Last week, a 17 year old Sydney boy was hit in the back of the head when a 4WD recovery went badly wrong. He was in critical condition, and put in an induced coma. I don't know exactly what happened, and will not speculate on it. I just wish him and his family all the best, and hope he recovers quickly.
Regardless of how the accident came to happen, it highlights the importance of making sure 4WD recoveries are done safely, period. To clarify, I am not suggesting what happened in the recovery was unsafe; I don't know the full story. I do however, know plenty of unsafe recoveries are still going on, and it almost always involves the use of a snatch strap.
When a 4WD needs recovering, there are a heap of different options for getting it moving again. Unfortunately, because of how cheap snatch straps are, they seem to be the number one method of recovering a 4WD. However, just because they are cheap and easy to use doesn't mean they should be used on every single 4WD recovery, and most certainly not as a first resort.
Snatch straps are not designed for every single 4WD recovery situation you come across!
4WD recoveries are not to be taken lightly. They often involve extreme forces, and if the recovery hasn't been set up safely things go pear shaped very quickly. To make sure your recoveries are safe, have a read of 20 things you should never do in a 4WD recovery.
The basics of snatch straps
If you don't know much about snatch straps, they are essentially an elastic tow rope, used for recovering stuck vehicles. You can get straps rated from 4500kg right through to 100,000kg and beyond. Yes, that is not a typo, you can get 100 tonne snatch straps. It is recommended that the snatch strap you are using is 2 - 3 times the weight of your loaded vehicle. For 4WDing, most snatch straps used are in between 4500kg and 11,000kg.
The primary benefit of a snatch strap is that they can stretch in length by up to 25%. This means as you tow a bogged 4WD out, the strap stretches and avoids the jerk or shock load associated with using a chain or static tow rope. Obviously, you can avoid the shock loading with a static tow rope by gently taking up the tension and only taking off once the tow rope is taught. However, this severely limits the the amount of energy you can apply to pulling the bogged vehicle out. More often than not, the result is a bogged vehicle that doesn't move, and the recovery vehicle starts to sink!
A snatch strap allows for some momentum to be built up, which applies more force to the vehicle being recovered and gives it a much higher chance of moving.
You can pick a snatch strap up for about $60 - $100, making them an extremely attractive option for 4WD recoveries. It also means that nearly every 4WD heading off the bitumen has a snatch strap in the back of their vehicle. However, as mentioned above, they are not suitable for many different types of recoveries.
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What's the problem with snatch straps?
I'm going to start with a video that highlights how dangerous snatch straps can be. Please excuse the wind noise.
If you blinked, you'd miss the snatch strap breaking. It happens in less than a second, and there have been plenty of occasions where these have done more damage than just a rear window.
If you aren't aware, people have been killed and badly hurt more than a handful of times throughout the world in 4WD recoveries that have gone badly wrong. There have been several people in Australia alone who have lost their lives, or been badly hurt, and we need to spread the education to prevent it from happening. The unfortunate thing in these recoveries is more often than not, snatch straps are the contributing factor.
Snatch straps can be deadly. I'll say that again; snatch straps not used correctly and in the right application have, and can kill people.
This is by far and away the most important thing you need to consider. You head out into the bush with your 4WD for a bit of fun, not to say good bye for the last time to one of your best mates. Asides from the safety factor, snatch straps can easily put excessive strain on your vehicles chassis, and can the result is expensive repairs. Vehicle manufacturers do not design chassis's so you can put 10 tonnes of snatch strap force on one side!
So, what makes snatch straps so dangerous?
The fact that snatch straps are made to stretch is a double edged sword. It means the vehicle towing can get a run up, and be moving a lot quicker than they could if they had to take up the tension on a tow rope and then go. Snatch straps work using kinetic energy, which is stored in the strap until the vehicle being towed begins to move, it pulls the recovery vehicle back, or something breaks.
If you compare it to a winch, where the force is gradually applied over 3 - 10 seconds, a snatch strap is at the other end of the scale. Instead of gradually applying pressure to the recovery and slowly moving the 4WD, an extreme amount of force is applied to both 4WD's.
So, you have extreme forces being applied to two 4WD's over a tiny moment in time, and what do you think is likely to happen? Best case scenario and the bogged vehicle begins to move. The next best scenario is that the bogged vehicle stays stationary, and the recovery vehicle gets pulled back.
Beyond these two scenario's, it gets nasty. The next likely case is the snatch strap breaks, and flicks through the air, only stopping when it hits something, or comes to the end of its length. Worst case scenario, what ever is attached to the snatch strap breaks, and you have a chunk of metal flying through the air at an even quicker rate. I believe that a shackle or recovery point attached to a snatch strap can travel at over 300km/h. That's easily enough to go through windows, or to kill someone.
