Open Differentials: Off-Roading just isn’t what they are meant for

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If you are hoping to go out off-roading in a car with open differentials, this article is for you. While open differentials are incredibly helpful for driving in parking lots, in tight spaces and more, they are not ideal for off-road driving.

So why can’t you go off-roading with an open differential? Open differentials are known to cause a loss of traction in tight situations where you could find yourself stuck. This is because it will continue to push power to a wheel that may have lost traction, instead of giving more power to other wheels that may need it more. This should make them your last resort, but you could still have some fun away from the road if you plan ahead and prepare.

What is an open differential?

The new Supra has an open differential, but there are more reasons than that, that it isn’t good off-road.

Differentials are a mechanical part of a car, truck, or SUV that allows drive wheels to turn at different speeds. They are located on the front wheels for FWD, the rear wheels on a RWD, and on all wheels for an AWD drive vehicle. Differentials are beneficial because by allowing the varying speeds of the wheels they prevent damage to your tires and can save you from having to repair other various parts that could break.

There are a few different types of differentials: electronically locking, limited-slip, etc. and they perform a similar task just in different ways. Under normal driving conditions, open differentials prevent your vehicle from sending too much power to either of your wheels as you go around curves, making turning easier. However, are they good for going off-road?

Open differentials are known to cause a loss of traction in tight situations where you could find yourself stuck. This should make them your last resort, but you could still have some fun away from the road if you plan ahead and prepare.

Why Open Differentials Aren’t Made For Off-Road

In an off-road climate, open differentials can cause you to lose traction. If one tire is slipping on a muddy or icy surface that wheel will still get power causing it to spin. The spinning of the rubber will only carve deeper into the earth, thus, lowering the odds of you being able to move on your vehicle’s own power.

If one of your drive wheels manages to come off the ground and lose contact completely, it will effectively turn your 2Wd into a 1WD. All of the power will essentially be sent to the remaining wheel, making it that much harder to travel forward.

Locking differentials can be either automatic or manually activated. It is not recommended to drive on the highway with your differentials locked, but they make a great deal of difference off-road. They send an equal amount of power to all the active wheels. This helps all of the tires rotate in unison giving you better traction on slippery slopes and rocky hillsides

What Can You Do With Open Differentials?

Open differentials are designed to save your tires while going around sharp curves but can be detrimental to your grip on more adverse terrain. This doesn’t make hitting the trails impossible, it just means you have to be more careful.

Things that could help you compensate for open differentials are all-terrain tires with good tread, a healthy amount of flex in your suspension, and (just in case) always bring a reliable winch. A reliable winch could mean the difference between pulling yourself out and having to wait for help.

If you scope out your route ahead of time, stick to modest trails, and stay on fairly dry ground you can still get out there ad have a great time.

Frequently Asked Questions

What makes a locking differential better than an open differential?

Locking differentials aren’t necessarily better in every situation, however when off-road this style of differential allows you to lock the wheels on both side of the vehicle. This means that when a wheel on the right may be slipping, the one on the left won’t lose power, and instead can keep trying to get you unstuck from wherever you are. You are less likely to get stuck, and more likely to enjoy your off-road adventure.

What kind of cars come with an open differential?

You generally will not find a full open differential in any form of off-road vehicle, or even a sports car. You will normally find them in rear wheel drive sedans, so that they are able to turn both wheels in the rear at different rates.


Locking differentials are the superior choice for any off-road excursion. They give you greater traction by allowing the tires to move in unison and help keep you from losing power to your wheels. While open differentials have their disadvantages, with the right preparations it is still possible to hit the mud with them and have fun.