When to use 4WD on a UTV

Getting outdoors is great for the mind and the body, and one of the fastest growing outdoor activities is trail riding in UTVs, commonly referred to as Side-by-Sides.

A UTV allows you to take along a friend or your dog, or even the whole family, on adventures out into the wilderness. They come in various sizes and have a multitude of features that make them great for getting off the beaten path.

Practically all Side-by-Sides feature, at least, basic 4 wheel drive, which will get you into some of the most remote places in the country. These machines are extremely capable off-road and most of the time, 2 wheel drive is all that will be needed.

4 wheel drive increases steering difficulty and decreases fuel mileage, so most people will opt to keep them in 2 wheel drive until they find more challenging terrain.

So, how do you know when to use 4 wheel drive on your shiny, new UTV? Below are some situations that are made easier and safer with 4 wheel drive. 

Sand Dunes

When riding in the dunes 2 wheel drive should be used most of the time. Ideally your Side-by-Side would have paddle tires in the back and smooth tires up front. In this case you don’t want to run around if 4 wheel drive. Sand requires a lot of power to drive on and you are going to want as much power as possible delivered to the back wheels.

SEE ALSO: Choosing the best tires for your Side-By-Side

But If if you get stuck going up a steep dune or get high centered on a dune 4 wheel drive can really help you get unstuck. If you have smooth sand tires on the front, 4 wheel drive won’t be very helpful. But it might be just enough to get you moving again.

Off Camber Terrain

One thing to always keep in mind while trail riding, is that the terrain can change abruptly. You may be on a trail that is mostly level and then find yourself traversing a hillside. These types of off camber situations don’t necessarily require 4 wheel drive, but it can help keep the vehicle straight and on the correct path.

In loose conditions, 2 wheel drive will likely result in the rear end of the machine sliding around. With the front wheels pulling, the UTV will continue to track straighter and stay more composed in these types of situations.


One of the great things about Side-by-Sides is the ability to use them for both work and play. After a weekend on the trail, you may need to hook up the trailer and pick up a load of firewood. 4 wheel drive can help reduce wheel spin to get the load moving.

This isn’t to say that you can’t tow a trailer in 2 wheel drive, but in certain conditions, 4 wheel drive could make it easier. This is also true if you decide to use your Side-by-Side to launch a boat or jet ski. The added traction on a slippery boat ramp could be the difference between a successful launch and your Side-by-Side going for a swim. 

Mud/Water Crossings

There are many places that 2 wheel drive will take you, but you will quickly find its limitations in mud. The deeper and stickier the mud, the more likely you are to need 4 wheel drive to make it through. The increased traction from all four wheels will allow the UTV to continue clawing its way through the mud hole and get you to the other side.

This doesn’t mean that 4 wheel drive will get you through any and every mud hole that you encounter. You must still be mindful of ruts and your vehicle’s ground clearance to avoid being high-centered. Still, even in those cases, you are more likely to be able to free the vehicle with 4 wheel drive.

Water crossings can also be treacherous. While not as likely to get stuck, deep water and slippery conditions can prove much more challenging in 2 wheel drive. If the bank on the opposite side of the crossing is fairly steep, it can be even more difficult to get through. In these cases, 4 wheel drive can provide the extra traction needed to make it safely across.

Hill Climbs

Hill climbs can be a lot of fun, but they can also be very dangerous. You don’t want to make it halfway up a long and steep climb and then suddenly lose traction. Navigating the machine safely back down at that point is exceptionally difficult, as well as dangerous.

4 wheel drive will help maintain traction and momentum going up the hill, especially in areas with loose soil or rocks. A hill that will really challenge you in 2 wheel drive, can be cakewalk in 4 wheel drive. You may be surprised at just how much of a difference it makes.

Hill climbs are still dangerous and should be attempted with caution. 4 wheel drive will mitigate some of the risk, but not all of it. You should never attempt a hill climb that looks to be beyond you or your machine’s capability.

Learn more about staying safe while operating your UTV, Side-by-Side, or SxS.

Hill Descents

While not quite as dangerous as climbing the hill, coming back down can also be hazardous.

Most UTVs have engine braking, using the engine to help slow the machine down. This can be a very helpful tool in hill descents, but can also be detrimental in 2 wheel drive.

You can quickly find yourself in a situation where the vehicle is moving downhill faster than the engine braking will allow the wheels to turn. In 2 wheel drive, this can result in the rear of the UTV sliding around and making it more difficult to control.

With 4 wheel drive engaged, the front wheels will also help slow the vehicle, resulting in a more controlled descent. There are some 4 wheel drive systems that only engage the front wheels if the rear wheel starts to slip.

Polaris uses a system like this, though some models have a hill descent control feature to ensure that the front wheels engage to help slow the vehicle. You can use your brakes to help as well, but 4 wheel drive will make it easier and safer. 

What about 2 wheel drive?

Most of your average trail riding is going to be in 2 wheel drive. There’s really no need to use 4 wheel drive on groomed trails or riding through fields or anything like that. Most Side-by-Sides are very capable in 2 wheel drive and you may not need 4 wheel drive that often, if you’re not tackling a lot of technical terrain.

Running in 2 wheel drive will also reduce steering effort and increase your fuel mileage. Additionally 4 wheel puts an increased load on the engine so when you want maximum power sent to the back wheels, disengage 4 wheel drive.

It’s when the going gets tough and technical, that you’re going to want those front wheels pulling!

When in doubt…

These are just a few of the most common scenarios in which 4 wheel drive would be beneficial. You never know what kind of obstacle is lurking around the corner and having 4 wheel drive allows you to safely and more easily conquer the terrain.

As you become more familiar with the Side-by-Side, you will learn its capabilities and will be able to better judge the obstacles in your path.

Anytime you come to a significant obstacle on the trail, whether it’s a steep hill climb or mud hole, it’s best to go ahead and engage 4 wheel drive. It’s never a good idea to attempt an obstacle in 2 wheel drive, if you’re not absolutely certain that the machine can it up or through. When in doubt, flip the switch to 4 wheel drive and let the machine do what it does best!