How to Drive Stick Shift in 12 Easy Steps

Male hand holding manual gearbox in car, test drive of new automobile, closeup

    How many people do you know who can drive a car with a manual transmission? Commonly called a "stick shift" (also referred to as a “standard” or a “stick” or a “manual”), the vast majority of cars used to be built with this type of transmission, where the driver uses a clutch pedal and gearshift to guide the car through all its gears. However, in America now, about 95 percent of new cars have automatic transmissions instead, making it no longer necessary to know how to coordinate clutch, gas, and gearshift maneuvers. Because of this, few Americans can drive a stick shift anymore.

    In fact, in 2017, it was reported that a man in Birmingham, Alabama, stole a flatbed delivery truck and was pursued by police — but in an extremely low-speed chase because he didn’t know how to drive a stick shift! The deputy involved in the chase joked, “Thank God he couldn’t find second gear, or the pursuit could have gotten all the way up to 35 miles per hour.”

    Of course, we’re not advocating vehicle theft. However, when you do find that you legitimately need this skill, nothing can replace it. There are plenty of good reasons — beyond augmenting your general competence in the world — for learning to drive a standard. At some point in your life, you’ll almost surely find that you need to drive someone else's car, and that car may be a manual. If so, you don’t want to be stuck because you don’t know how to drive it. 

    Additionally, if you want to drive a semi truck or operate heavy machinery, already having mastered the art of driving a stick shift gives you a great head start. Semi trucks are just now starting to be made with automatic transmissions, and there are many models that are still manual-only. If you want to get into the business and start with a used truck, it'll almost surely be a manual.

    There are also some expensive sports cars that, to this day, are only made with manual transmissions. If you've been dreaming of driving certain imported cars, “driving a stick” is something you'll need to know in order to make it happen. There are even a few regular cars left that only come in manual, though as of 2018, there were only eight of these models.

    There are plenty of reasons why it’s worth the struggle to learn to “drive standard.” Even though it seems complicated, using a manual transmission is really just a matter of getting used to a specific set of steps. Here's what you need to know to learn to drive a stick shift — and how do it well:

    Ways to prepare before driving a stick shift

    Before you get moving, there are a few things that need your attention and some details you’ll want to have in place. Before you ever start the car, make sure to go through these preparatory steps:

    • Have a calm, experienced stick shift driver ride in the passenger seat for your first few times. They can ease your nerves as well as answer any questions you may have.
    • Practice in a large, empty parking lot, if possible. Find the most level ground you can to practice on, as hills make stick-shift driving more difficult.
    • Make sure you start with the emergency brake on. 
    • Learn the shifting pattern on the gearshift. First, look at the diagram printed on the head of the shifter. Then, without turning the car on, move the lever into each slot in the correct sequence. (You might need to press the clutch to let the gearshift slide.)
      Eventually, this pattern will become part of your muscle memory — or, the ability to perform specific procedures without having to consciously think about doing them. It will take a while to develop muscle memory for driving a manual, so be prepared to practice.
    • Learn what the floor pedals do. In automatic cars, there’s a gas pedal on the right and a brake pedal in the center. In a standard, there’s an additional pedal: the clutch, found at the left of the brake pedal. Practice the motions you'll need to use — pressing the clutch with your left foot, pressing the gas or brake with your right. These movements also will become part of your muscle memory.
    • Try putting the hand and foot motions together. Go through the movements in the sequence of pressing the clutch, putting the car into gear, releasing the clutch, and giving it gas — then letting off the gas, taking the car out of gear, and pressing the brake.

    Steps: the movement sequence for driving a stick shift

    To successfully drive a stick, you need to combine a sequence of hand and foot movements. You also must be attuned to the sound, feel of the car, and rhythm of the engine and transmission. It seems complicated starting out, but we promise that with a methodical learning process and ample practice, it'll soon feel like second nature.

