top of page

Mastering Off-Road Traction with Differential Lockers & How They Work

Master tough terrains with ease—learn how differential lockers, like automatic lockers, enhance your off-road experience and keep you moving forward.

atv differential lockers

Navigating the rough and unpredictable terrains off-road enthusiasts love can often mean facing the ultimate nemesis: a lack of traction.

It's the difference between conquering a hill and being stuck halfway, between a thrilling day on the trails and a call for a tow.

Here, the differential—the unsung hero of vehicle mobility—plays a vital role, but sometimes it needs a little help.

Enter the differential locker, a robust solution to common off-road traction problems.

Let’s embark on a journey to understand this critical piece of off-road equipment.

The Basics of Differentials

Differentials are the unsung heroes of vehicle dynamics, quietly ensuring that our turns on the road are smooth and stable.

This mechanical wonder nestled in the drivetrain allows each wheel to rotate at different speeds.

The utility of this becomes most evident when a vehicle takes a corner: the outside wheel has to cover more distance and, therefore, must spin faster than the inside wheel.

Without a differential, tires would rub against the pavement, leading to increased wear and an unstable ride.

However, the very feature that makes differentials so valuable on paved roads becomes a challenge off-road.

In uneven, low-traction environments, a standard open differential directs power to the wheel with the least resistance, often the one with the least grip.

This can lead to scenarios where one wheel spins in place while its counterpart remains stationary, unable to use its grip to propel the vehicle forward.

It's a clear illustration of the differential's duality: essential for smooth handling on the road, yet potentially problematic on the rugged trails where off-roaders seek their thrills.

The Role of Traction in Off-Roading

Venturing off the beaten path in an ATV or UTV is as much a dance with physics as it is an adrenaline-fueled pursuit.

Traction, that critical interaction between tire and terrain, is the cornerstone of off-road prowess.

It is the force that anchors your vehicle to the earth, allowing it to ascend steep inclines, navigate jagged rocks, or wade through treacherous rivers.

Without proper traction, the most powerful engines falter, and the most robust frames become mere spectators of the wilderness.

The challenge of off-roading lies in the constant variability of surfaces—each type of ground, from sandy washes to slick rock slabs, demands a different approach, a different touch of the throttle, and a different strategy for tire placement.

It is a relentless test of skill and understanding of the landscape.

atv on sand dunes

What Are Differential Lockers?

A differential locker is an advanced automotive device designed to solve one of the most challenging aspects of off-road driving: maintaining consistent traction under diverse terrain conditions.

When activated, it locks the differential's axle shafts together, compelling both wheels to rotate at the same speed. This mechanism is particularly beneficial when one wheel loses contact with the ground or encounters a slippery surface, such as mud or loose gravel.

In off-roading scenarios, where one tire might be suspended in the air or lack traction due to uneven ground, a standard open differential would typically allow the wheel with the least resistance to spin freely while the wheel with more grip remains stationary.

A differential locker overrides this by ensuring that both wheels are forced to turn in tandem, distributing power evenly, which is crucial for overcoming obstacles.

Electronic lockers are a subset of differential lockers that are engaged by the flip of a switch, providing the convenience of on-demand activation.

The use of electronic lockers is ideal for drivers who may transition between on-road and off-road environments frequently, offering the flexibility to engage or disengage the locking mechanism as the terrain dictates.

Types of Differential Lockers

Understanding the different types of differential lockers is essential for any off-roader. Each type offers unique benefits and operates under different conditions.

Let's break them down:

Automatic Lockers

  • Automatic lockers engage independently when they detect a wheel spinning faster than its counterpart, providing immediate traction without driver intervention. Ideal for off-roaders who want peace of mind without additional controls, these lockers are always on standby, ready to spring into action. However, they can introduce handling quirks on pavement, as they need to disengage for turns and can produce an audible ratchet sound.

Enhanced Traction

Passive Engagement


No Extra Controls

Selectable Lockers

  • Selectable lockers offer the utmost control, allowing drivers to engage and disengage the locking mechanism manually, typically via a switch on the dashboard. This versatility is perfect for those who transition frequently between on-road and off-road environments, as it ensures that the locker is only active when truly necessary, preserving normal differential function during regular driving conditions.

Controlled Engagement


Improved Handling

Less Wear

No Unintended Locking

Compatibility with ABS and Traction Control

Spool Lockers

  • Spool lockers are the simplest form, essentially welding the axle shafts together to always turn at the same speed. They provide maximum reliability and strength for extreme off-road conditions where traction is perpetually compromised. However, their unyielding nature makes them less suitable for on-road use, as they do not allow for the wheels to rotate at different speeds, making turning more difficult.

