If you go off-road, it's pretty much inevitable that sooner or later you'll be stuck, whether it's being mired in soupy goo, sunk in the sand, or high-centered in the boulders. The challenge of the backcountry means we sometimes find ourselves less than mobile. You may find yourself stuck while out solo, or you may be in a position where another vehicle can help extract you from your predicament.
The Easy Stuff
So, you've found yourself void of forward or reverse motion. The best thing to do (not that we always do) is probably to stop what you're doing and assess the situation. Persisting with more throttle may very well dig you ever deeper or pound some vulnerable part of your undercarriage on a rock.
For sand, we've seen people use everything from old scraps of carpet to plywood to purpose-made sand ladders under their tires to gain traction while not sinking further in the loose grains. In any case, the first thing to do when you're having trouble in sand is to air down your tires to allow them to bulge more and present a fatter footprint. You can generally go down to the low teens in pressure without a beadlock wheel, just try to refrain from cornering hard on low-pressure tires.
When that doesn't get you going, it's a good idea to start shoveling the sand away from the tire so you don't have to deal with the added weight and friction of it packed on the tire or blocking the axle housing. It's also a good idea to shovel a clear path in front of the tires to make it easier to get moving forward. Jacking the vehicle up can help pull it back up out of the sand and allow you to put traction helpers under the tires.
Once you're sucked into mud, you're dealing with two forces that prevent you from going forward. You've got little traction in the slippery stuff, and the muck will usually engulf your tires and the resulting vacuum makes it difficult to pop free of the goo. A winch is ideal in this case, but a snatch strap and a willing friend work well too if the other vehicle has traction and is in a position to pull you out. Use a stretching snatch strap and its elasticity to spring you free of the slop.
When captive on a rock, take a moment, and find a strategic way to back off it or a point where you can jack the vehicle to raise it off the spot. Aim tires for the highest drivable points to keep the chassis or axles from dragging. Light use of the e-brake can help put better torque to both tires if you have an open rear differential.
Jacks To Freedom
We've managed to do quite a bit with a quality bottle jack when that's all we've had, but using one requires a good solid foundation and the ability to work under the axle housing. This also usually requires stacking some rocks to form a raised base. The method is slow and limited in lift height, but may be worth some effort if the alternative is a long walk home.
For those on a budget or wanting to travel with light, basic extraction gear, a Hi-Lift jack is hard to beat. We still often carry one on vehicles that have a winch as well. The jacks come in 48- and 60-inch lengths and have the advantage of being able to operate and lift over a range exceeding several feet. This means you can usually fit one under a bumper or slider and raise the chassis until the suspension is topped out and keep jacking to get a tire off the ground.
Hi-Lift jacks are super handy to have along when you're wheeling. Not only can they be used to jack up your rig and change a tire or make a repair, they can do all manner of applying a pushing force where needed. We've used them to push vehicles away from boulders, push broken suspension components back in place, and simply raise vehicles off a sticky spot on the trail. You can even use one for stretching fence wire in the back country, if you like.
This is a useful gadget to supplement your Hi-Lift. The JackMate from Rescue 42 (www.rescue42.com) is made to slip onto either end of your jack and make it more versatile. The multi-purpose addition can be pinned in place and serve as a gripping jack base or additional push/pull point, and it has several holes and slots to accept a D-ring or chain for pulling purposes.
It's not often we see a hand winch or come-a-long off-road, but these can be used for light extraction duty the same as you would a powered winch, assuming you have an anchor point available, the vehicle is not fullsize heavy, and the stick is relatively mild. This aged one has been used on several occasions to pull a vehicle sideways, or to pull broken suspension components back into place for repair or to aid in limping an injured vehicle off the trail.
When you have a second vehicle that can help pull your vehicle, that often makes extraction and trail recovery much easier. As such, it's a good idea to have tow hooks or strap attachment points on both ends of your vehicle.
Some recovery ropes, like this one from Bubba Rope (www.bubbarope.com), are designed to store energy by stretching and then releasing it like a giant rubber band to help extract a stuck vehicle. The idea is to hook the strap to strong attachment points on both vehicles, then have the pulling vehicle back up to produce some slack in the strap. The puller then accelerates forward to rapidly tension the recovery strap and try to "snatch" the stuck vehicle from the sticky spot. By using this elastic property you can "slingshot" a stuck vehicle forward a bit. Rated capacity goes up with width, but their ability to stretch under load drops. If you want to slingshot a vehicle from sand or mud, it's often best to stick with the smaller 2-inch size for all but the heaviest rigs. Make sure you have a strap designed for a running start if you're going to try something like this.
