4X4 Recovery Techniques

Vehicle recovery is more about common sense and using your equipment smartly. Should your initial attempts fail, stop, have something cool to drink and try to analyze why the vehicle cannot be freed.

4×4 Recovery involves the selecting of gear, and then using it safely to get vehicles out of sticky situations. There are two distinct sections: the equipment, and how to use it.


The golden rules of vehicle recovery:
•     Stop spinning your wheels the moment it appears you are stuck. Trying too hard only makes things more difficult. Every unnecessary rotation of the wheels digs the vehicle in deeper.
•     Are the tyre pressures right for the conditions? If not, change them.
•     Establish if any part of the vehicle’s weight is resting on anything other than the wheels. If so jack up the vehicle and correct this first.
•     Take a close look at all four wheels and establish which one is halting progress. Work on this wheel first.
•     Take a second look at each wheel. Any other wheels that do not have a clear path ahead of them must be worked on next.
•     Do not be tempted to try to drive out after a half-hearted attempt to de-bog a vehicle. Failure means that all the work done the first time will have to be redone.
•     Use all the resources at your disposal. These include all areas behind or in front of the wheels that are firm (push the vehicle in that direction), a slight slope (gravity can be a major ally).
•     Look out for things that will hinder progress. These include a slight slope (gravity can also be an enemy), front and rear wheels dropping into a ditch simultaneously (arrange things so that wheels drop alternately).
•     Adapt your equipment to be used in more ways than meets the eye.
•     Never use a tow ball with a winch or snatch strap. Should it break it will become a lethal missile.

Using a spade
Using a spade to dig out a vehicle may appear like common sense, but there is more to it when in the field. Bear in mind that in 90% of all recovery operations some digging or clearing of the path in front of the vehicle should be undertaken. In many cases a little digging is all that is needed.

On the beach
Assuming that the tyres have been deflated to the required pressure, bogging on the beach can easily be overcome with a little digging, as long as the driver hasn’t got the vehicle in so deep that the axle is buried and the vehicle has grounded. Once the vehicle has stopped, dig out a good measure of sand from all four wheels and attempt to reverse out. If this fails and a kinetic strap or winch is to be used, always clear a path with your spade.

<a href=”http://www.4xforum.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/sand-hands.jpg”><img title=”sand hands” src=”http://www.4xforum.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/sand-hands.jpg” alt=”” width=”250″ height=”206″ /></a> So often, especially in sand, a little digging is all that is needed.

Over-extended axles
Over-extending the vehicle’s wheel articulation, creating a situation where a wheel has no weight on it, is a common way of getting bogged. The most common practice is to place material under the spinning wheels. This is far less effective than digging under the
wheel in the opposite corner which has the most weight on it.
By doing so you are reducing the required axle articulation. In effect you are placing the vehicle’s own weight on the wheels that are airborne and spinning.

When a vehicle attempts to traverse uneven terrain and exceeds its break-over angle and the chassis between the front and rear axles touches the ground the vehicle has ‘grounded’ or is ‘hung up’. This is very much an unforgivable situation because the cautious driver should have had someone marshaling the obstacle from the outside who could warn of impending disaster. The recovery procedure is to dig away the ground from under the vehicle or to raise the vehicle with a high-lift jack and place material under the wheels. Do not climb under a vehicle supported only by a high-lift jack.

Direct pull
One vehicle pulling another using a non-stretch rope or chain will require good traction to be able to exert a meaningful pull. A four-wheel drive will easily spin its wheels on firm gravel or sand even if pulling a vehicle that is only lightly bogged. When attempting a direct pull, always look for an advantage, like a slope or a surface where the wheels will get a better grip. Be careful that the recovery vehicle does not bog down while attempting the recovery.

Safety straps
Purpose made safety loops are a relatively new addition to the range of 4×4 recovery equipment. They are used to arrest the cable or strap in the event that it, or the mount on the vehicle, breaks. They are attached by looping themselves over themselves. No shackles are used. The pictures on the left illustrate how they are used. These loops are so effective that no other items need to be draped over the cable. A set of two loops is required.

The use of winches
The first safety rule when using a winch is that a single individual must be put in charge of the winch.  This person will be the ONLY one to use the switch – and the ONLY one handling the recovery of the winch cable once the winching operation is complete. This is done to prevent anyone losing fingers – a common injury when the cable handler lets someone else operate the switch.

The following video shows the very first time I used a winch. I made all the mistakes… and more. Namibia, 1984.

Winches are potentially hazardous. Study these key points:

•     Before winching have everyone stand well clear. The slingshot effect caused by a cable break under load can cause serious injury.
•     Wear gloves when handling winch cable and use a cable guide when feeding in loose cable.
•     The winch cable should be cared for and wound neatly on the drum under tension.
•     Always have five turns of cable wound around the drum before winching. Less than five turns could mean the cable clamp on the drum coming undone.
•     Be aware of the condition of the winch cable. Damage, as illustrated on the left, severely reduces the breaking strain of the cable. Damaged cable is also the best reason for wearing leather gloves.
•     Never stand in the ‘V’ of a winching layout under tension.
•     If you are not in control of the recovery operation, avoid stepping over a strap or cable after it has been attached, even when it appears to be lying harmlessly on the ground.
•     Never hook a winch cable around an object and then back on itself. This is a common cause of cable breakages among the inexperienced. Anchor straps are used to prevent this.
•     When a winch gets hot, let it rest.
•     Ensure that the winch cable does not bunch on one side.
•     Look after the winch cable and pack it tightly on the drum when finished.
•     NEVER have one person hold the switch and another feed in cable. This is the single most common cause of injury during vehicle recoveries.


