, this doesn’t mean your truck needs to have the same top speeds as an on-road automobile! A lot of people drive their trucks at highway speeds just because they can (which isn’t always necessary) but if you’re looking to get more life out of your tires while also dealing with less wear and tear on your engine, keep things under fifty miles per hour whenever possible.

You’ll find yourself saving gas money over time too!

Thanks for reading and stay dirty