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how to perform a recovery

How to Perform a Recovery

Gear and Techniques You Need to be Successful

Tis the season!  Not just for eggnog and mistletoe, but for snow, sleet, and icy road conditions.  Off-roaders are often stereotyped as being lawless and running over anything in their path, but you have the opportunity to give the general public a good impression of off-roaders by helping someone who has slid off the road in the winter.  Better yet, this is an opportunity to hone your skills and put all of your recovery gear to use.

02 recovery assessment

Is the vehicle broken or just stuck?  Where are the recovery points?  These are just a few of the considerations when determining the best course of action for recovering a vehicle. If you have a tarp or a parka, it is much better than just lying in the snow and rain.

Assess the Situation

The first thing to do is assess the situation. Make certain that there is a safe place for you to park and turn on your hazard lights to let passing motorists know that they need to slow down.  The situation will be different if it is a stranger you are helping as opposed to someone you know.  With a stranger you want to offer assistance, if they aren’t comfortable with your help do not press the issue. We typically start by breaking the ice (pun intended) by asking what their name is and where they are traveling to.  

Walk around the vehicle, taking into consideration things like the snow depth and consistency, recovery points on the vehicle, the slope of the terrain. You also need to consider what gear you have at your disposal.  If you only have a winch, or only have a strap, your options are more limited than if you have both tools with you. Ideally, we carry:

Once you have a plan in your head, make certain to explain it to the driver of the vehicle.  You will oversee the situation and need to project confidence in the plan, but also need to reassure the driver that everything will be fine and explain to them what your plan is and what they need to do.

03 recovery points

Most Jeeps and trucks have frame mounted recovery points that can easily be used for winching or attaching a strap or shackle.  Vehicles that don’t even have a frame, much less frame mounted recovery points, can be a bigger challenge.  Most modern crossovers have threaded attachments like this that screw into points behind the front and rear bumpers that are designed for towing.

Recovery Points 

One of the biggest challenges to doing a recovery is where to pull from.  If you are driving a Jeep or truck, you likely have frame mounted recovery points that make it easy to attach a strap or shackle. That might not be the case for the vehicle that is stuck though.  A receiver hitch is a great place to attach a shackle or strap if so equipped.  You never want to pull from a suspension, steering, or drivetrain component.  These parts are not designed to withstand a heavy pull and will likely break, leading to an awkward conversation with the person you are trying to recover. 

04 self recovery

When you are the one who is stuck and you are by yourself, expect to put more sweat equity into the recovery.  That means digging and using traction boards to get moving again.  Don’t have traction boards?  We have used floor mats, sand bags, and kitty litter in an effort to get unstuck.  Sometimes you have to be creative.

Self-Recovery Techniques

If the vehicle doesn’t have suitable recovery points or you don’t have a strap or a winch, self-recovery might be your only option.  This is where a shovel like Smittybilt’s Recovery Utility Tool (RUT) comes in handy. A shovel is one of the first items we add to our vehicle to help get unstuck since they are inexpensive and you don’t need anyone else’s help to use one.  Dig out around the tires to give them the ability to move forward (or backward) unimpeded.  You also need to check under the vehicle and ensure that other components, such as the axles, are not dragging in the snow.  If they are, you will likely need to dig them out as well.  Ideally you will be able to move the vehicle forward a little bit, then move back, then get further forward, back and forth until you can get enough momentum to keep moving.  This is made easier with traction boards such as ARB TRED boards, which have a large surface area so they won’t sink, and have nubs on the top to provide traction to get you moving.  

05 kinetic strap recovery

Notice how the Ford is backed all the way up to the Tundra in order to get a running start. This is possible through the use of a Bubba Rope kinetic strap that yanked the Tundra out with ease. The trucks are situated tail-to-tail to allow the frame mounted receiver hitches to be used as recovery points.

Kinetic Recovery

Snatch straps and ropes, also referred to as kinetic, are designed to use the momentum of your vehicle to stretch under load like a rubber band and sling the stuck vehicle out.  This requires sturdy recovery points, and in general if there is a slope it is helpful for the recovery vehicle to be faced downhill in order to allow gravity to assist with the recovery.  You also want the pulling vehicle facing forward, this is much easier on the drivetrain than trying to yank someone with the recovery vehicle pulling backwards. It is OK if the stuck vehicle is facing backwards though.  We typically start with a relatively light pull and the stuck vehicle in neutral, then adjust our momentum based on the results. Ideally the recovery vehicle can get to solid ground, most straps are sold in 20 and 30 foot lengths. 

In addition to various lengths, kinetic ropes are available in different diameters; you want to match the size of the strap to your vehicle’s weight.  Too light and you risk breaking the strap, but too heavy and the strap will not stretch under load like it is designed. Note that there is a lifespan associated with kinetic straps, when they have been used too many times, or beyond their working limit, they will not return to their original length.  If your kinetic strap has harsh engagement, it is a sign that it is time to retire it.

06 winch recovery

Using our winch allowed us to position the Ram on the pavement where it had better traction than off the shoulder.  The tradeoff here was that being along the shoulder put the Ram closer to passing motorists.  We used the hazard lights and kept an eye in the rearview mirror as we recovered the stuck vehicle from the ditch.


Unlike a kinetic rope, a winch provides slow, steady pulling power.  This isn’t always the best choice in deep snow or when recovering a heavy vehicle, but unlike a 20-foot strap, most winches come with 100 feet of cable that allow you to place the recovery vehicle on solid ground. We have found that in snow a normal sized crossover vehicle can even stall a 10,000 pound winch if it is mired to the point that the entire undercarriage is dragging along the snow.  In these cases we generally shovel out as much snow as possible and add a snatch block to double the bumper of the recovery vehicle.  This doubles the pulling power, slows down the recovery for even more control, and allows you to unspool more cable from the drum for an effectively lower gear ratio.

07 recovery point

The recovery points on SUVs and crossovers use a closed loop that is typically not large enough to fit the pin of a standard ¾-inch d-ring shackle. Instead, this is a great opportunity to use a soft shackle, such as this Bubba Rope Gator Jaw shackle.

08 improper shackle position
Note of the orientation of the knot on the Bubba Rope Gator Jaw shackle in this photo, and how it differs from the previous image. This is the improper orientation for a soft shackle. Here, the knot must withstand the force of the recovery and you risk pulling it out.
09 night recovery
The stakes get higher when the sun goes down. Not only does visibility become an issue, but temperatures drop as well. We have been guilty of being in a hurry at night and not wearing the proper clothing, such as waterproof clothing and gloves, and we paid the price. Be conscious of dropping temperatures and bring a headlamp to help with visibility.
10 stap with hooks
Avoid the cheap parts store straps that have hooks on the end. These hooks can deform and break on hard pulls, turning into projectiles. These straps are also designed for towing, not kinetic recovery. They do not stretch, which is why they are so harsh on engagement and can break the hooks off.