Releasing a vacuum

Mud can sometimes be the most difficult stuff. When it is particularly thick it creates a vacuum under a vehicle and no matter how much winching and heaving, the vehicle just won’t move. When this occurs the vehicle’s progress is halted as much by the lack of traction as by the vacuum. Here a combination of high-lift jack and winch is required.

Place the jack about a meter in front of the bogged vehicle and lift up the jacking step to shoulder height. Run the winch cable over the jacking step to the anchor. Tilt the jack away from the vehicle and take up the tension. Now, with someone supporting the jack, begin winching in. As the cable is retrieved the jack is pulled upright, simultaneously pulling the vehicle forward and up, releasing the vacuum. Repeat this as many times as required.

Using hub capstan winches

It is easier to run the cable from the anchor to the vehicle, and not the other way. The cable is guided through a groove in the capstan and secured with a knot or buckle. If you are using rope then it should be wound around the capstan at least five times, crossing over itself. The direction of wind and the gear selected (forward or reverse) will determine the direction of pull. Hub capstans on both wheels on the same axle must be used simultaneously as the axle differential will not allow winching on a single hub. Because rear half-shafts and differentials are generally stronger than those in front, it is recommended that the rear wheels are used for pulling. Using hub capstans can damage the vehicle if the cables are allowed to get too short when the wheels are pulled together by the narrowing angles between the two lines.

Using a snatch block

The snatch block is a heavy-duty single-line pulley. It is used to increase the pulling power of the winch or change the direction of pull.


During self recovery the snatch block is attached to the anchor. Run the cable from the bogged vehicle through the pulley and back to the vehicle where the cable is then attached. This is where dual towing eyes are very useful. Normal winching at half retrieval speed and double the pulling force is then performed.

Two-vehicle recovery

During two-vehicle recovery where the free vehicle’s winch is used, attach the snatch block to the bogged vehicle. Run the cable from the winching vehicle through the snatch block and back to the vehicle where the cable is then attached to a towing eye. If your winch is rated at or under 6000 lbs pulling power, then it is very likely that one day your winch will be under-powered for a job and a snatch block will be necessary.

If you have a winch fitted you will be in a good position to help another vehicle that has bogged down.


To prepare for winching:

• If the area is slippery, anchor the winch-equipped vehicle by chaining it to a tree, a second vehicle or by digging holes into which the front wheels will be driven.

• The line of the winch cable should follow the route that the bogged vehicle will move along when it is pulled out. If the winch is pulling from an angle, the winch cable will gather on the one side of the drum.

• Clear a path in front of the wheels of the bogged vehicle and remove any obstacles in its path.

• Once the stricken vehicle is attached to the winch cable and the cable is pulled taut, everyone should stand well clear.

• By opening the bonnet during the winching operation, the windscreen will be protected from damage should anything break.

• The winching vehicle should have its engine running to keep the battery charged and the operator’s foot should be on the brake.

• The driver of the bogged vehicle should engage low-range second and gently release the clutch as the winch takes up tension, rotating the wheels slowly to assist the winch. Avoid spinning the wheels.

• When the vehicle is free, drive clear of the obstacle. Avoid driving over the winch cable.

• Where an anchor point is not in front of the bogged vehicle, or in the case of lack of space in front of a bogged vehicle in which to allow the winch equipped vehicle access, the snatch block is used to change the direction of pull.

Using a snatch block to pull a vehicle over an obstacle

If you wish to drive through very deep mud or climb a slippery slope and you suspect that your vehicle will not be able to do it without some assistance from the vehicle accompanying you, the use of a snatch block to change the direction of pull may be the solution. Attach the snatch block to an anchor on the other side of the obstacle. Run the winch cable from one vehicle, through the snatch block and back again to the second vehicle. As the second vehicle reverses on firm ground it will pull the first up and over the obstacle. Now with one vehicle through, it can use the cable and pull the second vehicle directly towards it over the obstacle. No matter how easy the pull, always have a competent person at the wheel of the vehicle being pulled as in the event of equipment failure the driver must know how to stop the vehicle safely.


Natural anchors

Natural anchors are anything that you find suitable to attach a cable to – trees, rocks or signposts. (Signposts on gravel roads are unreliable and pull out of the ground very easily.) If you are going to use a tree as an anchor, protect the tree by using a tree-strap to prevent the steel cable from cutting into the bark as this can kill a healthy tree. Attach the strap as close to the ground as possible.

The strength of an anchor depends on how badly the vehicle is bogged and how much preparation is made before winching begins. Assess the strength of the anchor first – if it appears weak, then pre-preparation to the vehicle will need to be extensive. If the anchor is fool-proof, little or no preparation may be needed, and if winching fails nothing is lost and some digging and clearing can be done.

Have someone monitor the condition of an anchor during recovery. If it appears to be loosened by the winching, then halt

the process before it is weakened further because even a weak anchor is better than no anchor at all. To put less stress on the anchor

more clearing around the wheels and jacking must be done before further winching.


Man-made anchors

If there is no anchor to which a winch cable can be attached, a man-made anchor can be created. No man-made anchor of any reliability can be made without a lot of effort.

Anchor construction tools:

• Heavy hammer

• Iron standard/s or purpose designed stakes

• Danforth boat anchor

• Chain, shackles and anchor strap

Creating an anchor:

• Drive steel stakes into the ground at 45° and about two metres apart and then, using straps and chains, attach the cable to the stakes as close to the ground as possible. Create ‘Vs’ between the top and bottom of each stake.

• Danforth-type boat anchors also work well if the ground is soft. This is because the harder the pull, the deeper they drive into the mud – in theory. The angle of pull must be as close to the ground as possible. The Danforth is bulky and overly heavy for expedition use.

