The Differential Difference
Adding the Right Traction to Your 4WD Truck
Before we dive right into how to turn up your truck’s traction ability, let’s first ponder a question that should be answered honestly. How do you anticipate driving your truck? Will it spend most of its time on the road, and will the off-roading you do plan on doing be mostly on gravel or compacted dirt? Will you be doing any driving on icy, snowy or wet conditions on pretty advanced off-road terrain? Do you anticipate driving through trails where very uneven ground, rocks and other obstacles and holes will be present? Taking these questions into consideration will greatly impact your decision-making when looking to upgrade your truck’s differential system(s).
If you answered ‘yes’ to the first question above—congratulations! If you plan on sticking to mostly streets and highways or surfaces that are hard but not technically paved stretches of land, you really don’t have to worry about messing with your truck’s factory-equipped open differential, which is great. We understand the temptation to buy new parts is hard to fight off sometimes, but consider this a win and save yourself some time and money, and enjoy your truck as-is.
We understand the temptation to buy new parts is hard to fight off sometimes, but consider this a win and save yourself some time and money, and enjoy your truck as-is…
For those who answered ‘yes’ to the second and/or third questions with the anticipation of driving through surfaces impacted by inclement weather that also feature more severe terrain, then you might want to consider shopping around for limited-slip or locking differentials. There are plenty out there to choose from, and it is best to still keep your personal driving scenario in mind when wading through these waters.
Now, also keep in mind that whichever type of traction-adding components you choose will have a direct effect on different types of driving, wherein lies the importance of staying true to what you will actually be using your truck for. Bragging about having the latest, greatest, most expensive performance gadget on the market won’t do you a lick of good if it’s not used correctly, so do pay attention and choose wisely.
Bragging about having the latest, greatest, most expensive performance gadget on the market won’t do you a lick of good if it’s not used correctly, so do pay attention and choose wisely…
Most light off-road duty adventures will be greatly improved with a rear limited slip differential, or better yet both a rear and front limited slip. These are the most widely used and common types of diffs since they cover such a wide application spectrum. What the limited slip does is shift a percentage of the torque to the wheel that has the most traction while limiting the slip on the wheel experiencing the least amount of traction (the one that is stuck in the air or free spinning on a patch of black ice). Torque is not always balanced between the wheels here, which will allow your truck to power through less than ideal surface situations with less of a chance of getting stuck. Icy, wet or uneven ground will pose less of a threat with the limited slip differential, so if you plan on encountering any of these foes on a regular basis, this traction-adding upgrade will definitely be money well spent.
A locking differential will take your rig further than any limited slip setup can—no question. Now, do you absolutely, positively need to install a locker? Well, that all depends on if you want the power of a true 4×4, which means that all four wheels are getting power to the ground. Anything less than that might very well leave you stranded when attempting to take on some serious mud pits or extremely rough country. If you still plan on driving your truck on regular surface streets when you’re done on the trail, you’ll want to look into selectable lockers specifically. This will allow your truck to fire on all 4 wheels while off-roading, while still having the ability to flip back to an open or standard (stock) diff configuration with the flip of a switch. You’ll be able to beat the piss out of it off road, and still actually be able to drive it comfortably on surface streets just like normal.
Within the realms of limited slip and locking differentials are other options to consider, naturally. There isn’t one system out there that can meet the demand of every driver of every truck for all conditions, so don’t get your hopes up. If you know and understand exactly what you’re asking of your truck, however, then you should already have a better idea of what side of the traction fence you’ll need to invest time and money into. The rest is merely addressing the details of personal preferences in order to fine-tune your driving experience.