Permanent Lock

Affordable & Simple


Consistent Performance

Ideal for Extreme Off-Road Use

Limited-Slip Differentials

  • Limited-slip differentials (LSD) strike a balance between open and locked states, transferring more torque to the wheel that has grip while allowing some difference in wheel speed. This makes them particularly effective for varied off-road conditions and better suited for on-road driving compared to full lockers. They are less aggressive in action than their fully locking counterparts but offer a smoother operation.

Enhanced Traction

Smooth Operation

Automatic Function

No Additional Controls

Fuel Efficiency

Electronic Lockers

  • Electronic lockers represent the cutting edge in differential locker technology. They offer the same advantages as selectable lockers with the added benefits of precision and speed of engagement, thanks to electronic activation. Drivers can engage electronic lockers at the push of a button, providing instant lockup for challenging conditions and seamlessly returning to an open differential for regular driving.

Precision Control

On-Demand Traction

Ease of Use

Low Maintenance

Improved Safety

atv in forest

What Are Open Differentials?

An open differential is a device that splits the engine torque two ways, allowing each output to spin at different speeds.

Here's why this is necessary and beneficial:

  • Even Distribution: An open differential divides the torque evenly between the two wheels on an axle.

  • Independent Wheel Rotation: It allows the wheels to rotate at different speeds, which is essential for cornering because the inside wheel travels a shorter distance than the outside wheel.

  • Simplicity and Reliability: The mechanism of an open differential is relatively simple, which makes it reliable and easy to maintain.

  • Cost-Effective: Open differentials are less expensive to manufacture and install than more complex systems, making them a standard option on many vehicles.

  • Smooth Handling: Vehicles equipped with open differentials tend to have predictable and smooth handling characteristics on paved roads.

However, the limitation of open differentials is apparent in low-traction situations: if one wheel loses grip, it can spin freely, while the wheel with traction receives little to no power, which can be problematic in off-road conditions or on slippery surfaces.

Benefits of Differential Lockers for Off-Roading

Differential lockers are a game-changing addition for any off-road vehicle, designed to overcome the common hurdle of uneven traction.

By locking the axle shafts together, they ensure that power is equally distributed to both wheels, even if one loses contact with the ground.

This is particularly beneficial in off-road conditions such as rock crawling, mudding, or navigating steep inclines, where conventional differentials might fail.

The consistent distribution of torque prevents wheel spin and provides superior grip, enabling vehicles to tackle obstacles that would otherwise be insurmountable.

The practical benefits of differential lockers are evident in their ability to allow vehicles to maintain momentum in challenging terrain.

For instance, when a vehicle with a standard differential encounters a slippery surface, the wheel with the least resistance spins freely, wasting power and potentially leading to a halt.

With a differential locker engaged, both wheels move at the same speed, forcing the vehicle to continue forward movement and effectively preventing situations where a wheel spins without traction.

This dual-wheel drive action maximizes the chances of pushing through soft ground, deep snow, or loose gravel, demonstrating why differential lockers are essential for off-roaders seeking to expand their terrain capabilities.

Choosing the Right Differential Locker

When it comes to choosing the right differential locker for your off-road vehicle, the decision hinges on several critical factors.

Vehicle specifics such as make and model are the starting points, ensuring compatibility and optimal performance.

Choosing for Rock Crawling

Benefit: Enhanced wheel synchronization.

Recommended Locker: Selectable Locker.

  • When navigating the unforgiving terrain of rock crawling, every inch of movement counts. A differential locker provides the advantage of synchronized wheel movement, ensuring both wheels rotate together to overcome large obstacles. This is critical when climbing over boulders or maneuvering through rocky ravines, where traction can be uneven and precarious.

Selecting for Mud Terrain

Benefit: Consistent torque to both wheels.

Recommended Locker: Selectable Locker.

  • Muddy conditions demand a locker that can deliver consistent torque to both wheels, even when one tire is bogged down in thick, slippery mud. The locker ensures that the free-spinning wheel doesn't just spin aimlessly—instead, both wheels work in tandem to pull the vehicle out of the mire.

Riding in Sand Dunes

Benefit: Equal power distribution prevents digging in.

Recommended Locker: Limited-Slip Differential.

  • Sand driving is a delicate balance between maintaining momentum and not overworking the engine. Differential lockers help prevent wheels from digging into the sand by distributing power equally, thus maintaining steady forward motion even when the sand shifts beneath you.

Choosing for Snow and Ice

Benefit: Better control during traction loss.

Recommended Locker: Selectable Locker or Limited-Slip Differential.

  • The unpredictable nature of snow and ice can lead to frequent traction loss. A locker ensures that when one tire lo