An Intro to RV Drive Systems: Two-Wheel, All-Wheel, and Four-Wheel Drive
An Intro to RV Drive Systems: Two-Wheel, All-Wheel, and Four-Wheel Drive
Top considerations for choosing the best option for your RV style.
By: GoLife Staff
More than ever before, RVers are going out in search of adventure. They are going off-road and off-grid, expanding their travels to include winter destinations, choosing RVs with more clearance and better handling, as well as adding ‘mods’ to make their rigs even more capable.
While the over-the-top setups found at overlanding events may impress you or inspire your imagination, what do you really need for your style of RVing?
We asked Winnebago Product Manager Chris Bienert, as well as a few ambassadors who are passionate about this topic, to share insights and top considerations to take into account when choosing what type of RV drive system would be best for your travels.
Disclaimer: The information shared in this article is for informational use only and should not be taken as an official endorsement from Winnebago to modify your RV or take on challenging terrain or conditions. Please use your own discretion and know that what you choose to do with your RV is at your own risk.
An Intro to Two-Wheel, All-Wheel, and Four-Wheel Drive (4x4) RVs
The big difference between these three drive systems is the amount of traction available to your tires and where it is directed.
While two-wheel-drive vehicles (both front- and rear-wheel drive) can perform well in some off-road areas, all-wheel-drive allows for better grip on more various types of terrain.
All-wheel drive (AWD) is a common choice for those wanting to RV in winter weather because it makes a noticeable difference in slippery conditions, like snow or mud. It also does well in many off-road situations, but driver skill, clearance, tires, and other factors also make a huge difference.
Four-wheel drive (4WD), or 4x4, also sends torque to all four tires to help gain traction in various conditions; however, this system can often handle more rugged terrain and extreme conditions better.
While AWD and 4x4 RVs can offer better traction in some conditions, every vehicle has its limits, and some weather or terrain is just too dangerous for any vehicle to be driven in safely. Always be very cautious when entering areas with extreme conditions or uneven terrain. And never ignore that gut feeling telling you when it is best to stop or turn back.
What to Expect from the Different RV Drive Systems
For RVs specifically, most are now being made with more clearance. So, for example, if you add some good all-terrain tires on an RV with a front-wheel drive Promaster chassis (like the Solis Pocket), that will be able to take you more places off the pavement. So, you may not need AWD or 4WD for the adventures you desire.
Nick Riebe loves overlanding during his travels in a Winnebago Solis Pocket.
“Never discount the capabilities of a front-wheel drive van. In every terrain and environmental condition, I have driven the Ram Promaster to the ends of the Earth and back with little to no issues,” Nick shares. “All you need to keep in mind are the limitations of your chassis (weight, ground clearance, etc.), and your own expertise and comfort level while driving off-road.”
A few tips from Nick if you plan to take your front-wheel drive RV off-road: “Upgrade to all-terrain tires and have a recovery kit. Will you ever get stuck? Yes. Do 4x4’s get stuck? Yes. You will learn as you travel, that If the path ahead looks like something you shouldn’t drive a one-ton van on, then don’t.”
While various terrain can be covered in a front-wheel drive RV, some RVers do appreciate the added peace of mind all-wheel drive gives them – especially if they encounter slippery conditions. James and Stef Adinaro (@The Fit RV) have experienced multiple RV drive systems and are currently traveling in the all-wheel drive Winnebago EKKO.
Here’s what James has to share about transitioning from front-wheel to all-wheel drive:
“Our previous Class B was front-wheel drive, and we thought it got us everywhere we needed to go. Since moving to an all-wheel-drive EKKO, we’ve been exploring terrain we might have passed on before. We’re not into rock crawling, or serious off-road use, but the added confidence of all-wheel drive has motivated us to head a little further down forest service roads than we otherwise might have. We’ve also taken our EKKO into muddy and sandy conditions, and some pretty cool boondocking sites, and we’ve never felt like we got in over our heads. We’re looking forward to testing out the performance in snow this winter!”
Four-Wheel Drive (4x4)
Of course, other RVers really love more rugged adventures and like to see just how far they can go – usually through the addition of many mods, constant learning, and often a fair share of RV recovery missions.
