Is a Manual Transmission Better for Off-Roading?

By Derrick •  Updated: 07/24/21 •  7 min read

Manual transmission, also known as a stick shift, is often seen as an excellent choice for off-roading and Overlanding. Many experienced drivers use stick shift vehicles when traversing difficult terrain, but others find automatic transmissions more than suitable for the job. So, why are stick shift vehicles so popular for going off-road?

A manual transmission is better for off-roading because it lets you control the gears for better ascents, descents, and traction on loose terrain. They handle heat better by spreading it evenly when using lower gears. An automatic transmission is suitable for beginner off-roaders on dirt, though.

This article will also cover many benefits of manual transmissions for off-roading, why you might consider a continuous variable transmission (CVT), and a comparison between stick shift and automatic vehicles for off-roading. We’ll also explain which choice is better for beginners or experts.

Is an Automatic or Manual Transmission Better for Off-Road?

If you have an automatic vehicle, you don’t have to worry about being able to go off-road. Many people believe off-roading is best with a manual transmission, but there are several advantages of both options. Below, we’ll cover several comparisons to help you decide if you should use an automatic or manual vehicle for off-roading.

  • Manual transmissions are best for experts who are navigating challenging terrain. According to GearStar, they provide much better traction and control when you’re driving the vehicle uphill or downhill. Being able to change gears whenever you need to is an unparalleled benefit of a manual transmission.
  • Automatic transmissions are often overlooked, despite their modernized engineering. Manual vehicles are often seen as the only solution for off-roading since you can change gears (and many manual vehicles are 4WD, which means they weigh more), but new-age auto transmissions switch gears without needing your input.
  • You could choose a stick shift vehicle if you prefer immersive off-roading. Nothing beats having a good time driving on mud, snow, and hilly terrain. Manual transmissions put you in charge of the operation, which means you’ll be able to have much more control. Those who enjoy stick-shift cars on roads will love them for off-roading.
  • Automatic vehicles are usable on light off-roading terrain, like dirt. You don’t need to get a manual transmission to roll over it. Automatics can switch gears whenever they need to, keeping your mind on the road (or off-road terrain) rather than worrying about gears and sticks.
  • You shouldn’t worry about buying a brand-new vehicle for the transmission if you’ve never gone off-roading. Perhaps the most important part of the comparison is you can go off-roading with either transmission. Automatic transmissions have their place, as do manual transmissions. Use whichever you have on a flat off-road area.

Manual transmissions are undoubtedly useful on various terrains. To know which is best for off-roading, we’ll dive deeper into the advantages of driving a stick shift vs. automatic vehicle in the following sections.

Benefits of Going Off-Road With a Stick Shift Vehicle

Stick shift vehicles offer a unique off-roading experience for those who’ve driven on rough terrain. There are dozens of benefits led by unparalleled control and speed, but if you’re worried about going through hills, mud, and other terrains too quickly, you can downshift to limit the speed and improve the handling.

Here’s a list of four reasons why manual transmissions are a top-notch choice:

  • Stick shift vehicles can ascend and descend with much more precision. Control the clutch as you drive through hilly terrain. You don’t have to worry about blowing the engine or shredding the transmission. Many old-school automatic transmissions drop when off-roading, which is a leading reason manual vehicles reign supreme in the off-roading industry.
  • There’s less stress on a manual transmission, which means it won’t overheat as often as an automatic transmission. If you’re using an automatic vehicle to go uphill and downhill, the transmission will shift rapidly and overheat. However, you control the gears of a manual vehicle, which means it won’t burn up.
  • Manual vehicles let you control the speed and intensity. If you’re worried about cruising too fast or slow, you can change everything instantly. Auto transmissions don’t allow nearly as much control of your mileage, so a manual tranny is a fantastic solution if you’re off-roading on unpredictable surfaces.
  • Low gears and semi-deflated tires promote much better traction and control. Dixie4WheelDrive explains deflating a manual vehicle’s tires reduces its center of gravity, improving the handling and preventing it from tipping over. Furthermore, you can lower the gears to take advantage of the deflated wheels.

There are many tips and tricks to make driving a manual transmission easier, especially when you’re going off-road. 

Perhaps the most significant reason people choose manual vehicles is they don’t have to deal with unexpected gear shifts during the most inconvenient times. However, modern automatic vehicles are more equipped for off-roading than older models.

If you want to learn about CVT transmission (another type of automatic vehicle) and how they fare against off-roading conditions, read on.

Are CVT Transmissions Good for Off-Road?

Continuous variable transmissions are a type of automatic transmission that uses a series of belts to power the engine. Unlike a traditional automatic transmission, it doesn’t use several gears (one gear controls the whole operation). CVT vehicles are becoming more common, which is why people are considering using them for off-roading adventures.

The main reason manual transmissions are great and automatics can fail is the way they handle gears. So, where does a CVT vehicle fit if it doesn’t use multiple gears? Let’s analyze their benefits and possible downsides.

Continuous Variable Transmissions Are the Smoothest Choice

Since it uses one gear and multiple belts, CVT vehicles don’t have the unwanted, uncomfortable jerking motions associated with manual and automatic cars. Instead, they smoothly increase or decrease the speed. You might notice a slight tug if you slam the pedal to the metal, but nothing is noticeable during gradual inclines and declines when off-roading.

CVT Cars Weigh Less Than Manual Vehicles

Gears are quite heavy, so CVT transmissions naturally weigh less than manual and automatic vehicles. A car with less weight reacts more dramatically to sudden changes in speed, which could be beneficial when climbing hills.

That being said, lightweight vehicles have trouble pulling themselves out of deep trenches with mud, snow, and sand. This issue could be a pro or con, depending on the off-roading conditions.

Fewer Parts Mean Fewer Repairs

Interioristas point out CVT transmissions have far fewer parts than manual and traditional automatic transmissions. If you want to get the most out of your vehicle while off-roading without having to spend too much on repairs, CVT vehicles are worth investigating. You don’t need to stress about expensive transmission repairs since their gear systems work more efficiently than the competition.

While they don’t directly impact your vehicle’s performance, it’s worth mentioning the repair costs of traditional automatic transmissions. 

Car History states they’re more likely to overheat than CVT or manual vehicles, so an automatic transmission could be a costly choice in the long run. Also, the lightweight design of CVT transmissions reduces their fuel consumption, which makes them cheaper to fuel up.


Manual transmissions have many undeniable benefits for off-roading, but they’re not the only solution. CVT and other automatic transmissions make it easy for lightweight cars to cover snow, mud, and more.

If you’re thinking about off-roading for the first time, you can use almost any vehicle with off-road tires, a powerful engine, and clearance space underneath as long as you choose gravel or dirt on flat terrain.