What if I told you that a large majority of 4WD recoveries done locally are not safe? Would you believe me? When you do a recovery in your 4WD, it's good practice to take a second before going through with it to consider what the weakest link is. This way, you know what is most likely to go wrong, and you can act accordingly. The forces on 4WD's involved in a recovery can be astronomical, and things regularly go wrong. People get serious hurt, and killed when things go wrong in 4WD recoveries; make sure you are happy things are being done safely before you go ahead with it! I'd highly recommend you have a read of the 20 things you should never do in a 4WD recovery.
Unless you have installed aftermarket recovery points, there's a good chance they will not be rated. A lot of 'recovery points' used by people are actually tie down points, used for transporting the vehicle. Make sure you are running Rated recovery points; these are seriously dangerous if something breaks!
So lets say you've got some nice new recovery points on your 4WD. What are they rated at? What is your snatch strap or winch rated to? In a large majority of cases, you will find the weakest point in your 4WD recovery is actually the recovery points themselves. Take the standard hooks for example, rated at 10,000lb or 4535kg. If you attach a normal snatch strap 7500, 9000 or 11000kg to the recovery point, is that safe? No, its not, and yet majority of 4WD recoveries are done in exactly this manner. Your rated recovery points are often the weakest link, and you need to consider that.
You wouldn't pull a 3 tonne Land Cruiser out with a 4.5 tonne snatch strap, so should you really be using a single 4500kg recovery hook?
What condition is your chassis and captive nuts?
Recovery points are bolted to your chassis, and are often held in place via captive nuts. These are nuts that have been welded to the chassis from the factory. However, your chassis takes a beating, and will often sit with mud and sand inside for years on end, causing rust. If you haven't had your recovery points off, it's a very important exercise. Remove the recovery points, and check the bolts. When I pulled the old recovery points off my 80 series, a good third of the bolt shank had rusted away. Even if you have a modern vehicle, it pays for piece of mind just to pull the recovery points off and check the bolts and captive nuts.
Check the captive nuts; if they are rusty, or the thread is damaged, you need to do something about it. There's no point having a nice recovery point if its attached to something that's going to allow it to snap off! The more area your recovery points are spread across the better. If you can bolt them on with 3 captive nuts, its a lot better than 2!
Are your bolts tight enough?
Your recovery point is held in place by a number of bolts (which should be grade 8.8). The strength that they offer though, is a direct reflection of how tight they were done up. One person's 'tight' is very different to another! There are plenty of tables online which will tell you the correct torque settings required for your bolt (check the pitch). Make sure you use decent washers to spread the load too. Do not over tighten them either, or you will strip the threads and be in an even worse situation!
Next time you do, or see a 4WD recovery, take a second to think about what is likely to go wrong, and do what you can to prevent it!
You should not be using a Tow ball in a 4WD recovery. Period. Tow balls are not designed for rapid stress that snatch straps and winching can put on them, and will shear off. I've seen plenty of photos of tow balls that have gone through tyres, front and back windows and even panels. They are not to be reckoned with; take them off when 4WDing and leave them in your vehicle, in a safe and secure place. If you need to recover from the rear of a 4WD, you should be using a Rear recovery hitch, or rated rear points.
You can read more at Tow balls in 4WD Recoveries can kill you.
The way that a snatch strap works is essentially the same as an elastic band. As you pull another vehicle out, the strap will stretch in length by about 20%. When it reaches this point, all of the stress in the recovery is applied to both vehicles, and this is when your strap is most likely to break. Snatch straps are very useful for 4WD recoveries, but they are also by far and away the most dangerous piece of recovery gear.
When you use a snatch strap, make sure you spend a few minutes behind a shovel, clearing what ever it is out the way of the tyres on the stuck 4WD. The less stress you apply in a 4WD recovery, the less likely you are to have something break.
Use the correct weight rated snatch straps (the breaking point should be 2 - 3 times the weight of your loaded vehicle). If you are recovering a vehicle that is towing something, make sure you factor this in.
When a snatch strap breaks, it will flick away at a rapid rate. It's a good idea to use a dampener on all snatch strap recoveries, and in every 4WD recovery people should be standing at least 1.5 times the length of the strap away from the vehicles.
Most 4WD recoveries are done using 3250kg or 4750kg bow shackles. Make sure they are stamped with a WLL! Personally, I think the 3250kg ones aren't heavy duty enough, and I won't use them. The 4750kg shackles are a much better option. Although they are actually rated for less than your snatch straps and winch, they have a safety factor of around 5 - 7 times the weight. These are not likely to break, but again, match your recovery gear together so its all rated correctly.
Use an equaliser strap
If your recovery points are only rated to 4500kg, you should be using an equaliser strap over two recovery points. This gives you 9000kg to play with, which is much safer. It also helps to spread the load over your whole chassis, so you don't end up with a vehicle that is longer on one side than the other!
My recovery points are rated at more than that
Good. Not many are, but you will occasionally get recovery points that are rated to 10,000kg. Still, should you really be applying that much force to one side of your chassis? An equaliser strap is good insurance.
Have you reduced any missiles?
Shackles play a very important role in 4WD recoveries. Still, if I can avoid using them in a 4WD recovery, I will. Not because I think they are going to break, but because of their weight, and what happens if something attached to that shackle breaks.
It's good practice to remove anything from a recovery that isn't absolutely necessary. If you need to join straps, do it the correct way (without a shackle). If you need to attach a winch to a tree trunk protector, use the winch hook, without a second shackle.
If you are attaching a winch or strap to your recovery point, don't use a shackle unless you absolutely have to. I don't mean you should choke a strap around a recovery point to avoid using a shackle, but just reduce anything that could fly off and kill someone.
Is your equipment in good condition?
My first snatch strap was a pretty light weight one (maybe 5000kg), which was fine for my Hilux. However, it's been used that many times now, and I've decided to get rid of it. You can see obvious signs of wear and tear, and it doesn't suit my 80 series Land Cruiser any more. Before you use your recovery gear, just run your hands and eyes over everything to make sure it is still safe.
Little nicks, tears or frayed sections are bad news, and mean you need to be getting new recovery gear. There are a few pieces of recovery gear that shouldn't wear, and you can use them for life. However, things like snatch straps, tree trunk protectors, winch cables etc are all going to wear over time, and need to be replaced before something goes wrong.
Is there a better option for the recovery?
Unless you are bogged chassis deep in a stinky salt lake, you can often get a 4WD moving again without the need of a snatch strap or winch. If you can, this is the best option. Things like deflating your tyres to a better pressure, using Maxtrax or spending 5 minutes with a shovel are much quicker and safer than using another vehicle to recover yours.
So, what's likely to break then?
The big question - What's the most weakest link in your 4WD recovery? I hope this post makes you stop for a second before performing a 4WD recovery, just to consider what could go wrong, and what you should be doing to avoid it. Have you had any nasty accidents when recovering a 4WD? What else have you learned?