How to Shift a 4X4 Truck

by Natalie Lyda
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car stick shift image by Dimitar Atanasov from

Pickup trucks with four-wheel drive, or 4x4 (pronounced "four by four"), can shift between gears in the vehicle's transmission or from two-wheel drive to four-wheel drive via the transfer case. Four-wheel drive works by a mechanism in the transfer case connecting both the front and rear axles which, in turn, distribute torque to all four wheels. The distribution of torque helps create additional traction in slippery conditions both on and off road. In terms of shifting, the only variation between two-wheel and four-wheel drive vehicles occurs when four-wheel drive is being engaged.

Shifting Transmission Gears

Step 1

Four-by-four trucks may be equipped with either an automatic or a manual transmission. Automatic transmissions are designed to shift automatically after the driver has shifted into the "Drive" gear. However, for maximum power or engine braking, automatic transmissions may be manually shifted. To do so, move the shift lever between gears as needed. Remain in a lower gear and build up engine rpm before shifting in order to increase power, or downshift gears while on a downhill grade to help brake the vehicle.

Step 2

Shift a manual transmission by depressing the clutch pedal and moving the shift lever into gear. Let the clutch out slowly as you place your foot on the gas pedal and steadily give the vehicle gas while releasing the clutch.

Step 3

Continue to shift between gears to allow for slowing or acceleration by repeating the above process.

Shifting into Four-Wheel Drive

Step 1

Evaluate the truck's four-wheel-drive system. Many newer vehicles are equipped with a push-button system that requires the driver to simply push a button or turn a knob to engage four-wheel drive. Other trucks must be shifted into four-wheel drive using a transfer case lever, which is typically located on the floor in the center of the front seat area.

Step 2

Shift into four-wheel drive using the push button or transfer case lever only when the vehicle is not moving and the transmission is in "Neutral" gear. Watch for a four-wheel-drive light to illuminate on the dashboard, indicating that the front and rear axles have been locked together.

Step 3

Lock the wheel hubs if your truck has manually locking hubs by exiting the vehicle and turning the knob on the center of each front hub approximately 180 degrees from its original position or until the knob stops turning. A vehicle with manually locking hubs will not operate in four-wheel drive unless it has been shifted into four-wheel drive and the hubs have been locked.

Step 4

Place the truck into gear and move forward to test that the four-wheel drive has engaged. When road conditions no longer necessitate the use of four-wheel drive, stop the vehicle and shift out of four-wheel drive as soon as possible. Driving on dry surfaces with four-wheel drive engaged will negatively impact the vehicle's maneuverability and cause unnecessary stress to vehicle components.

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