There are essentially two types of recovery. Self recovery and assisted recovery. We all know that you should never off-road alone but sometimes, there is no other option and self recovery is what we are left with. The good news is that many of the tools, skills, and options used in self recovery can also be necessary is assisted recovery.
What to keep in the truck:
I like to break my recovery gear into 4 parts.
1) Snatch/Recovery straps and ropes (NOT tow straps!).
2) Winch and supporting equipment.
3) Hi-Lift jack
I strongly believe that these four tools will get you out of almost any situation, alone or with another vehicle. An important consideration is to make sure that your vehicle has adequate recovery points on both the front and rear! You could have all of the best straps and gear but if you can’t safely hook them up to your vehicle, they are nothing more than decoration. I personally like to have two recovery points in front and two in the back. Options are important. If one side of your truck is buried in snow, sand, or backed into a dirt banking, you can save yourself some hassle of digging it out by just attaching to the other side. Having multiple points also offers a little control over direction of pull. If you need to be pulled sideways it is a little bit more helpful to be pulling from a point closest to the direction you want to go. If you carry a Hi-Lift jack, you need to also make sure you have suitable jacking points.
Whatever you do, do not use a tow strap or a strap with metal ends for recovery. This creates a massive shock load when the strap gets taught and can be very dangerous. Metal hooks can become deadly projectiles very easily when the strap or tow point breaks. Notice how I said when and not if? If you use a tow strap as a recovery strap, it is bound to break something. A proper recovery strap will contain a certain amount of stretch, usually around 20%. Ropes can stretch up to 40%! This stretch creates a much softer pull on the vehicles and drivers while allowing a huge force to be exerted to the stuck vehicle.
I like to keep two recovery straps in the vehicle. Remember the old saying, “One is none, two is one.”? I think that saying applies here. A strap can get damaged and if you have another, you have a backup. More importantly, having two straps allows you more options. You can link them together to create a longer strap. There are times when there is an obstacle that stretches 20′ between your stuck vehicle and the vehicle behind you. It is beneficial to be able to have the recovery vehicle stay on firm ground and pull from there. You also need to keep in mind that recovery straps are meant to be used with some momentum. You need to allow for about 10′ of space to get a “running start”. Linking two straps can get you up to 60′ away and allow even more room for a running start if the terrain is very slippery.
Ratings. Keep in mind that recovery straps are designed to be used near their rating. If you have a 5500lb Jeep JK, do not go out and buy a 12,000lb strap. Your vehicle will not have the mass required to make it stretch, effectively rendering it a tow strap, which is bad. You don’t want to go under your vehicles weight or you could snap the strap but try to find one close. For a loaded JK, a 7klb strap is perfect. The ExploringNH Ford Excursion weighs in at 8300lbs and requires a heavier strap. Ropes are a little harder to spec as most companies are trying to outdo each other in a numbers race to the top. They are now all touting “breaking strength” which can make it hard to pick the right strap as the numbers are all 38,000-60,000+ lbs breaking strength. Typically, a rope in the 3/4″ or 7/8″ diameter with a breaking strength around 38,000lbs is good for a typical overlanding vehicle like a Jeep JK or an LR3 that is under 5500-6000lbs. The 1 1/4″ size is good for full size trucks or those with campers, typically listed as a breaking strength of around 50,000-60,000lbs.
Keep in mind that your required weight rating is generally determined by the lighter of the two vehicles, with some margin added to the stuck vehicle to accommodate for suction or other forces that would resist motion.
Imagine hooking your strap up to a bogged down semi truck on one end and a stripped out Suzuki Samurai weighing 1800lbs on the other end. Let’s start with a big strap, one rated for semi trucks or tractors with a 135,000lb breaking strength. What will happen when the Samurai hits the end of that rope with a 20′ running start? It will simply not have the weight to stretch the rope and will immediately stop dead, as if hooked to that wall with wire. This strap is too big. Now use a strap rated for the weight of the Samurai, in this case maybe an ATV strap would be sufficient because the Samurai is so light. Get the same running start and what will happen to the strap? It will stretch to it’s full potential, exerting the full force that the little Samurai can muster. This might not allow enough force to pull out that stuck semi truck but it at least allows for proper transfer of force in a safe and controlled manner.
If you are linking two vehicles to tow out one stuck vehicle, in a train configuration, the strap on the stuck vehicle needs to be rated for the weight of both of the recovering vehicles ahead of it, since it will see the force of both of them added together.