• A long length of chain run along the ground secured with ten or more long tent pegs. The more difficult the winching operation, the more tent pegs will be required. This man-made anchor takes little effort and if the vehicle is not deeply bogged it is a quick and effective way of creating a light-duty anchor.

• As a last resort a spare wheel can be buried either horizontally or vertically, which is the more conventional but less effective way. The winch cable is passed through the middle of the wheel and attached to a steel bar. After burying the spare wheel, dig out from under the vehicle making sure that no earth is supporting the vehicle’s weight. This is a last resort because burying the wheel is very hard work and despite perseverance it is often a waste of time.

Remember: the harder the effort put into an anchor, the better its effectiveness. Before using your man-made anchor, which under most conditions will be suitable only for a light-weight pull, dig out channels in front of all four wheels to allow easier forward movement. Do not be in too much of a hurry when preparing the anchor or digging out earth from under the vehicle. If you try to winch before you are absolutely ready, you may fail – and have to go through the entire process again.

Using kinetic straps

Kinetic or tuggum straps are dangerous but highly effective. Because of the immense loads that a kinetic strap can store and release, breakages of the strap or mounting points during this kind of recovery can injure or kill. So often kinetic recoveries are done without a lot of thought as to what the consequences might be in the event of the failure of one component or other.

Important rules for using kinetic straps:

• Do not use the snatch strap if the vehicle is badly bogged i.e. with its weight resting on its chassis. Use a jack and spade to put the weight back onto the wheels first.

• The pulling vehicle must be similar in size and weight to the vehicle being pulled.

• The pulling vehicle must run in a straight line. Do not attempt to pull at an angle of more than 10°.

• Use bow-shackles to attach the snatch strap to the vehicles.

• Always use safety loops on both ends.

• Do not compromise on the security of attachment points. Use both tow eyes if the vehicle is fitted with them.

Attach the kinetic strap to the front or back of the bogged vehicle. Consider first which will be the most effortless direction of travel.

Then follow this procedure:

• Manoeuvre the recovery vehicle to the bogged vehicle and stop at a point no less than half the total length of the snatch strap.

• Attach the snatch strap to the bogged vehicle, making sure that there are no knots in the strap.

• Lay a blanket over the strap or attach a safety line (ski rope is ideal). In the case of the strap breaking the weight of the blanket will rapidly absorb the energy of the broken strap.

• With a go-ahead signal from the driver of the bogged vehicle, the recovery vehicle moves off at normal take-off speed in first gear. Accelerate very gently and keep the speed constant. As the pull of the rope is felt, try to maintain a constant speed and continue to accelerate very gently – it is not engine power and torque that are doing the work, but the vehicle’s momentum and energy being transferred through the elasticity of the strap.

Unfortunately, if the bogged vehicle is badly stuck, something will break. If it is an attachment it becomes dangerous to both bystanders and drivers.

Double kinetic-straps used together.

Having the towing vehicle move off with excessive speed does not increase the pulling force. However, doubling the length of the strap together with a higher speed does have the desired result. To do this a joint must be made linking the two straps. UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES join two straps together with shackles. Should one strap break the shackles become a deadly missile.

To make a safe join:

• Pass the loop of strap A through the loop of strap B.

• Take the end of strap B and pass it through the loop of strap A

• Place a stick or even a thick bunch of grass in the new loop made. This is so that the knot cannot over-tighten.

Safe use, care and maintenance of snatch straps

Never have a light vehicle try to ‘snatch’ a heavy vehicle that is deeply bogged. It may recoil and hit the bogged vehicle.

Case history: A Suzuki Jeep attempted to snatch a Land Rover Defender. The Suzuki took off at full speed from a distance of only about a meter from the Land Rover (which was the incorrect procedure anyway), The Suzuki came to the end of the stretchability of the strap and instead of the Land Rover moving forward the Suzuki recoiled and smashed into the Land Rover. Both vehicles, and the Suzuki driver, needed to be repaired.

Never have a heavy vehicle try to ‘snatch’ a light vehicle that is deeply bogged.

Case history: The SADF in northern Namibia some years ago used a military snatch strap, normally used to free armoured vehicles weighing up to 20 tons, on a deeply bogged Land Rover and an armoured troop-carrier was used as the tow vehicle. Instead of the snatch strap breaking, the Land Rover’s chassis was torn from both axles, which remained firmly stuck in the mud.

Clean nylon straps with washing-up liquid after use. Dirt abrades fibers and speeds deterioration. Beware of detergents attacking the nylon. With extended use their stretchability deteriorates and they quickly become dangerous.

Measure the static length before use. Write it down. When the length of the strap has increased by 10% of its original length, it is no longer suitable for snatch operations. However, it still has many uses; long distance towing, extra long tree protector etc.

There are few bogging down situations that cannot be overcome with a high-lift jack, a spade and a strong back. The high-lift jack is without doubt the most valuable piece of equipment that an off-roader can carry. The jack discussed here is the American standard brick red-coloured unit that has been around for many decades. Although there are competitive jacks on the market, the ‘old favourite’ is virtually unbreakable and as long as it is kept well lubricated it is reliable. Unfortunately, more and more ‘off-road’ vehicles are being introduced with fancy curved plastic bumpers – impractical for bush work because of the absence of points where a high-lift jack can be used. There are cases where a vehicle has bogged down so completely that jacking has been the only way out.

The jacking mechanism is used in the following way:

To lift a vehicle:

• Stand the jack under the jacking point and push the operating lever (small L-shaped lever on top of the lifting mechanism) down.

