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Jeep Wrangler: How to Turn On 4 Wheel Drive

Whether due to the continuous progression of automotive technology or the SUV/crossover dominance in the current market, 4 Wheel Drive (4WD) has gone from a niche to a standard feature in most vehicles. This breakthrough has made navigating slick roads and slow-crawling sections safer and much more manageable. In this guide, let us learn about the importance of knowing how to turn on 4 Wheel Drive.

Turning on 4 Wheel Drive in a Jeep depends on road conditions and the type of 4WD system. Jeeps with full or part-time 4WD are mostly not required to stop when shifting between gears. However, they should keep within specified speed limits and only engage 4WD under permissible situations.

Aside from how to correctly put a Jeep Wrangler in 4 Wheel Drive, this article will discuss relevant drive systems and shifter types. It will also go over situations where using 4WD is or is not ideal (to name a few). So if you are new to the Jeep community, aiming to understand the 4WD system better, or keen to improve your off-roading maneuvers, this article is for you!

Black Jeep Rubicon Off-Roading Uphill

Are All Jeeps 4 Wheel Drive?

Although best known for their 4WD capability, not all Jeeps are categorically 4WD. Depending on the year, model, and trim, a Jeep may have a 4×2 setup, a part-time 4WD, a full-time 4WD, an auto/on-demand 4WD, or an All-Wheel Drive (AWD) system.

Older production models dating back to the Civilian Jeep are predominantly manual 4x2s and 4x4s. Meanwhile, newer Jeep incarnations sport a more intuitive AWD.

However, assuming all recent-year models have 4×4 drivetrains would be incorrect. For instance, 2021–2022 iterations of the Jeep Compass Longitude and Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited have a 4×2 (front-wheel drive) configuration, not 4WD. Conversely, Jeep Wranglers (from 2011 onwards) have since sported 4×4 systems – it is just a matter of whether the owner fancies a part-time or full-time setup.

Different 4WD Systems

As clearly established in a January 2020 issue by Motor Biscuit, the majority of Jeeps are 4WD. Nonetheless, not all 4WD systems are the same. Here are the different systems employed by the American OEM:

Full-time 4WD

With this system, the vehicle operates in 4WD by default and can stay that way regardless of terrain or riding surface. Though ideally, it requires “a slippery surface so that front and rear ends can match speed without binding,” according to Popular Mechanics. It utilizes a clutch or a center differential that lends to an even power spread to both front and rear axles and is best for off-roading.

Because of its default setting, your Jeep will not require additional steps when driven off-road. Furthermore, the viscous coupling between the front and rear propeller shafts makes engaging 4H or 4-Hi on the pavement possible (a feature absent in part-time 4WD systems).

One of the biggest misconceptions about having permanent 4WD is that it improves turning adeptness or stopping power. On the contrary, it boosts acceleration regardless of the terrain.

High-quality all-terrain tires like Toyo Tires Open Country R/T 10-Ply Radial Tires (view on Amazon) are must-haves if you want more efficient cornering and enhanced braking power for your Jeep. Ultimately, a good set augments your vehicle’s Traction Management System (TMS) if it has the feature.

All-Wheel Drive (AWD)

AWD is almost exactly like a permanent 4WD – except that it does not have the 4-Lo setting, and 4WD automatically activates when slip is detected. Besides these minor differences, it shares all other capabilities with a full-time 4WD setup.

Jeeps with AWD run on 4WD by default and on all surfaces. They also equip a center differential that allows front and rear tires to turn at different speeds. However, the absence of a low-range option makes them less suitable for off-road conditions.

Part-time 4WD

Unlike the first two systems, partial 4WD operates by default in 2WD. Instead of utilizing a center differential, it locks the front and rear driveshafts, which translates to better-controlled wheelspin. This mechanism makes part-time 4WD systems fit for off-roading or technically difficult road conditions (provided the option is not abused). Otherwise, driveline noise or binding is to be expected.

It is worth noting that excessive use of part-time 4WD increases the propensity for overheating or premature part failure. Jeep savants recommend utilizing the 4WD Auto setting (where applicable) for Wranglers with part-time 4WD systems.

For Jeeps equipped with 4WD Auto or 4A, switching to 2WD is not always necessitated when traversing dry pavement or tarmac – unless you are after retarding wear on your 4×4’s front-drive system.

Moreover, these aficionados advise not to engage 4H or 4-Hi under these circumstances:

  • Freeway or cement with dry road surface
  • Tar road partly wet or covered with snow
  • Winding roads where surface traction is good
  • Any terrain where wheel grip is uncompromised or ample slippage is present

Engaging Jeep Wrangler Four Wheel Drive (4WD) in high-traction surfaces like the ones cited above increases the likelihood of drivetrain components locking up (a.k.a. driveline binding). Furthermore, the action could result in heavy under-steering and expensive repair expenses.

