20 things you should never do in a 4WD recovery

Being bogged in your 4WD isn’t the most pleasant feeling, but there are plenty of ways to get yourself moving again. There’s nothing abnormal about being stuck; people recover bogged 4WD’s every day of the year.

However, there are still many, many people who don’t have the knowledge or consideration to safely recover a stuck 4WD. Too often when things go wrong, it involves snatch straps, which are not designed for every single 4WD recovery you come across. So, when should you use a snatch strap?

This article delves into the common mistakes that people make when recovering a 4WD, and sharing it around might just save someone from a serious accident or even death.

Bogged at Lancelin
Yeah, not the best feeling in the world!

If you don’t know already, there have been more than a handful of people in Australia alone (and many, many more worldwide) killed or seriously injured by 4WD recoveries that have gone wrong. For a full list in Australia, check out 4WD recovery deaths in Australia.

When you get a 4WD stuck, the forces required to get it moving again can be substantial (there’s a comprehensive post about them here – 4WD recovery forces). Safety is obviously the most important factor when it comes to recovering a 4WD, but from a practical sense recoveries can be made very difficult with the wrong techniques. For more information, check out 4WDing skills and techniques.

With this in mind, here are 20 things you should never do in a 4WD recovery:

1) Use the tow ball

I’m going to put this as number one. Luckily, this has been publicised a lot more in recent years, but people still seem to think it is OK to throw a snatch strap over the tow ball when recovering a 4WD.

Tow balls are not designed for the sort of stress a snatch strap or winch can put on them, and are actually very brittle. If you snatch off your tow ball, it’s very likely to shear off, and fly through the air.

A chunk of metal like that, flying through the air as quickly as it does has the potential to kill, and it has done in the past. A few years ago a lady was killed near Geraldton whilst recovering a stuck 4WD on the beach.

The tow ball broke off the vehicle being recovered, flew through the front window and killed her. Such a tragedy, and she was only trying to help out.

Please don’t use tow balls for recoveries. We don’t need any more accidents or deaths. You can read more about this at Tow balls in 4WD Recoveries can kill you. A tow ball recovery gone wrong is not something you want to be a part of.

Tow ball 4WD Recovery
Tow Balls are not safe for 4WD recoveries!

2) Stand close to the action

The next ‘big’ mistake so many people make when recovering a 4WD is to stand close to the action. Yep, its exciting, and you want to see what is happening, but you need to be at least 1.5 times the length of the strap or winch cable away from the action.

You’ll still be able to see, but it means if something does go pear shaped you aren’t going to get wiped out by a piece of recovery gear.

Spectators are the worst for doing this; those who have no idea and just want to see what the fuss is about. Just politely inform them to move out the way, and refuse to recover a stuck 4WD with those standing nearby. It’s not worth the risk.

Bogged Defender on the Holland Track
Stand clear of any recoveries

3) Recover before using a shovel

Using a shovel might not be the easiest job, but spending 5 minutes digging around a stuck 4WD reduces the forces put on your recovery gear dramatically.

You want to dig in front of all 4 wheels, to give the vehicle a chance to pop up onto the surface again without having to push half a tonne of mud, snow or sand out of the way first!

Out came the Maxtrax
A few minutes on the shovel saves a whole lot of stress and risk

4) Join snatch straps together with a shackle

Snatch straps come in a variety of lengths. However, in many situations, you aren’t able to get close enough to use just one snatch strap. The logical step then, is to join two together. This is fine, providing you do it with a bit of care and consideration.

Joining two snatch straps (or any straps involved in a 4WD recovery) together with a shackle is very, very dangerous. The shackle isn’t likely to break, but snatch straps do on a fairly regular basis, and that shackle will fly through the air until it hits something, or comes to the end of the strap.

If someone is in the way of that chunk of flying metal, they aren’t going to be in very good shape. The correct way to join two snatch straps together is by feeding one end of snatch strap A through the eye of snatch strap B.

Then, feed the same eye of snatch strap A over the other end of snatch strap B and pull it tight. This only takes a few seconds, and ensures that both snatch straps are holding together firmly.

To stop the pulling tight when doing a recovery, roll a newspaper or magazine up and stick it between the 2 straps. You can recover a 4WD without doing this, but you will spent hours trying to get the knot out afterwards. Trust me, I know; I’ve had to do it!

