When you get stuck, what do you do? If you have another vehicle and a snatch strap, the recovery process is trivial. What if you’re alone? Even with a winch, you may not have a good anchor point. Even with cell signal, tow trucks may charge thousands to help, if they’re even willing to come.
This article covers many methods to recover a stuck vehicle in a variety of situations. Thanks to my propensity to drive too fast, I’ve recovered my vehicle too many times to count, and have used or developed all of these methods to success.
High-Centered vs. Loss of Traction
The first thing you need to do is identify if your vehicle is high-centered or if it has lost traction. If your vehicle is high-centered, you’ll need to start with the methods in the high-centered section. If your vehicle has lost traction, use the methods in the loss of traction section.
When your vehicle is high-centered, it has sunk into the ground deep enough that the weight of the vehicle is resting on its frame, suspension or drivetrain components. In this case, your vehicle’s chassis is touching the ground. Because some of your vehicle’s weight is now on the ground, the tires have no traction because there is less weight on them. You’ll be able to tell that it’s high-centered because the vehicle is sunken, but you can confirm by looking underneath. Recovery here involves shifting the vehicle’s weight back to the tires, and then if necessary, adding friction to regain traction.
When your vehicle has simply lost traction, the vehicle can’t drive because there isn’t enough friction between the tires and the ground. Recovery here requires adding friction to regain traction.
Necessary Equipment for Recovery
If you’re reading this article while your vehicle is stuck, I hope you have the below items with you. If your vehicle isn’t stuck yet, acquire or move these items into your vehicle. This gear is the minimum you need to self-recover your vehicle in a reasonable amount of time. I’ve ordered them by necessity. You can get by on No. 1, but the later items make a recovery situation easier.
1: Metal-Blade Shovel
– You need a metal blade shovel. When clearing a high-centered vehicle, the ground underneath is too compacted for plastic at times. Also, a shovel breaking would be a disaster, hence the metal.
– I use my BCA backcountry avalanche shovel. It’s effective for recovering a vehicle, and avalanche victims too for that matter.
2: Bottle Jack and Platforms for Bottle Jack
– You can get a bottle jack at any auto-parts store. Get one with enough lifting height and capacity for your vehicle. If you have a lifted Toyota Tacoma with a modified suspension, you’ll need the ability to lift a long way up. If you have a Subaru Crosstrek, you won’t need as much.
– You need a platform to raise the height of the bottle jack and to lift on soft surfaces. For lighter vehicles cuts of 3/4-inch plywood work fine, but hefty lumber cuts like six-by-sixes and two-by-eights are best. You can get scraps of those at lumber yards. Some bottle jack brands also offer a corresponding platform that melds with the jack.
3: Traction Boards
– You don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars on MAXTRAXX for an occasional emergency. The Amazon knock-offs work fine. You do get what you pay for though. If you expect to use these frequently, it’s worth investing in something high quality.
High-Centered Recovery Guide
When your vehicle is high-centered, buckle up. The process will take some time. Unfortunately, our vehicles don’t have wings yet, so the only way it can drive is through the tires. Since there’s no weight on the tires, your vehicle’s weight needs to shift back onto them before succeeding. People often end up high-centered when driving on soft ground, skidding off the road, or by spinning the tires and digging a rut after loss of traction.
As soon as you realize you are high-centered, stop spinning the tires! Your tires will not “find traction,” and it will only dig the vehicle deeper. Many high-centered situations start this way. A minute of spinning later and you’re buried up to the axle.
If your vehicle is a 4×4 or has locking differentials, enable those modes. You might be lucky and end up driving yourself out. This could happen if only one end or side of the vehicle is buried. If the wheels start spinning, stop trying and move on to other methods. If you have an AWD, this method will have a lower chance of working due to the open differentials.
Unfortunately, you have no choice but to shift the several thousand pounds of your vehicle resting on the ground back onto the tires. The most common method to do this involves digging with a shovel. Look under your vehicle and see where the chassis is resting on the ground. You should ideally dig out all that ground until no part of the vehicle is touching. The only point of contact should be the tires. Make no mistake, this is a time-consuming, tiring and dirty process. You’ll be lying on the ground maneuvering underneath your vehicle. If it’s high-centered badly, it may take hours or even days to recover.
