Differential lockers are a great offroad tool for difficult trails, rock crawling, and getting unstuck. Lockers will help you get through more difficult terrain and give you a first option for self recovery if you get stuck.
They are so powerful that the misuse of a locker can cause serious damage to the vehicle. Understanding how the locker functions and when to use it (and not to use it) is essential for proper use of this offroad tool.
A locker fixes the problem inherent in open differentials. When one wheel is lifted or otherwise sees a reduction in traction, all the drive from the differential goes to the lifted wheel. This is obviously not what you want and causes most of the moments of spin when climbing or when fully articulated. In other words, this is how we get stuck or dig holes.
By physically locking both axle outputs (this is done in a variety of ways depending on the locker) each wheel now only sees 50% of the force. Always, regardless of whether a tire is in the air, or swallowed in the sand.
With a 50/50 split to each wheel, the vehicle will be overcome those moments where traction is lost and with momentum and proper line, will climb, articulate, work it’s way up or over whatever obstacle you are facing.
Lockers however can also be a leading cause of things like differential failure and broken axles – i.e. breakages we don’t want to happen on trail. You need to avoid:
Front lockers greatly affect your turning ability, radius and forces. This is the most effected by the difference in radius in the turn between the two tires. and you hear the wheels “chirping” as they slide across the surface.
I use my lockers only when they will prevent me from damaging the trail or getting stuck or in extreme terrain. Looking up at a steep hill climb I contemplate engaging those lockers to keep down that chance of losing traction and spinning, even if it may not look “too bad”. Digging holes leads to erosion and more sediment loading in the local streams, something that harms the fish and ultimately gets trails closed.
In extreme terrain like rock crawling, large boulders and slickrock faces the use of your lockers becomes very situational. The locker or lockers may only be on for a few yards of the trail at a time, switched off and on again as you work the problems and obstacles.
In some cases you may just keep your front end perched on the top of a slickrock ledge and the momentary use of the front locker with the rear can help pull you over.
If you are running without your lockers engaged and get stuck, the very first thing to do is to activate the locker(s) as you work your way out. Minimize wheel spin to minimize trail damage.
A rooky mistake is overuse, leading to much greater potential for failure. If steering through the obstacle is more important than traction, the use of a front locker may actually make the obstacle more difficult. So in these situations use only the rear locker. During any downward pointing to flat or uphill obstacle (your hood is pointed down and into a transition) you need to be very careful about turning with a front locker.
You can install aftermarket lockers for Jeeps if you own Sport or Sahara models. Options depend on year and axle.