We really shouldn’t write this story. It’s not going to help our monthly Whoops! department if we give you pointers on how to get unstuck. But maybe we are wrong, as we’re sure you will still go out after dark, in the rain, with your pals and proceed to sink your -- or your dad’s -- truck to the framerails and be laughing like idiots while trying to figure out how to get unstuck and make it home. We just ask that you take a good photo (or a dozen) before you get unstuck so you can send them to firstname.lastname@example.org!
Here is the other problem with this article. If we tell you how to prepare for off-road disaster then we’re worried you may not have any fun. A wise man once said if you’re too prepared you won’t have any adventure, so we’re a little concerned that these tips for off-road recovery may make your next trip just a bit boring. Of course, there is also the option that being prepared you’ll push it even further and get really stuck, making for great photos of your future whoops, but you will still have the tools to get out safely.
“If you’re too prepared you won’t have any adventure”
Before You Go
You’re about to head out 4-wheeling and have some fun, but before you go, maybe you should do one (or all) of the following. Charge your cellphone, or better yet, throw the charger in your 4x4 in case you need to call for help after the battery runs out. Tell someone where you’re going, or leave a note in case you’re not home by midnight or dawn so they can come find you. Take a friend along in their 4x4. Even if you both break, get stuck, or roll over, at least you’ll have someone with you, and everyone know misery loves company.
Having a winch on the front of your 4x4 is like having the “get out of jail free” card in Monopoly. (Monopoly is a board game, for all you young readers). It’s a great security blanket (a security blanket is what protects children from monsters, for all you older readers) for when the talent tank runs dry and the mud bog overflows, the hillclimb grows, and the rock pile hooks a diff and sends your rubber spinning for traction. A winch is a tool that can save your bacon when the rest of your breakfast falls in the fire, but using that tool safely is a very important recipe for success.
1. Get a trusted name in a winch. It may cost more at the start, but you’ll be glad you didn’t skimp when you’re getting drug out of the soup on a wet rainy night.
2. Run your winch’s power wires directly to the battery. Grounding to the frame is not ideal.
3. Be sure the winch is mounted solidly to the frame via a strong winch bumper.
4. Winch line should only be used for recovery via winch power. It is designed for constant pulling, not the shock of aggressive yanking.
5. The winch line needs to be pre-tensioned on the winch drum. Otherwise when it is under tension the line can slip between layers lower on the drum and become pinched, sometimes to the point that it will not spool out anymore. This goes for either cable or synthetic winch rope. Always leave at least five wraps of line on the winch drum when doing long winch pulls.
6. You should wear gloves whenever you handle winch cable or rope. Winch cables develop loose wire strands that can stab you, and winch rope can pick up debris that can also cut you. Store the gloves within easy access of the driver so that it is easier to find and use them.
7. When winching in a group, have one person in charge of the recovery direct the driver to drive, and direct the running of the winch. Have bystanders stay back from tight cable but still keep an eye on everything and direct information to the lead recovery person in case something is going wrong.
8. When attaching a winch to a tree or rock, use a tree saver to wrap around the anchor and attach the winch cable to that. Do not hook the winch line back onto itself. This can damage the winch line and the tree you are attaching to.
9. Winch rope can be affected by UV rays and dirt and debris. Winch cable can get stray wires, kinked, and rust. Inspect regularly, and rewrap winch lines after use while inspecting and preparing for future use.
10. Often when winching it helps to assist the winch by having someone drive the vehicle that is stuck rather than trying to drag dead weight.
11. Safely route the winch controller cable to the driver or whoever is running the winch. Watch that the controller line isn’t caught up in the tires or winch cable/rope itself.
12. Add a weight of some sort to the winch line. If there is a failure in the line, shackle, or tree saver, this will cause the winch to drop to the ground and not spring sideways.
13. Keep bystanders out of harm’s way or, better yet, in separate vehicles.
Your truck should have one accessible by the driver or passenger. Nuff said.
