Mudding With Manual vs Automatic: Pro Off-road Tips

There are few off-road terrains as fun to drive on as mud, irrespective of whether you are driving a manual or an automatic transmission. That is because all the rules you’ve ever learned about 4-wheel driving sometimes go out the window.

Mudding with an automatic has advantages over a manual due to the speed at which modern automatic transmissions can shift up or down in mud ruts without losing momentum. Automatic transmissions always keep the vehicle in the right gear for optimal power and torque-to-fuel efficiency ratio.

Mudding is one of the most fun things you can do with your 4-wheel drive. When you get through the deep thick mud by applying the right technique you’ll be spinning like a madman. Also, in mud terrain, it’s always best to use more gas and give it some stick to build up momentum as you progress.

These days with modern automatic transmissions it is almost the same as a manual with all the advanced options available. Automatic is also a more comfortable and convenient choice for on and off-road terrains. Automatic basically offers you the ease of use, simplicity, and power on tap when you need it. But which transmission option is better for mudding? to find out read further…

Is Manual or Auto Better for Off-Roading? (Mudding)

Manual vs Automatic aside, the first thing to do when going mudding is to decrease your tire pressure to around 20-24 psi. Next, make sure your transfer case is in 4Lo.

NB Make 100% sure your Traction Control (TC) is switched off.
Always make sure there are no dangerous obstacles lurking under the mud so take a stick and have a poke around before you attempt it. Also, this will help you get a feel for how soft and deep the bottom of the muddy track is. Make sure there are no logs or rocks below the surface that somebody has previously thrown in there for some extra traction. If you are driving an auto you want to make sure the sequential shift is selected and that 4Lo is engaged.

READ: Manual vs Automatic when Rock Crawling – which is better

In a manual transmission, you want to select 1st or 2nd 4Lo and that depends on how tight the track is upfront. In most cases, there are a set of ruts in front of you so don’t attempt to avoid them just drive straight into those muddy ruts as you will more than likely slip right into them anyway. The only exception to that rule is if the muddy ruts ahead are too deep for your tires. In that scenario, you’ll want to avoid them as much as possible.

READ BELOW: The biggest tires I can fit onto my truck w/without a leveling kit

Automatic Mud Driving Guide

  1. Start off by easing your front tires into the muddy ruts and do not hit the gas with all you have just yet.
  2. Entering a muddy rut at high speed only looks spectacular, but actually causes you to break momentum and could potentially cause massive damage to your vehicle.
  3. Once your front tire drops into that muddy hole that’s when you really need to give it some decent gas.
  4. Do not overdo it though as you really want to control your acceleration into the muddy pits.
  5. It’s a fine balance to keep your acceleration just enough to get through the muddy hole but not too much to get stuck.
  6. If you break traction and your truck can’t go forward anymore with your wheels just spinning and flicking up mud, immediately take your foot off the throttle and reverse and restart.
  7. Then give it another attempt and depending on how deep the muddy pit is, you probably have to attempt the mud a few times before you are successful. Yipee!!!
  8. That’s when the fun part begins because after you do the 1st and reverse thing a few times you will find the vehicle claws itself a bit further every time.
  9. TIP “turn your steering wheel from side to side while driving through deep mud”
  10. What that does is uses the side walls of your tires to grip against the side walls of the muddy ruts and that might just be enough to give you traction to make it through the mud.
  11. Try that technique a few times and you will be amazed at how successful that trick can be in muddy ruts.
  12. After you’ve had a blast in the mud all day make sure you give it a good wash once you get home to keep your pride and joy in tip-top shape.

READ BELOW: When to use 4WD Auto (4A) in a Ram 1500

Is Manual or Automatic Better for 4×4?

Are automatics good for off roading?

When you drive through mud the automatic is fantastic. Gear shifting between the smaller gears in the automatic transmission makes for a fun and easy sand-driving experience.

With a manual transmission in mud, it is a more complex scenario as you need to know your vehicle very well and be familiar with its behavior between the rev ranges. In mud, once you need to shift up or down there is a few seconds of delay while you depress the clutch and engage the gear and that is crucial for mud and sand driving because you can lose momentum very easily.

You will almost always need to keep your manual at very high revs before you shift up or down in mud and sand to buy some time between gear shifts and try not to lose momentum in the process.

When you drive through mud the automatic is fantastic

Constantly keeping a manual transmission vehicle at its maximum revs for extended periods is not ideal and you need to be in the right gear to get the most torque and power without over-stressing the engine. A little bit of Mechanical sympathy goes a long way!

READ: When to use 4WD Auto (4A) in a Ram 1500

Automatic on the other hand will just allow you to easily cruise along in mud and sand as long as you have the correct tires for the application. Automatic will not over-stress the engine because the gearbox will automatically keep the vehicle in the correct gear maintaining maximum power and torque.

A little bit of Mechanical sympathy goes a long way!

Manual transmission requires you to select the correct gear before you enter the mud pit and stay in that gear and hope you make it to the other side with enough momentum.
In an automatic, you can select the final gear the auto box must stay in. However there is a disadvantage as the gearbox can up-shift or downshift at any given time, and you might not want it to do so.

READ: Manual vs Automatic when Rock Crawling – Which is better

Driving Muddy Hills And Side Slopes

  • When you assess the muddy tracks ahead and you notice tread patterns in the ground it tells us that there is traction.
  • If you look at the bottom of the vehicle you can see which part of the vehicle is touching the highest part of the ground. Usually the center of the track.
  • If the mud is very deep and slippery the lowest part of the vehicle which is usually the bell housing or axle case will be scraping the middle man.
  • These are all indicators that you will get a lot of resistance on that muddy trail.
  • If you go in hard in 2nd gear you can potentially damage the bottom of your car on that muddy track.
  • Ground clearance with the correct tires is very important when it comes to mud driving.
  • If you observe your surroundings you will notice boggy tuffs of grass and thick moist areas which indicates the surface is very soft and slippery ahead.
  • Also if the greenery is very dark green it’s a sure indicator that the ground is very wet and muddy underneath.
  • When you straddle the ruts you also want to make sure you don’t do any further damage to the tracks and the environment by staying inside the tracks as much as possible without creating new tracks
  • When straddling the ruts you want to keep your vehicle in a low gear like 1st or 2nd in order not to slip off the tracks and pop a tire or do damage to your vehicle.
  • Always keep the damage inside the ruts and try your best not to create further damage by creating new tracks.
  • Ground reading is essential because it will tell you a lot about the terrain and if the track ahead has traction or not.
  • Attempting muddy hills in 2nd gear should be fine as long as you stay within the ruts and the hill isn’t too off-camber.
  • slippy descents are best attempted in 1st gear with no throttle and allow the engine compression and light breaking to take you down
  • When descending slippery hills do not allow the wheels to break traction if possible and once this happens you need to accelerate to regain traction and control of the vehicle.
  • When approaching a muddy hill you want to use momentum and keep the momentum building as you climb out the hill.


So with all the above information at your disposal, you will be able to determine what the best option is for you. There is no right or wrong choice of transmission as manual and automatic both have their advantages and disadvantages. Knowing what you want to accomplish and which terrain you will be conquering will ultimately determine which option is best for you as well as how engaged you want to be with the vehicle. Cost and maintenance also play a large part.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you driving manual or automatic in the muddy pits, as long as you get out there and have fun.

Happy 4 Wheeling and remember, safety first!!!

Jade C.

4-Wheel drives and off-road driving techniques has been my passion for over 20 years. Here we strive to provide the most accurate, up-to-date, information about the functionality, common faults and latest technology built into most 4 Wheel Drives.

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