ECOA Recovery Guide – Phase 3: Adding to the basics

In the last recovery article I spelled out a basic list of recovery equipment I consider essential to every 4wd vehicle that considers off-pavement travel.  In this article we’ll take that basic kit and add to it.  By fleshing out the kit with a few additional accessories and additional recovery equipment we can make sure out slightly modified vehicle can still be recovered.

This was a tricky recovery requiring an angular pull with the winch.
A strap was also used from the rear of the Toyota to the front of the Jeep.
There was also a lot of digging.

Another bonus of fleshing out the recovery kit is increasing the ways in which the basic recovery gear can be used.  The more functional an item the better.  Read on for more details…

Non-OEM Jack

If you’ve added a lift kit and larger tires to your 4wd vehicle then chances are your OEM jack is completely and totally useless.  Even if you added a few extra pieces of scrap wood to the pile, your OEM jack just isn’t going to cut it any more – not to mention the inherent problems associated with a tall pile of wood and then having to carry it with you.  Non-OEM jacks will come in three flavors.

First will be a heavy duty scissor jack.  This is the aftermarket big brother on steroids to your OEM jack.  It’s bigger, taller, and stronger.  It can lift more weight further and usually with less effort.  At the very least a bigger scissor jack will allow you to jack up the axle on your lifted 4×4 and, if needed, even reach the frame with a little help from that scrap wood or a purpose made off-road base.  You can also increase the range of your stock jack with a purpose built off-road base.

A good way to extend the range, and footprint, of a jack is with an off road base.
The AEV Jack Base work with the OEM JK scissor jack as well as others using the same size base.

The second type of aftermarket jack to consider is the hydraulic bottle jack.  Some 4wd vehicles
come with a small bottle jack.  Once you add a lift and bigger tires that wee little jack isn’t up to the task.  Also, a fully kitted out and loaded overland rig is heavy.  A small OEM jack may just give up the ghost and quit on you.  A heavy duty aftermarket jack can, like its cousin the aftermarket heavy duty scissor jack, lift more further with ease than it’s smaller OEM counterpart.

Kits like this from Safe Jack are a great way to add a hydraulic jack to your arsenal.
With a range of attachments, extensions, and base plates
you can safely raise your vehicle’s axle or frame.

The last type of aftermarket jack I’m going to mention is the farm jack also known as a tractor jack or more commonly by the brand name “Hi-Lift.”  These jacks are like the jewelry of the offroad world, especially on Jeeps.  Pretty much every 4×4 has one.  On something that is body-on-frame like a Jeep they are probably more useful than bottle or scissor jacks.  There are also countless accessories for farm jacks that give them a wide array of uses.  They can be adapted to be used as a come-along, hooks can allow them to attach to wheels, and the handles can even be turned into shoves and other digging tools.  Needless to say, they are popular for a reason.

Kyle from Off Road Consulting and Training demonstrates a Hi-Lift brand farm jack on the front of his LJ.
Hi-Lift offers a wide range of accessories including off-road bases, straps, and tool attachments.
Mounting solutions are plentiful too.

As far as which one you should buy, well that depends on a lot actually.  As useful as they are I’m not sure ever 4wd vehicle needs a farm jack.  I love my Hi-Lift but I honestly don’t use it that much.  When I need it I really need it.  However I have a Jeep Wrangler.  It’s body-on-frame with squared off solid steel bumpers.  It makes sense for me to have one.  People with modern SUV’s and trucks which rounded bodies comprised of mostly plastic and thin sheetmetal probably aren’t going to be able to use a farm jack.  There are also times (like changing a tire) when the simple solution – a scissor jack or bottle jack – makes the most sense and will work the quickest.  In my opinion if you’ve added a lift kit and bigger tires to your rig you should upgrade your OEM jack to a heavy duty aftermarket version even if you get something like a Hi-Lift.   Conversely, just because you have something like a Hi-Lift doesn’t mean you can toss out your OEM jack and not replace it.

Traction Mats and Bridging Ladders

Say the following sentence with me out loud, “traction mats and bridging ladders are two different things with two different purposes.”  For good measure go back and read it out loud again.  I have see too many debates about which is better or which one someone should by when the people arguing think two very different products are the same.

A traction mat does just that, increase traction.  They also add floatation by spreading out the weight load of a vehicle over a larger surface area.  They are great in things like sand, snow, and mud.  When things get slippery a track mat can often make short work of the recovery without the complexities of a vehicle-to-vehicle strap or winch.  They can also sometimes prevent a sticky situation when used preemptively across a soft bottomed stream, through a deep snow drift, or across a freshly windblown sand dune.

The first name in traction mats is Maxtrax.
Made of a durable, yet flexible, plastic they work great in sand, snow, and mud.

