Rock Crawl A Manual vs Automatic Transmission: Top Tips

Rock-crawling with a manual transmission is a more interactive experience since you have to be more engaged to properly control the vehicle. The automatic transmission, however, is a more popular choice due to its ease of use and the fact that there is no clutch control required. That said, is a manual 4WD the best option for rock crawling, or would an automatic transmission be better suited for these off-road conditions?

Driving a manual when rock crawling requires complete clutch control and momentum to smoothly overcome large boulders and other rock obstacles. The recommended setting is 1st gear, 4-LO with your diff lockers engaged. Avoid roll-backs on steep inclines and never “ride” the clutch under any circumstances as this is damaging to the clutch.

Having the ability to drive a stick-shift (manual) transmission off-road is a very helpful skill to have as most vehicles are offered in automatic transmissions. Modern auto transmissions shift quicker and smoother and return better gas mileage.

Let’s look at some interesting rock crawling facts and some dos and don’ts.

10 Rock Crawling Facts

  1. Rock crawling is a sport/hobby which requires you to carefully drive off-road over large rocks and technical terrain.
  2. You need to traverse obstacles carefully and slowly while selecting the best drive line.
  3. An experienced spotter is needed to guide the driver when doing extreme rock crawling as drivers visibility will be limited in most situations.
  4. When rock crawling you want to always keep your tires on the high side if possible, for maximum ground clearance.
  5. If you feel you can walk over an obstacle then you can definitely crawl over it with your 4×4
  6. It’s helpful to have 2-way radio communication between the driver and the spotter to ensure audible directions from the spotter.
  7. The Driver should trust his spotter’s judgment 100% to avoid roll-overs and vehicle damage.
  8. Sold front and rear-axle vehicles like the Jeep Wrangler, Land Rover Defender, Toyota Land Cruiser and Nissan Patrol are popular choices for rock crawling due to their superior flexing abilities.
  9. Solid Front Axle (SFA) vehicles have excellent flexing capabilities making them the popular choice over Independent Front Suspensions (IFS).
  10. Upgraded suspensions with longer shock travel allow for increased flex along with large aggressive 35″ tires are ideal vehicle setups for rock crawling.

    Read: How much lift for 33-inch tires and How much lift do I need for 35-inch tires

Rock Crawling With A Manual vs Automatic Transmission: 20 Facts

  1. For many drivers, an automatic transmission will be an easier and safer option over a manual for rock crawling.
  2. Expert manual driving skills and the ability to choose the best drive line are necessary to be successful.
  3. The automatic transmission will be a smoother easier option that will allow you to stop midway through an obstacle without the risk of a roll-back unlike in a manual.
  4. In a manual, you stand a high chance of experiencing a roll-back if you stop midway on a steep incline.
  5. It is easier to hold an auto in position against a steep boulder or rock while you re-access your driveline to crawl.
  6. In an automatic, the driver only needs to calculate the drive-line and the amount of pressure to re-apply on the gas peddle to continue forward.
  7. Once you stop midway through an obstacle with a manual transmission you are not in a very good position as you will have one foot firmly planted on the brake pedal and your other foot depressing the clutch if in gear.
  8. The problem with this situation comes in when you have to continue from a standstill if you are in an inclined position (which in most cases you will be) you will more than likely experience a roll-back. This should be avoided at all costs while off-roading on steep mountain tracks
  9. Your standard handbrake is not designed to hold your 4×4 vehicle firmly in a steeply inclined position as it is only a parking brake.
  10. When you release your foot brake to regain control of the clutch while applying throttle is when the risk of a rollback is significantly increased as you are 100% reliant on the parking brake for a few seconds.
  11. If you release the clutch too fast and give gas at the same time you will experience tire spin which means you will not be in full control of the vehicle anymore and the risk of CV and drive-shaft damage increases.
  12. When going downhill on the auto there is a slight delay while the torque converter activates and even if you have it in a low gear it will still run off a bit before the engine compression braking assists
  13. Downhill descents in an automatic transmission are a lot quicker and uncontrolled unlike when done in a manual.
  14. Going through more technical terrains makes the automatic easier to drive because of no need for clutch control.
  15. In an automatic transmission, you only need to control the gas and brake pedals, and stalling the motor is not a concern which means you can be more patient and relaxed while enjoying the technical aspect of the trail and the capabilities of your vehicle.
  16. Auto allows you to rock crawl at a much slower speed which is very convenient in some situations. This decreases the risk of damage to your vehicle quite drastically
  17. The auto transmission allows you to off-road at 1-2 Miles per hour allowing you to be cautious enough through difficult sections on a trail.
  18. The manual transmission does not allow you to easily rock crawl at slow speeds and that is due to the fact that once you release the clutch fully without even applying the throttle the vehicle is already traveling at 3-4 miles per hour. Not ideal for rock crawling.
  19. An auto transmission on slippery rock is a bit more tricky to control wheel spin as the gearbox shifts up once it reaches a certain speed.
  20. Manual allows you to stay in a gear longer with more control over wheel slippage and spinning.

When you release the foot brake to re-gain control of the clutch and gas throttle is when the risk of a rollback is significantly increased.

Off-Road With A Manual Transmission

So before learning how to drive a stick shift vehicle off-road it is of vital importance to know how the manual gearbox and clutch function. This will allow you to better understand which gear to select to drive it correctly and also know exactly what the vehicle is telling you to do.

