Getting stuck is something every off-roader and overlander both fears and (secretly) looks forward to.
Getting stuck sometimes means the conditions were not what you expected, or they changed mid-trip. Or it means you’ve met your or your vehicle’s limits and you pushed it to the point where you (hopefully) learned something.
Then you get to use your recovery gear. And let’s be real, that’s a deeply satisfying part of the fun, too.
In this post, I’ll cover the common challenges faced driving offroad or in remote areas and arm you with the knowledge and recommended recovery gear to confidently get unstuck and keep rolling.
The Stats on Getting Stuck
It’s not just the comical-looking rock crawler jeeps that get stuck doing
stupid awesome things. It could be your minivan on a family road trip, too. From soft beach sand to an overnight snow leaving you hub deep in a driveway, you can get stuck anywhere.
Off-Road Safety Academy found that over 70% of drivers have had at least one recovery incident. I had four on our trip across El Camino del Diablo. And AAA won’t even try to tow your vehicle if it’s not on a major road or public urban area, not even Forest Service Roads! But if they did, one off-grid recovery would likely cost more than a basic self-recovery kit, and doing it yourself gets you rolling again much, much faster!
Why do we get stuck?
Sometimes it’s the weather, other times it’s skill (or the lack thereof), maintenance (or the lack thereof), or just bad luck. Here are the most common reasons our vehicles get stuck:
- Slippery/Loose Terrain: From mud to sand to snow, anything that lets our wheels dig or sink in and spin can make it tough to get out.
- Challenging Terrain: Rocks, ruts, holes, too-steep approach or departure angles, or getting high centered (when your vehicle is teetering on a raised surface between the front and rear wheels) can all get you stuck. Having a spotter outside of the vehicle helps, as do terrain cameras, but those things aren’t always available.
- Mechanical Failures: Did you check everything before you left? Is your undercarriage (especially your oil filter, oil pan & radiator) protected from rock strikes and hard landings? Did you try to send it off that whoop? Or gun it through a miles-long sand pit? Fun, but maybe not smart.
- Navigational Blunders: Sometimes, we just take the wrong trail, leading us into terrain our vehicle can’t handle (see top image for a perfect example of me doing this!). Or a tight trail leads to tough turnarounds. Make sure your routes are downloaded for offline use, familiarize yourself with them, and have a paper map backup when you can. If in doubt, check the map before taking a random turn.
Remember the Six P’s – Proper Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance. Here’s how to prevent many of those predicaments, or at least be prepared for them.
- Proactive Planning: Use topographic maps, trail guides, satellite imagery, and your favorite apps to anticipate terrain challenges and plan alternative routes.
- Vehicle Maintenance: Regularly inspect and maintain your off-road vehicle to minimize the risk of mechanical failures on the trail. Before you depart, make sure your vehicle is in good working order, has the necessary protective panels and ground clearance, fluids are topped off, everything is tight and secure, and drive cautiously. Then double check everything and make repairs as soon as you get home.
- Communication Skills: Invest in reliable communication tools, such as GSMR two-way radios or satellite communicators, and learn how to use them before you depart. Have the lead vehicle alert others to challenging obstacles or terrain.
- Recovery Gear-up: Carry a comprehensive recovery kit built from the suggestions below.
- Air Down Your Tires: Lower pressure helps them balloon out for better flotation on soft surfaces. Just make sure you have an air compressor or pump to reinflate once you’re done in the dirt.
- Skill Development: If time and money allow, take a course in offroad driving and recovery. Or go down the YouTube rabbit hole…some knowledge is better than none. I added some resources at the bottom of this post.
Embrace the Stuck
Stuff happens. The best tool in your kit is a cool head and calm reaction. Even if you or someone else made a stupid mistake, that’s now in the past and the goal is to remedy the situation. If someone’s hurt or in danger, the first priority is getting them safe and stabilized. Yelling, blaming, or freaking out only makes things worse.
Don’t be that guy, be The Man! Embrace the situation as an opportunity to shine and get to work.