Some 4WD recovery kits today come with soft shackles, which can be safely used to join two straps together as they will carry very little inertia (unlike a steel one!)

Joining straps with a shackle
Join your straps together without a shackle. They are an unnecessary danger

5) Rush around

Stress levels are elevated for sure during a 4WD recovery. However, it pays to take a second to stand back and consider what you are doing. There are plenty of different ways to recover a stuck 4WD, and you should decide on the quickest, safest and easiest method!

Unless the tide is coming in, or your car is being filled up with water, you have time to consider what your options are, set the recovery up carefully and methodically, and get the bogged 4WD out without anything breaking! Have a think about What the weakest link is in your 4WD recovery, and factor that in to the way you set about it.

6) Recover from points that are not rated

Very, very few 4WD’s come from the factory with Rated recovery points. If you don’t believe me; ring your manufacturer and ask. I bet they won’t give you written evidence stating their factory points are suitable for snatch or winch recoveries.

Your car may have a couple of ‘points’ that look like they are good for recovering off, but take a closer look and you will be surprised. Most of these points are actually tie down points, which are used for transporting the vehicle.

The way that the hook, loop, angle or plate is attached to your chassis is a dead give-away of how strong they are; if it is not held there by at least two M12 grade 8.8 bolts, you shouldn’t recover off it.

The result of doing so is the same as having a shackle or tow ball fly through the air. Tow points aren’t light either, and could easily kill someone. Most 4WD’s come with a tow bar; get yourself a recovery hitch and use it.

Safe 4WD recovery
Make sure your recovery points are rated with a WLL

7) Use 4WD recovery gear that is not rated

Not only do your recovery points need to be rated, but anything that is involved in a 4WD recovery should be stamped or tagged that it is rated. Shackles are a scary example of this – if your shackles are plain grey with no writing stamped on them, they are not rated!

They are classed as general purpose, and are not manufactured for lifting or recoveries. All rated shackles will be stamped with their WLL (working load limit), and usually have coloured pins.

The most common shackles used in a 4WD recovery are 4.75 tonnes. You can use the 3.2 tonne ones, but only in pairs.

Likewise, equaliser straps, snatch straps, tree trunk protectors, snatch blocks, winches, hooks and anything else you may use in a 4WD recovery must be rated. Using something that isn’t could lead to a breakage, which is something you really, really want to avoid. Always consider the weakest link in your 4WD recovery; it’s not worth the risk.

Load tested recovery point
Make sure it is tested and stamped

8) Ignore your tyre pressures

Tyre pressures are the most critical thing you can control when 4WDing. There’s a good chance that the 4WD you are recovering is not running the right tyre pressures, so now is the time to double check. In sand especially, this is the easiest way to make a recovery simple, safe and quick.

Don’t be afraid to let your tyres down a bit more if needed; it makes a huge difference.

Make sure you factor in the pressure change as your tyre warms up; its a significant difference. You can read more about this at 4WD tyre pressures; do you check them hot or cold?

Tyre deflator
Tyre pressures are critical; double check them!

9) Recover a vehicle in reverse

This is less of a safety thing, and more of a ‘don’t break your vehicle’ consideration, but its worth mentioning. Your 4WD gearbox is not as strong in reverse as it is in first, or second gear. If it is possible, turn your vehicle around and recover the stuck 4WD going forwards.

I know this isn’t always possible, and I have had to recover in reverse, but bear the weakness in mind and you won’t be up for a new gearbox.

4WD recovery
Unless you have to, its not a good idea to recover a 4WD in reverse

10) Use a snatch strap on a vehicle badly bogged in mud

This is a matter of perception, but in general, a vehicle that is really badly bogged in mud is not one that should be recovered by a snatch strap. Instead, a winch, Maxtrax and plenty of hard work on the shovel are the better option.

If you’ve ever been badly bogged in mud this will make perfect sense; mud has a level of suction that is truly unbelievable. The moment you stop moving, the mud sucks down on your 4WD and refuses to let go, without a lot of force applied.

The problem though, is that a snatch strap applies a lot of force over a very short amount of time. If it manages to pull the vehicle out then you are in the clear, but if it doesn’t, all of that force goes through your chassis snatch strap and recovery points.