Keeper 20′ recovery strap – Amazon – $20
Recovery Rope 7,400lb – Amazon – $80
20′ or 30′ length? There is no solid answer to which is better. In New England our trails are pretty tight and narrow and it can be hard at times to get 30′ of straight trail to pull from. Out West, this is typically not a concern. I personally keep one of each length. Remember before about having a backup? I never said the backup had to be the same. I like to keep a 20′ and a 30′ strap because it opens up options, and when overlanding, options are never a bad thing. If you have the space and can use the longer strap, use the 30′. If space is tight, use the 20′. If you need even more room, link them together for a 50′ strap. If you need a shorter strap you can always loop them back to the stuck vehicle to create a 10′ or 15′ strap. Keep in mind that looping them back will double the weight rating and reduce the effective stretch.
Linking straps. There are several ways to link straps together to create a longer strap. Many of these ways are dangerous or problematic. Instead of going into it here, I will link to a good document by Legion Land Rover that outlines the different ways to link straps. I fully agree with the methods and reasoning outlined.
Winches are an incredibly useful tool. The most important accessory to a winch is the knowledge to properly and SAFELY operate it. It is also important to have all of the necessary supporting gear including leather gloves, a snatch block, tree saver, and shackles. Selecting properly rated gear is imperative. Do NOT use a snatch block rated at 8k lbs with a 12k lb winch.
Sizing. There is a general rule of thumb that shows up everywhere. This is that you want to size your vehicles winch to be 1.5x your vehicles loaded weight. I think this is a good guideline. An 8k lb winch is pretty good for a Jeep JK. There is a misconception that the four door Jeep JK weighs a lot more than the 2 doors. The reality is that there is about a 200lb difference and a moderately built JK will roll in somewhere around 5000lbs. An 8k lb winch is a good buy. A 12k lb winch can open up more options like being able to do heavier pulls without resorting to a snatch block. Generally speaking, a 12k lb winch will be slower than an 8k lb of the same brand and product line, so that is a trade off that needs to be considered. The ExploringNH Excursion runs a 12k lb Warn PowerPlant winch and we have only had to use a snatch block a couple of times to get more power out of it. Most of the time the 12k lb winch has plenty of strength to do what we need. If you do end up with a 12k lb winch, keep in mind that accessories like snatch blocks and shackles will be more expensive and heavier in the higher ratings required. You also need to make sure your bumper connections and winch mount are capable of handling the extra weight rating.
Brand. There are a hundred different brands of winches out there. Recently the market has been flooded with cheap Chinese winches and even the major manufacturers are now offering made in China winches at a very reasonable price point. In my experience, you get what you pay for. Warn is typically regarded as the best, and the winch all others try to emulate. They are reasonably fast and they generally have more usable power than the competitors. The Warn M8000 is pretty much the standard for all winches. Everything else is compared to it. Superwinch is another brand that I consider to be up there with Warn. Below them would be the Smittybilt and Mile Marker brands, and below those would be the Chinese stuff, Badlands, Rugged Ridge, etc. I have seen plenty of cheap Chinese stuff fail and I have seen plenty of it work very well for long periods of time. It can be a real crap shoot. The most important thing with any winch is maintenance. If your winch starts having problems, FIX IT! Don’t wait until you are stranded on the trail. If you know you have a loose connection or a sticky gearbox, fix it before hitting the road!
Snatch blocks. Snatch blocks are an incredibly useful tool. The first thing people think of when they imagine using a snatch block is hooking it up to an anchor point ahead and running the winch line back to the vehicle in order to increase the pulling force of the winch by a factor of 2. The most common use of snatch blocks is probably to change the direction of a pull, usually to another vehicle. A snatch block can allow you to recover a vehicle positioned 90* off of your side or even parked alongside you. With a snatch block or two you can even winch a vehicle ahead of you forward. With multiple snatch blocks you can even winch yourself backwards!
Smittybilt Snatch Block – Amazon – $25
Keeper 36,000lb pulley block – Amazon – $89
Tree Saver: Always use a tree saver strap when anchoring to a tree. Not only does this protect the tree, it also keep your line from becoming damaged where your hook would clip onto it after wrapping it around a tree. You want one tree saver per snatch block you carry and make sure they are properly rated for your winch. There are a few different types of tree savers but they all do the same thing. You just want something properly rated and without any stretch.
10′ Sling – Amazon – $21
ARB Tree Saver Strap – Amazon – $41
Synthetic or wire. There is no doubt that synthetic line is much easier to handle than wire rope. If you have the budget and opportunity, go synthetic!