The king of extraction action is, of course, the powered winch. Whether it is electric, hydraulic, or PTO powered, the ability to have a lot of pulling force can be very useful for getting yourself and others unstuck.
While we won't go into great depth here about the details of choosing a winch, suffice it to say we prefer to choose a winch with a single line pulling capacity that is about twice the weight of our vehicle. Obviously, larger winches are both heavier and more expensive, but buying too small of a winch may limit its benefit to you. Mud runners also typically need more pulling power than those that play in the rocks.
Once you've picked out and purchased your winch, you may want to add a few accessories that can make the recovery task more efficient and safer. At a minimum, we prefer to have leather gloves, a screw-pin shackle, and a tree-saver strap. The strap can be used around tree trunks, boulders, or bumpers of vehicles.
A snatch block can be used to double your winches pulling power with the only disadvantage being the associated reduction in line speed. A snatch block can also be secured to a fixed point to do angled pulls. This is especially handy when you're in a tight canyon or other restricted area and can't quite do a straight pull to your anchor point. A snatch block can also be useful in self-recovery situations where your rig may be on its side.
Consider what can happen if a tensioned winch cable lets loose due to a damaged cable or other weakness. Depending on your predicament, you could risk serious vehicle damage, personal injury, or death. Think safety when you're putting (literally) tons of force into a steel cable.
In recent years, a new type of winch cable has come into use. Originally designed for the sea-going shipping industry, it is a braided nylon rope that is extremely light, and even floats on water. They come in several sizes or weight ratings. On the end is a heavy steel hook that has been braided into the rope. There are several benefits to this rope versus conventional steel wire winch cable. While the rope can still be abraded or cut if dragged across a sharp edge, it is not prone to the same kinking problem as steel cable. When wound on the winch spool, the braided rope can compress and distort as it is wound tight, but pops back into shape when spooled free.
Another big advantage to the lightweight rope is its added factor of safety. It has very little stretch to it and it is so light that should it ever break, it mostly falls to the ground. There is no stretched steel cable waiting to go flinging through the air if it should break. We particularly welcome its use in tight canyons and other spots where it's difficult to stay far clear of a tensioned steel line. The one downside to the rope is cost. It is more expensive then its steel counterpart.
The Pull-Pal (www.pullpal.com) is a collapsible implement designed to be used as a portable winch anchor when you're stuck and there is no fixed anchor point available to winch from. Attach your cable to the bar end and the "plow" blade slices into snow, sand or soil to secure a solid winch point for extraction. The tool comes in several sizes to accommodate vehicles as heavy as 10,000 pounds.
Winch Recovery Tips
We've seen a myriad of broken, stuck, rolled, and dead-stick vehicles out far from the nearest highway. When you're in one of these situations, you work your best to get out and back on asphalt. A little common sense and some technique applied to winching practice will help ensure safety and reduce the risk of greater mechanical damage.
When winching another vehicle, it's best not to have the pulling rig in park if it has an auto tranny. It's safer for the transmission to have the shifter in neutral and use the brake to hold the pulling vehicle in place.
When winching a heavier stuck vehicle, it's sometimes necessary to anchor the winch vehicle to keep it from slipping. In such a case, be careful if you anchor the winch vehicle from a point on the rear. This could apply too much tension through the frame of the winch vehicle. You can attach an anchor strap or other connection to an attachment point near the winch and run it under the winch vehicle.
Always ensure that any winch attachment point used on a vehicle is strong enough to support a strong pull. Having an attachment point fail while the winch cable is under tension can be disastrous. When using a snatch strap in conjunction with a winch cable, be aware of the stored energy in the strap and exercise caution during hard pulls.
When using a winch cable it's always a good idea to prevent kinking the cable in any way. Hooking a cable hook back onto the winch cable or rope is always a bad idea. This will quickly kink or damage the cable or rope. Once a steel cable is damaged, it is both hard to handle and can be weakened in the bend.
When a vehicle goes on its side or upside down, it's best to right it back on its tires as quickly as is reasonably possible. While in a sideways or inverted position, fluids can start running out of their intended enclosures and you risk motor oil starting to seep into the engine cylinders above the pistons.
Once a rig is on its side, attach the winch cable on the far side of the vehicle and slowly pull to get it back on its tires. In this case, a tree strap and shackle were used to access a good attachment point on the truck frame. If you have two vehicles (besides the rolled one) with winches, you can use one to pull the rolled vehicle over while an opposite attached winch feeds cable out to slowly lower the vehicle back down on its tires.
Getting stuck is part of wheeling, but part of the overall challenge can be conquering the obstacles, or getting where you want to go...or getting yourself unstuck and moving again. As with any kind of trying situation, application of a little ingenuity and technique can usually get you free and on your way for yet more challenges ahead.