There is an old adage that goes, “If you aren’t getting stuck, you aren’t trying hard enough.” Part of the appeal of going out into remote environments far from Starbucks and cell phone service is the confidence of knowing that you can handle whatever is in front of you. This sense of self-sufficiency and determination harkens back to settlers moving West to face the mysterious and unfamiliar. Not knowing what you might face may seem like it would be difficult to prepare for, but there are a few recovery items that we regularly use in a variety of environments. As a result, we carry them in our vehicle at all times now. We like to be ready for everything from pulling a disabled car out of traffic to crossing a snowdrift.
While a winch is likely the first piece of recovery equipment that comes to mind, we will not be focusing on them in this article. You probably already know that there is no replacement for a winch. Winches are so involved that they deserve their own story focusing on why you need a winch, how they are made, and proper use on the trail. Instead, we are going to focus on smaller, less expensive recovery gear that we use just as often as our winch to extract ourselves and others on the trail.
The first piece of equipment we recommend adding to your vehicle is a kinetic strap. A kinetic recovery strap differs from a tow strap in that it stretches when under load. You don’t want to get a running start with a tow strap. And never get a running start with a chain as they do not stretch. Tow straps are useful for, as the name implies, towing. You can also use them to wrap around a tree or other anchor when winching. By contrast, kinetic ropes are constructed from nylon polymers allowing you to get a running start when pulling a vehicle out of the mud, sand, or snow. The energy created by your vehicle stretches the kinetic rope up to 30%. It then returns to its original length, acting like a slingshot to pull the other vehicle out of their predicament. Kinetic ropes have loops sewn into each end for attaching. Avoid tow straps with metal hooks on the end as they can break under shock loads.
Bubba Rope, Smittybilt, and Daystar all offer kinetic ropes in a variety of sizes. When choosing a size, we recommend picking a rope or strap rated for five times your vehicle weight to account for the dynamic loads the rope will encounter. A strap rated at a breaking strength around 20,000 pounds is an excellent choice for a Jeep. Full-size trucks and SUVs will want a strap or rope rated closer to 30,000 pounds. Many of the ropes come treated for resistance to ultraviolet light, but it is still a good idea to store them out of direct sunlight. Similarly, you should not spill chemicals like gasoline on them and avoid wrapping them around sharp edges that can cut or fray the strap. If you use the strap in mud or sand, you will want to clean it afterward as the dirt can get inside the rope and cause abrasion from within.
The best strap on the planet won’t do you any good if you don’t have a place to attach it. You never want to attach a strap to suspension, axle, or steering components. You could end up doing more harm than good. Yay, you aren’t stuck anymore! Boo, your tie rod is broken. Recovery points can be open, like a hook, or closed, with just a hole. The advantage of an open recovery point is that it is much quicker to toss the loop on the end of a strap over the hook. The downside is that if there is slack in the line, you risk the strap falling off. A closed recovery point requires a shackle for attachment. But once attached you don’t have to worry about it coming loose until you remove it.
Recovery points should be bolted directly to the frame. On a vehicle like a Wrangler where the front frame horns are exposed, this is relatively easy. On unibody SUVs, with low-slung bumpers, this is more of a challenge. Many aftermarket bumpers that bolt directly to the frame or unibody are suitable for recovery and have provisions for recovery points. In the rear, a simple hitch pin through a receiver hitch will typically do the trick. You never want to hook a strap to a tow ball though. Tow balls are not designed to withstand shock loads. They can break loose and turn into a deadly cannonball. Warn, Smittybilt, and Factor 55 make receiver brackets that accept a shackle if you prefer that to using a hitch pin.
To connect your kinetic rope or winch to a closed anchor point, you need a shackle. These can be either a screw pin shackle (also known as bow shackles, d-rings, and clevises) or a soft shackle. We carry both screw pin shackles and soft shackles as they are useful for different situations. Think of these two shackle types as a VINN diagram that mostly, but not entirely, overlaps. 3/4-inch screw pin shackles are the most common size. The sizing refers to the diameter of the shackle itself, not the pin. 3/4-inch screw pin shackles use 1-inch pins. Look for shackles that use forged construction and have the rating listed on the side.