Recent-year Jeep Wranglers have a 4A option on their 4×4 dial selector. This feature allows owners to drive their Jeeps in either 4-Hi or 2-Hi mode (depending on whether they have front- or rear-wheel drive) without the risk of drivetrain damage. If your Wrangler falls under this category, you need not worry about the above scenarios. Just make sure not to confuse 2-Hi with the rear differential lock found on other 4WD-equipped Jeeps.

On-Demand 4WD

Analogous to part-time 4WD, this system also runs on 2WD by default. The main dissimilarity between this and the former is that 4WD is automatically engaged the moment slippage is encountered (for instance, driving on slippery surfaces like mud and snow). It would be safe to say that on-demand 4WD is the automatic version of part-time 4WD.

To properly engage the 4WD feature, one must understand how these systems individually work and differ from each other. Not that Jeep enthusiasts require re-educating. But if you are a new owner, you will find there is merit in reiterating them like what we did, as engaging 4 wheel drive will be slightly different for each one.

Gearing and Shifters

Jeep Wrangler Parked on a Grass Field

Among the factors that make engaging 4WD different for each system is its corresponding shifters or dials. Though Jeeps collectively have a rugged feel, they are not created equal. Tech nuances between production models spell the difference in turning on 4WD.

Between full-time and part-time systems alone, some Jeeps require manual inputs from the driver to engage the feature, while others come on automatically.

Gear Positions

Your Jeep Wrangler may have one of the above drivetrains. And depending on what it has, it would have between three and five gear positions (excluding differential switch buttons).

On average, a base model outfitted with either the Command-Trac® or Rock-Trac® 4×4 System would have the following gears: 2-Hi (2H), 4-Hi (4H), and 4-Lo (4L). Some iterations with the Selec-Trac® 4×4 System would have an additional 4-Hi auto mode (4A).


2-Hi is the gear position often used for daily city driving and is functionally similar to rear-wheel drive. Driving surfaces need not be dry all the time to apply this gearing. So long as there is ample traction between your vehicle’s wheels and the road, this setting is good to go.


4-Hi is its counterpart and is extremely useful when off-roading – but not when your Wrangler is your daily driver. As you may have already guessed, this setting best applies to low-traction, high-speed situations like dirt roads but is not limited to such. In this mode, your Jeep’s traction and stability are enhanced – which is why it is engaged when driving on grass, gravel, snow, or sand.


4-Lo uses your Jeep’s engine braking system and provides more controlled handling of your vehicle. It works well in deep dunes, thick sticky mud, technical inclines/declines, and any other riding situation where torque multiplication is required (a.k.a low-traction, low-speed situations). Because of this specificity, this option is not used as often as 4-Hi – unless we ask adventurers who are into serious off-roading and mudding.

4A or 4-Hi Auto

4A or 4-Hi Auto is the last of the gear positions and is simply the automatic version of 4-Hi. Unlike the latter, this setting renders your Jeep capable of automatically going between 2-Hi and 4-Hi when needed. Many assume the feature has been piloted only in the last decade. However, the 4A option has been around since 1983 under the Selec-Trac® 4WD system branding (source: Wikipedia).

Transfer Cases

  • Command-Trac® (Jeep Wrangler YJ/TJ/JK/JL, 1987 – present): NP208, NP231/207, NP241J
  • Rock-Trac® (Jeep Wrangler Rubicon and Unlimited Rubicon TJ/JK/JL, 2003 – present): NV241OR
  • Selec-Trac® II (Jeep Wrangler Sahara JL, 2018 – present): NP228/229, NP242, MP3022

In general, Jeep labels would have one of three types of drive shifters – the stick shifter, the twin-stick shifter, and the E-shift transmission. These shifter assemblies are dependent on the transfer case (examples above) that a specific production model came with.

Jeep Wrangler 4 Wheel Drive Shifters

Throughout the history of the Jeep Wrangler, most of its iterations had single cable shifters. Conversely, twin-stick shifters were first seen on CJ5s during the ’70s.

Jeep savants have long wished for Wranglers to be outfitted with twin-stick shifters – the setup makes for easier steering into 2WD and reduced drivetrain stress. However, this is not readily doable given the Wranglers’ factory transfer cases.

Original Jeep transfer cases (view on Amazon) used a single-point shifter attachment to drive all four gearing positions of the 4×4. Meanwhile, older Jeeps with a Dana 20 axle already had two shift rails connecting to a single shifter – a linkage replacement was all it took to convert the shifter to a twin stick.

The good news is that the idea is not entirely futile but will require a total redesign of the transfer case (preferably a Spicer/Dana 18, Dana 20, Dana 300, or an Atlas) to allow for a twin shifter assembly.

As for E-shift transmission, 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokees (not Wranglers) came with this shifter type. You would not think it functions differently since the shifter looks physically similar to a conventional shift stick.

Unlike the latter, there is no need to manually shift from park to drive on the device, as it has a light showing the current gear. Whichever drive mode you left the car on, the shift stick returns to its center position on its own.