• Raise the jacking arm to the upright position to hoist the entire mechanism up the shaft so that the jacking foot is positioned under the jacking point of the vehicle.

• Adjust the jacking foot position exactly. Once this is done pull the arm down, thereby lifting and firmly locating the foot under the vehicle jacking point. Should the position need changing, lift the arm and re-adjust. Once satisfied with the foot’s position, lower the arm once again all the way down until the lifting pin enters the perforations in the upright shaft or ‘ladder’. It will click into place.

• Lift the arm to the upright position until a click is heard.

• Pull the operating lever into the upper position. It will click into

place. The jacking foot will be held at that height. The vehicle is ready to be lifted.

• Hold the lifting arm with both hands. Gripping it firmly, pull it down once again until the pin locates and clicks into place. Lift the arm to the upright position and the second lifting pin will locate itself. Continue until the vehicle’s wheel/s are off the ground.

To lower a vehicle:

• Raise the jacking arm to the upright position.

• Push the operating lever down.

• Gripping the arm with both hands, lower the lever so as to release the lifting pin. At this point the vehicle’s weight is in your hands. If you do not have a good grip and your weight is pressing down on the arm it can shoot up and cause injury. Have bystanders

stand well clear.

• From this point jack the vehicle down by lifting and lowering the arm to its full extent.

High-lift jacks can be dangerous.

• When lifting or lowering a vehicle, hold the jacking arm firmly and with both hands. If released at the halfway point while under load it will shoot upwards with great force. It can smash teeth, cause concussion and the upward movement can release the lifting pin, causing the arm to drop by itself, starting an auto-jacking sequence which rapidly lowers the vehicle onto the ground. Once this auto-jacking has started it is too dangerous to try and stop it running its full course. Holding the jacking arm firmly is especially important when lowering a vehicle.

• When the jack is left unattended and under load, the jacking arm must ALWAYS be left in the upright position, clipped to the upright with the supplied wire clip. In any other position the jack poses a threat to anyone close to it.

• High-lift jacks are unstable. Never climb under a vehicle that is supported only by a high-lift jack. If you need to dig under the vehicle, do what you can before you jack it up.

The following situations demonstrate how the high-lift jack can be used to extricate a vehicle:

Jack and push

Imagine that your vehicle is stuck on soft ground with the axles grounded on a ridge; or you have dropped into a gully and two or more wheels are off the ground and spinning. If the ground is soft, place the jack on its broad base and jack up the vehicle, high enough so that the one set of wheels is higher than the ridge on which the axle has been caught. Now push the vehicle sideways. The vehicle will pivot on the jack and land on the ground with the wheels on the ridge, thereby clearing the axle from the obstacle. In some situations you may need to do the same with the both front and rear axles.

Spare tyres attached to the tailgate may have to be removed or swung clear as the falling jack may catch on them and damage the vehicle bodywork. If they are removed from a separate wheel carrying frame, the frame can be closed and used to protect the rear of the vehicle from the jack during this operation. Unlike the air jack, the high-lift jack is perfect for this technique but beware that vehicle body damage can result if carried out carelessly. Whatever you do, practice with the high lift before you need it!

Jack and pack

Quite often the ground under the jack is soft and slushy and in these cases the jack and push method is not effective – the vehicle topples off the jack, the wheels dig into the mud or sand and the vehicle settles back onto its chassis. In this situation the best course of action is to jack up the wheels that are dug in the most deeply. Once this has been done find something to place under them – sand ladders, Trac-mats, carpets, rocks, branches or logs – in fact anything lying around (in wet mud, grass seems to make matters worse). Lie items in the direction of travel so that the wheels can gain some momentum as they ride over them. If all four wheels are deeply dug in, this must be done to all wheels.

Before attempting to drive out think about the gear ratio to use. Should you use a gear ratio that is too low, the result may be wheel-spin, and you may not only undo all your hard work but still have a bogged vehicle. Select the highest gear you think may work – try to remember the gear ratio that was getting you through difficulties beforehand, because once off the mats or logs you must be able to keep moving without a gear change. Selecting this gear ratio is critical and for each vehicle and for each situation it differs. The vehicle is then lowered and with everyone pushing, the clutch is let out gently with acceleration as smooth as possible. Avoid wheel spin.

High-lift winch

The high-lift jack can also be used as a hand winch. Heavy manila rope must be used (the stretch of nylon rope renders it ineffective).

Proceed as follows:

• Remove the steel foot from the jack by sliding out the pin.

• Lay a length of rope from the bottom of the jack to the bogged vehicle. Do not attach it to the jack.

• Attach a cable or rope to the top of the jack and then onto the anchor.

• Position the lifting foot of the jack at its lowest position.

• Join a short length of chain to make a loop. Lay this loop across the rope at the bottom of the jack. Pass your hand through the loop and underneath the rope. Grip the chain and pull it through so that the chain loops around and grabs the rope.

• Using a D-shackle, attach the end of the chain you are holding to the hole in the base of the jacking foot.

The jack is used as if lifting a vehicle. As the rope is pulled taut, the chain grips the rope. When the jack is at its highest point, slacken the rope and chain, slide the jack back down to its lowest position, slide the rope through the chain, and begin jacking again. Although it is a time consuming process, it is often successful when conventional winching techniques have failed.

Care of a high-lift jack

The traditional Hi-Lift out of the USA is still the favourite despite its habit of jamming under load. It’s a valid criticism and to prevent this the lifting mechanism must be kept clean and well lubricated. Have a can of Q-20 handy and at the first sign of slicking, give it a good spray. If the jack is carried on the outside of the vehicle, some method of preventing the mechanism being coated with dust should be devised such as the jack-nappy, a washable nylon sleeve that covers the mechanism.

