AWD vs. 4WD for Off Roading

The difference between All-Wheel Drive (AWD) and Four-Wheel Drive (4WD) can be confusing, especially when deciding which is best for off-roading. AWD systems were designed for increased traction in slippery road conditions by driving all four wheels independently and are common in automobiles and SUVs today. By contrast, 4WD systems send equal power to all four gears (and those equipped with lockers will force wheels to turn at the same speed). The critical difference is that AWD systems are “always on,” while 4WD systems require one to manually shift in and out of 4WD modes. To learn more about what differentiates AWD from 4WD, keep reading to determine which drive system best suits your type of adventure.

What is an All-Wheel-Drive Vehicle?

AWD is a modern drive system designed for on-road use that’s become a popular addition to cars, crossovers, and SUVs. These AWD systems increase traction on wet or snow-covered roads and even in dry conditions by distributing power to all four wheels. AWD systems typically cannot be turned off. They are “always on,” torque is continually sent to both axles, and a computerized system constantly monitors for wheel slippage. Suppose the front wheels begin to lose traction, for example. In that case, the system will automatically compensate by sending more torque to the rear wheels. As mentioned, although AWD is designed for on-road use, many outdoor enthusiasts drive their AWD vehicle to some pretty remote locations, thanks to the added traction of an AWD system.

When is AWD Better?

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On-Road – When driving in inclement weather, such as snow, sleet, and rain, where extra traction increases driver and passenger safety.

Exploring – Drive to your destination, explore—including mild off-road conditions such as gravel roads—then return home in the same vehicle.

Road Trips – AWD systems think for the driver and are “always on” for added safety in inclement weather.

New to off-roading? See our Beginner Off-Road Trails Near Me feature, where you can enter a location, and onX Offroad will show you off-road trails in the area with a difficulty rating of three (beginner-friendly) or less.

What is a 4-Wheel-Drive Vehicle?

4WD off road vehicle on a dirt trail

4WD systems have been around for many years and were initially designed for military and agricultural uses, which makes them ideal for off-road use and towing or carrying heavy payloads in low-traction situations. 4WD systems require the driver to shift into 4WD mode manually whether via a lever or push-button system. Doing so makes the front and rear axles rotate in sync, sending equal power to each. Unlike AWD, older 4WD systems typically don’t use a computer to monitor traction. However, many modern models do so that when a wheel slips the computer can help focus rotational force to the wheel with more traction on that axle. 

4WDs usually have two distinct modes: 4-Hi and 4-Lo. 4-Hi uses a 1:1 ratio, which sends power to the front and rear axle, similar to 2WD ratios. 4-Hi is used when driving faster on dirt roads and pavement where a lower gear ratio is unnecessary. 4-Lo is used at slower speeds with many different gear ratio options to help multiply torque to make obstacles that are seemingly impossible in 4-Hi manageable when in 4-Lo. In general, 4-Hi is used for higher speeds, while 4-Lo is for slower, more extreme conditions. When driving on-road for extended periods, drivers often shift from 4WD to 2WD to improve fuel consumption.

When is 4WD Better?

  • Off-Roading – Navigating two-track trails, fire roads, rock crawling, mud, sand, snow, ice, and other extreme backcountry conditions.
  • Towing/Hauling – When pulling campers, enclosed trailers, boats, and other heavy recreational accessories while off-road.
  • Extreme On-Road Conditions – When driving on snow-covered gravel or unplowed paved roads. 
4WD off road vehicle on a trail in the mountains. Photo Credit: Chris Cordes

Why All-Wheel Drive is Not a Substitute for 4-Wheel Drive

If your intent is serious off-roading, there’s no substitute for 4WD. As mentioned, AWD was designed for on-road use in inclement weather conditions and mild off-roading such as gravel roads. Also worth considering, towing an AWD vehicle can be a challenge because all four wheels are connected, whereas a 4WD can be shifted in 2WD and towed safety in more configurations. Unlike AWD, 4WD vehicles are built to withstand the relentless punishment of serious off-roading.

Is AWD or 4WD Better for Off-Roading?

Although AWD vehicles can tackle mild off-highway conditions, 4WD is the better choice for serious off-road adventures. As the AWD vehicle segment continues to expand and as technology continues to improve, this may someday change. But for now, 4WD is the best off-road vehicle to tackle the extreme conditions one experiences when off-roading.


Is AWD or 4WD better in the snow?
AWD vehicles are designed for on-road use and deliver torque to all four wheels simultaneously, making them ideal for snow-covered roads. However, when driving in the snow off-road, 4WD is the better choice.

Is AWD or 4WD better in the sand?

4WD, with optional Hi and Lo modes, provide the torque needed to push the vehicle through deep, heavy sand better than their AWD cousins. 4WD vehicles also tend to have much higher ground clearance than AWD cars and SUVs.

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Dale Spangler

Dale Spangler is a lifelong motorcycle enthusiast introduced to two wheels at the age of eight and began racing motocross at 12. After chasing his dream of being a professional motocross racer through the mid-90s, he moved on to a career in the powersports industry, where he’s spent the last 28+ years as a marketing specialist, writer, and content creator.