One of the biggest advantages to taking a 4WD vehicle off-road is increased traction on the road -- that is, the ability of the wheels to cling to the ground, no matter how rough the terrain is. That means even if your back two wheels get stuck in the mud, your front two wheels have enough traction to pull you out. "The 4WD will help you get through more technical terrain or softer terrain," Burke says.
4WD vehicles also have low-range gearing, which will help you make it through deep puddles and climb steep hills. Yet 4WD vehicles can still get stuck in the mud more often than people think, because they have the same basic differentials as a 2WD car. Differentials are what allow the wheels to spin at different speeds during a turn. " off-road or in minimum traction conditions, the differentials tend to think we're in turns all the time so they'll put power to the tire that's easiest to turn, and if that tire is starting to slip or skid or spin, then we basically get stuck, whether we're in a 2WD or 4WD," Burke says.
Buying a 4WD vehicle is cost prohibitive for a lot of people, but you don't necessarily need to spend extra money to have a great off-roading experience. Today, many 2WD models are designed with suspension systems that can handle off-road terrain. Plus, you can customize your 2WD vehicle with lift kits (which provide extra ground clearance) and bigger wheels that give you greater traction off-road. You can also get traction enhancement devices, like a locking system for the differential gear, which will lock up the axle when a wheel starts to slip, delivering full power to both wheels if you get stuck in the mud.
For more information on off-roading, take a look at the links on the next page.