Using Air jacks

The jack and pack technique is the same as with the high-lift jack. The jack and push technique is different. Unlike a high-lift, two people are needed to operate an air jack.

Air bag techniques:

• The air jack must be slid under the vehicle with none of it protruding. In the field this is often very difficult. If the jack has part of itself protruding it will bend and bulge as it is inflated. This can burst the bag and topple when the vehicle’s weight is on it.

• Place rubber floor mats between the bag and the vehicle. Be careful of protrusions, stones and thorns puncturing the bag.

• Close the valve on the bag.

• Insert the pipe into the exhaust pipe and rev the engine.

• A vehicle will become very unstable during jacking.

• If there is a hole in the exhaust system, pack it away and try something else.

• If you just push the vehicle off the jack there is every likelihood that the bag will get punctured. Instead, deflate the bag as the vehicle is pushed.

• Over-inflating the bag produces the most hideous bang. It’s probably dangerous. The best bags are fitted with pressure release valves.

Using sand ladders

An experienced driver will call for a sand ladder before too much digging is required. If the vehicle has been allowed to dig itself in to the extent that the vehicle’s weight is resting on the axles or chassis, a great deal of digging and jacking will be required. Do not dig a little and then attempt to drive out. This is a waste of time – if the attempt is unsuccessful the entire digging effort will have been wasted because the spinning wheels will replace the sand you have removed. Dig until you are sure that more digging would be a waste of time.

Dig channels in front of the wheels that appear to have the least traction and lie the ladders in front of them. If in doubt as to the wheels under which to lay the ladders, select the front wheels, since once the vehicle gets moving the rear wheels will also get the benefit of the extra traction (assuming you are driving out forward).

If in sand with the rear wheels sunken and the front wheels remaining clear, place the ladders under the rear wheels. Dig out a channel in front of the other wheels too, so they do not have to roll over any ridges of sand that may have built up in front of them. In very deep sand the sand ladders may get buried when the vehicle drives over them, so mark the position of the ladders with a spade.

Unfortunately for those doing the pushing, this may mean a bit of a walk, as it is important for the vehicle to be driven to firmer ground before it is stopped. The sand ladders will have to be dug up and carried. Attaching a rope to tow them out is not wise as the extra drag can cause the vehicle to bog down again.

Recovery Accessories

• Spade.
• Gloves.
• High-lift jack and jacking plate.
• Air-jack with repair kit.
• Five-metre chain + grab hook.
• Q20 or similar.
• Tuggum (kinetic) strap.
• Safety straps of a length of ski rope .
• Two large bow shackles for attaching straps.
• Two large D-shackles for attaching chains and straps to vehicles.
• Two small D-shackles for linking chain.
• Tree protector/ winching strap to attach to an anchor.
• Snatch-block to increase winch pulling power or change the direction of a pull.
• Sand ladders/PSP to assist self recovery.
• Winch (vehicle-mounted or portable, electric, hydraulic or manual).

When a link needs to be made between elements in the recovery operation, in most cases a shackle is the most suitable and reliable way to do it. Using the incorrect type of shackle can result in damage to the strap or a failure under stress. When selecting shackles for your recovery tackle don’t be tempted to go the cheap route.

Working load markings
Quality shackles are marked with indelible information such as the safe working load, the maker’s name and sometimes 45° marks. If there are no markings on the shackle it is probably inferior and cannot be trusted. The safe working load is the important bit of information. Decent sized bow-shackles are 4-3/4 tons. This means that the shackle’s breaking load is 5,4 times that much. In the case of a 4-3/4 ton shackle the breaking load is 25,65 tons.

Bow shackles are the most versatile and useful shackle. The working load must be indicated. beware of cheap Chinese junk without the maximum load marked.

Bow shackles are the most versatile and useful shackle. The working load must be indicated. beware of cheap Chinese junk without the maximum load marked.

Important rules when using shackles:
• When using a shackle for recovery operations, tighten the bolt and then loosen it by a quarter of a turn. This prevents damage to the thread and makes releasing the bolt easier.
• When using a shackle for a long-distance tow, hand-tighten the shackle bolt firmly.
• Good quality shackles rarely fail – they simply distort so that they are difficult to undo.
• Clip-shackles designed to snap closed are unsuitable for vehicle recovery and can fail even in light duty operations.
• NEVER use two shackles to join two kinetic straps together. If one strap should break the attached shackles become a deadly missile.

D-shackles are used in the following ways:
• Joining sections of chain or attaching a chain to a vehicle.
• Attaching a snatch block to a vehicle.
• Attaching a chain to anchor/tree strap to the recovery tackle.

Bow-shackles are used whenever straps need to be connected. The extra width of a bow-shackle prevents the strap from being crushed during maximum stress.

Bow-shackles are used in the following ways:
• Attaching kinetic straps to chains and anchor straps.
• Attaching snatch-blocks to tree straps.
• Attaching kinetic straps to vehicles.
• Always place the strap over the bow section and the chain or snatch block over the bolt.
Snatch blocks (winch pulleys)
A snatch block is a hook or eye attached to a large pulley wheel through which the winch cable runs. A snatch block effectively gears down the pulling power – it doubles the pulling force at half the speed and is used in conditions where the winch power is insufficient for the task.

Using a snatch block has the following advantages:
• Doubles the pulling power.
• Winching from difficult angles.
• Overheating of electric winches reduced.
• Current draw is reduced and therefore kinder to batteries.