The intention behind these changes was to make it easier for owners to turn on 4WD. Unfortunately, some Jeep purists found this new style of shifting distasteful.

How to Put Your Jeep in 4 Wheel Drive

At this point, you may be feeling a little impatient as I have yet to answer the question, “How do I turn on 4 Wheel Drive on a Jeep Wrangler?” Do not worry, as we have finally gotten to the meat of the matter!

There is no single way to engage your Jeep in 4 Wheel Drive. After all, your riding conditions are bound to change even if you initially intended your 4×4 as a daily driver. There will be those weekend trips to the beach, backcountry explorations, joy rides with friends in dense rain forests, and (if you are feeling adventurous) occasional mud rider conventions. All these venues present an entirely different kind of terrain that your vehicle will have to overcome.

Ultimately, understanding how the different gear positions work and knowing which driving surfaces will permit safe 4WD engagement are key to putting your Jeep in 4 Wheel Drive mode the right way. Gearing that perfectly matches road conditions is guaranteed to preserve your drivetrain components.

For instance, 2nd gear 4-Lo (4L) is the best way to conquer steep, uneven inclines. The said combination provides the perfect power-control equilibrium while allowing you to keep your driving line in check. Conversely, a similar terrain with deep ruts or loose gravel stones would require using a rear differential lock (or Traction Control if no rear locker) alongside 4-Lo.

It is a different story when driving in snow. True – maintaining enough momentum is important. However, how you approach things will largely depend on the type of snow you traverse. Whether it is a flurry or a frozen road surface, a slow or power-forward approach may be warranted.

Shifting from 2-Hi to 4-Hi (and Vice-Versa)

There is no need to stop when transitioning from 2-Hi to 4-Hi on Jeeps – simply maintain driving speed at approximately 35 mph (56 km/h) when shifting. For Jeeps with manual transmissions, remember to press the clutch pedal as you shift the lever from one gear to the other. Once successfully switched to 4H, keep within the speed range of 15–55 mph (24–88.5 km/h).

Do the same for auto-transmissions – including switching from 2H to 4H Auto or 4A – but take care not to accelerate the engine. Use constant force as you shift. To add, you can remove your foot from the accelerator pedal while changing between the two gear positions.

You have the option to change gears while moving or stopping your vehicle. However, I recommend doing so while driving as your t-case engages and disengages faster this way. Furthermore, the teeth of your gears may not be properly aligned if you do this procedure while your Jeep is on halt.

Shifting from 4-Hi to 4-Lo (and Vice-Versa)

Shifting from 4H to 4-Lo (4L) requires you to slow down your Jeep to 2–3 mph (3–5 km/h). It also entails putting the transmission lever into neutral and gear selector into D position (for auto-transmissions) or depressing the clutch pedal and releasing the same after (for manual transmissions).

Next, shift the transfer case lever firmly from 4H to 4L without stopping at the neutral position. Maintain your driving speed at 25 mph (40 km/h) in the said gear position.

Shifting from 2-Hi to 4-Lo (and Vice-Versa)

Unlike the first two procedures, shifting directly from 2H to 4L is not healthy for your drivetrain components. If coming from 2H, you first need to move to 4H (the safe zone), put the transmission on neutral, then shift to 4L. Do the same steps in reverse when changing from 4L back to 2H.

Potential Problems When Engaging 4WD

White Jeep Wrangler on a Brown Dirt Road

Crow Hop/Driveline Binding

Inappropriately using a part-time 4WD system on dry surfaces with no slippage or during turns is a big no-no. The reason behind this is that this system does not utilize a center differential, meaning front and rear wheel axles are locked together.

It is not the wheel setting you want to have when making turns or driving on the tarmac, as you are bound to experience driveline binding. Not to mention that your tires are guaranteed to lose traction.

Traction Loss

Jeeps without a rear differential locker but with a Traction Control (TC) feature are prone to this problem. It should not be entirely blamed on the vehicle, as the larger part of the issue is due to driver negligence.

If your Jeep has TC, you must ensure it is always activated when driving normally or on slick surfaces. This way, the feature can come to your aid if your vehicle loses traction for no apparent reason.

It is unwise to slow down when you experience traction loss. On the contrary, maintain a steady pressure on the accelerator/gas pedal to allow the Traction Control to take effect. Keeping the revs high enough also reduces the likelihood of stalling should loss of grip repeatedly happen. Keeping this in mind is especially crucial when climbing steep inclines.

Conclusion – Jeep Wrangler: How to Turn On 4 Wheel Drive

Knowing how to put a Jeep in 4WD allows you to enjoy its 4×4 capabilities fully. However, you also need to be able to read your vehicle’s handling mannerisms – something that is learned through personal experience and study of its intricacies. Once you combine takeaways from this guide with your savvy and expertise, you are guaranteed a blast wherever you drive!