    Getting the initial sequence down can take several tries. You may stall the car out repeatedly during the learning process. This is why you should tackle this stage in an empty parking lot. Trying to learn in traffic will aggravate other drivers and could very likely cause an accident. If there’s no suitable parking lot around, at least find a deserted back road or empty street at a time of night when it’s unlikely that anyone will be around. The best time and place is when and where you'll be one of the only cars on the road.

    With that said, we'll now list the basic steps and some details about each:

    1. EMERGENCY BRAKE OFF, COAST IS CLEAR. Disengage the emergency brake, whether by hand in the console between the seats or on the floor at the far left. Look all around you to make sure no other cars are in range.

    2. PRESS BRAKE WITH RIGHT. Use your right foot to hold down the brake pedal. You'll be using the right foot for both brake and gas as you drive, switching back and forth as needed.

    3. PRESS CLUTCH WITH LEFT. With the gearshift in neutral, use your left foot to fully hold the clutch pedal down to the floor. Neutral is typically in a central position, and the gearshift will have a bit more "give" to wiggle side-to-side when it's in this spot.

    4. START THE CAR. There is no "Park" on a manual, so starting always takes place with the car in neutral and the clutch and brake engaged. In newer models, a safety interlock usually prevents ignition to make sure that pedals and gears are in the correct positions. This may not be true if you're learning in a truly vintage vehicle, but in general, manual vehicles don't "go" unless you do the sequence correctly.

    5. SHIFT TO FIRST, FOOT OFF BRAKE. With the clutch still pressed down, move the gearshift into first gear. On almost all cars, this should be in the upper left position. Take your right foot off the brake and move it to the gas pedal on the right. 

    6. EASE UP CLUTCH, EASE DOWN GAS. Begin easing your left foot off the clutch. (The car may begin to roll, so be ready for that. Movement is what you want.) This is called letting out the clutch.  As you do this, you should begin to feel the friction point. Slowly begin to press down the accelerator pedal. Be gentle with the gas. 

    7. YOU’RE DRIVING! Keep this movement going until the clutch is fully released and the car begins to accelerate. Allow the car to coast while you get ready to shift to second gear.

    *Shifting gears is a step where you'll really appreciate the help of the experienced stick shift driver: They will already know what to listen and feel for, and they can cue you when to start each step of the shifting sequence.

    8. EASE OFF GAS, PRESS DOWN CLUTCH. When it's time to shift to second, lift your right foot off the gas and fully depress the clutch again with your left. The car will coast. Do not hesitate before beginning the next shift — you don't want to slow down enough to stall out before making the shift.

    9. SHIFT TO SECOND. With the clutch pressed down, move the gear shift into second gear. Then release the clutch pedal slowly and ease down on the accelerator pedal again. This will take less time than the shift from neutral to first. Do it fast enough to sustain the speed needed for second gear, but not so fast that the engine races or the car stalls. Some practice will be required.

    … AND REPEAT SHIFTING. Repeat this process as you accelerate through the subsequent gears. If you're practicing in a parking lot, you might run out of space before you can hit full driving speeds for the high gears. At this point, you may want to move on to an empty road to practice going all the way to the top gear. Avoid learning on a busy city road, or else your nerves will get jangled by honking cars and fear of collision. You want to be able to concentrate on shifting!

    10. SHIFT TO NEUTRAL. Stopping is easier but also requires a bit of a two-part trick: First, depress the clutch, move the gearshift to neutral, and release the clutch again. This will take the car out of gear and allow it to coast.

    11. BRAKE TO STOP. While the vehicle coasts, step on the brake as needed to slow down and stop where you want to. As with an automatic, you want to start braking well before you arrive at the desired stopping point. Leave a bit of extra time for the clutch maneuver, especially when you're first starting to drive the stick shift.

    12. SET EMERGENCY BRAKE TO PARK. Remember that there’s no gear for “Park” in a manual transmission car, so once you’re stopped where you want the car to stay, use the emergency parking brake to park it.  This will keep the car from rolling.

