Differentials and lockers: experiences and recommendations

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El-Dracho

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For us overlanders, the differential and its locking mechanism is an important part of the vehicle. And especially many newcomers but also advanced overlanders ask from time to time then the question, if and if yes which lockers they should install.

What is a locker? How does it work? Do I need it? If so which one? These and more are questions that arise. Most recently again today in the OB Europe chatgroup. Since these questions and the answers to them are interesting and helpful for all OB forum members, has prompted me to start this topic.

Of course the choice if and if yes which locker to install, depends on many factors. Such as the drivetrain of the vehicle, availability, purpose of use of the rig, personal preferecnes, budget and much more. But experiences and thoughts around this could help others to make their own decision.

The drivetrain of my Defender is basically a permanent 4x4 with hig low transmission, lockable center diff and open rear and front diff. I added ARB lockers front and rear. Why? Because I wanted to have a 100% locker for more severe offroad situations (I am aware that a rear locker is more than enough for most of the situations of an overlanding vehicle but it is not that hughe additonal effort once the rear locker, the compressor and all installtion is done to fit also the front locker) , I wanted a product that has been built and proven many times over and has good availability of spareparts, an air compressor was permanently installed on board anyway.

Let´s collect experiences, thoughts and recommendations, so that all who ask these questions can find a good source of information.

Ff there is already a similar topic here, which I have overlooked, I am sorry. A short note would then be nice, maybe the topics can then be merged. I look forward to your contributions...
 
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Boostpowered

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My 1988 ford ranger 4x4 and my 1989 k30 rock crawler buggy both have locking hubs up front and I've only turn em once a year to verify they work. I've never had to lock em on a trail both of them have the rear spider gears welded for permanent lockup. Both are trail only vehicles not street legal in any way.

My 2017 colorado has an eaton locker in the rear, no one makes lockers for the front and zr2 front differentials are impossible to find for a swap.

My 2002 ford ranger 2wd has no locker just one tire spins on the rear passenger side.
 

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I think before you get lockers think about your use case - and what you really want to do with the vehicle.

If you’re into 4x4ing and like some of the more extreme stuff (on a regular basis) it might be worth it.

For overlanding though, if the vehicle comes with a diff-lock, you may just want to complement it with a winch, or traction boards.

PS I love 4x4ing, so it’s on my wish list. Not necessarily for overlanding though.
 
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Robert OB 33/48

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Lockers are one of the things that if you need them you need them badly. But, for OVerlanding in the travellers way, you will hardly need them.
When I saw when I was in Morocco how everybody drove with everything except 4x4's through the country, I felt already different with my 4x4. :tearsofjoy:
Going into the trail, track, offroad scene it is a bit more a must. Then again, all depening of what you are doing, what you are driving, and what you carry with you as shovel, winch, boards and more recovery stuff.
Would I buy a difflock? At this moment with what I do? No, wont go there.
 

El-Dracho

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It is always interesting to see the different experiences and points of view. So others can also form their own opinion. Thank you for this. I am curious to see what else comes together here...
 

Claus_za

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Lockers are one of the things that if you need them you need them badly. But, for OVerlanding in the travellers way, you will hardly need them.
When I saw when I was in Morocco how everybody drove with everything except 4x4's through the country, I felt already different with my 4x4. :tearsofjoy:
Going into the trail, track, offroad scene it is a bit more a must. Then again, all depening of what you are doing, what you are driving, and what you carry with you as shovel, winch, boards and more recovery stuff.
Would I buy a difflock? At this moment with what I do? No, wont go there.
Exactly - know what you want to do, then plan from there, knowing what your vehicle can do out of the the box is also critical to your decision.
 

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What I'm seeing most for overlanding and/or traveling purposes is a limited slip either a slat type or torsen type.
It's always there and is helpful in various situations and road conditions. No need to activate it just keep the momentum.

With different characteristics and technical variations (various grades of preload, wavetrac types, Auburn ected etc.) together with vehicle electronics it may increase the crawling performance also massively and smoothing out the torque load on the axle shafts and avoiding torque peaks to some extent, it can also help to improve longevity and fatigue in the drivetrain.

Torsen types are usually maintenance free besides the usual oil changes, while slat type diffs wear out over time and internals need to be replaced at some point, they usually also need a special oil with lsd additive but are often cheaper.
 

JimBill

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I have had good luck with a limited slip rear differential in many vehicles, both 2wd and 4wd. Manners are predictable on road, inclement weather, and tight trails. Since 99.5% of my driving is not rock crawling or deep mud or snow, I favor control in loose traction situations that a limited slip provides.

My WJ has a rear Vari-Lok and soon one will be added to the front. On the flip side, my dinosaur 76 Cherokee is slated to get a rear Aussie Locker.

The solution should match your need and vehicle. A flexy suspension and limited slip works well, and modern front and rear independent suspension may have traction control with ABS controls. And everything in between exists.

There is no one size fits all solution. Desired use and vehicle capability/design must be considered.
 
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DRAX

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Here's my take after decades of driving and off-roading of all types (or almost all).