Recommended Offroad Recovery Gear
There are nine main categories of recovery gear for off-roading:
- Traction Boards
- Recovery Straps
- Shackles / Hooks
- Snatch Blocks
- Tree Savers
These are the things every vehicle should have if you’re heading “off grid” where tow trucks can’t go. If you’re sticking to the main roads, you can get by with the first four (traction boards, a shovel, recovery straps, and shackles or hooks). Add to your kit as conditions warrant.
Gloves should be the first thing you add to your kit. The last thing you want is to cut or puncture your hand when wearing gloves would have prevented a potentially trip-ending injury.
Steel winch cables can fray, thorns and stickers get on your gear, and shovel handles cause blisters. And sometimes it’s just cold or dirty. There are countless reasons to wear gloves, and a good set of leather work gloves are all you need.
Mechanix Wear (shown) are my faves because they’re softer and more flexible than garden gloves, plus they’re breathable, grippy, washable, and have a Velcro wrist closure so they don’t slip off. And they’re only a few bucks more than the cheap stuff.
Traction Boards are lightweight, reinforced nylon boards with lots of spikes on them. You lay them on top of loose terrain (like deep sand, mud, or snow) to give your tires something to grip. If your tires have already dug into the ground, you’ll want to dig out some of the loose stuff and tuck the board under the front or rear of the tire (depending on which way you’re trying to go.
MaxTrax is the best known brand and offers the most sizes, colors, and options, and can be used to bridge. The Tred Pro boards use a harder material for the spikes to reduce the likelihood of shredding them off if you spin your wheels, and they handle flex and twisting really well. Both of those are the elites, with premium pricing to match their reputations.
The X-Bull Gen 3 boards are a very popular budget option and include a carrying case and mounting hardware. And they come in a LOT of colors to match any vehicle.
Look for sturdy ridges that’ll support the vehicle’s weight, large-but-spiky knobs, and small ridges or spikes on the bottom to help them dig into the ground, too. Mounting holes and grab handles are good bonus features. The trick to using these is not gunning it once you get traction…spin your tires and you can shred the spikes right off the board. Slow and steady.
If you’re only going to have one piece of recovery equipment, get traction boards.
Other uses: I park on mine when I need to level my van. While these aren’t specifically meant to be ramps or bridges, you can double them up to increase strength and try it at your own risk. They’re made to flex, but use caution when using them for anything except increasing traction.
Flexible & Folding Traction Strips
If you’re not likely to need a ramp or bridge, flexible and folding traction strips are a good option, too. 03 Outdoors’ Trax (left) rolls up a 48″ flexible traction strip.
GoTreads (right) have been around since 1991 and come in 46″ and 58″ versions. These fold up and can also be used as leveling blocks, letting you stack them only as high as needed. Both types work in sand, mud, and snow.
A shovel is useful if you’re dug your tires in deep and can’t get a traction board under them. Or if it snows a lot while you’re parked. Any shovel will do, but a short-handle, lightweight shovel is best for overlanding and offroading since it’s easier to stow and maneuver around your tires and under the vehicle.
If you’re stowing it inside, Rhino USA’s folding shovel is tiny, doubles as a pick, has a lifetime warranty, and is just $27. If you’re mounting it outside your truck, a slightly longer handle will keep you from bending over as much, and Agency6 makes popular short-handle (shown) and long-handle ultralight shovels, both with integrated mounting holes.
If you’re tight on space, most Traction Boards work as a shovel, too, just less ergonomic.
Recovery straps let one vehicle tow another out of their predicament. So, straps are most useful if there’s a 2nd vehicle to hook them to, and we always recommend off-roading in a caravan for exactly this reason.
There are also recovery “ropes” that function the same, so I’ll use either term interchangeably. Recovery straps are rated by vehicle weight, and it’s always a good idea to get something stronger than you think you’ll need to account for the loads experienced when they first start pulling, and in case you need to help recover someone with a heavier vehicle than your own. Make sure all of your attachment points are rated higher than your vehicle’s GVWR, too!
