If you’re serious about four wheeling, there are tools and specialized equipment that make it more fun, and reduce the possibility of walking, like winches, jacks, and shovels. If you’re stuck, and you can’t winch, jack, or shovel your way out, you may be getting close to our definition of “stuck.” “Stuck” is when you leave the keys in the ignition and walk away ’cause you know no one is going to steal your vehicle.
But there is another option. It always amazes us when readers see one of The Turtle Expedition trucks, nine out of ten will ask, “What are those funny things on the back?” They are referring to our sand ladders, which all of our trucks are equipped with. Having participated in three Camel Trophies (Australia, Madagascar, and Russia), I am personally very aware of what sand ladders are about. No serious adventure vehicle in Europe leaves home without a pair of them. Some kind of sand ladder or sand mat is standard equipment for off-road races like the infamous Dakar.
The original and most common sand ladders are ex-military aluminum landing mats. They came in 10-foot lengths with interlocking teeth on one side. Apparently, there was a huge stockpile of these in Europe left over from World War II. Expedition and four-wheel drive stores like Därr in Munich, Germany, bought a bunch of them (check out www.daerr.de/ for fun), and for years they were the standard, but the supply was limited. Eventually, different companies in Germany and England started producing their own versions using a similar grade of aluminum, usually in 5-foot lengths, and without the hooks. Soon they were also available in fiberglass and Kevlar.
What are they for? If you are axle-deep in sand, snow, gravel, or mud, a sand ladder, after a little shovel work, is placed in front or behind the bogged tires and they, in theory, create a ramp to drive out on.
American four-wheelers have been slow to catch on, but they’re learning. We recently had the opportunity to test four products that basically do what the classic military sand ladder has done for years. The new guys on the block are the Tow Truck in a Box, Sand Mats, and the Maxtrax.
For our test, we commandeered a friend’s Jeep and loaded all four of the vehicle recovery devices on his Kargo Master Safari Rack. We found some good soft sand along the Yuba River in northern California. All of these products also work in mud, snow, ice, and gravel. We did not lower the tire pressure. We did leave the Jeep in two-wheel drive, spinning the rear tires to purposely bury them.
The Maxtrax is a unique vehicle recovery tool. Lightweight, at less than 8.4 pounds, it is easy to carry and maneuver, with handgrips on each side. The top surface of the Maxtrax is full of tire-biting traction cleats. The bottom has cups that greatly increase its ground traction.
2.Rovers North Sand Ladders
Part of aluminum sand ladders’ strength lies in their surface area, making them ideal for heavy vehicles and very soft sand, mud or snow. Flipping the ladders over with the smooth side up, you can stand on them to take a shower, clean a fish on the beach, or use them as a clean work surface on the ground.
Sand Mats are made of high-density polyethylene with a unique pattern of ¼-inch bolts that allow a vehicle’s tires to grab and pull themselves forward. They can withstand up to 30,000 psi, but are lightweight and flexible enough to mount and store on any type of vehicle.
4.Tow Truck in a Box
A winner of Truck Trends’ Standout Products of the Year, Tow Truck in a Box is easy to pack, very affordable, and can be effective in many situations. It’s certainly a tool that could save you time, money, and frustration.
Tow Truck in a Box
First, we gave the Tow Truck in a Box a try. It was the winner of Truck Trend’s Standout Products of the Year, and we had great expectations. We had previously tried this product on a fullsize pickup in both sand and snow, and found that it did work under certain conditions. Because of its short length, the ramp it creates is limited. The Jeep’s aggressive tires tended to grab the Tow Truck in a Box and spit it out the back on our first two tries. After a little more digging, we were able to drive out.
Tow Truck in a Box is easy to pack, very affordable, and can be effective in many situations. It’s certainly a tool that could save you time, money and frustration. Serious backroads explorers should consider two sets and also carry a good shovel. The Wide Track kit sells for $39.95. The Standard kit for cars, SUVs and small trucks is only $29.95.
For our second test, under identical conditions, we grabbed the Sand Mats. These are made of lightweight, flexible, high-density polyethylene material that is uniquely designed with a pattern of ¼-inch bolts to allow a vehicle’s tires to grab and pull themselves forward.