Snatch straps break on a regular basis. Sometimes its due to their age and condition, but it is often due to the stress being applied to the snatch strap. When wet, snatch straps are even more likely to break.
The quickest way to recover a 4WD is not always the safest! Convenience is a Snatch Straps worst enemy.
Snatch straps take all of 30 seconds to get out, unroll, attach to the 4WD's and jump back in your vehicle. The thing is though, that's the most unsafe manner you can do a 4WD recovery in.
Have a think about how badly bogged the vehicle is, and how much force is going to be required to get it moving again. What other options are there?
Lack of education
The fact that anyone can walk into a 4WD store and pick up a snatch strap, then use it in any way they want is seriously dangerous. It's not that people are stupid either (although that is sometimes the case!), the fact is, education on these things is not widely publicized and as a result people get hurt. Even today, after so much publicity, people still put their snatch straps over tow balls. Why? More often than not, because they have no idea of how dangerous it is.
You need to have a basic understanding of 4WD recoveries and the force involved to make an educated and safe decision. Your understanding should cover snatch strap capacities, forces involved with 4WD recoveries, recovery points, joining snatch straps, using equaliser straps, lifting equipment and the list goes on.
It takes a full 5 days to complete a dogman course in Australia, which allows you to rig loads for lifting. The forces involved in snatch strap recoveries can be significantly more dangerous than dogging in an industrial environment. Guess what though? You don't need any training, or education to use a snatch strap!
The most dangerous part of a snatch strap recovery is more often than not where you attach the snatch strap to each vehicle. As far as I know, the only vehicle that comes from the factory with rated recovery points is the Isuzu MUX, which has two rated recovery points on the front rated at 2000kg each. That is 4000kg when used with an equaliser strap, and no where near the 8,000kg rated snatch straps that most people use.
Every single other 4WD does not have Rated recovery points, unless you have gone and fitted aftermarket ones. Bear in mind though, your aftermarket recovery points are often generic, and even though they may be rated, it doesn't mean that where you bolt them to is! Most chassis are only 3mm thick, and the recovery points are only held on by two captive nuts. It doesn't take much to rip the nuts through the chassis, or tear the steel away.
So, you've got some aftermarket, rated recovery points on your 4WD. Fantastic. Are they rated for snatch strap recoveries? I bet not. There is a vast difference between towing or winching a vehicle out and applying huge forces with a snatch strap.
Consider the aftermarket recovery points for a minute. Most are 4500kg, or 8000kg. I would suggest the average snatch strap in smaller vehicles is 6000kg, moving up to 11,000kg for the full size 4WD's. That means your snatch strap has a higher breaking point than your recovery points. Do you think that's safe? I wrote a post a while back continuing on this - What is the weakest link in your 4WD recovery?
A lack of control
Snatch straps work on a substantial amount of energy being released over a tiny period in time. Their very nature means its very difficult to control the exact amount of force you apply to both vehicles, and you have no idea as to whether the bogged car is going to move or not.
It's all a bit of a guessing game, depending on how bogged the vehicle is, how much the strap is going to stretch, and how much of a run up you get before the strap stops stretching and begins to move the bogged vehicle.
If you are after control, a winch is the ultimate solution. Slow, simple, easily controlled and it applies the pressure gradually.
Snatch straps have been banned on some mine sites
Mine sites are notorious for being extremely safety conscious. In many cases, they go over board, but not always. Did you know that snatch straps have been banned on some mine sites in Australia? Why do you think they would do this? It's not to increase th.eir profits, or to make the lives of their employee's easier, its because snatch straps can be extremely dangerous, and they don't want people getting hurt or killed.
I'm not for a minute suggesting we should be banning snatch straps, but the way they are used needs a whole lot more education and clarification.
So, when should you use a snatch strap?
As a last resort
Yep, that's right. Snatch straps should not be the first thing you pull out when you need to recover a 4WD. They should be one of the last things you pull out. Self recovery is preferable, and there are plenty of different ways you can do this. Start with your tyre pressures; are they at the right pressure for the terrain you are driving on? In many cases you can simply deflate your tyres, and drive out.
If your tyre pressures are correct, get on the end of a shovel for 5 minutes and dig yourself out. 5 minutes on the shovel will make your recovery much easier and safer. Maxtrax or other recovery boards are incredibly effective, and require no second vehicle, and pretty well eliminate risk. From there, move to using a winch if possible. Yes, it's slower, but its much safer!
