Safety in 4×4 and off-road Recovery

We work hard enough during the week without having to work even harder on our down and relax time.

Being bogged or stuck in your 4WD isn’t the most pleasant feeling, but there are plenty of ways to get yourself moving again. There’s nothing abnormal about being stuck; people recover bogged 4WD’s every day of the year.

However, there are still many, many people who don’t have the knowledge or consideration to safely recover a stuck 4WD. Too often when things go wrong, it involves snatch straps, which are not designed for every single 4WD recovery you come across. So, When should you use a snatch strap?

This article delves into the common mistakes that people make when recovering a 4WD, and sharing it around might just save someone from a serious accident or even death

1) Don’t use the tow ball

I’m going to put this as number one. Luckily, this has been publicized a lot more in recent years, but people still seem to think it is OK to throw a snatch strap over the tow ball when recovering a 4WD. Tow balls are not designed for the sort of stress a snatch strap or winch can put on them and are actually very brittle. If you snatch off your tow ball, it’s very likely to shear off, and fly through the air.

Don't use the Tow Ball. EVERA chunk of metal like that, flying through the air as quickly as it does has the potential to kill, and it has done in the past. A few years ago a lady was killed near Geraldton whilst recovering a stuck 4WD on the beach. The tow ball broke off the vehicle being recovered, flew through the front window, and killed her. Such a tragedy and she was only trying to help out.

Please don’t use tow balls for recoveries. We don’t need any more accidents or deaths. You can read more about this at Tow balls in 4WD Recoveries can kill you. A tow ball recovery gone wrong is not something you want to be a part of.

2) Don’t stand close to the action

The next ‘big’ mistake so many people make when recovering a 4WD is to stand close to the action. Yes, it’s exciting, and you want to see what is happening, but you need to be at least 2 times the length of the strap or winch cable away from the action. You’ll still be able to see, but it means if something does go pear-shaped you aren’t going to get wiped out by a piece of recovery gear.

Spectators are the worst for doing this; those who have no idea and just want to see what the fuss is about. Just politely inform them to move out the way, and refuse to recover a stuck 4WD with those standing nearby. It’s not worth the risk.

3) Don’t recover before using a shovel

digging to reduce drag, and loadUsing a shovel might not be the easiest job, but spending 5 minutes digging around a stuck 4WD reduces the forces put on your recovery gear dramatically. Remember, it is stuck for a reason!!

You want to dig in front of all 4 wheels, to give the vehicle a chance to pop up onto the surface again without having to push half a tonne of mud, snow or sand out of the way first!

Also, look underneath, dig under the chassis and reduce the risk of Stiction.

4) Don’t join snatch straps together with a shackle

Snatch straps come in a variety of lengths. However, in many situations, you aren’t able to get close enough to use just one snatch strap. The logical step then is to join two together. This is fine, providing you do it with a bit of care and consideration.

Joining two snatch straps (or any straps involved in a 4WD recovery) together with a shackle is very, very dangerous. The shackle isn’t likely to break, but snatch straps do on a fairly regular basis, and that shackle will fly through the air until it hits something, or comes to the end of the strap.

If someone is in the way of that chunk of flying metal, they aren’t going to be in very good shape. The correct way to join two snatch straps together is by feeding one end of snatch strap A through the eye of snatch strap B. Then, feed the same eye of snatch strap A over the other end of snatch strap B and pull it tight. This only takes a few seconds, and ensures that both snatch straps are holding together firmly.

joining snatch straps togetherTo stop the pulling tight when doing a recovery, roll a newspaper or magazine up and stick it between the 2 straps. You can recover a 4WD without doing this, but you will spend hours trying to get the knot out afterward.

5) Don’t rush around

Stress levels are elevated for sure during a 4WD recovery. However, it pays to take a second to stand back and consider what you are doing. There are plenty of different ways to recover a stuck 4WD, and you should decide on the quickest, safest and easiest method!

Unless the tide is coming in, or your car is being filled up with water, you have time to consider what your options are, set the recovery up carefully and methodically, and get the bogged 4WD out without anything breaking!

Most often, do the reverse of how you became stuck in the first place.

Walkthrough the activity and discuss the options.

Anticipate the weirdest, dumbest thing that can happen, logic suggests it will.