Rings, eyes and tow bars
All off-road vehicles should be fitted with numerous easily accessible towing eyes for vehicle recovery and winching. Factory fitted towing eyes are suitable for light and medium duty towing operations. They are not designed for use with kinetic straps. Therefore when a kinetic strap is used, both towing eyes must be used. The correct alternative is to fit heavy-duty towing attachments. Familiarise yourself with the location of your vehicle’s towing eyes before venturing off-road. When a vehicle is stuck in deep mud, it can be difficult to reach towing eyes that are located far beneath the vehicle or low to the ground.
Tow bars should not be used for vehicle recovery. Original vehicle manufacturer tow bars are generally stronger than those fitted by tow bar fitment centres, but as a tow bar should never be used for anything but light-weight towing and recovery operations a tow bar must not be considered as a primary recovery attachment.
Do not attach towing lines to a bush bar or to any part of the vehicle body or steering mechanism. If there are no towing eyes, attach lines to suspension components such as spring shackles, but beware of sharp edges damaging the rope.

Apart from the shovel being the most important recovery tool, it must be designed right – garden spades work, but not nearly as well as those designed for the job.

When selecting a spade consider the following:
• Feel the weight. It must not be unnecessarily heavy.
• The length should be sufficient to dig under a vehicle.
• Fold-away type camp shovels are far too short and make removing material from under a vehicle almost impossible.
• The blade should be shovel-shaped. A flat blade is far less effective. The blade must not be too big – this adds weight and makes clearing under a vehicle more difficult.
• Fancy materials such as stainless steel are pointless – and, they get lost.
• It should also be painted a bright colour because spades are often left lying in the bush after a recovery operation. Some have luminous strips on the shaft which is an excellent idea. Many spades are lost at night.
• Find a way of attaching your spade in a convenient place, like on the sides of a roof-rack. Place the shovel on the side near the front of the rack so that the curve of the blade bends around the front corner. In this way it will not be caught by bushes that pass close to the vehicle.


Gloves are a major asset to the off-roader and when a recovery operation begins, put on a pair of loose-fitting leather gloves. They help prevent possible injury when handling winch cable, can prevent serious injury when working at the winch and when sand ladders and jacks get hot under the desert sun they are a big help. They are also very useful in preventing blisters when digging and oily hands when jacking.

Anchor straps/tree protection
When using a tree as an anchor; cable or chain will cut into the bark and this can kill the tree. Also, attaching the hook back onto the cable weakens the cable and will damage it. To protect the tree and cable an anchor strap must be used and with a pair of shackles forms one of the most important components of the recovery kit. They also can be used in a multitude of other ways in all kinds of recovery situations.
Anchor straps are best made from polyester and must have no stretch, so a worn-out kinetic strap should not be used. Purpose-made anchor straps are available from 4×4 equipment outlets.

I suggest you carry a length of chain in your recovery kit. Chains are an excellent addition to the complete recovery kit and a length of three metres is sufficient for most jobs. They are particularly useful for attaching straps onto vehicles not well equipped for off-road recovery. An ideal chain is one with an 8000kg breaking strain, electroplated with grab hooks attached to both ends. The chain can be folded back on itself, and the grab hook hooked to any link, thereby shortening the chain to the desired length.
Use and care of chains:
• Do not shock-load a chain as this weakens the links. Normally a weak link goes undetected until it fails.
• Keep away from sharp edges when under load.
• Do not let a chain kink. A knot in a chain weakens it dramatically.
• To prevent rust, clean the chain in soapy water, allow to dry in the sun and then apply a light coat of Q-20 or similar before storing in a canvas (breathable) bag.

Safety straps
The purpose of a safety cord is to prevent a missile being created should anything in the recovery setup break and must be considered whenever a recovery operation is set up. Laying a blanket or towel, or rolling a strap around the cable is quick and easy but not foolproof. I suggest purpose made safety loops. They should last a lifetime because they are only stressed in the event of a breakage. Developed by John Rich of Stoney Ridge and Secure-Tech, many good 4×4 equipment stores sell them.

Tyre chains
Chains linked to form a ladder and wound around each tyre are particularly useful when driving in snow or clay mud. The diamond style of chains are the best. Drive onto the chains attaching the inside chain first. Drive the vehicle five car lengths and then re-tension them if necessary.
It is a good idea to practice fitting tyre chains before departing because fitting them in ice and snow conditions is messy and awkward without practice. You will need a pair of gloves to fit chains. Do not fit chains to the front tyres alone – driving like this can be very dangerous because the inferior traction on the rear wheels tends to make the vehicle spin at the slightest provocation.

Kinetic or snatch straps are elasticised towing straps used to extract a vehicle by another vehicle. The tow vehicle moves under power and jerks the vehicle from its bogged predicament. The kinetic strap is the single most innovative invention for the off-roader in the past twenty years.

Selecting a kinetic strap:
• Don’t go the cheap route.
• Protective sleeves on the end loops are a good idea especially if
they slip, or better, if they can be removed easily for cleaning
and replacement.
• Breaking strain rating is important but know the weight of your vehicle. When fully loaded, a vehicle may weigh 3000kgs. A breaking load factor of four should be estimated. Therefore: 3000×4=12000 kgs minimum breaking strain is required.
• A stretch of 20% is sufficient, 30% is better.
• Kinetic straps should be more than six metres long. The longer the strap the longer the stretch and the working life. Nine metres is ideal for most applications.
• Buy all the attachment accessories you need to avoid having to jury-rig equipment not designed for the job. When breakages occur it is more often attachments that break. Buy the best quality gear.

