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How To Off Road With A Manual Transmission

There are two things we at Dixie 4 Wheel Drive are passionate about- building custom 4x4s and off-roading. We try and do as much of the latter as we can and luckily, we live in the southwest where we have miles of trails right at our doorstep.

During our trail runs, we encounter people driving all sorts of vehicles, some custom made and others slightly modified stock rigs. The one debate that we continuously run into is- which vehicles are better suited to off-road driving – manual or automatic transmission?

The Manual or Automatic Transmission Debate

The choice of whether to go for a manual or automatic 4WD largely depends on personal preference. Both types of vehicles have undergone great improvement in recent years so off-road performance isn’t that much of an issue. When choosing one, you just have to consider your budget and the type of vehicle that feels comfortable to you.

Driving a manual transmission 4x4 off-road requires you to have the right skills. These vehicles are lots of fun to drive, give you a greater feeling of control and are fuel efficient. Manuals are also great for intensive driving because automatic transmission vehicles are likely to overheat more easily. On the downside, a manual vehicle wears out the clutch easier than an automatic one due to the many moving parts.

Off-roading With a Manual Vehicle

Taking your manual 4x4 off-road is quite an experience and you will quickly discover that it has upsides and downsides on different terrains. This means that you have to adapt your driving to the different off-roading conditions you encounter.

Rock Crawling

Rock crawling with a manual transmission can be loads of fun as long as you know what you are doing. The most important thing is to take it slow, watch where you place your wheels and have lots of patience. Manuals give you more control when going over big rocks although you have to play around with the clutch a little which might wear it out. Driving on a low gear, low-range is always best in this kind of terrain. Ensure that you also have a spotter to keep you from running into any trouble.

Crossing Rivers or Water

There’s always a thrill of anticipation when you’re standing at the edge of a river or stream waiting to go in. When crossing a body of water in a manual, your best bet is to put it in second gear, low-range and drive steadily through. Don’t be tempted to pick up speed or change gears as the latter can cause water to get into the clutch. This might eventually lead to slippage of clutch trouble later on.

Driving Uphill or Ascending Steep Inclines

A manual vehicle is always a good option if you’re going to be driving uphill. You have more control since you can choose when to shift gears. Creeping up the hill slowly and steadily is possible with the vehicle in second gear. You’ll still need skill and practice to keep the clutch at a perfect spot so you can take off without too much wheel spin or driving backward. If you haven’t mastered this technique, you might find yourself losing momentum and sliding backwards as you attempt to pick up speed towards the crest of the hill.

Another way to do it is to start by building speed in a high gear at the base of the incline then quickly shifting to a lower gear as you lose momentum towards the top. This might make all the difference between getting up the hill or slipping backwards.

Driving Downhill

Going downhill on with an automatic is a tricky affair. The good thing is that automatics come with downhill assist feature which gives you increased control over the vehicle. Still, you’ll have to lean heavily on the brake the entire time, in case the vehicle decides to change gears and shoot forward as you descend.

Manuals, on the other hand, are built for downhill driving. Put your vehicle in first gear and use your engine braking and the vehicle will simply crawl down the hill at a steady speed so you won’t have to constantly use the brakes. Most diesel 4WDs are perfect when it comes to controlled descents.

Driving on Sand or Mud

With all the sand dunes available at Sand Hollow State Park, sand dune driving is quite popular in this part of the world. However, if you are not an experienced driver or you don’t have the right wheels for the job, you could easily find yourself in a tricky situation like rolling sideways down a dune or getting bogged in the sand.

The key to driving a manual transmission vehicle in either sand or mud is to keep your momentum by choosing a low gear. That way, you won’t put further pressure on the clutch or transmission. Another great tip is to air down your tires to increase your tread size to get full traction. Deflating your tires also ensures that your vehicle’s weight is evenly dispersed to minimize sinking.

Manuals are also great vehicles to have should the worst happen and you get stuck. With a manual vehicle, you can stay in one gear when you need to spin your wheels to clear the tread blocks to get better grip to lift you out. An automatic would inconvenience you by deciding to change gears as the tires spin.

Whether you decide on a manual or automatic transmission vehicle, you’ll still need the requisite skills to navigate rugged terrain. Sign up for our off-road training class and get the skills and experience you need for confident driving off the beaten path.

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