I would say it largely depends on where you plan on driving or how difficult the roads will be. That said, sometimes we're presented with unexpected challenges. As overlanders, I suspect most of us like to explore and see where roads lead so we don't always know what lies ahead. As such, I would say that if a factory locker is available for the vehicle you're wanting to buy I would definitely get it, you'll never have a chance to get one that cheap again.

If, however, your current vehicle has no mechanical traction aids then I would highly recommend looking for a selectable rear locker at the very least. I wouldn't recommend an automatic locker like the Detroit, Powertrax, etc because these have awful street manners and can get you into trouble if you're not careful. I've had open diffs, limited slips, factory selectable lockers (Jeep Rubicon), aftermarket automatic lockers (Detroit), and factory automatic lockers (G80 in my current truck). The selectable lockers provide the most control over engagement, but as wired from the factory you can only engage them under certain conditions. The Detroit worked very well off-road and locks/unlocks based on torque input. This is why they're awful on pavement, they have a habit of locking when making turns after stopping, if you're accelerating hard enough the engagement can break the rear end loose, if the road is wet you may be going for a spinny-spin. If you have a SWB vehicle like a 2-door CJ, YJ, TJ, JK, or JL and this happens on dry pavement then you may find yourself fighting the vehicle that now wants to go straight.

Clutch-based limited slips I've found to be barely better than an open diff. If you already have one, fine, but don't waste your money installing one. Torsen are more effective.

The G80 in my truck has been a great locker overall. It doesn't randomly engage, it doesn't need the truck to be in 4L to work, it's great on the street, and while its engagement can be jarring if you're not careful (engages below 20MPH when there's a side-to-side wheel RPM difference of ~150RPM) it's manageable.

Think of a locker as something in your recovery toolbox. It isn't something you're going to need a lot, but when you do need it you'll be glad it's there.

Also, for those that have electronic systems (traction, stability control) that claim to direct power where it's needed...those are hard on the brakes and often times are completely disabled when in 4L, leaving you with whatever mechanical aids you might have to get you through. I don't like depending on a computer to hope it does the right thing and takes control away from me. A lot of the electronic systems work well, others are just a gimmick. Depends on the vehicle, but if that's what you're counting on then you better make sure you know when, where, and how it functions or you might end up in a real pickle.
 

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40 years of off roading, both for work and pleasure but my first locker experience was 10 years ago with a Rubicon. Leaving the highway in the spring to access a trail to the beach, I crossed a windrow of snow and high centered diagonally over it. The left front and right rear tires were stuffed and the right front and left rear hanging useless, spinning in the air.

No shovel, I walked around, thought about flagging down someone for a pull..... then remembered oh yeah, Rubicon with lockers. And locked them both, let out the clutch and idled off the windrow. I swear by lockers now and rate lockers as a better buy and a mod to do before buying a winch. In 10 years with the Rubicon I have never needed the winch.

The other big advantage of lockers is treading lightly. No need for wheel spin or drama, just lock up and idle up or down steep slopes. For slow speed traverses like we do, go with selectable lockers. On or Off nor somewhere in the middle.

I use mine often so i can tread lightly.
 

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Torque-multiplying torsen diffs like the TruTrac can be pretty effective with modern, aggressive traction control systems like in the 4Runners. You still get a bit more initial wheel spin than with a true locker, but once the brake initially stops that wheel, torque should stay transferred to the other side of the axle until you let off the gas again. This combination should be quite seamless to the driver in all conditions, and is a good balance between the value and simplicity of auto-lockers and the street manners of a selectable locker.
 
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bgenlvtex

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Lockers are by nature an on when you need them off when you don't which is to say you will use them very infrequently.

Front lockers dramatically increase steering effort so as a result reduce steering capability. Steep incline transitions like from a creek bed or river bed to an embankment are the best argument for front lockers. Fording particularly solo where there is a relatively high level of uncertainty and inability to pick a line, front lockers are a significant comfort. On steep technical inclines with multiple obstacles and tight trails you will activate and deactivate front lockers very frequently, switch controls should be simple, tactile and positive.

Rear lockers are easier to use as their impact on steering is somewhat lower, they will still cause the vehicle to plow in some circumstances. On wet ,slick inclines it is amazing how much rear lockers reduce effort. If we are going to truly live "leave no trace" then minimizing trail impact is part of that, and wheel spin is in direct conflict, so if you can lock up and complete that part of the trail (which is likely to be susceptible to erosion due to difficulty) then if you have the ability you should do so, same with winching. Reduce your impact.

If lockers front, rear or both are a factory option then absolutely I will buy them. In fact their availability or lack thereof will be a deciding factor if considering two otherwise comparable vehicles. I have never added a set aftermarket.

Select-able lockers provide a level of security and comfort that I as a solo traveler in North America want and will have on any vehicle I am planning to use off pavement. It's good for me, it's good for the vehicle, and it's better for the trail.
 
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MidOH

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Front auto locker, rear selectable locker, is by far the highest performance setup.