If unsure, don’t

6) Don’t recover from points that are not rated

Very, very few 4WD’s come from the factory with Rated recovery points. If you don’t believe me; ring your manufacturer and ask. I bet they won’t give you written evidence stating their factory points are suitable for snatch or winch recoveries.

Your car may have a couple of ‘points’ that look like they are good for recovering off, but take a closer look and you will be surprised. Most of these points are actually tie-down points, which are used for transporting the vehicle.

The way that the hook, loop, angle or plate is attached to your chassis is a dead give-away of how strong they are; if it is not held there by at least two M12 grade 8.8 bolts, you shouldn’t recover off it.

The result of doing so is the same as having a shackle or tow ball fly through the air. Tow points aren’t light either, and could easily kill someone. Most 4WD’s come with a tow bar; get yourself a recovery hitch and use it.

7) Use 4WD recovery gear that is not rated

Not only do your recovery points need to be rated, but anything that is involved in a 4WD recovery should be stamped or tagged that it is rated. Shackles are a scary example of this – if your shackles are plain grey with no writing stamped on them, they are not rated!

They are classed as general-purpose, and are not manufactured for lifting or recoveries. All rated shackles will be stamped with their WLL (working load limit), and usually have coloured pins.

rated recovery pointsThe most common shackles used in a 4WD recovery are 4.75 tonnes. You can use the 3.2 tonne ones, but only in pairs.

Likewise, equaliser straps, snatch straps, tree trunk protectors, snatch blocks, winches, hooks and anything else you may use in a 4WD recovery must be rated. Using something that isn’t could lead to a breakage, which is something you really, really want to avoid. Always consider the weakest link in your 4WD recovery; it’s not worth the risk.

8) Don’t ignore your tyre pressures

Tyre pressures are the most critical thing you can control when 4WDing. There’s a good chance that the 4WD you are recovering is not running the right tyre pressures, so now is the time to double check. In sand especially, this is the easiest way to make a recovery simple, safe and quick. Don’t be afraid to let your tyres down a bit more if needed; it makes a huge difference.

9) Don’t use a snatch strap on a vehicle badly bogged in mud

This is a matter of perception, but in general, a vehicle that is really badly bogged in mud is not one that should be recovered by a snatch strap. Instead, a winch, Maxtrax and plenty of hard work on the shovel are the better option.

If you’ve ever been badly bogged in mud this will make perfect sense; mud has a level of Stiction that is truly unbelievable. The moment you stop moving, the mud sucks down on your 4WD and refuses to let go, without a lot of force applied.

The problem though is that a snatch strap applies a lot of force over a very short amount of time. If it manages to pull the vehicle out then you are in the clear, but if it doesn’t, all of that force goes through your chassis snatch strap and recovery points.

A winch is a much better option, as it gradually applies pressure until the suction is broken and the 4WD moves (or something breaks!). The best thing to do is dig as much mud away as possible, lay your Maxtrax down and winch out. Again, not everyone has a winch, so you have to make do with what you’ve got available, or come up with a new plan!

I’m not suggesting you chuck your snatch strap out when going 4WDing in the mud, just be aware of the extra stress you can put on your 4WD by using a snatch strap on a heavily bogged 4WD in the mud!

10) Ignore the second recovery point

Twin recovery points

It’s good practice to recover off two points. Ideally, you should have two rated recovery points on the front and the rear of your 4WD. If you are recovering or being recovered, you should use an equalizer strap in between both points, with the winch or snatch strap attached to this. Some people refer to these as a recovery bridle.

The load is then spread over two recovery points, and puts a more even force on your chassis. A bent chassis is the last thing you want from a day’s 4WDing!

11) Don’t take off full throttle for the first snatch recovery

Once you’ve been bogged a few times, you will quickly gain an appreciation for the amount of force required to pull a stuck 4WD out. This varies considerably based on the situation, but more often than not you don’t need a full-speed recovery. I always flinch when I see someone take a huge run-up to snatch another 4WD out. This puts a ridiculous amount of stress on everything involved.

A good way to recover the 4WD is to start off slow, and get progressively quicker if you don’t get the car out the first time. In general, most snatch recoveries work just fine if you leave 1 – 2 metres of slack strap, and take off with the bogged vehicle turning its wheels slowly.

