Ah, to be humbled by a sweet old lady. A few years back my dad and I were out in Joshua Tree, CA helping my grandma with some yard projects. We needed to relocate a few clothesline poles in order to start digging some trenches for a new sprinkler system for her. What was supposed to be the easiest part of the job turned into 3-4 hours of headache of digging up and hauling these 120lbs blocks of concrete across just a few acres.
I am proud to say that we successfully did relocate those clothesline poles, and they stand strong to this day. What I am not proud to say is that we somehow managed to get my XJ Cherokee stuck up to the axles in the same yard that my now 94 year old grandmother traverses daily in her golf cart and 30 year old 2WD Toyota pickup without issue.
After a lot of digging and a few nasty splinters from the wood we used for makeshift traction boards, I thoroughly understand why it’s so hard for us to keep MaxTrax in stock. Oh, and the kicker on the clothesline job? It turns out my grandmother had moved them by herself about a decade earlier, and didn’t remember it being all that difficult of a job when she did it. Ouch.
First of all, traction boards are nothing new. While yes, it has become sort of a cliche thing to see that bright orange set of MaxTrax (or similar) on every other built-out 4Runner you see on Instagram, complete with overdone HDR filter and 29 different overland companies tagged in the post. Don’t let this ruin the allure of a good set of traction boards, though.
Going back to WWII, the US military developed the Marston Mat as a way to create temporary landing strips and roads. These perforated steel or aluminum plates would be laid down and interlocked over a layer of crushed aggregate to form a safe traction surface in a matter of hours. These mats were also used in a pinch to bridge small ruts, and to provide Jeeps and other vehicles traction over mud pits.
Since that time those mats have been used all over the world as traction aids as well as becoming building materials in general. However, at 12 feet long, and being made out of heavy steel, they aren’t the most practical things to haul around. Sure, sometimes a floor mat or a branch can be used in a pinch, but those are hardly reliable methods of recovery.
While they may not have been the first solution, MaxTrax certainly did light a fire in the industry when they hit the market in 2005. Finally a lightweight, strong, and relatively compact method of bringing along some much needed traction when needed. Even with locking differentials, good tires, and a winch, even the best of us will still manage to get stuck without a good way out.
MaxTrax set the standard for the modern traction board formula: Lightweight, high grade glass fiber reinforced nylon boards with protruding studs to grip not only your tires, but the ground below. Adding to that, they feature handles on the side and either end can be used as a shovel to dig out some space beneath your tires.
Once you’re done and out of the rut, they stack together to be only 3.5” thick, and mount easily to roof racks, tire carriers, or even just flat packed in the back of your rig. Also, at only 8lbs each, they weigh a bit less than a few gallons of water. Whether you think it’s a fad or not, that is an enticing package.
At first glance, spending $250-$400 on a few fancy shaped hunks of plastic can seem excessive to some. We all know how pricey some items tend to get once they’re marketed to the overland community, I call it the Overland Tax.
In this case, however, I want to tell you that these are indeed worth the money. I myself paid full price for a set of MaxTrax years before Overlander.com was even a thing, and I’d do it again. While yes, you can get a near-identical looking set of traction boards from Amazon for $100 or less, those really don’t tend to last all that long.
A quick search around on YouTube or even in reading some reviews on those knock-offs, you’ll find that the cheap boards end up having the grippy studs stripped off pretty quickly, and when used as a ramp or bridge, they tend to snap pretty easily as well. As a few buddies of mine have found out, after buying a few sets, you’ll be wishing you just bit the bullet and bought the real thing.
Now of course that’s not to say that MaxTrax and ARB are the only quality options on the market, but you really can’t go wrong with either brand. There are plenty of high quality options on the market in a variety of styles depending on the type of terrain you usually expect to encounter.
While traction boards can literally be a lifesaver, they are just one part of your overall recovery kit, and are often used in combination with other solutions. For instance, one time out in the California desert, we had to winch one member of the group up a particularly steep and sandy hill. The rig at the top didn’t have enough traction to pull the other truck up, and there was nothing around to anchor to.
We ended up digging out some sand under the tires and he rolled onto the traction boards before attempting to winch the other rig up the hill. This worked like a charm and gave him all the traction needed to keep a firm footing while pulling a very heavy truck up the hill.
Also, while this isn’t exactly recovery related, it’s quite common for people to use their boards under one side of the vehicle’s tires in order to level out their vehicle for sleeping. You can’t always find flat ground, and being able to gain a few inches to counteract a slope is a handy way to help towards a better night’s sleep.
So what do you think?
Have you found any other novel uses for your traction boards that we didn’t cover here? Drop a comment below, we love hearing the creative solutions this community comes up with to get the most out of their equipment!
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