How To Engage 4 Wheel Drive In A Jeep Wrangler

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The Jeep Wrangler is one of the most easily recognizable vehicles on (and off) the road. Given its image as a rugged off-roader, it’s no surprise that it comes with four-wheel-drive capabilities. How do you switch your Wrangler from two-wheel to four-wheel drive? We’ve done some investigating, and here’s what you need to know.

You can shift from 2WD High and 4WD High when the vehicle is stopped or going under 45 mph. You should not accelerate while shifting, and the transfer case will engage faster if you release the accelerator after completing the transfer.

To shift from 4WD High to 4WD Low, the Wrangler should be rolling slowly (1 to 3 mph). If your Wrangler has an automatic transmission, shift it into neutral. If it is manual, press on the clutch. Shift the lever into the 4L position without pausing at N. You can now put the automatic transmission back in drive or release the clutch for manual.

We’ve got the full scoop on the Wrangler’s four-wheel-drive system, as well as other systems in different Jeep models. Keep reading to learn more about full- and part-time four-wheel drive, terrain modes, and some advice for using these systems effectively.

2018 Jeep JK Sunrise Southern West Virginia Mountains photograph, How To Engage 4 Wheel Drive In A Jeep Wrangler

Shifting to 4H and 4L in a Jeep Wrangler or Gladiator

The Jeep Wrangler and Gladiator actually have the same drivetrain capabilities and both feature two four-wheel-drive options. They are labeled on the transfer case lever and the dashboard as 4H and 4L. The other positions are two-wheel drive (2H) and neutral (N).

When driving on paved roads under normal conditions, you will want to keep your Jeep in 2H. In cases of off-roading, inclement weather, or other conditions with reduced traction, you may want to engage one of the four-wheel-drive settings.

See the process and some advice in the video below:

For more information, you can consult your Wrangler or Gladiator owner’s manual.

How do I Know if my Jeep is in 4 Wheel Drive?

Despite increase in outdoor tourism and recreation, many roads in the western U.S. are still unpaved and require four wheel drive vehicles such as the Jeep pictured

If you are unsure whether your Wrangler is currently in 4-wheel drive, you can tell by looking at either the lever for the transmission case or the dashboard display next to the RPM gauge. The 4H and 4L lights indicate that your Wrangler is currently in 4-wheel drive. Under normal driving conditions, your Wrangler should be set to 2H.

What is Part-Time 4 Wheel Drive on a Jeep?

Jeep’s part-time 4WD system is what the standard Wrangler and Gladiator transfer case configurations use. You are able to switch between 2WD and 4WD on demand.

Unlike Jeep’s full-time four-wheel-drive system, this system locks the front- and rear-wheel driveshafts. It should only be used offroad or when road conditions require it. Overusing this system can lead to binding. This can overheat your engine and create undue stress on the mechanical components.

Some Wranglers and Gladiators come with a five-position transfer case. Instead of a single 4H setting, these include 4H Auto and 4H PT. The 4H PT setting is the same as the 4H setting described above. The 4H Auto setting defaults to the 2H setting but engages four-wheel drive when it senses a loss of traction.

Jeep’s all-time four-wheel drive and all-wheel drive use clutch or center differentials. This allows the front and rear driveshafts to turn at varying speeds. These systems are fine to use in any driving condition. Jeep’s all-wheel-drive system doesn’t have a low range, so it is not as suitable for challenging off-road terrains as its four-wheel-drive system.

Should I use 4WD Lock or Low?

Jeep Gladiator display at a Jeep Ram dealer, Can You Fit 3 Car Seats In A Jeep Gladiator? [What You Need To Know!]

Some Jeeps include different four-wheel-drive options than the Wrangler, such as the Renegade and the Compass. These vehicles have an automatic four-wheel-drive system that shifts power to the rear wheels when sensors indicate a loss of traction in the front wheels. Under normal circumstances, most power goes through the front wheels.

