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Transportation: Vehicle Recovery and Gear (Part III)

Wednesday, 10 July 2013 00:00 Written by 

In our first two articles, Part I: Vehicle Specific Items and Part II: Vehicle Tool Kit Checklist, we addressed items needed for basic maintenance and repairs and the tools necessary for basic maintenance and repairs. This article, Recovery Gear (Part III), will address self-recovery. We use the term self-recovery to address using equipment, and/or assistance of another vehicle, to recover a vehicle that has become high centered in a ditch or stuck in the mud, and to remove obstacles that are in your way. Self-recovery does not include calling a tow company to come pull you out of a ditch.

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For those hard-core off-road types, this article will be boring, as this is second nature to them. However, if you do not know how to self-recover or the tools necessary for self-recovery, you may find some good information. Additionally, we have included YouTube videos were applicable to provide real-world examples of recoveries. We do not aspire to be off-road experts, so conduct your own research in addition to this article before purchasing or using equipment.

Normalcy Bias

Some may think that your survival plan will not involve off-roading, and there is no chance of you becoming stuck. Again, we need to take a step back from these survival scenarios and look at more real world applications. Every day, people driving to work lose control of their vehicle, and end up in a ditch. Most vehicles are not equipped to for recovery, nor do most people carry the tools necessary for self-recovery. Looking at this from a Bugging Out point of view, if you decide to Bug Out you better have a way of recovering your vehicle if you get stuck. Additionally, these tools can be used to move other vehicles and obstacles out of your way.

There is a good amount of Prepper’s that think they are going to flee to some National park or federal land. And, this by all accounts could be a great decision. But, most have not visited their perceived Bug Out location, and do not account for unimproved roads. As stated in an earlier article, even lifted trucks can get stuck; no one is immune from unimproved roads.

Now for recovery gear, there are many different methods of recovering vehicles. Therefore, we will tackle this from three different angles, tow straps, winches, and Hi-Lift Jacks. Your current vehicle and budget will determine which route you take. Another thing to keep in mind is the importance of having a vehicle capable of self-recovery, and to help recover other vehicles. There may be some modifications or add-on parts that you need to acquire for your vehicle or you may need to find an alternate vehicle.

Basic Tools

Before we get into recovery methods, let’s first look at some basic tools that can be used in recovery, as well as other daily tasks. Again, recovery involves moving obstacles that are in your way. While the recommended list of basic tools should be in your vehicle at all times, this may not be practical.

1. Ax – Axes can be used to cut firewood, but they can also be used to remove fallen timber. Additionally, you can use an ax to clear a path to your Bug Out location. Axes are great because the only fuel they require is human energy, but that is also their downfall. Chainsaws are more effective at clearing large areas, and conserve a significant amount of human energy. If I had to pick between one and the other, I would always go with an ax. Keep in mind there are different types of axes, and ax siblings (Please reference our The Big Boys of Cutting Tools: Axes, Mauls, and Hatchets article).

2. Pick Mattock – A pick mattock is a digging tool great for breaking up had soil, digging up stones and tree stumps, or digging shallow canals. It can be used as a recovery tool to remove stumps that may be in your way, or digging under a tire to add a more solid contact material. Additionally, it is a great tool for working your land, by clearing area for agricultural purposes.

3. Shovel – There are many different types of shovels, but for recovery purposes we are talking about a round point shovel. Round point shovels can be used to dig out your vehicle, make a pit for an impromptu latrine (restroom), and many other uses. If you are going to store a shovel in your vehicle, at all times, it is recommended to have a compact shovel, also known as a short handled shovel. Another option is using a Cold Steel Special Forces Shovel, but keep in mind the sharpness of this shovel can puncture a tire.

4. Tow Strap – A tow strap is used just as the name implies, to tow something. More often they are used to pull a vehicle with another vehicle. An alternative method is using heavy duty chain. I prefer tow straps over chains due to the size and weight difference. Tow straps can also be used to hoist objects, or to pull obstacles out of the way; such as a fallen tree. A 20,000 lbs. or greater tow strap is recommended.