The Holcombe family loves putting their Revel van to the test and has driven it in all types of weather, terrain, and even onto different continents! However, they also have many years of experience in multiple RVs. Plus, they have mods and gear to help prevent issues (or assist in getting unstuck!).
Peter Holcombe shares some helpful insights into using your four-wheel drive capabilities:
“My Winnebago Revel has taken me to some amazing places. From high atop the Rocky Mountains to wild and remote ramparts of the desert southwest. The 4WD system in the Revel is very capable to get you out there. Now it's not a rock crawler but, with a thoughtful and experienced offroad driver, it can go places most people would be surprised. A big part of offroad driving is knowing when to turn around and knowing your limitations.
The Revel is very capable in terms of clearance, departure, and break-over angles for such a large vehicle. Knowing how to position your tires on high ground will just help this further. In 4WD-HI it will get you really far into the wilds. This makes a huge difference in snow and mud, too. But on rocky ledges with steep climbs, the 4WD-LO gear will keep you moving by adding the torque that is needed.
I will often air down my tires some to improve traction and give a smoother ride on corrugated and rocky roads. If it gets soft or sandy, I might then take my tires down a little further for a short distance to add even more float and traction. (***WARNING: Never drive on the pavement at normal speeds without making sure your tires are at the recommended front and rear psi for safety). Airing down is for offroad only and traveling at slower speeds.
Using good offroad driving techniques and a few tricks, like airing down, can not only add to your Revel’s capability but also make for a more comfortable trip.”
Considerations for Going Off the Pavement in Your RV
Any time you leave a paved road in your RV and start bumping along on gravel or a rocky dirt road, you are taking a risk that your RV will be damaged, or you may even get stuck to the point of needing a tow.
Knowing your rig and not pushing yourself past your skill level is key to avoid major issues when taking on rougher terrain or more extreme weather conditions.
Some Questions to Ask When Attempting Off-Road Driving
When discussing this topic with Bienert, he mentioned a few important considerations to take into account before going off the pavement. While this is not an exhaustive list, it will certainly help give you an idea of the many different concerns to keep in mind when taking your RV off-road.
- Where are you going? Research the area and know exactly how to get there and what to expect. There are some great apps and websites that can help you gather more information. Other RVers and online forums are also a great resource. Going in the dark is also never a good idea since it will make a challenging situation even more difficult.
- Do you need to make any adjustments? For certain situations, a few adjustments can make a big difference. For example, airing down your tires on gravel roads can help you drive a bit easier. But you’ll need a way to fill them back up!
- Should you have a spotter? For roads with more undulations or washouts, a spotter can help alert you to potential hazards. It’s important to know when this is necessary and have a signaling protocol you both understand.
- What will you need? Make sure you have the gear necessary to get to your destination safely. Consider different tires if you plan to be off-road often or conquering winter conditions. You will likely also need additional tools, like a shovel, air compressor, and recovery tracks, to help you in case you get stuck.
- Do you have a way out? Before venturing down a questionable path, make sure you have a way out. Know if you will have a chance to turn around or if you will need to reverse. Having an exit plan is key – especially if dealing with adverse weather conditions.
- Is it better just not to go? All good adventurers have to know when to say enough is enough and turn around. Many off-road areas are in places without any cell service, so if you get stuck you may be on your own to resolve the situation. A satellite communication device may help to offer additional peace of mind. And traveling with friends is a great idea for added support!
The Biggest Consideration: You!
According to Bienert, the most important thing to take into account when it comes to taking an RV off the pavement is your comfort level and expertise.
“A lot comes down to experience and skill – you have to understand your limitations,” he cautions.
Going off-road and conquering a variety of terrain is a mental exercise involving a high level of driving expertise. Overall, your skills as a driver are more important than the product or its features.
If you are wondering how to gain those skills, there are courses available to help you learn how to take your RV off-road as well as tips for getting unstuck. 7P is a popular option among the 4x4 Revel owners and other RVers. They offer group overlanding expeditions to help you get more comfortable with your newly learned skills.
Of course, you’re also the key to deciding which RV drive system is best for your travel needs. Consider where you plan to take your RV, what seasons you will travel in, and whether an option that offers more traction would be ideal for those plans. We hope this guide helps to narrow the options down!
Although the call for far-off adventures is always pulling you, we hope you will also take the time to consider these tips and prioritize your safety to make sure you (and your RV!) have many more successful trips to share about!