As a teenager in New Hampshire, my trusty four-wheel-drive truck was up to the challenge of snowy winters and romps through the woods. Unfortunately, it couldn’t always make up for my own boneheaded driving. More than once I sheepishly called home and begged for the assistance of the 24-hour Paternal Recovery Service. Hearing my dad’s big diesel clattering in the distance was always a huge relief; seeing the headlights poke through the trees and realizing he’d soon see what I had done was usually the opposite.
It’s fun to laugh at my childish mistakes knowing that nobody was hurt. But if you think any one of us can’t turn our vehicle into scrap metal tomorrow, you’re missing the point. We carry spare tires, jacks, and roadside repair kits for a reason – some recovery gear and bit of forethought is in order, as well.
If you want to know how to drift a half-ton truck into a snowbank, high center on logs hidden under the snow, or scatter steering components throughout a stone wall, I’m your guy. If you want to learn how to escape such a pickle, you’ll have to look elsewhere. For that, I recommend chatting up someone like Jonny Van Wagoner, an instructor at Ford’s Bronco Off-Roadeo and a lifetime four-wheel junkie.
I got in touch with Jonny to do just that. Our brief exchange taught me more than I ever figured out on my own, and you can reap the rewards, too.
JVW: Whenever we venture out of our safety nets – our homes and cities where we are comfortable and have easily accessible resources – we greatly increase our exposure to risk. When we venture into the backcountry there is always a higher chance for something to go wrong.
Someone once said, “the adventure doesn’t start until something goes wrong.” However, balancing a mishap or change of plans is very different from getting ourselves into a potentially life-changing predicament.
The Boy Scout motto “be prepared” always comes to mind. Preparedness is going to be the key to a positive outcome for situations we may encounter. But be prepared for what? Could it be a breakdown? A medical emergency? A recovery or rollover situation? Absolutely. These are all things that have a greater risk of happening when venturing out of our safe places.
What steps can we make to be better prepared? We can build our own safety nets to take with us. Every scenario mentioned above is going to have its own set of steps to follow, but the baseline for any situation is education. We need to educate ourselves about the risks we could encounter, then educate ourselves with the skills and gear needed to tackle those potential challenges.
For example, if I have a medical emergency in the backcountry, Wilderness First Aid training will have educated me on the possible situations and the skills to help me meet that challenge. A proper medical kit will have the tools to use my first aid education, so I can manage the emergency.
SM: What basic recovery gear should everyone have in their daily driver? What about people who encounter snow, sand, or mud?
JVW: In general, there are two forms of recovery for a stuck vehicle: self-recovery and vehicle-assisted recovery. Basic gear needed for self-recovery includes a shovel, traction boards, recovery straps, and a winch. Also, personal protection equipment such as gloves and safety glasses.
Assisted recovery is using another vehicle to help get a stuck vehicle out. This is going to use lines or straps to connect vehicles together and an outside force to pull the stuck vehicle out. Tools for an assisted recovery are going to be static straps, kinetic ropes, shackles, and winches. We can also use a shovel to remove any material that’s causing resistance to the stuck vehicle.
The biggest thing we need to understand with assisted recovery is how our gear is designed to work. Static lines are not designed to handle a shock load. They use applied pressure and are not the best to snatch a stuck vehicle out. Kinetic ropes are designed to use momentum or a snatching maneuver. These ropes manage the shock load, they are designed to stretch and absorb the shock energy and convert it to pulling power.
SM: Owning the right gear is one thing, but how can people practice to gain proficiency? What resources would you recommend?
First, make sure you know how your gear works. Read the tags and understand the weight ratings. Make sure you know where the recovery points are on your vehicle. Many vehicles do not have obvious recovery points. Some have screw pins that go in behind bumper covers and the pin is often hidden in the vehicle somewhere. Know how to find a good alternative if you don’t have a proper recovery point.
There are several resources to gain skills and experience. YouTube videos can be educational if you can discern reliable, expert content providers. Better training and courses are available from instructors who have been certified by International 4WD Trainer Association (I4WDTA). These courses are available from local off-road recovery groups like Colorado Rescue and Recovery, Southern Nevada Off-road Recovery, and Utah Offroad Recovery Team. Additionally, recovery gear manufacturers provide quality information about how to use their products (e.g., Factor 55, Safe-Xtract).
SM: Which recovery items have a shelf life based on use, and which ones go bad with time? What are some things people tend to overlook?
JVW: All recovery gear can be considered a consumable product. With use and exposure to the elements, recovery gear will wear out. Synthetic material will wear out faster than hard gear, such as steel, aluminum, etc. Read the owner’s manual to know the life cycle of your equipment.
There is a dramatic difference in quality between high-end and budget brands. Budget brand safety ratings are not comparable to high-end products and may not provide accurate safety ratings. Cheaper equipment has a tendency to fail more often.
SM: What's one example you've seen of people being unprepared and paying the price for it?
JVW: Every year people get killed from something missed in an off-road recovery, and the majority of these deaths are completely avoidable. It’s usually something very simple. Maybe they were in too much of a hurry. Maybe they had the wrong equipment for the task. Maybe they didn’t want to call for professional help. Being safety-focused will help you not miss simple steps.
Two examples come to mind. The first example was from a bystander who saw a rollover. The bystander rushed over to the scene in his 4x4 and did not properly secure his own vehicle. While he was at the rollover location, his own vehicle rolled away when a passenger was getting out, and that rig killed the passenger. This was a tragic accident because someone was in a hurry to get to a non-emergency situation, and a very simple, yet important step was missed.
The other example was a very recent incident. A large truck got stuck to the frame in some mud. For the recovery, they used a static-type strap connected to a large trailer hitch with a big drop. The force from that static strap pulling into the hitch with a lot of momentum caused the hitch to break in half and sent 15 inches of steel into the stuck vehicle, resulting in a fatality. Many things went wrong in this incident. The connections were not proper. The gear wasn’t proper. Safety precautions weren’t practiced. This ended up changing a family’s life forever.
SM: What's one example of people being more capable than they expected because of proper preparation?
JVW: These are the stories you don’t hear about too often. If things go well you tend to move on to the next adventure. But one year in Moab we had a truck roll over on an obstacle called “Widow Maker.” We had all the right tools and a good team of experienced people. We safely recovered the rolled truck. There was some broken glass and a bit of spilled fluids but, because we had proper gear, we were able to clean the site up to look like nothing happened. Everyone went home safe.
SM: Is there one piece of advice you'd give to people who are interested in pushing their comfort zones off-road?
JVW: Don’t ever be afraid of seeking help to develop better skills and learn more about proper equipment. Find people that have experience, and go with them. Get mentorship from a skilled driver who cares about your skill development. Don’t go out alone. Too many bad things happen when you’re by yourself. Joining a local off-road recovery team will help you gain skill and experience quickly. Volunteer to go help out other people that have gotten into tricky spots. This can build tremendous value for yourself.
No vehicle is worth dying over. Slow down your processes, assess your situation, develop a plan, and adjust as necessary.
Scott is a lover of motorized fun, whether on four wheels or two. A child of the ’90s, he has a particular soft spot for hatchbacks and believes all aging cars deserve a second chance at life. Scott works as a freelance marketer for Dingo Productions in Madison, Wisconsin. If he’s not behind a camera or a computer, he’s probably chasing down new coffee shops with his wife or throwing a frisbee for his dog.
The views and opinions expressed here are his own and may not align with the founders of Everyday Driver.