One of the appeals of the overland life is to get away from the crowds, more so now than ever before as our changing world has made that more appealing and necessary. One of the downsides is that getting away from people is getting away from aid. Self-contained travel is, after all, a key tenet of overland travel not just out of necessity, but part of the appeal certainly has to be putting your preparation up against the challenges that define adventure.
Of all the self-sufficient skills and tools you should have, recovery should be right up at the top of any overlander, or weekend warrior’s list. If you can’t extract your vehicle, you’ll find out really quickly how sharp, or dull, your survival skills are.
More often than not, however, you’ll find your recovery gear being an aid to navigating tricky sections of trail or in helping out other people you find on the trail less well prepared than you. Really there are 3 kinds of recovery gear and situations and I will group them in order of how you should buy them
There are a few items that every backcountry driver should have with them; a compressor, a shovel, some jumper cables, and basic tools. These are, in my view, non-negotiable items for anyone traveling off the beaten path. Why?
Compressor - The number 1 way to get out of trouble is to not get into trouble. In my experience this mostly involves optimizing the one thing connecting car to trail - tires. Tire pressure can mean the difference between a nice trip and a long day of digging. Likewise, if you’ve gotten yourself stuck the first thing you should do is let air out of your tires (being careful not to go too low). So why isn’t a tire deflator on the list? Simple - getting air out is the easy part; use a stick, a key, a pebble, etc...tools abound. The danger lies in high speed and pavement when the trail is over - under inflated tires are just as or more dangerous than being stuck, they can lead to catastrophic and sudden tire failure without warning and usually at high speed. Don’t fall into the “it's only a few miles to town” trap, a lot of irreversible and invisible tire damage can occur in a few short miles. Air holds your vehicle up, not tires. NOTE: an “inflator” is not a compressor. Something that works for bike tires or pool toys is going to leave you high and dry with a large tire. You can read more about the importance of a compressor here.
Shovel - Combined with proper tire pressure a shovel is going to get you out of most jams. A shovel lets you clear sand from piling up in front of tires or let you carve out a safer path in the trail. It’s also a handy thing to have around camp.
Jumper cable - “Need jump!” was what the handwritten sign read, placed on a rock along an unnamed dirt road in the Utah desert. I don’t know what I was on that day, but my mind read it as a question...need jump? Of course! Don’t we all need jump? Thankfully my friends' brains were turned on and realized that whoever wrote that sign was in need of a jump start not sweet air. Down the road from the sign a man had camped the night in their Subaru but left some electrical load running all night and had a dead battery. While they certainly could have walked to the highway it wouldn’t have been a fun walk and that section of I80 was fast and there would have been no safe place for him to get help. With a quick jump from us he was out of there before we could get back on the road ourselves. The chances are high that someone will need your preparation, even if you don’t.
Tools - I advocate (and practice) bringing all the tools I think I need, plus several more, but unless you really know your machine and what is likely to go wrong and how to fix it, the chances of needing a comprehensive kit is not likely. Still, a set of screwdrivers, a few adjustable wrenches and something that cuts will be infinitely more helpful than regrets. Add a 12 piece socket set (SAE or Metric depending on your car) would be the next best thing to add.
Tire kit - you should also have a high-quality tire plug kit to deal with unexpected failures that can’t be solved with a spare, and especially if your vehicle doesn’t have a full size spare. These kits won’t repair your tire permanently, but they will solve some pretty big tire failures, small ones too, like jammed valve stems.
Jack – A good jack that is rated for the entire weight of the vehicle is recommended. The included jack that comes with many vehicles is woefully inadequate for trail repairs, recovery or even basic repairs like tire changes on lifted vehicles. I recommend a long travel bottle jack at a minimum. More advanced options will be discussed in the last section.
Basic recovery kit
Once you’ve got the minimum it’s time to step up to the basics that will help you and others keep moving.
Traction boards - Maxtrax, maxxsa, Treds, etc. They’ve got a variety of names, and features, but they all do the same job, grip on one side, distribute the load on the other. These are the quintessential self-recovery method of the 21st century and justifiably so. Essential for solo travel but very useful in convoy as well, I’ve used mine to build up trails, bridge gaps, and unstuck ATV’s as well as Subaru’s on summer tires caught off-guard by winter. I’ve had good luck with off-brands but the name brands like Maxtrax or TRED pro will likely have better performance and life. A pair is a good starting point, 4-6 will get you out of most binds that don’t require winching.