With a manual gearbox, the driver decides exactly how the vehicle behaves and responds in off-road conditions. The driver can decide to hold the vehicle in a specific gear to climb out a steep hill or hold it in a gear for a longer period if he wants the maximum power and torque from that particular gear to overcome a large sand dune. You can change up sooner if you wish to drive for improved fuel economy when cruising along flat gravel roads. So, apart from the engagement factor of a manual (stick shift), there are other advantages such as control over MPG usage, and control of the RPM range as well as the fun factor.

If you do not own a Manual transmission vehicle, it is always good to know how to operate one as you never know when you might be required to drive one. Perhaps you visit a foreign country and the only vehicle options are stick-shift. Or you might have an emergency while off-road at a remote location when you will need to drive your mate’s stick shift to seek medical assistance.

Manual Transmission Facts

That’s me doing some light rock crawling with my Mitsubishi Pajero (Manual Transmission)
  • The transmission is the link between the motor and the gearbox
  • The transmission assists the vehicle to drive by giving it power and torque
  • The transmission will assist to give you the ability to attain higher and lower speeds
  • Most manual transmission vehicles will have between 5 and 6 forward gears and 1 reverse gear
  • The vehicle is controlled by the driver who has full control of the clutch pedal and the gear stick
  • The driver decides when he wants to shift up or down between gears depending on where the revs are laying at the time.
  • The first and most important fact to remember when starting a stick shift vehicle is to make sure the vehicle is in neutral before you turn the key.
  • If the vehicle is engaged and parked in a forward gear and you start the engine the vehicle will lunge forward violently.
  • Always depress the clutch before you swing the engine as an added safety precaution.
  • Most modern stick shift manuals will not start if you do not depress the clutch and require you to do it even if the vehicle is in neutral as a safety mechanism before starting.
  • In an automatic (standard transmission) vehicle the car is turned on while set in the “parked” position indicated by the “P”
  • With a manual, upon starting it makes no difference which gear the vehicle is in if you depress the clutch before you start the car

Guide To Driving a Manual (Stick Shift) Transmission

That’s me and my mate Pierre off-roading with Manual transmission Toyota Hilux 4x4s
  1. A manual vehicle has three pedals, a clutch, a brake, and gas.
  2. The clutch is always the pedal on the left of the brake pedal.
  3. The clutch pedal is a direct link between the transmission and the engine.
  4. In order to move the vehicle forward, you need to depress the clutch and put the vehicle in 1st gear.
  5. 1st gear is the shortest gear and you always use this gear to pull off.
  6. Once the vehicle is in 1st gear you will slowly release the clutch until you feel the transmission “biting” or engaging the vehicle feels like it wants to move forward.
  7. Simultaneously you have to give a little bit of throttle and press the gas softly to prevent the vehicle from stalling.
  8. If you feel the vehicle shuddering then you need to give more gas and you are releasing the clutch too fast as the engine is starving of fuel and can stall at any time. Using only the gas pedal to start the vehicle crawling forward is not the ideal procedure and you risk stalling the vehicle.
  9. Each time you want to up-shift or down-shift you need to depress the clutch, take your foot off the gas, up-shift to the next gear, and release the clutch while simultaneously giving some gas.

This is the process you follow with each up-shift and downshift of a gear.
It is not an easy process to follow and will take a bit of practice to get the procedure nice and smooth. A sign of a really good and experienced driver is when you hardly feel the difference between gearshifts as a passenger and it feels like one easy smooth ride like an automatic.

Manual vs Auto Off-Road Comparison

Manual TransmissionAutomatic (Standard) Transmission
Burns less fuel off-road which means higher MPGHarder to control fuel usage
There are more wearable parts. Components such as the clutch and flywheel can fail sooner if abused or misused in off-road conditionsThe gearbox is at higher risk of overheating when doing long hard off-roading. The standard transmission cooler will need to be upgraded to minimize this.
can be push-started or towed In an emergency situation such as in a
flat battery or starter motor failure scenario
Cannot be towed or push-started – you are stranded if the vehicle cannot start. The only options are a jump-start with a 2nd vehicle.
In the event of clutch failure, the vehicle can still be driven with the correct technique. You will need a flatbed if the gearbox fluid leaks out of your auto box – it cannot function without gearbox fluid
If the gearbox is badly damaged the manual will be cheaper to
replace or repair
Auto transmissions are very pricey to repair or replace
Manual pull-off is immediate – No delay from static inertia There is a slight delay from a standstill since it uses gearbox fluid to build up pressure to get the vehicle moving again. This has improved tremendously with modern automatics.
Many serviceable parts like clutch, cables, and flywheel. Fewer serviceable parts
Can be slightly advantageous when climbing over large boulders and obstacles that require the driver to stop and calculate his drive line. Pulling off on an incline is no problem. More clutch work and gear shifting are needed in stop-start situations
Rock crawling may cause quicker wear on your clutch and
flywheel if not driven correctly
Many believe you have more control with an automatic off-road over a manual. Modern auto boxes are very sophisticated.
More engaging More comfortable and relaxed experience.
Lots of gear changing is required in the sand and muddy conditions to keep the vehicle in the correct rev range. Fantastic in stop-start situations
Lots of gear changing is required in sand and muddy conditions to keep the vehicle in the correct rev range. Extremely easy to drive in sandy and muddy conditions. Auto gearbox does all the calculation work of selecting the appropriate gear.
You just point and fire!


It ultimately depends on which type of off-roading conditions you prefer before you decide if manual (stick shift) or automatic (standard) transmission is for you. Both have their advantages and disadvantages and as technology improves and vehicles become more sophisticated and advanced, the gearbox choice will become a harder one to make.

At the end of the day, it boils down to which option gives you the more satisfying ride and ultimately what you can afford.

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.

Recent Posts