For slippery road conditions, you can use the 4WD Lock setting. For Trailhawk models, you can engage 4WD Low for off-roading.

You can keep 4WD on continuously by pushing the 4WD Lock button by the steering wheel. Selecting one of the terrain options (Snow, Sand, Mud, or Rock) will also engage 4WD Lock. You can use the 4WD Lock in situations where you need more traction consistently, such as driving on slippery surfaces.

The 4WD Low is included in Renegade and Compass Trailhawk models. It improves performance when off-roading. To select 4WD Low, the vehicle should be stationary with the engine running. Simply push the button once and wait for it to engage. The light will blink while engaging and then go steady when active.

You can see more about these settings in the video below:

What do Jeep’s Terrain Settings Do?

When you select any of the terrain settings, they lock your vehicle’s four-wheel drive for increased traction and stability. Each setting also engages other features to help you drive safely and get the most out of your Jeep. Here is some information about each of the four settings:

Snow

The Snow setting increases your traction on slippery roads. It sets equal torque distribution to the front and rear wheels. It also sets your vehicle to launch from second gear instead of first to minimize wheel slippage unless the vehicle is in 4WD Low.

Sand

Ideal for off-road driving or surfaces with minimal traction, this mode allows more wheelspin and raises the shift points.

Mud

Jeep recommends Mud mode for driving in mud and wet grass but doesn’t provide information regarding mechanical differences in this mode. Older models have a single Sand/Mud option.

Rock

Rock mode is only available on Trailhawk models of the Renegade and Compass. It can only be active in the 4WD Low range and is used for low-speed off-road obstacles, such as large rocks and deep ruts. It provides the most traction for serious off-roading.

For more information on this and other matters, consult your Renegade or Compass owner’s manual.

How Fast can a Jeep Go in 4 Wheel Drive?

The 2019 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara off-road with the ocean and cityscape in the background

The top speed you should drive your Jeep while using four-wheel drive depends on what system it uses. Because all-wheel drive and full-time four-wheel drive are always active, you can use them at any speed.

For models with part-time four-wheel drive, you should only use 4L up to 25 mph. Any speeds over that, you should use 2H or 4H. While Jeep doesn’t specify a maximum speed for 4H, you should only engage it in challenging driving conditions. As such, it shouldn’t be necessary to use it over 55 mph.

Should you Use 4-Wheel Drive When Towing?

While Jeep’s vehicles make great city cars, they’re most popular among those who would rather relax by a campfire than a screen. Towing a camper is a great way to get some comfort while enjoying the outdoors. If your Jeep has a part-time four-wheel-drive system, you might wonder if you should use it when towing.

You shouldn’t use the part-time four-wheel-drive setting when towing under normal conditions. In essence, use it the same as you would if you weren’t towing a vehicle, reserving it for when the road is slippery, or you’re having trouble getting traction.

One exception to this rule would be when driving on steep inclines in the mountains. While driving downhill at low speeds, using the 4L setting will allow you to keep your vehicle going slowly without overheating your brakes. If you plan on driving under these conditions, make sure your trailer is well under your towing capacity and has trailer brakes.

You can learn more about towing in a Jeep in our article, “How Much Can a Jeep Wrangler Tow?” It covers the towing capacity of different Wrangler configurations and recommends some top-tier trailer campers to take comfort with you on the road.

Final Thoughts

Jeep doesn’t just make a number of awesome off-road vehicles. It also uses an impressive array of settings and configurations to keep you rolling on- and offroad.

For the uninitiated, the differences between these setups can seem mystifying at first. Now that you know more about a host of Jeeps systems, you’ll be better able to choose and operate your vehicle in a way that suits your needs.

If you’re interested in trying out a Jeep Wrangler but aren’t sold on it yet, check out our article, “Where Can You Rent a Jeep Wrangler?” You can learn more about easy ways to rent a Wrangler and other great information, like whether you can offroad in a rental.

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