In contrast, a bridging ladder is used for spanning a cap that ranges for a few feet.  When I think of bridging ladders I think of the iconic black-and-white photos of adventure vehicles like the Camel Trophy rigs or Mark Smith’s Jeeps navigating their way through South America.  Strapped to the roof are long ladders ranging from as short as four feet to as long as eight feet.  They are great for spanning long gaps when accompanied by sharp ledges.  If the solution is to go OVER rather than THROUGH then a bridging ladder will make more sense than a traction mat.

In contrast to flexible traction mats, bridging ladders are firm.
While still lightweight, their construction allows them to form a ramp or bridge.
If used as a traction mat their honeycomb structure will allow them to sink.

The reason I emphasis this is because good traction mats make lousy bridging ladders and good bridging ladders make lousy traction mats.  The reason being has everything to do with their construction.  Traction mats are often lightweight, flexible, and solid.  They bend to slide under a tire and the subtle deformation adds to the traction they provide.  They’d be terrible at supporting the weight of a vehicle over a gap.  In contrast, a bridging ladder which is designed to span a large gap is often made using a lightweight truss form of construction.  Often they are made from aluminum which when trussed and gusseted can span long gaps with relatively little material. This open form of construction means they’d make lousy traction mats due to the lack of surface area. That reduced surface area means they’d provide little to no flotation in soft terrain like sand, mud, or snow.

The happy medium between the plastic traction mats like Maxtrax and the bridging ladders is PSP.
“Perforated Steel Plate” was used during the second World War for the construction or emergency runways.
The interlocking plates can be linked and stacked when needed making them very versatile.

Which one is right for you will depends on the type of terrain you travel.  If you’re a snow-bunny or beach-bum then traction mats are going to be worth their weight in gold.  Sand and snow are the two areas when a traction mat really shines.  If you’re in an area where roads are often washed out leaving nasty ruts and cuts, then a set of bridging ladders might be more useful.  They can be used to span narrow gaps often cut by fast moving water.  They can also be used as ramps to drop down off a ledge caused by erosion.  In an ideal world you’d have both, but more often than not you won’t need both.

Digging tools

I have a rule when I am making a recovery.  If I cannot see both axles of a rig I won’t even attempt the recovery.  More often than not a messy hard recovery can be made easier with a little digging.  By exposing the axles of a mired rig (whether it’s snow, sand, or mud) you can reduce the effective load on the recovery system.  You can also prevent damage to suspension and driveline components.  A little bit of elbow grease can go a long way.  Removing as much material that is in the way is also a great way to reduce the working load on recovery components like tow-hooks, straps, and winches.

While shovels come in many shapes and sizes…

Digging tools can also be used in constructive manner.  By adding material under the tires of a vehicle (used in conjunction with a jack to lift it up) you can often get a vehicle unstuck without making an actual recovery.  I’ve used this system on high-center vehicles as well as ones that had gotten twisted up and unloaded their open differentials.  Just like stacking rocks, a modest pile of dirt, sand, snow, or gravel can go a long way in helping a rig over an obstacle.

The trusty spade shovel is going to be your best bet.
The sharp point is good for digging, and the medium scope is good at moving material.
Not too large, not too small, you’ll want something that will work effectively as well as store efficiently.

Digging tools are also useful outside of recoveries.  They are great for building, repairing, and maintaining trails.  Around the campsite there are 100’s of potential uses.  I often keep a shovel around the fire pit and prefer to smoother a fire with dirt rather than water if I can help it.  It’s also good to fill in a temporary fire pit rather than leave the open burn scar (which in some areas is required).

Standard military Pioneer Tool Kit is a great well rounded tool set for any off road enthusiast.
The tools are equally useful around camp and on the trail.
The military-issue rack is also a nice way to store them and keep them organized.

If you’re ever curious what types of digging tools might be useful to carry, check out a military pioneer kits (usually an axe, shovel, and pick), the tools on a forest service rig (ironically very similar to those of military pioneer kit plus rakes), or my personal favorite those carried by wilderness firefighters (namely the venerable Pulaski and McLeod tools).

The McLeod Tool is part rake, part hoe and all business.
It’s great for working loose terrain.
When used off-road it’s great and excavating out from under a vehicle when a shovel won’t reach.

A Pulaski tool is like having to axes in one.
The vertical blade is great at cutting while the horizontal blade is good at digging.
While not essential for everyone, it would be useful on the east coast where terrain is more earthy and contains roots.

Ground Anchors

Having done the vast majority of my wheeling on the east coast I’ve been privileged to never be far from a tree.  Big trees like oaks and pines with wide sturdy trunks make the best ground anchors.  However, out west I found such anchors to be non-existant in many locations.  Not having a suitable ground anchor basically turns a winch into a glorified paper weight.  However, there are options.

