• Kevin Cartwright

How to Shift and Hold Gears When Offroad

This climb is steep. VERY steep. Know your gearing to avoid common dangers!

Buying a 4x4 these days comes with many terrain-driven options that seem to make the 4x4 vehicles of 10 years ago or more seem like ancient relics. Many modern 4WD's come with an automatic gearbox, and the best of the bunch let you change gears manually. But let us not turn a blind eye on the manuals, as there are an abundance of these transmissions out there also. Usually, the schools of auto and manual 4WDing are very much divided, so it is up to the driver to decide what he or she opt for.

A lot of seasoned off-roaders swear by a manual, as it enables you to have a lot more flexibility on very tough terrain. On the flip side, a less experienced driver can get into a real tough spot by shifting into the wrong gear for the situation. For a newbie, using a manual on the road is easy; on rough tracks, steep climbs and gnarly descents it can be a bit more complicated.

Generally speaking, choosing a gear on the black-top is typically matching ratios to current speed. Off road that isn’t the case at all. Our main mission is to maximise grip so we must know, on the fly, what gear we need before we need to use it. Rolling at 25km/h on slippery rock is a universe apart from 25km/h on loose, dry sand. But lets add another spanner in the works to think about: we may also have 4 high and 4 low range in addition to a diff lock to consider as well. We can go even deeper and discuss rear and front lockers but is outside the scope of this blog.

To make it even more ambiguous, there's no specific set of Ten Commandments about what conditions suit what gear and when. Lower gears tend to yield more traction, but not always. We all know, if we have been to Fraser Island or popular sand destinations that it can be notoriously unpredictable. Wet sand, if we happen to be driving below the high tide mark on the beach, is generally a predictably firm surface that’s easier to drive on. Saturated sand, where it’s being washed by each ebb and flow of the constant barrage of waves, can be entirely different, and loose, dry sand makes it frustratingly easy to bury yourself to the axles. We've all done it.


Whenever we hit the fun sections of track, this being the difficult terrain such as snow, mud, and loose gravel, as well as sand, it is crucial that we maintain solid momentum in order to avoid burying ourselves in. A very common rookie error is stopping mid negotiation of a difficult drive (sometimes we come to a correct conclusion that stopping is the only answer because of the risk of baking something or no force outside of a winch will help us). Once we stop, there’s a high probability that attempting to move your 4x4 again will just bog us in.

OK, so we can opt for a high gear to start our wheels spinning at the risk slowing down and bog ourselves in or even more. If we decided to be clever and choose a low gear and we run the risk of losing momentum, slow down and…um...bog down again.


The tip is, before we move out onto a softer or more difficult surface, bring the vehicle to the speed needed in accordance to the terrain then, and as soon as we’re on it or preferably just before, select the gear that lets you maintain that momentum with ample power in reserve. Unless you are a pro, have several thousands of kilometres of off-roading under your belt, avoid switching gears mid way through a very difficult section. I've seen guys do it and done it myself when I have had no choice, but its extremely rare.

Lower gears tend to function optimally on sand and mud. The probable risk of the wheels spinning are a lot less, and as long as your tyre pressures are lowered accordingly you’ll get more traction. Remember, we lower tyre pressure for 3 reasons: a) a smoother ride, b) to elongate the tyres foot print for added traction and lastly c) to enable the tyre to "marshmallow" like a blob over hardened obstacles. But the precise choice of gear varies. The optimum gear depends on our vehicle, and on the type of sand and/or mud.

Mostly though, we only learn via down and dirty hands-on experience as to what’s best at that moment - which is defined as getting stuck a few times before we get a feel for how to tackle the drive.

It’s easier to work out the gear to use when descending steep slopes or dunes. That is - as low as possible. I always use the mantra slow is the go. If it’s a steep slope stay in first gear low range; for a shallower one you might be able to safely descent in second gear low range. You'll learn to get a feel for the situation as your experience increases. Gear changes on slopes, just like on soft surfaces, need to be carried out quickly, smoothly and above all - decisively - especially when the slope is committing. The longer we’re out of gear the more likely we are to create some strife. If you find that you are gathering too much speed in low range first gear, then "feather the brake". Again, braking in these situations are best avoided completely and is a subject for another time.

The proper use of gears when 4WDing only comes with experience and constant batting practise. It will come by feel. The most important thing to keep in mind is that when we are off road, we’ll be using lower gears often and shifting gears alot. But this is all part of the fun.


Our tag-along tours offers our convoys a safe and fun passage through different types of challenging terrain that can often become to technical for inexperienced drivers to negotiate on their own and without guidance. Book a tour with us for a hassle free day of adventure and smart exploring in your own four-wheel drive.

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See you on the trails,



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