Static vs Kinetic Recovery Straps
Straps come in two types – Static and Kinetic. Static recovery straps won’t stretch, so as soon as they’re taut, they start pulling. Kinetic recovery straps have a little stretch, kinda like a very strong bungie cord, and have two benefits:
- They aren’t as jarring when you first start pulling a vehicle, so they’re gentler on both vehicles’ frames.
- The kinetic energy stored in them as they stretch will rebound and help yank the stuck vehicle out of its hole.
Kinetic recovery ropes should only be used to quickly pull someone out of a tough spot. Static ropes or straps are better for towing over distance, like if you need to help someone get through a long patch of soft sand or snow. For that reason, if you only have room for one, I’d go with static because they can be used for more things, including extending the reach of your winch.
Look for static straps that are 30′ to 40′ long, have a Minimum Breaking Strength of at least 2x your vehicle weight, and are primarily made with low-stretch polyester with reinforced Cordura-covered end loops.
Hooks & Shackles
You’ll need either a tow hook or shackle to attach the recovery straps to your vehicle. Some, like the Jeep Rubicon, have them as stock equipment. Many aftermarket offroad bumpers have integrated hooks, or you can add them to your vehicle. Just make sure they’re properly bolted to the vehicles’ frame and not an external panel or stock bumper…unless you want that panel ripped off.
No hooks? You’ll need a shackle. These come in hard metal D-ring designs that bolt onto your recovery points, or Soft Shackles that are ultra strong synthetic fiber loops that hook through recovery points. The latter are lighter, softer, and just as strong, but are slightly more finicky to use.
What if I don’t have recovery points?
Unless you have a pickup truck, Jeep, or SUV, many vehicles don’t have good recovery points. You can loop a strap (ideally using a soft shackle) around the frame…assuming you’re able to get under your vehicle far enough reach a frame member.
That means your minivan, wagon, or sedan will have a hard time getting pulled out of loose sand or a snow drift. And even if you can find a spot to attach a recovery strap (or winch), it’s probably going to damage the cosmetic exterior panels.
For the rear, your best bet is to install a tow hitch, then put a Shackle Hitch Receiver in it. Ideally you want a 2″ hitch, but even a 1-1/4″ will do since you can also just loop a soft shackle around most hitches.
The front is trickier. Some vehicles have small panels that pop off to reveal a threaded recovery hook installation point. Check your owner’s manual, there’s a chance you even have a stock hook somewhere in your can that goes in there! If not, order one.
If there’s no stock recovery point, you’ll need an aftermarket bumper, and options for standard passenger cars (that aren’t trucks, SUVs, and Jeeps) are limited or non-existent.
However you plan on attaching the straps, you’ll want to have options on the front and rear of your vehicle if you’re putting yourself in situations where you may need to get towed out.
SAFETY NOTE: Never straddle the straps, and stand well clear of them when in use. You never know when a vehicle may start moving or slip and roll, which could snap the strap tight and cause injury. Vehicles being yanked out of a hole rarely come out in a straight line, too, so you don’t want to be anywhere near them or the straps during the recovery. And while they’re unlikely to break, you don’t want to be near near the straps if they do. Basically, just stand very clear of the strap and vehicle if you’re helping spot, filming for the ‘gram, or otherwise outside of the vehicle.
Whether you flat or need to get something under your tire to improve traction (or climb out of a hole), you need a jack. The standard scissor jack that comes with most vehicles can be fine in some circumstances, but they often can’t extend high enough for vehicles with higher-than-normal ground clearance. So, you have options…
High Lift Jacks
High Lift Jacks are those long beam-like jacks you often see mounted to offroad rigs. They’re useful when your vehicle is too tall for a standard jack or when you can’t get a standard jack into place because of the terrain. They work very differently from a regular jack, and can be dangerous. Their operation is best explained by video. Here’s an oldie but goodie:
The other key difference is that it lifts from outer extremities of your vehicle, like your bumpers. Which means you need stiff metal bumpers or rock rails firmly attached to your frame. Or strap it to your hubs to lift from the wheels. Bonus points that some can be used in reverse as Come Alongs or spreaders, too! Hi-Lift is the original (been around for 100+ years) and their Tractor Jack is our top pick.