The tried-and-true Pull Pal is the first thing that comes to mind when talking about portable ground anchors.  While it might look like something MacGyver made out of some leftover parts, its functionality is only surpassed by its relatively compact form-factor when collapsed.  The Pull Pal is great in lose terrain when natural anchors like rocks and trees are lacking.  When deployed the large spade is driven into the ground the the harder it is pulled on the harder it digs into the ground.  This can make a winch recovery possible both in a self-extrication manner (from vehicle to anchor) or helping secure a winch vehicle (when making a vehicle to vehicle pull and preventing the winch vehicle from sliding on loose terrain).

The Pull Pal portable land anchor looks a lot like its nautical cousin.
It also works in a similar fashion hooking and digging into the ground when under load.

The Pull Pall also folds nicely and can store easily in a variety of locations.

In recent years a new portable ground anchor has hit the market. The Deadman Earth Anchor is a rather simple, but elegant, approach to recovering in loose terrain.  For lack of a better description the Deadman deploys like a tarp that you fill with dirt, sand, snow, or even mud.  When buried appropriately the Deadman work in much the same way as a Pull Pal but at a fraction of the weight.  The tradeoff is it requires more work and a trusty shovel.  The Deadman can also double as a large tree-saver (or even a rock-saver) and can even help with vehicle rollovers when used appropriately.

The Deadman Earth Anchor in all it’s glory.

Buried the Deadman works great in sand and even snow.

The Deadman can also be used as a tree or rock saver.

Fear not.  If you ever find yourself in need of a ground anchor and lack a Pull Pal, Deadman, or other purpose built portable ground anchor you can always improvise.  If need be you can always improvise and make your own out of what you have on hand.  At the very least you should have a shovel, a spare tire, and an off-road jack.  Together you can dig a hole, burry the tire and jack, and use them as an anchor.  Other things like loose rocks or even long logs can be buried in similar fashion.  While not the best option, and more often than naught it will lead to something being damaged (either the wheel or jack) it’s a trick worth knowing if you find yourself in a life-or-death situation and absolutely need to make the recovery.

When needed, get creative.
MacGyver would be proud.

Advanced Rigging Gear

The vast majority of the recoveries I have participated in have been have been simple linear pulls (either with a strap or a winch).  More often than naught the mantra of “don’t dig yourself a grave” comes into play and I do my best to avoid making a bad situation worse.  However, while 99 out of a hundred recoveries might need nothing more than a pair of soft shackles and a strap, that one rare one will be a royal pain in the but.

Most basic recovery kits, like the Warn Epic Kit previously mentioned, come with the minimum essentials you need even for moderately complicated recoveries.  Tree-savers, snatch-blocks, and other straps can help with non-linear pulls as well as doubling up the pulling power of a winch.  However, if you need to take things to the next level and go multi-angular or triple or quadruple your winches pulling power you’ll need a more advanced rigging kit.

Snatch blocks (aka a “winch pulley”) can change the direction of a pull.
Multiple snatch blocks can be use to multiple the pulling force of a winch.
However, more force means less speed; which isn’t always a bad thing.

If one is good, and two is better, three is amazing, right?  Right.  Luckily you don’t have to go out and buy three of everything.  Speaking from my own experience, the only time I’ve needed a complicated rigging system was when I was in a group.  Traveling solo I’m operating under a strict, “rather safe than sorry” mantra and do my best to take it easy.  In remote territory with larger groups is when a larger kit is necessary.  In that case a more advanced rigging kit can usually be made out of multiple basic kits.

By combining a number of smaller basic kits (one per vehicle) you can usually come up with enough straps and snatch-blocks to make a pretty good 3:1 or 4:1 block-and-tackle kit.  You can also combine tree-savers, straps, and winch-line extensions to make some pretty long linear and non-linear pulls.  I remember one instance when we winched a Lexus out of a ditch using a number of tree-savers and snatch blocks.  I also remember a very lengthy linear recovery when we winched a Subaru up one of the more difficult trails in Uwharrie National Forest.  It’s not often that you’ll need more than the basic recovery gear that you carry, but when in a group it’s always nice to know how to combine kits into something with a lot more flexibility and have the skills and experience to utilize them.


As always, the best way to improve your vehicle’s kit is to improve your skills.  Taking formal recovery and winching classes from certified professionals is a great safe way to learn new complex skills in a controlled environment.  Having the right gear is on a tiny portion of what’s needed.  You still need the knowledge, experience, and confidence to use that equipment when the time comes.

Disclaimer: This article is by no means the end-all or be-all when it comes to off road vehicle recovery.  These articles serve as a way to encourage readers to seek out more knowledge and experience.  As such, any and all illustrations and product references are to be taken at their face value for casual educational purposes only.