Recovery strap – There are 2 kinds of recovery straps, tow straps and snatch straps, and they are not interchangeable. A tow strap is static and designed to handle rolling loads or be used in areas where stretch is not desirable like as a tree saver or loading something heavy. These are cheap and available from most hardware or farm stores. Get one with open loops on both ends, not metal hooks. Buy a tow strap that is at least 2x your GVWR. A snatch strap is dynamic, meaning its designed to stretch to absorb energy and release it slowly to avoid shock loading. This is why you don’t use tow straps as snatch straps, the sudden jolt of trying to pull a stuck car free with a strap that doesn’t give will cause failure of some component and send high energy straps, or parts flying. A snatch strap lets you gather momentum with the recovering vehicle without imparting all its energy at once to the recovered vehicle. Buy a snatch strap rated at 3x your GVWR.
Shackles – If you can afford it, buy the newer soft shackles as they are far safer and easier to use and store, buy soft shackles with a breaking strength rating of 3-4x GVWR. If you don’t plan on using them often or are on a budget a reliable hard shackle is safe and effective if used properly. Buy a shackle with a SWL (safe working load) of 1-2x your GVWR. You will need at least 2 shackles.
Recovery point – If your vehicle doesn’t have a rated recovery point you will need at least one. Note: shipping points are NOT rated recovery points. These are the loops that most vehicles have that are used to hold down the vehicle during shipping. If you HAVE to recovery off of these, use your tow strap as a bridle to half the load on each. If your vehicle has a tow hitch one of the easiest ways to add a recovery point is to buy a hitch shackle kit. These allow your hitch to act as a recovery point. If you find yourself without a recovery point you can use your hitch as a recovery point by putting the snatch strap loop in the receiver and using the hitch pin to go through the loop, though this isn’t the recommended method.
(don't forget to tie your pin! The shackle that goes with this hitch point is somewhere on Hans Flats road. Please return it if found...)
Gloves – A good pair of gloves will make your life much easier; I promise. I like deerskin for their dexterity, but any quality work gloves will do.
A jack – A good jack that will allow you to change a tire on your lifted, heavier than stock vehicle is a basic need, but there are options beyond this basic need worth considering. One of the more interesting options is an exhaust jack like the ARB X-Jack, that uses a heavy-duty inflatable bag and your vehicle's exhaust pressure to jack your vehicle. This has the advantage of working on most vehicles and most surfaces and can provide enough lift to unstuck a vehicle for packing the ruts in or using traction boards with minimal effort. The downside is that it only jacks and it is bulky and expensive. These are ideal in soft and sandy environments. Another common option is a farm jack, or HiLift. These ladder style jacks are amazing, and dangerous tools. They will allow for lifting tall vehicles and providing enough lift to stack ruts but they can also be used to winch and even clamp and spread for trail repair. They are also heavy and can cause serious injury if you are careless with them. An alternative is the ARB jack which takes away the safety issues but is heavier, costlier and less versatile. In both cases you will need a vehicle that has appropriate jacking points or adapters to allow them to work, as well as base plates that can spread the load in soft areas like sand. You will need a kit to winch with these jacks, including chain.
Winch – a winch is a powerful recovery tool and the preferred method of extraction for any recovery that can’t be done with a quick tug from a second truck or with the applications of traction boards. They are also heavy, expensive and require modifications to your vehicle. They aren’t necessary for most travelers most of the time, but when you need a winch you will be happy you have one. A winch would be considered essential for extreme remote solo travel. Select a winch for 1-2x the GVWR of your vehicle.
Winch kit – a basic winch kit includes tree straps, or tree savers, to wrap around your recovery anchor as well as a line damper. The line damper takes the stored energy of a taught winch line and directs it to the ground through a weight midline. This ensures that in the event of a line failure the line and gear don’t become missiles. If you don’t have gloves in your kit already, as you should, you will for sure add them here.
Advanced winch kit – For more advanced recoveries you will need to add shackles, winch line extension, a line doubler of some kind like a pulley or loop.
There are other specialty tools like land anchors and deadman tarps, but most people will never get to that point unless you are exclusively touring in soft areas without anchors like sand dunes. And if you are doing snowy trails you should have a high-quality set of chains for all 4 tires.
Something else worth considering but isn’t necessarily recovery are trail building tools like picks and saws. I don’t travel in wooded areas often and so I’ve never had to use my axe, but if you do I would tell you to skip the axe and buy a quality hand or powered saw for your own sanity.
Will this make sure you are able to recover from every situation? Not necessarily, as there are some situations that will require professional tools. More importantly the best defense against getting stuck is a good offense. Air down before the trail gets hard, lock in your lockers before you need them, walk anything you are unsure of first and carry the right gear. For that last one, make sure to check out our shop for best prices on all the gear you need.
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