Soft shackles are more expensive than screw pin shackles and newer to the off-road market borrowing technology from the marine environment. Bubba Rope, Smittybilt, and Voodoo Offroad all offer soft shackles made from Ultra High Molecular Weight Poly Ethylene (UHMWPE). This is the same material used to make synthetic winch lines. These shackles don’t clunk around on your bumper, are easy to attach to tube work like roll cages and bumpers, and are so light that they actually float.
Recovery boards have become all the rage with the overland crowd, who proudly display the color-coordinated boards on the side of their vehicle. There is a method to this madness, though, as having the traction boards readily accessible makes them easy to deploy. Their large surface area allows your vehicle to float rather than sink in soft terrain. You can get enough momentum to get moving and head for more solid footing. Perhaps the best thing about traction boards is that they don’t require another vehicle to assist you. With no moving parts they are simple, reliable, and easy to use.
Smittybilt, ARB, and Rugged Ridge offer traction boards that are lightweight and easy to store. These nylon-reinforced composite boards have little nubs on top to provide traction to your tires in soft environments such as sand, snow, and mud. The nubs can break off if subjected to wheel spin, so it is best to be in a low gear and just crawl until your vehicle is entirely on top of the boards. We recommend adding a tether to the corner of the boards so you can retrieve them after your recovery. In deep sand, it is easy to bury the boards to the point they are difficult to find.
A shovel can be a useful tool on its own or to supplement traction boards and recovery straps. Often digging in front of your tires in sand or snow can knock down impromptu wheel chocks and allow you to continue forward progress. Even if the digging alone doesn’t extract you, it is almost always helpful in mud, snow, and sand. Plus, shovels have plenty of other uses from smothering your fire before you break camp to digging a latrine for bathroom breaks.
Smittybilt’s Recovery Utility Tool (RUT) is the modern rendition of the military e-tool. It is a fully functional collapsible shovel with a secure grip and a light handle. The carbon steel blade is heat-treated for high strength and features double serrated edges for easy digging or cutting. The RUT is 26 inches long when open and folds to a mere 9 inches, making it easy to store in the included storage case.
Sometimes when you are high centered, lifting the vehicle is necessary to fill the holes or ruts under the tires. This is particularly true when traveling alone when there is no other vehicle to pull you out of your predicament. Hi-Lift jacks are ubiquitous on the trail. But they are only helpful if you have steel bumpers or rock sliders where the foot of the jack can contact the vehicle without causing damage. If you don’t have steel bumpers, a Hi-Lift fitted with a Lift-Mate attachment for the wheel or even a simple bottle jack or scissor jack can be used to lift the vehicle. A wide base, such as a piece of plywood, or even a floor mat in dire situations, will help to keep the jack from sinking in soft terrain. Only lift the vehicle as high as necessary to fill the holes under the tires. The higher you raise your rig, the less stable it becomes.
The Best Tool: Experience
There are two mistakes we commonly see when performing an extraction. The first is a sense of urgency and rushing, which is typically not necessary unless the vehicle is at risk of rolling down a cliff or on fire. Taking your time will ensure that you perform the recovery safely without causing more harm than good.
The other issue we often see is too many cooks in the kitchen. One person should be in charge of the recovery, typically the driver of the vehicle performing the extraction. Others should stand back a safe distance and only offer help or advice if it is solicited from the person performing the recovery.
The best equipment in the world won’t do you any good if you don’t know how to use it. Familiarize yourself with the recovery points on your vehicle and ensure all of your gear works together before you hit the trail. That giant 40,000-pound strap won’t do you any good if it is too big for your tow hooks and shackles. An understanding of your equipment will allow you to remain calm when you need to break it out and put it to use.