Do I need 4WD to tow a trailer?

In this article, we will answer the following question: Do I need 4WD to tow a trailer? We will explain whether 4WD is necessary for towing or if 2WD is better in this case. 

Do I need 4WD to tow a trailer?

No, you do not need a 4WD to tow a trailer, unless the road conditions are really rough, for example, you are driving on snowy or extremely muddy roads. 

If you are driving on a dry surface and have adequate traction, you should not use 4WD for towing; you should use RWD instead. If your vehicle is adequately prepared for towing and the load does not exceed its capacities, having a rear-wheel-drive should be sufficient. 

The only situation that requires 4WD when towing a trailer or other vehicle is when faced with more extreme conditions such as mud, snow, or ice.

The different transmission systems

Propulsion, traction or 4-wheel drive: there are 3 different types of transmission in cars. Here are their characteristics:

  • Rear-wheel drive (2-wheel drive at the rear) is fitted to most sporty and powerful cars. This system provides better traction when accelerating. The concept is simple: the car transfers part of its mass to the rear axle (unlike traction), which offers a more dynamic ride.
  • Traction (2WD at the front): This is the most popular transmission today. It equips most mainstream models and offers reassuring behaviour. In fact, it is safer to pull a car than to push it. For example, traction allows you to widen the trajectory in case you take a turn a little too fast. Simply taking your foot off the gas pedal is usually enough to stay on the road.
  • All-wheel drive: also called “4-wheel drive”. The idea is to distribute the engine torque over all 4 wheels. This optimizes traction and combines both the advantages of propulsion and traction, offering power, sportiness and safety.

How does 4WD work?

There are two main types of 4WD transmissions, permanent and temporary; They differ in that a vehicle with permanent four-wheel drive clutch from the engine. 

Temporary four-wheel-drive differs in the sense that only two wheels engage, while the other two only engage when there is less traction. 

  1. Power: If your vehicle only meshes two wheels the engine splits the power in two and faces less friction. When you review the vehicle’s specifications, you will notice that 2WD versions generally tow more than their 4WD counterparts. We will explain this below.
  1. Potential damage to your vehicle: 4WD sends to all four wheels when there is slippage, which means one of your wheels is spinning madly, looking for grip, but finding none. In this case, the vehicle can move the others to find traction. But, when you drive on a dry surface with proper traction, all of your wheels will spin and not skid.

When you turn, one of the front wheels does so at a slower pace than the other. If you have engaged your 4WD, you risk damaging the gears within your differentials by forcing them to turn at the same speed when not needed.

The advantages and disadvantages of towing with a 4WD

Choosing a vehicle with all-wheel drive, whether new or used, has a number of advantages. By distributing the engine power to all 4 wheels at the same time, all-wheel-drive:

  • Greatly improves the traction of the vehicle;
  • Provides a better feeling of “grip” during acceleration and in a turn;
  • Offers unparalleled driving comfort when the weather conditions are not good (in rainy or snowy weather for example);
  • Particularly suitable for powerful vehicles;
  • Allows safer driving, whatever the terrain.

4WD also has its share of drawbacks, which should be taken into account before making your choice. With the 4WD:

  • Vehicles are often heavier and cumbersome than propulsion or traction models;
  • A higher purchase price;
  • Greater fuel consumption;
  • Faster tire wear;
  • Loss of grip in emergency braking because all 4 wheels are used at the same time.

Do you need 4 × 4 to tow a trailer?

The 4 × 4 is necessary for towing when faced with minimal traction situations, for example, muddy roads, heavy snow, ice, gravel, or very uneven terrain. If you are on muddy terrain and you need to tow something then you need a 4 × 4.

Nonetheless, 4 × 4 will not help to tow weight! If anything, you can reduce the number of pounds you can pull, except for some pickup trucks and vans. The 4 × 4 will help you have more traction and therefore a better chance of getting out of that challenging terrain.

It is also useful when going up or down a slope with less than ideal traction. In the case of a positive slope (uphill), 4 × 4 will help you have more traction to clear your way.

4 × 4 is most useful when going down a negative incline with less than ideal traction. Thanks to the low range shift, the vehicle produces more torque and actually slows the truck for more traction. This deceleration is essential when going downhill as it takes much of the load off the brakes.

If you are towing something in any of these conditions, remember that 4 × 4 is not the only tool you may need! 

Are 2WD Trailer Packages Better?

When you are towing cargo, you are putting additional pressure on all components of your vehicle. This means that your transmission, brakes, steering and powertrain feel the extra pounds. Take the brakes, for example; they have to stop more kilos, especially when going down a hill.

Automatic transmissions generate more heat than manual transmissions and, when faced with the additional weight, can reach higher temperatures, increasing wear on internal gears and seals. When we talk about 4WD, you have to take into account this rise in temperature on both the front and rear wheels.

Trailer packages include improved transmission and engine cooling, bigger brakes, and higher gear ratios for extra torque, but these improvements won’t eliminate one crucial fact. A 4WD vehicle with the best towing package still has to split the power across all four wheels rather than two.

So in most scenarios, the best trailer combination is a factory-spec trailer package with 2WD so most of the power is for two wheels only.

Final thoughts

This article aims to answer whether you should use four-wheel drive when towing. As we’ve explained, in most everyday situations, the ideal setup is a 2WD vehicle with a trailer package so you can send the most power to just two wheels. You should reserve 4WD on the trailer for extreme weather situations only.

4 WD is useful when you have to go through muddy or snowy terrain. It also works great when you are dealing with big rocks or ice. In these situations, 4WD helps you have more traction and more torque, thanks to the low-range shift, making towing safer. But remember that 4WD does not increase your towing capacity.

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FAQ on Do I need 4WD to tow a trailer?

How does the AWD work?

All-wheel drive (AWD) systems provide power to all four wheels, not just the front and rear wheels. When driving, most of these systems have a front or rear base, which means that the energy is concentrated unless the vehicle begins to slide.

When to use AWD?

AWD can tow heavier loads and provides good traction even on adventurous off-road rides. The AWD system, which could be translated as an all-wheel-drive system, allows the engine to distribute its power to all four wheels of a vehicle.

What is the difference between 4-wheel drive and all-wheel drive?

While four-wheel-drive vehicles are designed for off-road driving and over rough terrain, all-wheel-drive vehicles are better suited for driving on slippery roads in winter, in mud, and on slippery surfaces such as sand.

How do you know if it’s 2 or 4 wheel drive?

Look for a long, sturdy pumpkin tube or an axle shaft similar to that of the front axle. If there is a rear differential, your vehicle incorporates propulsion into its design. If your vehicle has front and rear axles, you have a four-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive model.


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