Bottle Jacks are hydraulic lifts that use a detachable lever slid into a small pump to raise a telescoping lift. These are best positioned under the standard factory lift points on your vehicle. They can lift much heavier loads than scissor jacks, from 2-20 tons, and are more compact than high-lift jacks. But, standard bottle jacks, like Torin’s Big Red line, typically max out at 20″ of total lift height (from ground to attachment point). This makes them better for light-duty offroad use on stock or lightly modified vehicles.
Safe Jack’s Sergeant 6-Ton Off Road Bottle Jack (shown above) uses multiple extensions to extend up to 36″ and can also lift from the axle and other spots thanks to various attachments. It’s more expensive, but comes in a watertight ammo case.
SAFETY NOTE: Before using any jack, be sure to block your wheels and apply the parking brake. Once lifted, rest the vehicle on blocks or lifts before starting to work on it. If you’ve lifted one or more tires off the ground, jacks will not be very stable, so you don’t want to be leaning into the hood or torquing on lug nuts if that’s the only thing supporting your vehicle.
Regardless of which type you use, it’s a good idea to have a broad, flat, non-slippery surface to rest the jack on. A square of rough plywood will do, helping prevent the jack from sinking into the ground.
Winches & Snatch Blocks
The winch is the most expensive piece of recovery equipment you’ll add to your vehicle, and not just because the winches themselves are expensive (about $500 to $2,600 or more), but because you’ll probably also need an aftermarket front bumper and/or mount to attach it (also $500 to $2k or more).
Another thing to keep in mind is the weight. A 12,000-pound load capacity winch with synthetic rope weighs about 80 pounds, but a mount and bumper might add another 80-200lbs, and all that weight is sticking off the front of your vehicle, so it may affect handling and ride height.
Your winch’s load capacity rating should exceed your vehicle’s GVWR. Industry leader Warn Winches recommends multiplying your GVWR by 1.5x as a minimum starting point.
My van weighs about 9,500lbs loaded for adventure. A 4-door Jeep Rubicon with rooftop tent and loaded with supplies is just under 6,000lbs. That’s why I recommend a winch rated to 12,000lbs because it’ll cover any likely scenario or vehicle you encounter that needs help, and it provides a big safety margin.
Remember, you might be recovering a vehicle that’s heavier than yours, and mud, sand, and snow add resistance, so it’s not just your vehicle’s weight you need to consider.
Synthetic vs Steel cables
Winches originally came with steel cables, and they’re fine, but modern synthetic cables are made of UHMW (Ultra High Molecular Weight) polyethylene. They are stronger, more flexible, easier to handle, and much lighter, as much as 80% lighter than steel, which is a big deal considering where it’s sitting on your rig.
Synthetic cables also have less rebound, making them less likely to whip back and injure you or your car if they (or the hook or fixing point) break during use.
Side Note: You can also use your static (not kinetic!) recovery straps to extend your winch’s reach.
Snatch Blocks & Tree Savers
A snatch block is simply a pulley wheel that you strap or hook to a fixed object and run your winch cable through. The difference between this and a standard pulley “block” is that a snatch block opens from the side so that you can lay the cable in there since you can’t feed the hook through it like you can a rope. These let you loop the winch’s hook to another vehicle or back to your own.
Tree savers are wide straps, usually padded, with reinforced loops on both ends. If you’re using a tree as an anchor for winching, wrap this strap around the tree and hook into it rather than wrapping the winch cable directly around the tree. This not only protects the tree so it can keep on treein’ on, but it’s safer for your winch cable, too, particularly synthetics that get roughed up on tree bark.