5. Shackle – A shackle, also called a pin and shackle, is a device used in rigging. A shackle allows you to connect a tow strap to an recovery point on your vehicle, and/or allows you to connect a winch to a tow strap or winch to a tree (if used with a tree saver strap). There are many different uses for shackles; the key here is they avoid unnecessary wear and tear to your tow straps and other rigging methods prone to breakage.

Basic Recovery Solution

For any recovery solution, your vehicle or the vehicle you are attempting to recover, will need anchor points, also called recovery points. The recovery points should be mounted to the frame of your vehicle. For most full sized trucks and SUVs, there are visible recovery points on the front of the vehicle. If you are unsure where your recovery points are, contact your local dealership or tow company, and look in your vehicle’s manual.

Vehicles equipped with a hitch receiver, can use a hitch D-ring shackle as an alternate recovery point. This shackle mounts to your hitch, and can be used as an anchor point to pull another vehicle, or be used to pull your vehicle out of a sticky situation. Please keep in mind that there are different hitch receiver sizes (1 ¼”, 2”, 2 ½”, and 3”), and your accessories need to be compatible with your hitch. The most common size for standard duty trucks is 2”. Or, you can attach a tow strap to the hitch receiver by only using the retaining pin (see the video following snatch strap below).

For vehicles not equipped with a hitch receiver, it is recommended to have one installed. Hitch receivers allow you to pull trailers, but can also be used to extend cargo capability. However, using a class I or II hitch as a recovery point is not a good idea. Therefore, it is recommended to have your own Grab Hook. A grab hook is used as a recovery point, and connects to your vehicle’s frame. This is how the tow company pulls vehicles out of a ditch. A tow strap or winch cable can then be secured to the Grab Hook. Even if you have a hitch receiver or winch, it is recommended to have a grab hook so you can recovery vehicles that are not properly equipped.

Now that we have covered recovery points, next we need to address how to move a vehicle and other obstacles. A tow strap can be attached to both recovery points (vehicle to vehicle), or can be attached to a fallen tree. Again, a shackle can be used to avoid unnecessary wear and tear, and makes connecting the strap to the anchor points a lot safer and easier. Tow straps are rated by their breaking strength, and also by the length. For basic towing, it is recommended to have a quality, 20,000 lbs. or higher rated tow strap; although the more breaking strength, the better. One great thing about tow straps is that if they break under a load, they will not whip lash like a winch cable will. I am not saying they will not whip lash, just not like a winch cable.

Another option is using a snatch strap. A snatch strap has some elasticity, and uses kinetic energy to aid in the recovery. If purchasing a snatch strap, it is recommended to purchase a very high quality strap, and to use a dampener to absorb the energy if the strap breaks (a wool blanket works great). The snatch strap is mounted the same as a tow strap. Please see the following video for a demonstration.


Winches are a great method for self-recovery, and by using a winch, you can usually pull your vehicle out of a bad area by yourself. A winch cable under a heavy load can break, and will destroy anything it comes in contact with. So, please use a winch responsibly, and expect it for fraying before use. Do not stand near a winch cable when it is being used.

Most vehicles have winches mounted on the front of the vehicle, usually mounted inside of a winch capable bumper. But, another option is mounting a winch to a hitch receiver mount. Hitch receivers are also integrated in several aftermarket front bumpers. Having a portable winch, allows one winch to be moved to the front/rear of a vehicle (if properly equipped with hitch receivers), and also to other vehicles. All that you need to do is come up with a portable wiring solution so that you can power the winch from different vehicles.

By itself, a winch can be used to pull a vehicle out of a situation. To aid in a winch’s capability, there are several accessories that can be used.

1. A tree saver strap can be used to protect trees that are being used as an anchor point. The winch’s cable can damage a tree. A tree saver strap can be used on objects besides trees; such as a telephone pole. A shackle is recommended when using a tree saver strap.