Best grip, best steering, perfectly OEM driving in 2wd on the street. There's many good excuses why it's not the setup for you or your vehicle. Maybe your front axle is too wimpy to handle an auto locker. Maybe you have piss poor taste in tires. Maybe your steering system is too weak to steer it. Maybe you just plain chose the wrong vehicle for the task at hand. But auto locker front, and the rear axle wide open, performs best on every trail and dirt road I've ever been on. Lock the rear as needed. Most of the people complaining that this setup doesn't steer, locked the rear diff. Plain old operator error. No worries, I used to be there as well.

If you do tons of snowy mountains or live in canadastan, selectable lockers might be a wise choice. Open front and rear is still the best 4wd option on snow covered streets, but still allow full grip off road. Just keep in mind that a locked front axle that can't ratchet like a Detroit, is very hard on the front axle, so use it sparingly. Generally, if you just can't pick out proper tires, or can't spec the vehicle properly, selectables front and rear, are perfect for you. This is why OEM vehicles with off road packages come with these. They're noob friendly.

Lockers make every aspect of overlanding more fun. Don't underestimate their effectiveness. One of the first mods I'd make to any serious rig. The heavier the truck, the more handy they become. A fullsize with a camper doesn't have much wiggle room. Lockers can make a washed out rut crossing, cake, for such a heavy ride.

I recommend:
Detroit Lockers or Yukon Grizz up front. (Remove the ''soft locker" parts from the Detroit for front use) Avoid cheapo lunchbox lockers unless your ride is a budget XJ or something.

ARB, Yukon Zip, or OEM e locker rear.

Cooper STT Pro, Cooper ST Maxx tires. Face it, the wrong tires are most of the reasons why people developed the wrong ideas about locking diff setups. If there just plain isn't any traction to be had, lockers ain't going to help.
 
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MidOH

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Also worth adding that Detroit lockers in the rear axle, are more street friendly in heavier trucks. Full size or bigger. F550 dump trucks, and semis use Detroit lockers on the street every day.
 

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I prefer selectable front and rear lockers. My view is that not every vehicle needs them, and I have 1 with and 1 without, but if the plan is to run a more technical trail or getting off the beaten path it's like having an easy button. My experience is with Jeeps and I have always preferred electric lockers in mine. I have some friends who run ARB air setups in JKs and had issues with solenoids, and TJs that had issues with the diafram inside the diff. That being said I myself have had issues with the magnet on the shift collar in the electric lockers getting dirty and jammed.
I went a very long time without and tackled some serious terrain with lockers though.
 
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I'll throw my hat in the Torsen LSD pile. I've used the Truetrac for years in different vehicles and it's perfect: smooth, intuitive, bulletproof, and easily manipulated. (Not to mention holding it's resale value).

With that said, lockers and LSD's are expensive. Many folks need to save up to do both axles. For some, it's not in the cards at all. So I'd like to also mention the use of mini and full spools and welded diffs for certain applications:

...Front solid axles with selectable hubs...

Warning- Very Important: Never Lock both hubs. Lock the one side you expect to have traction on. !You Cannot have Auto Hubs!

Welding the front diff or using a full or mini-spool locks both drive wheels all the time. You cannot steer on pavement and you will break something. You may be asking why? -- true 3 wheel drive. Whichever hub you lock is fully engaged all the time, but leaving the other side open allows for steering and lessens the load on the axle.
If you can afford a good LSD or locker up front, congrats. Do it. If you can't and/or you have an axle with little aftermarket options (i.e: Dana 50 people) it is a cheap solution that just flat out works.
 
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I've owned several off road vehicles over the past 40 years with pretty much every option of traction added differentials. All I can comment on is my personal experiences.

Detroit Lockers: I've had them in my Jeep CJ 7 as well as a couple of my past Early Broncos. Harsh but tolerable on the road, amazing off road.
ARB Air Lockers: Excellent on and offroad but i have experienced reliability issues with them leaking and blowing axles seals.
OX Lockers: Super strong and extremely reliable. Excellent on and off road but a bit difficult to engage and disengage on the fly
Stock Rubicon Air/Electric Lockers. I've had them in my 2004 Rubicon and my 2012... Worked perfect and never had any issues. I ran 35's on the 04 and 37's on the 12.

My current set up on my 68 Bronco has the Detroit Tru Trac in the rear and open up front. My suspension articulates extremely well which keeps the tires planted well on the trail in almost all situations. Coupled with BFG Mud Terrains and Rancho 9000 shocks, this set up has served me very well. This little bronco with 33" tires made it all the way from Loon Lake to Spider lake and back with no issues and barely a tire spin. I absolutely love the Tru Trac.. Can't even tell it is a LSD when on the road.

My current CJ-7 is running a detroit locker in the rear and ARB up front. The intent with this vehicle is more serious off-roading and running 35's. On road manners are tolerable but great. I am a low tech guy and love the simplicity of the detroit locker despite the on road manners.

Like many of you have stated..there are so many great options. Usage, Destinations,driving ability, and Budget all have to factor into your final selection.
 

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I love my torsen LS in the rear on my ranger. With a little bit of brake applied it acts damn close to a locker and has worked very well for me.
I would eventually like a selectable up front, but it's not a necessity for me. a good LS does perfectly well for majority of people, really.