Using Mechanical Advantage
You can use snatch blocks to create a Mechanical Advantage (ME) that reduces the force required to move your vehicle, effectively amplifying the winch’s power. Left to right, the graphic above shows how to use Snatch Blocks and Tree Savers to:
- Use a Tree Saver for single-vehicle recovery (ME of 2)
- Use a single winch with two Snatch Blocks (ME of 3)
- Create an angle when you can’t pull from directly in front of or behind it (no ME)
Note that the mechanical advantage increases with each additional pulley, but the amount of cable required to pull increases, too. So, an ME of 2 means the vehicle’s moving half as far; 2m of cable pull will move your vehicle 1m.
SAFETY NOTE: Never straddle the cable, and stand well clear of it and the vehicle(s) when in use. You never know when a vehicle may start moving or slip and roll, which could snap the cable tight and cause injury. Vehicles may not travel in a straight line, too, so you don’t want to be anywhere near them or the straps during the recovery. And while they’re unlikely to break, you don’t want to be near the path of the cable if it does.
When possible, sit inside the vehicle to operate the winch. Basically, just stand very clear of the cable and vehicle if you’re helping spot, snapping pics, or otherwise outside of the vehicle.
Also, if you’re using a tree, make sure it’s strong enough and firmly rooted.
Bonus Items – Batteries, Ground Anchors & Rock Cradles
Emergency Jump Start Battery Booster
Sometimes it’s just a dead battery that leaves you stranded. Leave the lights on too long? Or your mini-fridge? If it’s been a few years since you replaced your car battery, and you’re exploring solo, an emergency battery booster should be part of your kit.
The Noco Boost Plus jump starts gas engines up to 6.0L and diesel up to 3.0L, has built in lights, and 23″ lead wires with automatic “spark protection” that prevents it from shorting out if they touch.
When you’re heading out into the great wide open (literally) and there’s nothing to hook a winch to, you’ll want a ground anchor. These are good in wide open desert, but also high alpine passes above tree line.
Ground anchors either screw or dig into the ground. The screw-in types have large threads, like a drill, that you twist into the ground deep enough that they won’t pull out once you start hoisting your vehicle from them. These are best for soft sand. Brands include Bush Winch and Lan-Cor.
Dig-in types use shovel-like sections to scrape into the ground, with most designs digging harder into it as you start pulling your rig from it. Good brands include PullPal and Smitty Built (shown). Just be sure you order a “4×4 Anchor” and not a marine anchor, they are very different!
Sometimes, there are no trees to pull from, but there are rocks. Deadman Offroad’s Earth Anchor kit uses an industrial polyester sheet with reinforced straps to wrap around a rock. Or a tree. Or bury it to create a ground anchor. It’s a clever all-in-one that’s lighter and easier to stow than metal ground anchors, so long as you don’t mind digging a giant hole to use it as a ground anchor.
How Much Does Vehicle Recovery Gear Cost?
Here’s a breakdown of each category’s upper and lower price range for quality components. Yes, there are cheaper things out there, but we don’t trust them, especially with our vehicles and personal safety.
|High Lift Jack
|Recovery Straps – Static
|Recovery Ropes – Kinetic
|D-Ring & Soft Shackles
How much your personal recovery kit costs depends on a few things. Heavier vehicles will need stronger items, which cost more, particularly for the winch. And winches need mounting hardware and a compatible bumper, both of which will add to these totals if you don’t already have them.
For the other items, your cost will likely be somewhere in the middle. The links included throughout this article go to products we recommend, most of which we have on our own personal vehicles. I didn’t include the “Bonus Items” in this tally, but expect ground anchors to range from $280 to $400+.
How do I know if an off-road or overland brand is any good?
I use two tests to judge whether a company is “legit” or not:
- Are they well-known in the offroad or overland industry?
- Do they exhibit at Overland Expo?
- Do they exhibit at SEMA?
- Are they available at specialty aftermarket retailers like OK4WD, GTFOverland, etc.?
- Do they have a real website of their own?
- Does their website have legit information?
- Does it have an “About Us” page with company history?
- Is the information coherent with good grammar & spelling?
