Can You Have a 4×4 without Locking Differential?

By Derrick •  Updated: 07/03/21 •  7 min read

A locking differential prevents your vehicle’s wheels from spinning at different speeds. When you turn your vehicle to the right, the right-side tire goes slightly slower than the left tire. If you use a locking differential, it locks the axle and ensures the wheels turn at the same speed. These mods are incredibly popular in the 4×4 industry, but are they necessary?

You can have a 4×4 without a locking differential, but it’ll make it harder to gain traction. A locking differential keeps your wheels from digging into the dirt if they’re stuck, so it’s an essential mod for many off-roaders. You can drive in sand, snow, mud, and gravel much easier with them.

In this post, we’ll explain what a locking differential is for a four-wheel-drive vehicle, various types of lockers, and whether or not you need one for your 4×4. We’ll also compare two of the most popular options known as limited slip lockers and automatic lockers.

What is Differential Lock 4WD?

A locking differential, also known as a “locker” or “differential lock,” is designed to stop your vehicle’s wheels from losing traction. Most manufactured 4WD vehicles are made, so each wheel turns at different speeds, but a differential lock supplies power to all wheels, letting them spin together.

Here’s a list of five things you should know about differential locks:

  • A locking differential can prevent your 4×4 from losing traction. Summit 4×4 Company explains locking differentials are an excellent modification if you go off-roading. They lock your axles, preventing loose wheels from freely spinning or digging deeper into the ground.
  • It can make driving on roads a bit trickier. If you’re not used to driving a vehicle with locked differentials, you’re in for a surprise; Turning is much different, even when making minor adjustments like switching lanes or pulling into a parking spot. You’ll have to accommodate for the fact that both wheels move at the same speed.
  • There are many types of locking differentials. The two most common lockers are limited-slip and automatic locking differentials. Both styles prevent you from getting stuck, but limit-slip locks are designed to stop your vehicle from skidding if you’re driving in mud, ice, and other wet terrains.
  • Most 4WD vehicle owners only get a locking differential for off-roading and Overlanding. If you have a new 4×4 and wonder if a locker is a necessary mod, you don’t have to worry; They’re uncommon for commuters and people driving through cities. If you’re interested in off-roading, locking differentials should be a hot topic.
  • It’d be best to check your vehicle’s warranty before getting a locker. Some vehicle manufacturers void contractual agreements for modifications that could lead to excess wear and tear. If they believe the locking differentials lead to an accident or wore the vehicle’s components quicker than they should’ve, you might have to pay for the repairs.

Most locking differentials work the same way, but they’re all installed differently and use a slightly changed method. Below, we’ll quickly cover drop-in lockers to provide an idea of what to expect when modifying your 4×4 vehicle.

What is a Drop-In Locking Differential?

A drop-in locker is often referred to as the lowest, least expensive variant. While it’s not an ultra-popular choice, there are many reasons you should consider getting one. For example, drop-in lockers can be installed on any 4×4 without replacing the vehicle’s stock open carrier.

An open carrier comes on almost every vehicle. It’s another term for an open differential, which doesn’t lock the vehicles. They’re better for driving on roads, but they don’t lock when driving off-road. If you want to save money and modify your 4WD truck without replacing the open carrier, a drop-in locker is the best solution.

Let’s compare limited-slip and automatic locking differentials in the following subheading.

Should You Get a 4×4 Limited-Slip or Automatic Locker?

Limited-slip lockers have plenty to offer, but many drivers prefer automatic lockers because they accommodate the terrain and vehicle’s movement. You’ll find similar success with either choice, but it’s worth exploring their advantages to know which best suits your preferences. After all, your decision will affect how you drive daily.

Here are the pros of each locking differential:

Pros of Limited-Slip Lockers

  • When an LSD locker is activated, it prevents an open-wheel from spinning. If you’re stuck in the mud and one wheel is hanging open, it’ll pull the power to the planted wheels to provide optimal traction. You don’t have to worry about distributing too much pressure, so your vehicle won’t ever slip or hydroplane.
  • Limited-slip lockers are great for people who occasionally drive on roads because they let your wheels normally turn without maintaining the inner wheel’s speed. This process lets you perform U-turns, lane switches, and other on-road maneuvers without having to accommodate the locked differential.

Pros of Automatic Lockers

  • Tread Magazine shows automatic locking differentials lock when you’re driving straight but unlock whenever you’re turning. This change benefits those who have to use the pavement to get to their favorite off-road locations. However, it’s not a perfect long-term highway solution.
  • An automatic locker will supply maximum power to provide the optimal traction to whichever wheel needs it. This mechanical setup lets the drive lightly press the gas to pull themselves out of a rut, which is very useful if you’re driving on mud boards (also known as ‘traction boards’) because they let you get on the pad quickly.

Do You Need a Locking Differential?

According to Teraflex, most vehicles are capable of handling rough terrain without locking differentials. However, that statement doesn’t remove the convenience and safety benefits. Lockers can keep your 4×4 from getting stuck on various surfaces without any help.

So, how can you know if you need a locking differential? Read on.

  1. Do you bring your 4×4 off-roading frequently? If you like driving off-road or intend to go Overlanding, locking differentials will prove quite useful. They’ll prevent spin-outs, keep you from losing traction, and make it easier to navigate the area. Furthermore, you can use them in any state (unlike some banned mods).
  2. Is the terrain unpredictable, muddy, or easy to get stuck? If you’re worried about losing traction and you drive a 4×4, lockers are worth considering. They’re not the best solution for the pavement, but you can tear through almost anything else. Most other 2WD and 4WD vehicles without lockers will face challenges in these environments.
  3. Where do you drive your 4WD vehicle most of the time? Is it a commuter for highways and city streets, or do you work on dirt roads, farms, and so on? Drop-in lockers might be the perfect solution since they can be removed and are much cheaper than the previously mentioned alternatives.

Having gathered all of the info about locking differentials, it’s up to you to decide if your 4×4 should include these helpful mods. Off-roaders and Overlands should get them, whereas people who drive on the pavement most of the time don’t need them. Make sure you test drive your vehicle after getting lockers since they alter the way it drives.


Whether you prefer drop-in, limited-slip, or automatic lockers, there’s no denying the benefits of these helpful modifications in the off-roading industry. You can drive a 4×4 without using locking differentials, but it’s much easier to get out of a rut if you have them installed.

Discuss which style is best for your vehicle with a local mechanic or off-roading friends, then enjoy the aforementioned advantages.