12) Choke a strap

Whether it be snatch straps, equaliser straps, or tree trunk protectors, it is a bad idea to choke a strap. What I mean by this is putting the eye of one strap through the other, and pulling it tight around something(like most dog collars are).

By doing this, you drastically reduce the strength of the strap, and may break it. In the case of tree trunk protectors, you should just basket the strap around the tree – feed one end around and attach the strap or winch onto both equal length ends of the strap.

I have seen people do this with snatch straps when joining them together too. Bad idea; join them as described above!

13) Add more potential missiles to recovery than needed

There is a well-known rule when it comes to 4WD recoveries. Don’t add any more equipment into the equation than needed. The more you add, the more potential missiles you have that could break and hurt someone. An example of this is using a shackle to attach a winch hook to a tree trunk protector, or equaliser strap.

Do away with the shackle, and attach the hook directly onto the strap. If you have rated hook recovery points, you don’t need to use a shackle. If you need to join snatch straps, do it as described above, not by using a shackle!

14) Don’t join things together that aren’t meant to be

Some of you would have seen a drag chain, which can be used in some forms of 4WD recoveries. However, don’t attach it to a snatch strap, or use a tow rope and a snatch strap together. They aren’t intended to work together and can cause serious damage.

CASE EXAMPLE: New Driver (with very limited 4WD experience!) got really, really badly bogged, and had very limited success recovering from the clay mud with a mates Patrol and several snatch straps.

To cut a long story short, they ended up with a very dodgy recovery taking place. It was like this – my 4500kg recovery hook, with a 6000kg snatch strap attached to it, then an 8000kg snatch strap joined to that, a length of drag chain attached to that, being pulled out with a tractor, and a 60 series Land Cruiser attached to the back of the tractor.

They did have Maxtrax under the wheels, which are the only things that saved them. If something had broken, I’m positive there would have been someone killed.

How could they have been so stupid? The answer is simple; When you are in a high-stress situation and you don’t know any better, risks are taken that shouldn’t be. Thankfully, the vehicle was recovered and no damage was done, to vehicle or person.

16) Recover a 4WD with several vehicles without considering the risks

On occasion, one 4WD will not be able to recover a bogged 4WD. A good example of this is trying to winch a stuck 4WD out of sticky mud; in many cases, the vehicle winching the bogged 4WD out will get pulled towards the muck, as a pose to the other way around.

In this situation, you’ve got a few options, but one of the more common ways is to anchor the recovery vehicle to another 4WD. This is fine, as it just stops the 4WD from moving forward as easily.

However, I have seen photos of a bogged 4WD being winched by another 4WD, who in turn is being winched by another 4WD. You need to remember that the forces are greatly increased when doing this. Occasionally people will have 3 cars joined together with snatch straps, all working as a train to pull a stuck car off a soft beach, for example.

In this situation, go back to basics, why is it stuck, what can you change, eg tyre pressures to assist and if other people are making the crossing fine, what can you learn from their approach.

17) Don’t ignore the dampener

It’s a good idea to use a dampener when recovering a stuck 4WD by winch or snatch strap. It is there purely to reduce the recoil, should something break. You don’t have to buy a dampener; a big jumper or towel works just as well, but it’s worth putting one (or two) on.

18) Don’t spin your wheels at a rate of knots

If you get stuck in a 4WD, the worst thing you can do is put your foot down on the accelerator. Ironically, this is usually the first thing people do when they get stuck. If your wheels turn and you don’t move forward, you are going to sink. The longer you stay on the accelerator, the deeper your hole gets, and the harder it is to be recovered.

This is the same as when you are being recovered; a gentle turn of the wheels is a good idea as it helps to pop you back onto the surface, but there’s no need to have your car bouncing off the rev limiter!

19) Don’t keep your thoughts to yourself

If you are a witness to a recovery that you think is dodgy, it’s worth speaking up about it. Obviously, its a judgment call, and you have to feel safe with doing this but don’t keep your thoughts to yourself.

Picture this, a Jeep that bogged to the chassis rails. A 4WD club turned up, and got stuck into the recovery. They pulled the snatch straps out, had a bit of a chat to the driver, and set the recovery up.

What they had done; joined two straps together with a shackle.

Imagine if a strap had broken, and one of the many spectators had been hurt, or killed? How would you live with yourself?

20) If in doubt, don’t.



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