Bring Stuff Along
Does your 4x4 have a “stuck-out” bag? Consider it like a bug-out bag, but for you and your 4x4. This is a backpack or old pillowcase with some emergency gear inside that you can stuff behind or under the seat and forget about, but in the worst-case scenario you’ll be glad it’s there. Here is a quick list of what should be inside.
• A jacket, rain parka, or sweatshirt
• Matches or lighter
• First aid kit
• Spare phone charger
• Flashlight or headlamp with good and/or spare batteries
• Spare truck key
• Pocket knife or multitool
• Gloves and a warm hat
• Spare socks
• Nonperishable food like canned tuna, beef jerky, mil-spec MREs
• Zip ties
• Electrical and duct tape
• Bungee cord and/or ratchet strap
• Vise-Grip pliers
• Emergency blanket
• A list of emergency contact phone numbers (you’d be surprised how many people don’t know their friends’ phone numbers because they’re stored in their phone, but what happens when the phone falls in the mud?)
• Cash in case you need to buy your way out of trouble
• Toilet paper/baby wipes (good for the obvious and starting fires)
Jack your Junk
Sometimes the same problems that plague us on the road can occur on the trail, such as a flat tire. If you have a spare then all you need to do is jack up your truck and swap away. But jacks can pose all types of issues when you’re trying to lift a truck on soft or uneven terrain. The biggest issue is having your truck fall on your head if you’re under it working. Consider these items and ideas before trying to raise your truck off-road.
The Hi-Lift jack is the vehicle supporting pillar of our off-road pastime. It can also be a brain-busting, knockout street fighter if you don’t respect it. Always keep your hand on the handle of the jack while raising or lowering the Hi-Lift. Lubricate the jack prior to use. Be sure it is on a flat stable base; if not, add a wider base to the jack. There are many bases available, such as this from Bogert Manufacturing.
One problem with a Hi-Lift jack is that it lifts the body and frame first, and your suspension must droop out before the axle will rise. To deal with this you can either put a strap or chain around the axle and frame, or you can use a bottle jack. When using a bottle jack off-road you may need some extensions for the jack in order to reach the axle of a lifted vehicle. Bogert makes those parts as well.
In any type of off-road jacking scenario we recommend throwing a spare tire and wheel under the vehicle just in case the jack fails.
Other Helpful Junk
The “stuck-out” bag is for emergencies of life and limb, but you may also want a good “truck-out” bag. This holds the tools and recovery gear you should bring along when 4-wheeling but maybe not keep in the truck 24/7. It should include:
• Recovery strap
• Tree saver strap (if you have a winch)
• Snatch block (if you have a winch)
• Basic hand tools (wrenches, screw-drivers, pliers, and a hammer)
• Tire plug kit
• Jumper cables
Chains Straps & Hooks
A tree saver (A) is not the same as a snatch or yanking strap (B). A tree saver does not stretch and protect the tree, whereas a yank strap is designed to stretch and then recoil and help pull the stuck vehicle out.
Do not attach a yank strap to a tow ball. They are not designed for the high loads of a yanking strap. If you’re attaching to the back of the truck, use a receiver shackle mount or put the hitch pin through the loop of the strap (C).
Consider a longer winch line, winch extension cables, or nonstretch winch straps if you are going to locations that may require extra reach (D).
Do not attach two yank straps together via a shackle. A shackle should only be used at the bumper point, not in between dual straps, as it can become a projectile and puncture sheetmetal, glass, or vehicle occupants. Attach straps by looping them through each other and then inserting something like a rolled magazine or wooden dowel to allow safe use and easy release (E).
A chain has zero stretch, and it can damage trees if used as an anchor point. The benefit of chain is it can be wrapped around sharp metal objects that would slice a strap. In most recovery situations chain is not needed for recreational 4x4s. One good use of chain is when you’re hooking two light vehicles together to form a heavy anchor for extracting a third vehicle (F).
You should have proper tow hooks or shackle points for using a yank strap (G).