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Off-Road Recovery Basics: How to Rescue a Stuck Vehicle

When you are traveling off-road regularly, whether on technical off-roading trips or on long overlanding adventures, at some point you’ll get stuck.

Maybe it will be some surprisingly deep sand on a desert trail. Maybe it will be a steep and snowy mountain road. Or maybe you’ll get hung up on a gnarly rock crawling trail.  

Whatever the case, you’ll need to prepare to extract your vehicle with some basic off-road recovery skills and equipment.

In this article, we’ll cover some common scenarios and offer a few off-road recovery techniques that you could employ. This is meant to be a high-level overview of off-road recovery basics to orient you to the potential problems and possible solutions. We’ll link out to other related articles where you can take a deeper dive into the various techniques, information, and gear covered here.

This article is meant for informational purposes only and doesn’t take the place of hands-on training from a qualified instructor. We recommend local off-road and overlanding clubs as a good place to find classes and instructors.   

If you are looking for a run-down of equipment used in getting unstuck, check out our guide to essential off-road recovery gear.

Fixing a Flat Tire Off Road

Changing a tire off-road can be fairly simple on flat ground.

Fixing a flat tire when you are in the backcountry often isn’t much different than fixing one on a paved road. That said, you should prepare for situations where being off-road presents particular difficulties. 

You generally have two choices when dealing with a flat off-road: 1) replace the tire with a spare, or 2) repair a damaged tire and reinflate it.

The most common fix for a flat tire is to replace it with your spare. Unlike the tiny donut wheels that come stock with most cars, for off-roading and overlanding you’ll want a full-sized spare that can handle challenging terrain. When you buy new tires, buy five tires so your spare matches the others.

One important tip is to loosen your tires lug nuts before you lift it off the ground with a jack because once it’s airborne, this can become a challenge. 

Make sure you get an off-road jack that can lift your high-clearance vehicle high enough to lift the tire off the ground. If you have put a suspension lift on your vehicle, the stock jack may no longer have the range to get the wheel off the ground.

A bottle jack that has a tall lifting range will be very useful in lifting such vehicles. Safe Jack makes a high-quality extendable bottle jack specifically designed for off-road recovery.

Perhaps the most challenging situation is trying to change a tire on uneven ground, where you may need an even taller jack to get the wheel off the ground. If possible, without causing more damage or putting someone in danger, it’s best to get to nearby level ground instead of changing a tire in a precarious situation. 

Wherever change the tire, if your bottle jack or scissors jack doesn’t reach high enough to lift the wheel off the ground, a Hi-Lift Jack or similar farm-style jack can come in handy. These jacks have a tall runner that allows them to lift a vehicle that’s high off the ground. 

Be aware that any situation where you are lifting a vehicle with a jack can be dangerous if not done properly, and that danger is magnified when using a high-lift jack. We’ve provided a basic overview of their use in a separate article, but we highly recommend getting training from an experienced instructor. 

If you don’t have a spare, for whatever reason, another option is repairing a damaged tire, assuming it isn’t damaged beyond your abilities to conduct a field repair. Typically, a simple puncture can be fixed on the trail. To fix a puncture, you’ll need a tire repair kit and some way of reinflating the tire, typically with an off-road air compressor. Follow the instructions that come with your repair kit.

Tools and gear required:

Getting out of Mud, Snow, and Sand

Clearing snow away from a wheel can help the vehicle gain momentum.

Getting stuck in mud, snow, or sand often requires similar techniques to get out. There are typically two problems that come into play in these conditions: lack of traction and getting high-pointed. 

Tires begin to slip in mud, snow, and sand due to the slickness and/or looseness of the material. When a tire can’t get a grip on the surface it begins to spin. In rescuing a vehicle stuck in these conditions, one of the primary goals is to increase traction between the wheel and the ground. 

Vehicles stuck in soft ground sometimes become high-pointed, meaning the axle or frame is being held up by the ground, which takes weight off the wheels. This results in further loss of traction between the wheels and the ground. 

There are several different approaches you can take to getting unstuck in mud, snow, and sand. Here are several you can try, in order of their labor and gear intensiveness:

1. Put your vehicle in four-wheel drive and lock the axles

If you have four-wheel drive and axle lockers, you may be in luck. It can be a bit tricky to put a vehicle in four-wheel drive while sitting still. But if possible, this will help get traction with multiple tires, which may help you pull free. Locking your differentials can make sure your tires spin together, also helping to find traction.

2. Increase traction between wheel and ground

Adding some sticks or rocks underneath the wheel can help it find grip. When sticks and rocks aren’t always readily available or aren’t working, recovery boards, offer a quick way to increase traction. You can also air down your tires to help gain traction.

3. Dig the wheels out

Sometimes, just digging around a wheel to give it room to move can help you get some momentum to get unstuck. Also, you’ll often need to dig around the wheel to add sticks, rocks, or traction devices. A good off-roading shovel is a must in these situations.

4. Tow the vehicle out

If you are with another vehicle, the rescue vehicle can pull the stuck vehicle free with a tow strap. If the rescue vehicle can’t get enough traction, you can use a kinetic energy rope to snatch the stuck vehicle free. Check out our guide to kinetic rope recovery here for more information.

5. Winch the vehicle out

A rescue vehicle with a winch can pull the vehicle free using an off-roading winch. Or the stuck vehicle can use its own winch to pull itself free. If there are no easily available anchors for self-winching, you can dig a deadman anchor or use a commercial one.

Tools and gear required:

Getting Up Hills

Land Cruiser struggling to get up a steep hill.

Going up a steep hill on an off-road trail is a common scenario where a vehicle may struggle. A steep slope combined with loose, soft ground will often cause an off-road vehicle to lose traction resulting in wheel slippage.

Hills are a common cause of off-roading accidents, and it’s important to be very careful when ascending and descending. In particular, you want to avoid rolling over, which typically happens when a vehicle turns perpendicular to the slope and topples over. The old adage, go as slow as possible and as fast as necessary definitely applies here. Momentum can be your friend, but not if it leads to your vehicle going out of control and tumbling down a hill.

You can use a number of techniques we’ve already discussed to get up challenging hills, such as using traction boards and airing down your tires. Here are some that can be particularly helpful on hills: 

1. Use four-wheel drive and axle lockers

If you have four-wheel drive and lockers, try engaging them before climbing a steep and slippery hill. If you are already on the hill and slipping, back down carefully and engage your 4×4 and lockers, then try again.

2. Get a pull from another vehicle

If there is another vehicle that has better traction or is already at the top of the obstacle, they can try to tow or winch you up the hill. Be careful of dragging a tow strap or winch line over the crown of a steep hill or obstacle as it may become damaged.

3. Self winching up a hill

You can also use your own winch to pull yourself up a hill, assuming there is a tree or other stable anchor point at the top. Be sure to use a tree strap to protect trees and your winch line from damage. Use a deadman or winch anchor if no other anchor is available.

Tools and gear required:

Further Reading

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