A Hi-Lift jack is an incredibly versatile tool. It can be used for jacking a vehicle up, winching, clamping, spreading, or a variety of other creative tasks. A Hi-Lift jack is typically one of the last tools I run to in a normal “stuck” situation. I think the combination of winch, straps, and MaxTrax works well for when you are just bogged down or don’t have the necessary traction. A Hi-Lift comes into play in a huge way with mechanical failures, typically tire related. The most common thing to break while overlanding is a tire, either through a sidewall puncture, lost bead, pinch flat, or even something as simple as running over a piece of metal on the highway. On a lifted vehicle, the stock bottle or scissor jack included in your factory emergency kit will most likely not reach the factory jacking points anymore. You now need a jack with a longer reach.
Hi-Lift jacks can also be used in a variety of ways to uncover a stuck vehicle. One of the most common ways to use a Hi-Lift jack is to raise the stuck vehicle enough so that one or two tires is off the ground. At this point, you find logs, rocks, or other solid material to stick under the tire for traction or added ground clearance to get over an obstacle. Many times when traversing rough and rocky terrain it is possible to get your diffs hung up on rocks and even raising the tires 1-2″ off the ground is the difference between being stuck and smoothly driving through. Another common use is to “cast” the vehicle off to one side. This method can be somewhat dangerous and it is important to learn the proper methods and practice at home before attempting this in a high stress, stuck, and rough situation with inevitably uneven terrain and slippery ground. The basic principle is to lift the vehicle at one end from the center so that it raises evenly on both the left and right side. Once the vehicle is off the ground by several inches, you simply push it to the left or right, off of the jack. Due to the inherent instability of a Hi-Lift jack, the vehicle easily falls to one side and sets the tires a foot or more in that direction, hopefully out of the rut you were stuck in or on more solid ground.
A Hi-Lift can be used for winching and is designed for such. Anyone that has actually used one for winching has earned a trophy in my book. While technically possible, using a Hi-Lift for winching is sort of like using a spoon for digging. Yes it works, but you don’t want to do it unless you have to because it is hard work and it takes a VERY long time. It is a great backup for a failed winch or to use as a second winch or anchor. It can be helpful if your vehicle is on an extreme off-camber section, for instance, and you are worried about sliding into a tree or off into a ravine. A couple of snack blocks and a winch can be used to pull you sideways but so can a winch up front and a Hi-Lift in the back. Doing it with the Hi-Lift at one end adds another level of control over the situation, allowing you to independently control how much tension you apply to the front and rear of the vehicle and allows you to better choose your angles of pull. If you plan to use a Hi Lift as a winch, or would like to have that option, make sure you have the winching accessory kit or the parts needed to complete a safe winching operation.
Choosing the proper equipment for overlanding is all about choosing reliable equipment and maximizing your options. A Hi-Lift jack opens up a world of options and for the relatively small footprint, typically on the outside of a vehicle, it is an incredibly important item to have with you. There are an infinite number of accessories for the Hi-Lift jack from the Off-Road Kit to the Tire Mate to various attachments and stabilizers. Some of them have value, others are maybe best left to those who do not have any weight or space considerations. One of the best accessories is the lifting adapters. If you have a Land Rover Defender, for example, I HIGHLY recommend getting the lifting adapter that allows the jack to lift from the factory jacking points in the front and rear bumpers. The same thing applies to those in VW Westy vans. There are adapters to use the factory jack points in the VW rocker panels.
Make sure to practice using your Hi-Lift at home before heading out for a trip. They are not overly complicated but it is always very difficult to figure out new equipment when you are in a high stress situation, stuck, wet, dirty, on slippery ground, and inevitably hungry. Having a base knowledge of where your lifting points work and what happens when you lift the vehicle on flat, dry, ground helps out tremendously. Watch a video or two online and read an article or two about proper usage. A Hi-Lift jack can be just as dangerous as it is useful if used incorrectly.
MaxTrax are rapidly gaining traction (haha, pun intended) in the states. I used them for the first time about a year ago and now will not go out without them. They are not a magic wand that fixes every possible stuck scenario but they are a great compliment to a winch and recovery strap. Simply get them under the tires, keep wheelspin down, and slowly drive out of whatever was keeping you stuck. They are a great option when there are no suitable winching anchors or in situations where a little more traction is all you need.
There are now a whole bunch of MaxTrax copies on the market from Smittybilt and others. I personally don’t have any first hand experience with the knock-off versions so I can’t give much advice on if they are worth it or not. After using and abusing the MaxTrax that we have, I can strongly say that, given Smittybilt’s quality in other products, I do not expect their version to hold up to too much hard use. Check out the links below, compare for yourself, read some reviews, and decide. I know the MaxTrax are pricey but in this case, it might be worth it.
MaxTrax – Amazon – $325
Maxsa Traction Mat – Amazon – $148
Smittybilt Element Ramp – Amazon – $150