Kinetic are unpredictable:
• The actual stretch is determined by many factors: moisture content of the air, previous pulls and their loads, the time the strap has had to rest, how well the strap was cleaned.
• An average strap doing one hard pull stretching to its full capacity needs between 6 and 24 hours to recover (to contract to its original length) Time needed depends on previous work load. A newer strap recovers faster.
• When a strap stops recovering fully, to within 90% of its original length it is ‘tugged out’. Using it as a kinetic strap and relying on its stretch, which at this point may be as low as 5%, is dangerous. The strap is now good as a pull strap. It can also be used as a winch strap but with the small amount of stretch left in it may not be ideal.

More facts about kinetic straps:
• Genuine kinetic straps, those made for the job, are polyamide,
not polyester.
• The more moisture, the longer the stretch but the breaking strain
is decreased.

Novices sometimes think that a winch makes them invincible. The fact is that the winch tends to be an overrated piece of off-road recovery equipment. This is because a winch relies on anchor points, which in so many cases just aren’t available when you need them. And even if an anchor can be found, additional equipment such as a high-lift jack and a spade are needed to work in conjunction with a winch to extricate a vehicle. In a situation where there is no anchor, one can be constructed, but in most cases it is easier to use a jack and spade and dig the vehicle free than to create an anchor and use a winch. In severe cases, both may be needed. So, consider the winch only after you have acquired the other equipment needed to back it up. Once this has been acquired a winch becomes the backup, and not the other way round.
Winches are, however, indispensable for some tasks such as aiding in the recovery of other vehicles and dual vehicle operations where one vehicle can assist another to traverse difficult terrain. Other jobs where a winch is essential are hauling boats up the shores of muddy rivers and for removing obstacles such as fallen trees from the vehicle’s path.

Winch Types
Five types of winches are available: electric, hydraulic, engine driven, hub capstan and hand. Hydraulic and electric are either drum (horizontal) or capstan (upright).

Electric drum winches
The most common type of winch is the electric drum winch, manufactured by companies such as Warn, T-Max and Pro-Winch.
Drum winches with sufficient capacity for vehicle recovery are supplied with steel cable of between 25 and 40 meters which is neatly stored on the drum. They are heavy and require high capacity batteries to drive them (preferably deep-cycle). They overheat quickly in extended use and must frequently be left to cool. They are supplied with a hand held switch with a long extension lead enabling the operator to stand at a safe distance or sit inside the vehicle while winching. The switch allows the winch to wind forward and in reverse.

Capstan winches
These are normally engine driven and often perform superbly when all else fails. Their biggest disadvantage is that they are best operated by two people. This is because a second pair of hands is required to tail off the winch, a procedure like that used for operating the sail winches on large yachts. Only a seasoned expert will operate a capstan winch alone and if this is the case, an emergency engine ignition cut-off switch must be fitted so as to enable the operator, who will not be seated in the cab, to shut down the engine if required. I saw a Series One Land Rover fitted with an original Fairey 3000lb-capacity capstan winch haul 14 vehicles across a stretch of axle-deep liquid sand that no vehicle could traverse. The last and fifteenth vehicle proved too much for the small winch and the worm drive stripped. In the same situation, an 8000-lb electric drum type would have overheated by the third or fourth vehicle. The rope for the capstan must be stored elsewhere as there is no provision for storing it on the winch.

Pulling power
When selecting a drum winch, its rated pulling power represents its pulling strength when the cable is being wound onto the drum itself, not onto layers of cable wound around it. In effect, the smaller the diameter of the drum, the more its pulling power. So, when cable is wound onto a drum and cable is winched in on top of it, the diameter of the drum increases with each layer. For example, a winch rated at 8000 lbs is (theoretically) able to pull 8000 lbs on the drum, about 6750 lbs with a single layer of cable down, about 5800 lbs with two layers of cable down and only about 5150 lbs with four layers. For a winch to be useful to extricate a fully laden medium-sized 4×4 from deep mud, a winch of no less than 8000 lbs rated pull is required. From this point, a heavier vehicle will require a stronger winch and a lighter vehicle, a lighter-duty winch. (See use of snatch block to increase pulling power).

Hub capstan winches
Designed specifically for self recovery, hub capstans bolt directly onto the wheel rims and with a cable attached, the capstan winds up the line and hauls the vehicle out as the wheels spin. To overcome the effect of the axle differential, two capstans must be used simultaneously. Hub capstans can pull a vehicle free in both directions, are lightweight, easy to operate, very effective and are inexpensive. Because only a portion of the wheel nuts secure the capstan, it is not necessary to jack up the vehicle to remove them and therefore a single set can be used by a number of common vehicles.

Mounting a winch
There are a few choices when it comes to mounting a winch. The first and easiest option is to purchase a bull bar with integral winch plate and have the entire thing assembled and attached by the supplier. The second option is to make your own. A third option is to buy a winch plate and do the installation yourself. This is most cost effective.

Hand winches
Relatively light and inexpensive and very versatile, hand operated winches are effective for situations where winching in odd directions is required as the winch can be made to pull in any direction required. They can also double as a hoist. Hand winches need physical strength to operate and the pulling power can be sufficient for quite difficult pulling jobs. Some hand winches, such as the Turfor, are a favorite with hardened off-roaders as they are light and although not inexpensive are cheaper than drum winches. The steel cable on Turfor type winches needs to be stowed somewhere on the vehicle but because steel cable does not flex as easily as rope, it must not be kinked or crushed. This can be a problem if stowing it inside a vehicle and cable clamps mounted on a bush-bar or roof-rack are a better alternative. Turfors work by two sets of jaws biting the cable and pulling it through the winch. The cable must be well cared for as damage can cause the cable to slip. Should the cable need replacing, the diameter required by the winch is critical for it to work properly. The snatch block, described below, increases the pulling power of the hand winch and is an essential accessory to all hand winches.


