From Hills to Highways: When Low Gears Are Your Best Ally?

Learning how to drive is an exhilarating but equally daunting experience. 

Before you hit the road, you’ll want to learn all the basics, especially when it comes to shifting gears. 

A common question among new drivers is, “in what situation will you need to use low gears?” 

Well, the low gear setting is useful when driving on steep accents, slippery or muddy roads, shifting from park, and towing heavy cargo

More on this below:

How Does Your Transmission Get Involved?

The easiest way to know which gear to use is to understand how the transmission system works. 

Most modern cars use an automatic transmission. This simply means that the transmission is controlled and programmed by a computer. 

This automatic transmission monitors the engine’s functions, enabling it to run at the optimal revolutions per minute (RPM). 

Anytime the RPM goes beyond the top limit, the transmission instantly switches to a higher gear. 

This allows the engine to run slower but operate under the same power. 

Similarly, when the RPM decreases below a particular threshold, the transmission shifts to low gear so that the engine runs faster without affecting power. 

Switching up your driving technique can help you regulate how and when the car shifts these gears. 

What Is Low Gear in a Car?

This is also referred to as the first gear, and it’s represented using the letter ‘L’. This gear set gives the car a higher power output but a slower speed

Put simply, shifting to the low gear causes the engine to work harder so as to provide more power. 

However, the wheels rotate slower than when the vehicle is in high gear. And as a result, the car moves at a slower speed. 

How to Shift Into Low Gear in Automatic?

Shifting to low gear in automatic transmissions is a little bit tricky. This is because there’s no particular setting dedicated to low gears. 

However, it’s still possible to manipulate your car to use this gear by simply lowering your speed

If your foot is pressing hard on the accelerator, gradually ease the pressure off it. 

Once you do that, the transmission will slowly shift into a lower gear. Some cars are designed with a gear shift stick button that allows you to move from D to D1 or D2. 

Other cars will have 1 and 2 in place of D1 and D2. And yet others only have the letter L, which also refers to the low gear range. 

Once you get to the desired gear, try to maintain this speed so that the transmission doesn’t shift to higher gears.  

How to Shift Into Low Gear in Manual?

Shifting into low gear in a manual transmission requires a bit more work. Here are the steps you need to follow to achieve this:

Step 1: Remove your foot from the gas pedal

The first thing you need to do is to take your foot off the gas pedal. This allows the RPM to decrease gradually, making it a lot easier to downshift. 

Step 2: Depress the clutch 

Using your left foot, press down on the clutch until it’s depressed completely. If this pedal doesn’t go all the way in, the gear shifter won’t budge an inch when you try to downshift it.

Step 3: Shift gears to the next lowest gear

Next, you’ll want to shift the gear stick to the subsequent lowest gear. For instance, if you were driving in third gear, move to second, and so on. 

Step 4: Release the clutch gradually

Once you reach the desired gear, start releasing the clutch at a gradual pace. 

At the same time, place your right foot on the gas pedal applying a little bit of pressure at a time. This makes for smoother transmission. 

Keep an eye on the RPM reading to determine if you’re still in low gear. 

What Do the Other Gears Mean?

Although the focus of this article is on low gear, there are other gear settings available. These are:

  • P – this letter refers to the parking gear. It allows the car’s transmission to lock into position; hence, preventing the car from moving. Engage this gear anytime you want to park your car. 
  • R – this is the reverse gear. Engage this gear any time you want to back up your car. 
  • N – this refers to the neutral gear, which disengages the engine’s system from the wheels. This is the gear that you engage in when you encounter an emergency situation or mechanical failure and need to stop temporarily. 
  • D – this means drive and it sets the car’s transmission into drive mode. Engage this gear anytime you want to move forward. 

Why Is Low Gear Helpful?

The low gear is particularly beneficial when you’re driving down an extended downgrade or steep road. 

In these situations, the car’s braking system has to fight the gravitational force so as to maintain a decent speed. 

This means it has to work harder. Subjecting the brakes to such prolonged stress can lead to overheating; and in some instances, total failure! 

This is where the low gear setting comes in handy. 

It concentrates the engine’s efforts on maintaining a lower speed while increasing the available torque

Six Situations Where You Should Use a Low-Gear?

In automatic cars, the transmission is designed to shift gears automatically. However, there are a couple of situations where you should consider engaging the low gear manually. 

These include:

1. Towing Heavy Cargo

Ever run into a situation where you need to pull a kayak or other watercraft? 

Or, do you use your truck to carry large pieces of equipment or heavy supplies? If you answered yes to either question, it’s important to use low gear for these occasions. 

This is because the transmission system is designed to function and shift based on the manufactured weight of your car. 

Radical changes to this weight can lead to negative effects on the transmission. 

Engaging the low gear means the engine will keep running at a higher RPM so that it can handle the heavier load. 

2. Driving at an Incline

When you’re driving up a hill, your car needs to garner as much power as it can to achieve the climb. 

If your car sounds or feels like it’s struggling, don’t hesitate to switch to the lower gear as it will provide more power. 

3. Driving on Slippery Roads

If you’re planning to drive on icy or snow-covered roads, be sure to use the lower gear. 

This gear set allows the vehicle to move at a slow speed, which really comes in handy. If you were to drive at high speed, the tires would quickly lose traction; hence, increasing the risk of skidding. 

4. Driving on Muddy Surfaces

Another instance when you should engage the low gear is when you’re driving on muddy surfaces. 

In such situations, the car requires greater power to avoid skidding on the slippery surface. The low gear is able to provide this power, albeit at lower speeds. 

5. Shifting Out of Park

Another occasion that calls for the low gear setting is when you’re transitioning from the park. This gives the car ample time to get up to speed, which is particularly helpful if you’re towing heavy items. 

6. Descending an Incline

Lastly, it’s advisable to engage the low gear when approaching a downward slope. This makes it easier to control your speed, relieving pressure off the brakes. 

Using your brakes when descending a long and steep downhill can cause them to overheat. 

Thankfully, engaging your low gear enables the engine to absorb a portion of the force; thus, making it easier to slow down. 


In what situation will you need to use low gears? This is one question that lingers in the minds of many, particularly those new to driving. 

Although rarely used, there are several occasions when you should consider engaging this gear. That’s because it provides greater power at lower speeds. 

These occasions are descending slopes, driving on muddy/ slippery surfaces, hauling heavy cargo, driving uphill and shifting out of park. 


Dean Alvarez, TireForge Head Author

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