A winch is a much better option, as it gradually applies pressure until the suction is broken and the 4WD moves (or something breaks!). The best thing to do is dig as much mud away as possible, lay your Maxtrax down and winch out.

Again, not everyone has a winch, so you have to make do with what you’ve got available, or come up with a new plan!

I’m not suggesting you chuck your snatch strap out when going 4WDing in the mud, just be aware of the extra stress you can put on your 4WD by using a snatch strap on a heavily bogged 4WD in the mud!

Snatch strap recovery
Snatch straps aren’t the safest method of recovery here

11) Ignore the second recovery point

It’s good practise to recover off two points. Ideally, you should have two rated recovery points on the front and the rear of your 4WD. If you are recovering, or being recovered, you should use an equaliser strap in between both points, with the winch or snatch strap attached to this. Some people refer to these as a recovery bridle strap.

The load is then spread over two recovery points, and puts a more even force on your chassis. A bent chassis is the last thing you want from a day’s 4WDing!

Equaliser strap on an 80
Use both rated recovery points if possible

12) Choke a strap

Whether it be snatch straps, equaliser straps or tree trunk protectors, it is a bad idea to choke a strap. What I mean by this is putting the eye of one strap through the other, and pulling it tight around something(like most dog collars are).

By doing this, you drastically reduce the strength of the strap, and may break it. In the case of tree trunk protectors, you should just basket the strap around the tree – feed one end around and attach the strap or winch onto both equal length ends of the strap.

I have seen people do this with snatch straps when joining them together too. Bad idea; join them as described above!

13) Add more potential missiles to a recovery than needed

There is a well known rule when it comes to 4WD recoveries. Don’t add any more equipment into the equation than needed. The more you add, the more potential missiles you have that could break and hurt someone. An example of this is using a shackle to attach a winch hook to a tree trunk protector, or equaliser strap.

Do away with the shackle, and attach the hook directly onto the strap. If you have rated hook recovery points, you don’t need to use a shackle. If you need to join snatch straps, do it as described above, not by using a shackle!

Reduce any missiles
Not using a rated recovery point, and it could have been done through the hitch pin, reducing any potential missiles

14) Take off full pelt for the first snatch recovery

Once you’ve been bogged a few times, you will quickly gain an appreciation for the amount of force required to pull a stuck 4WD out. This varies considerably based on the situation, but more often than not you don’t need a full speed recovery.

I always flinch when I see someone take a huge run up to snatch another 4WD out. This puts a ridiculous amount of stress on everything involved.

A good way to recover the 4WD is to start off slow, and get progressively quicker if you don’t get the car out the first time. In general, most snatch recoveries work just fine if you leave 1 – 2 metres of slack strap, and take off with the bogged vehicle turning its wheels slowly.

4WD recovery at Waroona
Most of the time just a gentle pull is all you need!

15) Use recovery equipment that isn’t suited for your vehicle

You can buy a range of different sized recovery straps, winches and other recovery equipment. If you have a Suzuki Jimny, you shouldn’t be using the same winch, snatch strap or equaliser strap as someone with a 4 tonne Land Cruiser and camper trailer hooked on the rear.

Make sure the recovery gear you have suits your vehicle; if it is too light you risk something breaking. In the case of snatch straps, if it is too heavy (like using an 11,000kg snatch strap to pull out a Sierra) it won’t stretch properly.

Buy the right 4WD gear
Make sure the equipment you use is strong enough for your 4WD

16) Don’t join things together that aren’t meant to be

Some of you would have seen drag chain, which can be used in some forms of 4WD recoveries. However, don’t attach it to a snatch strap, or use a tow rope and a snatch strap together. They aren’t intended to work together, and can cause serious damage.

I’m going to dob on myself here; not long after I bought My Hilux (with very limited 4WD experience!) I got really, really badly bogged down near Collie, and had very limited success recovering myself from the clay mud with a mates Patrol and several snatch straps.

To cut a long story short, we ended up with a very dodgy recovery taking place. It was like this – my 4500kg recovery hook, with a 6000kg snatch strap attached to it, then an 8000kg snatch strap joined to that, a length of drag chain attached to that, being pulled out with a tractor, and a 60 series Land Cruiser attached to the back of the tractor.

