Spend enough time off-roading and overlanding and you’ll eventually get stuck in the mud, sand, or snow. When you do, you’ll be glad you’re carrying traction boards, a clutch piece of off-road recovery gear. Also known as recovery tracks or traction mats — traction boards are rigid, textured planks that can be placed under your vehicle’s wheels to provide better grip.
Below we’ll cover a range of aspects related to choosing and using traction boards. But first here are a few quick picks for quality traction boards, in case you are just looking for a quick suggestion.
The Australian-made traction boards from Maxtrax first arrived on the market in 2005 and are now synonymous with the concept of traction boards. If you want to get a brand name traction board with a terrific reputation for quality, a set of Maxtrax MK2s is a good choice. They aren’t cheap. But as the saying goes, you get what you pay for.
ARB Tred Pro
Another Australian company with a long history in the off-roading and overlanding business, ARB also makes traction boards, which they call “recovery boards.” ARB Tred Pro boards are very similar to Maxtrax. They are solidly manufactured and will hold up to abuse on the trail. We give them bonus points for the cool grey and orange colors — which kinda matches the Ordealist logo…
GoTreads are a bit different than other traction boards. Instead of being a “board” per se, they are composed of sections that allow it to fold up into a square stack. The downside is that you don’t have a firm plank to support your vehicle over gaps in the terrain. The upside is that GoTreads can conform to the terrain. Also, if you need to level a vehicle or trailer with a roof-top tent on top, you can use the GoTreads as a leveling block — a huge bonus for people with roof-top tents.
What are traction boards used for?
While the primary function of traction boards is to provide grip — as the name implies — they can serve a number of purposes when traveling off-road.
Provide Traction in Mud, Sand, Ice and Snow
This is the primary intended use of traction boards. Whether you are traveling off-road or on paved roads but in challenging conditions, they can be placed under your tires to provide grip when you get bogged down or the road is too slick.
Bridge Holes and Ledges
When you are driving over deep holes or climbing up and down ledges, a good traction board can serve as a bridge to prevent your wheels from dropping so far that your chassis hits the ground or obstacle. Because of the weights involved in using a traction board as a bridge, this use case makes the argument for getting a quality set of boards. Cheap knockoffs are likely to break.
Dig Out Wheels
In truth, an actual shovel will work better for digging snow, sand or mud away from wheels. But, if you are going to use the traction board anyway, it’s sometimes simpler and faster just to use it as a shovel. That way you don’t have to get both the traction board and a shovel out. If you’re looking at a LOT of digging, it’s probably worth using your trail shovel.
How do you use off road traction boards?
It’s pretty simple to use a traction board:
- Clear away any debris that’s in the way of placing the board near your tire
- Place the board in front or in back of your stuck wheel, pushed right up against the tire’s tread so it makes good contact.
- Put your vehicle in low gear and slowly accelerate so that when the tire moves towards the board, the treads on your tire will grip the rubber and lugs on the traction board.
- Drive forward slowly until you drive off the end of the traction board.
For use as a bridge, you simply put the tread over a whole or between the top and bottom of a ledge. Then drive over it slowly and carefully.
Factors to consider when choosing traction boards
Traction boards are relatively simple devices, but there are a few option to keep in mind when choosing a set.
Maxtrax-style traction boards typically come in a couple of different sizes. The larger ones are for big vehicles with lots of storage and big tires. The shorter ones are for smaller vehicles such as smaller SUVs (think Subaru Outbacks) and small all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and utility terrain vehicles (ATVs).
The material traction boards are made of will determine their flexibility/stiffness and their durability. More expensive brands like Maxtrax and ARB traction boards are made of heavy-duty impact-resistant polymers that can withstand heavy loads and bounces back after flexing substantially. If you are on the trail only occasionally, these may be overkill and a cheaper brand would work just fine. This is a matter of getting what you pay for and manage your expectations accordingly.
Traction boards come in a variety of colors. I’m partial to brightly colored boards (blaze orange or bright red, for instance) as they are easier to see when you are driving over them, particularly if you’re using them at night. That said, if vanity dictates that you match the color of your boards to the color of your rig, who are we to quibble.
This one’s simple. Get the best board you can afford.