Burying the rear tires, we placed the Sand Mats securely in front of each wheel. After three tries, we were able to drive out, but we could see a problem. The threads of the bolts, which create the traction against the rubber, did their job extremely well. However, due to the limited traction on the bottom of the Sand Mats, in combination with their thin design, the aggressive treads of both tires tended to grip the top of the Sand Mats and shove them back into the sand instead of moving the Jeep forward. Top traction was great, but bottom grip is the other part of the equation. Although the Sand Mats are labeled “this side up,” in some conditions, flipping them over with the bolt threads down could work better.
Designed for even the heaviest diesel pushers, Sand Mats can withstand up to 30,000 psi, but are lightweight and flexible enough to mount and store on any type of vehicle. Their flexibility is a plus for use in sand, but they probably would not make good bridging ladders. A pair weighs 28 pounds, and sells for $155.
Rovers North Sand Ladders
Next we tested what we were sure would be the winner, our tried-and-true Aluminum Traction Sand Ladders made in the UK by Mantec, and now available in the U.S. from Rovers North in Westford, Vermont. The conditions for success seemed ideal: Soft sand, and tires buried almost to the differential. Because of their length and width, part of the aluminum sand ladders’ strength lies in their surface area, making them ideal for heavy vehicles and very soft sand, mud or snow. Extracting our relatively light and short Jeep, we did need to do a little digging to get the sand ladders under the front edge of the tires. What happened next was a surprise. The wide width of the tires rode up on the structural ribs of the ladders and just spun. Admittedly, deflating the tires down to 15 psi might have allowed the treads to wrap around and grab the sharp edges of the traction holes, but we wanted to keep the test conditions even for all four products. A little more digging to get the edge of the ladders well under the front of the tires allowed us to drive out.
The interesting feature about the classic aluminum sand ladders is the many functions they can perform. Yes, they will get you unstuck from some really nasty situations. Flipping them over with the smooth side up, you can stand on them to take a shower, clean a fish on the beach, or use them as a clean work surface on the ground. Though not purposefully designed for bridging, they can work when doubled up, and we’ve seen more than one questionable log bridge reinforced by a well-lashed sand ladder.
The Rovers North Aluminum Traction Sand Ladders weighed 16.2 pounds each, slightly heavier than the Därr or the U.S. military version. A pair sells for $299.
Finally, we turned to the new Maxtrax. Designed and manufactured in Australia and field-tested under the harshest Australian conditions, Maxtrax is a unique vehicle recovery tool. Lightweight, at less than 8.4 pounds, they are easy to carry and maneuver. With handgrips on each side, when the Maxtrax is flipped upside down, it can be used as a shovel. Under the conditions we were working with—a light short vehicle in soft sand—the Maxtrax unstuck us on the first try. Their tapered ends fit easily under a tire with minimal digging. While their top surface is full of tire-biting traction cleats, the bottom has cups that greatly increase their ground traction, preventing them from slipping backward.
Two Maxtrax stack nicely together and could be used for emergency bridging. Made of UV-stabilized engineering-grade reinforced nylon, they are quite tough, but we did see a couple of the top cleats starting to wear or bend after a few uses. There is an optional Carry Bag, which provides an attractive tote and storage, and keeps mud, sand and dirt out of your vehicle. A pair sells for $290.
Bottom line: All of these vehicle recovery devices work in varying conditions. All require some digging. There’s no magic bullet. We have often noticed that when you are truly stuck, (remember the definition of “stuck”), if you rush and don’t get it right the first time, it’s much harder the second time.
Taking your two-wheel drive car up to the snow country, the Tow Truck in a Box might be the way to go. Crossing the Sahara Desert’s Empty Quarter, the aluminum sand ladders have the edge, with the Maxtrax and the Sand Mats as good options. Memories of “black earth” in Australia’s Outback, unexpected soft sand below the high-tide mark in Baja, and deep snow and mud in Siberia remind us to never leave home without a pair of one of these devices.
By the way, let us go on record that the passenger always runs back to recover the traction device, and if you’re smart, bring two shovels!