The high-lift jack is one of the most useful off-road tools available, an indispensable and highly versatile device but can only be used if a strong vehicle jacking platform is available. Working four-wheel drive vehicles should have adequate bumpers for this, but unfortunately most modern 4X4s do not. Rear tow bars make good jacking points but on the front end of most vehicles there is nowhere to use the jack. The cure is simple: have your off-road equipment outlet fit them for you. Armed with a spade and a high-lift jack, in most cases, you are better equipped for the unexpected than a vehicle equipped with a spade and a winch.

The original American-made Hi-Lift has proved itself time and time again to be the best. In most cases high-lift jacks are carried on the outside of the vehicle and dust clings to the oily lifting mechanism, which causes the mechanism to jam. Q-20 or a similar spray lubricant must be used to free the mechanism before it is used. But take care: this can cause the formation of a mixture of dust and oil – a grinding paste which quickly wears the components. The only way to prevent this is for the jack to wear a jack-nappy when in transit.

Air/Balloon jacks
These are large polyurethane bags placed under the vehicle and inflated by exhaust gas to lift the vehicle so that objects which aid traction can be placed under the wheels. Balloon or air jacks have some disadvantages off-road and are not as versatile as the high-lift. They are nevertheless easy to use and do not require much physical strength to operate.

Bottle jacks
These are available in a very wide range of lifting capacities from one to 15 tons and over. Bottle jacks tend to be rather tall so before you set off on your safari, simulate a puncture by releasing the air out of one of the rear and one of the front wheels and make sure that the jack fits under the axle now that the tyre is flat. Bottle jacks must be upright to work and periodically need topping up with hydraulic fluid. To jack up a fully loaded 4×4 you will need one with at least a five-ton capacity.

Upright screw-thread and scissor jacks
These are sometimes supplied with a vehicle as standard jacking equipment. Those that resemble bottle jacks are worthwhile although a little tedious to operate. Some designs are intended to work on one specific vehicle only. The screw threads must be kept clean and well oiled to prevent jamming by dirt and dust. Unlike a hydraulic jack they function at any angle, which is useful when using the jack to straighten bent bodywork.
Scissor jacks are by and large unsuitable for off-road use, as they
jam easily as dirt clogs the threads and are unreliable and break with heavy duty use.

Jacking plates

When using a jack, other than a balloon jack, on soft ground a plate is needed to prevent it from sinking while the vehicle is being raised. A steel or thick wooden plate approximately one foot square, preferably with lugs attached to its surface to prevent the jack from slipping sideways, is ideal. A heavy wooden laminated bread board with large wood screws to act as lugs is easy to make and works well. An even cheaper jacking plate can be made from two square 16mm pine boards. Laminate them together with a waterproof wood glue, making sure that the grains run perpendicular to each other. As a last resort the spare wheel makes a very effective, if cumbersome, jacking plate. Jacking plates such as the one illustrated are available at 4×4 stores. For me, I just take along a heavy 50cm pine plank.

When using a regular bottle jack a wood block about 45mm thick can be very useful as a jacking plate, and also for when the bottle jack is used in awkward predicaments, for example when the maximum stretch of the jack is not sufficient. It is also very useful when the bottle jack is used to aid vehicle recovery.

Sand Ladders

Sand ladders/traction aids are purpose made articles that are placed under the wheels to aid traction. They are made from plastic, rubber, steel or alloy. The generic term, ‘sand ladders’ can be confusing as they are designed to work in mud, sand and wherever a vehicle can bog down. Some work, others don’t.

PSP (perforated steel plate)
Perforated steel plate (sometimes made from aluminium) was developed by the British in the second world war when they were used to assist vehicles in the mud and to build runways on slippery ground. They are bulky, heavy and awkward to use. They are highly effective in sand and all types of mud. Grip is often superior.


Track-mats PSP
Flexible sand ladders, called Trac-mats are more effective than traditional rigid types in most recovery situations. Each section of the track is pressed with sharp projections that increases grip and they work in clay mud as well as in sand. Being flexible they tend to mould into the ground. Less digging is required to lay them and they do not kick up and damage the vehicle as sometimes happens with rigid types. However they have a higher tendency to ‘shoot’ under the vehicle as power is applied. They are also more compact, easy to stow and in most respects more versatile than rigid ladders.

Rubber mats
Lengths of rubber mat normally used as industrial flooring are being sold as de-bogging aids with various names. They are cheaper than metal, fairly effective in sand but utterly useless in mud. Rubber does not grip on rubber when wet.

Plastic ‘ladders’
In an attempt to bring sand ladders at a budget price various plastic alternatives have been introduced. A rigid type (illustrated) and clip-together plastic strips are available. Both options perform reasonably when dry but not as well when wet. In mud, their performance is not good. The rigid types are effective in preventing a vehicle from sinking and are quite useful. Both must be well anchored to be effective.

Steel ladders
Many off-road workshops fabricate simple steel ladders as traction aids. They are cheaper than PSP and Track-mats but most seem to suffer in the same way – when they get muddy, tyres lose their grip. Some designs interlink for bridge building. Word of mouth recommendations are advised for these individual designs.


Australian-made purpose designed recovery ladders are a well designed, well thought out product, that works. Traction on the ladder is excellent, wet or dry. They are light and can be linked together, or doubled to reduce bending. They can break if abused, and can’t be used as a bridging ladder unless doubled. The have enough grip underneath them that only in the slickest mud, do they need to be anchored. But I really can’t find too many things about them I don’t like. I carry a set of these on my own truck, having ditched my awkward, but affective Track-Mats.