We did have 4WD Recovery Tracks under the wheels, which I think are the only things that saved us. I look back now, and am absolutely horrified. If something had broken, I’m positive there would have been someone killed.

Bogged in the Hilux
Our Hilux in Collie

How could I have been so stupid? The answer is simple; when you are in a high stress situation and you don’t know any better, risks are taken that shouldn’t be. Thankfully, the Hilux was recovered and no damage was done, to vehicle or person. I’m glad to say that there has been some very steep learning curves along the 4WD recovery learning path!

17) Recover a 4WD with several vehicles without considering the risks

On occasion, one 4WD will not be able to recover a bogged 4WD. A good example of this is trying to winch a stuck 4WD out of sticky mud; in many cases, the vehicle winching the bogged 4WD out will get pulled towards the muck, as opposed to the other way around.

In this situation, you’ve got a few options, but one of the more common ways is to anchor the recovery vehicle to another 4WD. This is fine, as it just stops the 4WD from moving forward as easily.

However, I have seen photos of a bogged 4WD being winched by another 4WD, who in turn is being winched by another 4WD. You need to remember that the forces are greatly increased when doing this. Occasionally people will have 3 cars joined together with snatch straps, all working as a train to pull a stuck car off a soft beach, for example.

Again, this can be fine, providing the stresses are kept down and its done safely. Food for thought.

There’s a process for recovering a 4WD, which involves looking at your options and picking the most suitable one.

Unsafe 4WD recovery

4WD recoveries like this can put a heap of stress where you don’t want it to go

18) Ignore the dampener

It’s a good idea to use a dampener when recovering a stuck 4WD by winch or snatch strap. It is there purely to reduce the recoil, should something break. You don’t have to buy a dampener; a big jumper or towel works just as well, but it’s worth putting one (or two) on.

4WD recovery dampener
A dampener is a good safety practise to get into the habit of using

19) Keep your thoughts to yourself

I don’t like telling people what they are doing is unsafe, but if you are a witness to a recovery that you think is dodgy, its worth speaking up about it. Obviously, its a judgement call, and you have to feel safe with doing this, but don’t keep your thoughts to yourself.

I remember being down at Yeagarup beach a few years ago and coming across a Jeep that was bogged to the chassis rails. A 4WD club had turned up, and got stuck into the recovery. They pulled the snatch straps out, had a bit of a chat to the driver, and set the recovery up.

I looked at what they had done; joined two straps together with a shackle. Half of me said ‘say something!’, and the other half said, no, they should know what they are doing.

Now, this wasn’t a normal beach recovery. We are talking about a done up V8 Landcruiser who gave it the berries with a big run up, and a heavy jeep with zero digging having been done, well and truly bogged.

I didn’t say anything, and the car was recovered without anyone getting hurt, but its the perfect example of when you really should say something.

Imagine if a strap had broken, and one of the many spectators had been hurt, or killed? I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself.

4WD recoveries gone wrong
Speak up if you think something is unsafe

20) Spin your wheels at a rate of knots

If you get stuck in a 4WD, the worst thing you can do is put your foot down on the accelerator. Ironically, this is usually the first thing people do when they get stuck. If your wheels turn and you don’t move forward, you are going to sink.

The longer you stay on the accelerator, the deeper your hole gets, and the harder it is to be recovered.

This is the same as when you are being recovered; a gentle turn of the wheels is a good idea as it helps to pop you back onto the surface, but there’s no need to have your car bouncing off the rev limiter!

4WD recovery
Wheel spin can make a 4WD recovery very difficult

From my perspective

I’m going to be brutally honest here; there are a number of things on this list that I have done in the past. When I look back at the way we started 4WDing, I am incredibly glad nothing broke, and no one got hurt. I can recall several recoveries where we put a snatch strap over a tow ball.

For those that have never been told, it seems the logical thing to do. Dig a little deeper though, and you soon realise they are highly dangerous! I’m glad that I’ve learned a lot, and can now pass on some of the things I’ve picked up, and hopefully save someone from getting hurt.

I’d love it if you shared this with those who may not know what they are doing is unsafe.

