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.
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.
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.
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!
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!)
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.
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.
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?
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.
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!
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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?
I recall writing that, and wondering if people would be able to follow along. It’s best that you see it on a video, like the one here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f5BMbExC6kU
All the best
Would you please add a diagram to demonstrate the method you mention under point 4 on this webpage: https://www.4wdingaustralia.com/4×4/20-things-you-should-never-do-in-a-4wd-recovery/
And please tell me when you have, so I can download it?
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
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.