Low force recoveries
Snatch straps are most dangerous when used on high force recoveries. This is almost always when a snatch strap breaks, or when a recovery point gets ripped off. I'd say a high force recovery is when you are bogged in sand or mud beyond axle height on at least three wheels. You don't need much experience off road to tell what classifies as a high force recovery; just consider the weight of your 4WD, and what it has to move through to get rolling again.
Sand is a better terrain to get stuck in than mud. You don't appreciate the suction mud has on a 4WD until you've been bogged in a big mud hole. The suction is truly unbelievable. Snatch straps don't cut it for being bogged in the mud, and you risk killing someone by using them. Instead, Maxtrax, winches and a shovel are much more preferable.
The thing is though, snatch straps are cheap and convenient, which is why people go for them for most of their recoveries. Next time you have a high stress recovery to perform, put the straps away. If you've run out of options, get someone out with a winch!
Things to remember when using a snatch strap
Next time you need to recover a vehicle with a snatch strap, make sure you take a minute to consider the following:
No tow ball
I'll keep saying this, until people stop using tow balls as a place to recover off. Tow balls are not designed for shock loading, and plenty have sheared off when they've been recovered from. Take the hitch out, and feed the strap through your hitch receiver, with the pin in place and R clip holding the pin there if you must. Better still, buy a hitch receiver recovery point for about $50! Don't use your tow ball!
Snatch strap condition
Snatch straps will usually break at the webbing, where the eye is sewn in place. Before you use a snatch strap, have a look at its condition. If there are any scuff marks, broken pieces or its been covered in mud in the back of your car for some time, get another strap!
Snatch straps do not last forever. They will get damaged, and if you don't clean and care for them properly, they will break much sooner than their normal breaking point.
In any 4WD recovery, you should have at least one dampener on the strap or rope. If you haven't got a proper 4WD recovery dampener, a towel or a big jumper works well. Most people put these in the middle of the strap, but if you have two, spread them apart for better dampening effects. This way, if the strap does break, or something attached to your snatch strap does, it will be slowed down dramatically by the dampener.
Rated recovery points and equaliser straps
If you don't have rated recovery points, do not use a snatch strap. Period. Tow down points are notorious for failing. Make sure your rated recovery points are bolted to the chassis by at least two M12 grade 8.8 (high tensile) bolts. Your chassis should be in good condition, as well as the retaining bolts and captive nuts. If you haven't removed your recovery point in a while, its a good idea; the bolts will rust out.
I changed the recovery points on Our 80 series Land cruiser not long after getting it, and was surprised to see the bolts going into the chassis were about 1/3 rusted away along the shank!
Use both recovery points if possible, and share the load through an equaliser strap. This spreads the load over your chassis, and reduces the chance of damaging it. It also reduces the chance of breaking a recovery point off your chassis.
Correct snatch strap capacity and run up
Use the correct snatch strap for the recovery. If you have a 3.5 tonne Patrol bogged on the beach, a 6 tonne snatch strap isn't going to cut the mustard. You want 2 - 3 times the vehicles weight (7 - 11 tonnes). If you need to apply more than about 8 tonnes of force to a 4WD recovery, you need to be looking at other options!
If you have to get more than a car's length run up to pull someone out, there's a pretty good chance something is going to go wrong. I always suggest the first pull should be done with the strap just resting on the ground; use it as a tow rope to start off with.
From there, you can get a bit more of a run up if the vehicle doesn't move, but don't push your luck. The faster you are moving before the strap takes the tension up, the more likely something is to break.
If the vehicle doesn't move after 3 attempts, back off and look for a different way to recover the 4WD.
Spectators standing back
Don't recover a 4WD with onlookers standing within 1.5 times the length of the tow straps. If something does break, you want to be sure no one is going to get hit by an object flying at 300km/h
Correct method of joining the snatch strap
You can safely join snatch straps together, but it needs to be done in the right manner. If you choke a strap, or basket it you weaken the strap considerably. Straps should be joined together with a magazine in between them, and done in a figure of 8. It's pretty hard to explain how to do this with words, but I will give it a go. You've got two snatch straps (A and B). Feed the eye of A through the eye of B, and then feed the other end of B through the eye of A. Put a magazine in the middle to stop the join from tightening when used.
Reduce the missiles
When you recover a stuck 4WD, you should remove any items in a recovery that don't need to be there. Extra shackles are the most common for this; if you don't need the shackle, remove it from the equation!
Snatch straps have their place. I don't have a problem with them, when they are used correctly and safely. However, in the wrong hands they are potentially deadly. Please stay safe out there, and look after each other. We don't need any more 4WD recovery accidents.