How many of the things above have you done before? How did you learn that what you were doing was unsafe?

Sharing is caring!

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  1. Hey Uwe,

    I’m glad you’ve found the articles useful.

    No worries at all about the error; I appreciate when people pick these up

    Have a great day

  2. Uwe-Christian Schröter says:

    I’m new to offroading and your articles are so helpful, thank you very much for taking the time to write all your knowledge down so others can profit from it.
    I noticed a tiny error: You write “as a pose to” when you mean “as opposed to”. I feel bad for criticising this but I thought you’d want to know.
    Best regards,

  3. Hey Brewster,

    Sounds like it was done carefully, and without a problem. You could have used the rear of the vehicle instead (unhitched), or the camper trailer recovery point (if it has one at the rear, but they all work, and it sounds like it was done safely. Check the condition of your strap though; drag chains tend to be the more popular option for things like this.

    I would say the forces involved in something like that are negligible compared to a full on 4WD recovery, so much less to worry about should something go wrong.

    All the best

  4. Recently whilst travelling on bitumen and towing my camper trailer, I encountered a large gum tree downed on a back road around Nerriga. With no chain saw and only a strap to pull the tree off the road, i wrapped two turns around the trunk and secured each end of the strap by shackles to my rated winch points of the TJM bar, then slowly reversed till the road was clear. In your opinion, was this the safest option given the circumstances and equipment available?

  5. Hey Cameron,

    Interesting scenario, and not one I’ve encountered.

    I’d be going off the strongest looking structure. The spring hangers would probably not be a bad idea

    All the best

  6. Cameron Wood says:

    If the vehicle is not equipped with a rated recovery point but it absolutely has to be recovered, is it safe to recover via the leaf spring hangers? Should winch hooks be used? Should I use kinetic/snatch straps or a static pull strap? I was faced with this scenario in Zambia and used a bridle on both springs l hangers.

  7. Hi Roger,

    Without knowing what is broken, its worthy of some further investigation before you do anything. You can drop either tail shaft as required, pull an axle out or just disconnect the CV on one side. I’d be loathe to move it without knowing more, or how bad of a ‘broken’ it is.

    All the best

  8. Roger Lyttle says:

    A question.. 92 Landcruiser VX.
    Something is broken in the 4 Wheel/all wheel drive system..its off road…can it be towed with 4 wheels on the ground??We can’t see what broke…its not stuck..and could be recovered by recovery truck..
    Like winched on.Would be helpful to include this in your list….how to recover a vehicle with a damaged 4 wheel drive system…remove drive shaft or shafts ???…like method used to recover and
    transport trucks to be repaired.

  9. Hi Will,

    I wouldn’t recommend recovering off any hitch, unless its a hitch receiver designed to take a shackle.

    All the best

  10. will plunkett says:

    hey mate
    just wondering if using a pin and a double tongue hitch is safe for a recovery

  11. Hey Yulia,

    Good on you for doing some research. Take your time and have fun!

    All the best

  12. Thanks for the comprehensive article. I’m a total novice considering getting into 4WDing, and this has given me a decent introduction to recovery and what I will be committing myself to!

  13. Hi Andrew,

    In general, its not a good idea, and there have been bars ripped off from doing this, which can be deadly.

    That said, some bars today come with rated recovery points in built (my AFN bar for example, and I believe TJM too) and as long as you are sensible you wouldn’t have a problem.

    I would never do it off a bar outside of its own rated recovery points


  14. Can you snatch off a bull bar?

  15. Hey Don,

    That recovery was a long time ago, and certainly not done in the safest way possible. That said, we were several hours away from anyone else to help, and we literally only had 4 snatch straps between the two of us, and a few Maxtrax. We did the best we could at the time without leaving the car there overnight (and it may have sunk even more by then!).

    We joined the straps together by feeding them through each other, but didn’t bother using anything in between (like newspaper etc) and the ‘knots’ got so tight I spent the evening separating them with a screwdriver and hammer. Not ideal.

    Joining that many snatch straps together isn’t ideal as you end up with so much stretch its almost impossible to apply force. Ideally, a winch would have been better, but without an anchor point the vehicle winching would have just been pulled towards the bogged car. Daniel’s Patrol was over 3 tonne’s here, and the back end was literally being dragged each time he tried to pull me out.