    Shifting patterns and speeds

    Every car is built differently, including the shifting pattern that you’ll see on the gearshift knob. Generally, the main differences are where “Reverse” is located and the number of gears available for shifting. Make sure you practice shifting through the gear pattern a few times to get familiar with it before you start the car.

    Once you’re moving, you’ll need to reach a certain speed before shifting to the next gear. It can help if you remember that each gear has different running speeds. One chart lists these common ranges:

    • 1st gear: 0-10 miles per hour
    • 2nd gear: 5-25 mph
    • 3rd gear: 15-45 mph
    • 4th gear: 30-65 mph
    • 5th gear: 65+ mph

    As you can see, there’s quite a bit of overlap between the gear ranges. When you make each shift will depend on the car, the number of gears it has, driving conditions, and your acceleration rate. Before long, you’ll know by the sound of your engine when the transmission is ready to shift. (You can also consult the tachometer on your dashboard, which shows your RPMs, but soon you won’t even need that.)

    If you shift at the wrong time, the engine will typically rev loudly or make some other sound of protest. As with the rest of the process, the timing will eventually come naturally as you practice.

    Missteps to watch out for

    While you're learning to drive a manual transmission, you should expect to make missteps. This is just a natural part of learning a new skill, so don't get discouraged. If you get too frustrated, safely stop and park the car, get out, and walk around a bit. This will help you relax and refocus on achieving your goal.

    To help you get through this stage faster, get familiar with some of the most common problems that people encounter while learning to drive a stick shift, along with their causes and recommended remedies:

    • If the car won't start at all, chances are that you don't have the clutch depressed fully. This seems like a simple issue, but it’s quite common to find that the pedal has more distance to travel than you're expecting. If the car you're using is old, you may also wonder if it's actually suffering mechanical failure! If you can't get it going, have your experienced helper try. Then, you'll know for sure whether it's you or the car.
    • If the car lurches to a stop and then stalls out, you let the clutch out too fast. Expect to need to restart the car several times while you make your first attempts at learning to drive a manual transmission. Try to be patient.
    • If the car stalls after you shift to first (but doesn't lurch), you didn't give it enough gas. Be warned that a common response to this is to give it too much gas, sending you zooming forward at an unexpected speed. Eventually, you’ll feel your way into a happy medium that works.
    • If the car lurches forward without stalling, you're letting the clutch out at an uneven rate. Practice will give you the skill you need for a nice, smooth acceleration.
    • If the engine revs loudly or the car travels at an uneven speed, you're shifting at the wrong times. This is another thing that you'll get better at as you practice more.
    • NEVER put the car into reverse unless you've stopped completely! Otherwise, you can severely damage the transmission and other parts of the drive train.

    Note that if you get used to driving a stick shift on one car, switching to a different vehicle can often send you back to a period of lurching, revving, stalling, and other hiccups until you get used to the new car. This is because each car is built a little differently, so the timing of the shifting, pedal travel distance, and other such things will seem a little "off" in an unfamiliar vehicle. Fortunately, once you master the basics, making the needed adaptations becomes a much faster process than learning for the first time.

    NOTE: Not all cars have the same number of gears. A small, inexpensive model may have only four or five, while some sports cars and semi-trucks can have 12 or even more. Always check this before driving an unfamiliar car.

    For many people, the ability to drive a manual transmission is a point of pride. Some even prefer cars with stick shifts because they offer more control to the driver, and, in some cases, more mechanical power. And as mentioned before, there are still some vehicles that only come in stick shift form, notably sports cars and heavy equipment.

    Gaining the ability to drive a stick can seem like a hard-won achievement, especially if you've driven automatics for many years. However, when the time comes that you're faced with the need to demonstrate this ability, you'll be glad you put in the effort in advance. Without learning this skill — sorry, there’s no way around it — you won't be able to drive stick-shift vehicles. In the meantime, consider it another technique to help you become a better-prepared and more capable person. 

    The ZebraResource Center