2. A snatch block is a pulley that doubles the load capacity of a winch, and is probably one of the most important winch accessories. If you have a winch that has a 9,000 lbs. capacity, using a snatch block will increase the capacity to 18,000 lbs. Used with a tree saver strap, you can pull vehicles at different angles. A shackle is recommended when using a snatch block; note how shackles are used in all of the following videos.

This video demonstrates using a tree saver strap and snatch block to reposition a vehicle, and has a detailed explanation of all of the components.

This video demonstrates basic snatch block deployment. In this video the vehicle that is stuck in the mud, is using its front mounted winch. The second vehicle is an anchor point, and has the snatch block mounted in what appears to be the rear hitch receiver. The winch cable is run from the winch to the snatch block, and then connected back to the vehicle where the winch is mounted (in this example it is the vehicle pulling itself out).

This video demonstrates using multiple snatch blocks, and a tree saver strap. Using multiple snatch blocks increases the overall capacity of the winch.

3. A winch line dampener should be used with winch cable to absorb energy if the cable, or mounts, decide to break. You can purchase an aftermarket dampener, or simply use a wool blanket.

Hi-Lift Jacks

Hi-Lift Jacks can be used to lift a vehicle, as a clamping tool, to spread apart objects, or as a winch. It is a very versatile piece of equipment, and is common with many off-roaders [prominently displayed on many jeeps]. Additionally, Hi-Lift jacks have many different accessories to tackle a multitude of issues. Just like a winch, they are dangerous if improperly used, so please conduct your own research before purchasing or using one.

When used in combination with the Off-Road Kit (ORK), it can be used like a winch. While much slower than an actual winch, it is cheaper and works. The kit comes with a winch tensioner, attachments for the jack, a tree saver strap, gloves, and a hardware bag to store all of the components. Please watch the following video for a demonstration.

Tire Inflation and Repairs

By lowering your tire pressure, releasing air purposely so they are less firm, you can get more traction. This is why many serious off-roaders have on-board or portable air compressors in their vehicle; so they can inflate their tires back to normal air pressure when driving on an improved road. However, not all air compressors are created equal. If you have large tires, then you need an air compressor capable of seating a tire and inflating them. I have an ARB air compressor installed under my hood, and have used it several times. Ironically, I have used it more to air other people’s tires. I highly recommend the ARB line of air compressors and accessories (CKMTA12 and CKMA12). With items such as air compressors, not every vehicle in your group needs to be equipped. However, it is recommended to have a means of airing up a tire.

In addition to an air compressor, we recommend having a tire repair kit, similar to the ones used at a tire repair shop to plug tires. Again, ARB makes a great kit, and is highly recommended.

Dead Batteries

As stated in the first article, each vehicle should have jumper cables at all times. However, what if your battery dies and no one will stop to help you out. You can have a secondary battery installed in your vehicle, or in your trunk, or you can use a Jump Start. Some jump starts even come equipped with a built-in air compressor; although the air compressor may not work if you have large tires.

Recover Gear Notes

There are redundancies above, such as the winch and the Hi-Lift jack. Some may argue that you need both; however this is not always practical. The key here is to have a system that works for you and your budget.

Portability is important; everything in your vehicle will compete for space. Look at tools and equipment that are a little smaller (short handled shovels) or which can share different attachments (a wood handle can become an ax, sledge hammer, or pick). If you have more space, or are pulling a trailer, then size is not always an issue. Additionally, items such as winches can be shared amongst several vehicles, as long as you have developed a system compatible for each vehicle.

Securing gear and other equipment is extremely important. If you have a truck, or plan to put things on a vehicle rack, then you should have a good supply of ratchet straps. There are different models and sizes available; however we recommend purchasing longer length models (12 feet or more). A six foot ratchet strap is a handy item; however they only work with certain objects. A 12 foot ratchet strap can be used for anything a 6 foot ratchet strap can be, and is usually only a little more expensive.

Most importantly, test your gear before you need to use it. You don’t want to be caught off guard not having the knowledge of properly using your equipment. Some items need to be assembled before use, and some can be extremely dangerous.

Last modified on Sunday, 07 July 2013 20:24
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