If the answer is yes to both, then I have a lot more trust in those brands. Yes, those brands tend to cost a little bit more than the myriad random things found on Amazon, but they’re far more likely to have real R&D behind their products and offer real customer support.
Can’t I just buy the cheap off-road gear?
It’s tempting to get something that’s a fraction of the price of a name brand item, especially if it looks similar or has the same specs. But if you search for that brand and the ONLY results are links to Amazon, Alibaba, and/or eBay, then they’re probably just rebadged items from an Asian supplier’s catalog.
These “brands” often come and go quickly, so if something goes wrong after 30-60 days, you’re hosed. And it’s unlikely they have been tested or proven in the field. My advice? Buy one good thing once rather than lots of crappy things lots of times.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are there services that provide off-road vehicle recovery?
Yep, and some are even free! Check out Offroad Portal for a national (USA) volunteer network that’ll help get your vehicle out of the woods for free, you can text or call them with a GPS position and they’ll help you out! The caveat is that volunteer & free services are that they may not always be available, and just like if your buddy was helping you out, there’s no liability coverage. If your vehicle gets damaged during recovery, it’s coming out of your pocket.
Paid recovery services typically do have liability insurance to cover any vehicle damage and do this for a living. Search “offroad vehicle recovery service (state name)” to find an outfit near you. Here are a few in some off-road hotspots:
- AZ 4×4 Offroad Recovery can save you in Arizona
- Matt’s Off-Road Recovery rescues vehicles in southern Utah
- Mountain Recovery covers Colorado & Wyoming
- Frosty 4Wheeler covers the Eastern Sierras in California
How much does an off-road vehicle rescue cost?
Carl at AZ 4×4 Offroad Recovery says cost depends on how far out you are and the difficulty of the rescue, and most of their recoveries range from $400-$700 range, but have run up to $2,400. Here’s a good story from Frosty 4Wheeler that shows how complicated things can be.
What’s the best book about vehicle recovery?
Bob Wohler’s The Total Approach To Getting Unstuck Off Road is a 352 page bible for group and self-recovery. It’s the most comprehensive guide to everything you’ll need to know.
What’s the difference between Self Recovery and Vehicle Assisted Recovery?
Self Recovery is when you get yourself unstuck. Maybe you’re driving solo. There might be more than one person in your car, but you’re all in one vehicle, so you’ll need to recover yourself using only your own equipment and vehicle. Or maybe you’re in a caravan, but you do all of the work to get yourself unstuck without requiring the aid of another vehicle.
Vehicle Assisted Recovery is when you have another vehicle with you to help get you unstuck.
When should I air down my tires?
Pretty much any time you’re headed off road it’s a good idea to let some air out of your tires, even on chunky gravel roads. For Overland driving, dropping 10-20% will smooth the ride considerably without it feeling too squishy and is a good spot for general off-pavement driving.
For Off-Road driving, dropping up to 50% of your tire pressure is a good starting point, but extreme terrain has some drivers dropping 80% or more of their maximum tire pressure. Going lower than 50% has tradeoffs, though, and going really low requires specialty equipment.
Just make sure you have a compressor (or a high volume bike pump in a pinch) to reinflate before getting back on the highway.
What are the important load ratings for recovery gear?
For things like shackles and straps, look for Minimum Break Strength (MBS) or Minimum Tensile Strength (MTS). This is the lowest number at which the product failed testing, which is a far more relevant number than the Maximum Strength Rating. That MBS/MTS number should be at least 2x your vehicle’s weight.
The Big Takeaway
The big takeaway? Preparedness is key. Read the instructions (I know, but seriously) for all of your gear and practice using it in a safe, controlled environment before you need to use it out in the wild.
Having both the knowledge and equipment to get yourself unstuck makes any adventure safer and better. Honestly, it’s kinda fun getting stuck when you have the right gear get out of it, and it takes the fear out of pushing past your comfort zone.
You should also have a good first aid kit, water purification, and communication tools in case you can’t get yourself rolling or someone is hurt (or someone gets hurt trying to get you rolling).
See ya out there!
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