    I think the only thing that actually saved us was the Maxtrax.

    That said, if we had dampeners (which we didn’t at that time) and had distributed the load better over two recovery points (I only had one at the time) it would have been perfectly safe and reasonable to do.

    Winches are great if possible, and for high suction, but if its a hard pull you really need the non bogged vehicle to be anchored

    Here’s the full article on that bogging: https://www.4wdingaustralia.com/4×4/bogged-in-a-salt-lake-in-my-4wd/

    Take care mate

  16. Don Black says:

    Hi Aaron, great article. I was recently helping in a recovery from sand where a hard stand point was close to 30 metres away in a straight line. Good to learn about joining snatch straps together. My question is that in the Esperance photo in the article it looks like 4 straps joined together. If the other safety points you made are followed is this a reasonable solution? Or in that situation should you be looking to use a winch? It was a beach access track that was covered in soft sand from onshore winds. Thanks

  17. Hey Dave,

    Some good comments there mate, and completely agree. I might write something in the future that covers this, but didn’t want to make it too in depth and complicated. Take care


  18. David Appleton says:

    Hi you mentioned be careful with the ratings of shackles etc but VERY surprised you did not mention winch rope ratings ..you say don’t use a shackle of less than 4 ton rating but that is it rating not its braking strain
    A 4 ton shackle will have a 5-1 safety margin so a breaking strain of 20 tones!! so a littell 1 ton shackle will have a BS of 4 ton however there is no safety margin with wire winch rope fitted to a winch …an 8000Ib winch will have typically 8mm rope… the breaking strain of 8mm rope will be about 9200Ib ..only a good 1000ib margin..but it gets worse ..there is an industry standard that lowers the rating when the rope is bent round the drum, tighter the radius lower the % of the rating never mind bending it around the very tight radius of the roller fairlead ..evan the method of fixing the hook will lower the rating ..a crimp connector will lower the rating less than Cable Clamps..and i see folk putting clamps on the wrong way round 50% of the time wich will lower the rating considerably and what makes it even worse still is on many winches the rated line pull of say 8000Ib is not the max pull of the winch but the stall pull can be much higher ..and this is all assuming a new rope that never been damaged climbing over itself and folk have not fitted uprated winch motor
    A hydraulic winch is way safer as they have a relief valve ..you get to the rated pull and the winch just stops and synthetic rope is safer than steel as way less energy in it when it snaps …i would put teaching folk the limitations of winch rope at close to top of the list …good article

  19. Hey George,

    Thanks for the comment. I see where you are coming from; I did actually consider it when writing the post, but figured we could do without another 20 ‘don’ts!’.

    I think as long as people read what’s under the sub titles it should be fine


  20. A small nitpick but perhaps important, I know it’s a list of Don’ts but can I suggest each heading is prefaced with “Don’t”. Humans are weird, we tend to fixate on the last thing we hear, so a headline of “Join a snatch strap with a shackle” is what sticks in peoples head, as opposed to the missing, though implied, Don’t.

    Great list though, well explained and extremely valuable knowledge.

  21. Hi Dusan,

    Most people believe its acceptable practise to feed the loop into the hitch receiver and put the pin through it, with the R clip holding it in. If you really yanked it, the pin might bend and be a real pain to get out, but you’d have to be applying way too much force for that to happen. I have heard rumours of pins breaking, which seems unlikely to me, so the safest method is a proper hitch receiver.

    In regards to your second comment, I’ve also had that suggested to me. I think you may find the strap is more likely to break. That said, if it didn’t, at least if the ball broke it wont flick towards people. Again, not worth it – just use rated recovery points and avoid the ball at all costs


  22. Dusan Svoboda says:

    Interesting article.
    Just wondering if a vehicle could be recovered by feeding the strap loop inside the empty hitch reciever and putting the pin through it same way you would put it through the bar that holds the ball?
    Also wondering if the dreaded “ball recovery” could be made safe by first feeding the strap down through the safety chain loop, up through the other one and only then attach it to the ball.
    I would immagine that the stress to the ball would be almost non existent and even if it did snap, the strap would be pulling it towards the back of the vehicle, instead of away from it.
    What are you thoughts on these ideas?