With digging, you get back what you put in. It’s best to clear as much ground as you can before driving again. You may not always have to clear every inch of high-centered ground though. You can partially clear it, which would partially shift the weight. That might be enough if you can supplement it with 4×4, locking differentials; or other methods of traction recovery, which I cover in the next section.
Besides clearing the high-centered ground, you may need to dig around the tires as well. The vehicle needs a clear path to leave the burial. Though the ground beneath may be clear, if there’s a foot of mud in front of each tire, it won’t go anywhere. Dig a clear way out.
The fastest method for recovering a high-centered vehicle is using a jack. You jack up the high-centered portions of the vehicle, put objects or shovel ground underneath the tires, and then lower the vehicle onto higher ground. Rather than shoveling out literal tons of terrain with traditional digging, you need to raise the ground beneath the tires high enough. It’s way more efficient.
First, get familiar with the jacking points of the vehicle. Your owner’s manual will cover this. On most 4x4s it’s any part of the frame; but you can use control arms, solid axles and differentials as well. On non-4x4s — which don’t have a proper frame — it would be along the pinch-welds, subframe or cross-members. Control arms and differentials would generally be fine as well. But you should confirm with your owner’s manual or own knowledge before punching a hole through your vehicle — which I’ve done.
The ideal jack for this is a bottle jack. They lift high and are quick to lift. It’s also easy to put platforms underneath the bottle jack to raise the height and to spread out the lifting force if on soft ground. I’ve even done this in deep Colorado powder. There are purpose-built platforms built for certain brands, but a hefty piece of wood will do the job. You can use 3/4-inch plywood platforms, but hefty cuts of lumber are best. You can get wood scraps from a lumber yard and not have to purchase an entire hundred-dollar beam. If you have a specially built off-road vehicle, especially one with rock sliders, a Hi-lift jack may be better for your needs.
The recovery method is simple. Identify the corners and parts of your vehicle that are high-centered. If the ground is hard enough, you can use the jack right against it. Otherwise, use platforms to spread the force across the ground. The platforms will also let you raise the height of the jack if needed.
When your jack is in place, lift a corner of the vehicle as high as possible. Then, shovel terrain or place objects underneath the tires. Compact whatever you used, then release the jack to lower the vehicle onto higher ground. Do this as many times on as many parts of the vehicle as necessary. If need be, dig a clear path out for the vehicle too.
If you’ve freed the vehicle, but the tires are still spinning, read through the methods in the next section.
Loss of Traction Recovery Guide
With traction loss, prevention is the best cure. If you don’t have the right tires or vehicle for the terrain, be conservative and attentive when driving on questionable ground.
Also, don’t let momentum or gravity bring you into situations you can’t escape from. If you’re driving on an unmaintained snow-covered road at 30 mph, you’ll be far from good ground if you lose traction. But if you’re driving at 5 mph, you’ll be closer and have an easier situation to fix. With regards to gravity: Don’t descend hills you can’t climb up. I’ve had to learn that the hard way. Gravity will let your vehicle travel downhill on any ground regardless of traction. Once you try to return the way you came, you’re stuck.
Once you’ve lost traction, don’t spin the tires! Your vehicle will not “find traction,” and spinning the tires can turn a five-minute recovery into a five-hour recovery if you high-center yourself. You need to add friction or use other tricks to escape.
If You’re Able to Drive in One Direction but Not the Other
If your tires have traction in one direction, but none in the direction you want to drive towards, you can overcome this. Just use momentum. Reverse on good ground, then start accelerating. Build enough speed for your vehicle to cross over the bad ground where your tires don’t have traction. Of course, be mindful that you don’t use this to get into situations you can’t get out of. I’ve used this trick to return to pavement, not to get deeper off pavement. It’s useful when getting over hills or humps on the road you could drive down but not up.
4×4/Locking Differentials or AWD/2WD Braking
If equipped, enable your 4×4 or locking differentials. With 4×4, if at least one axle has traction across each of the wheels, you can drive out. With locking differentials, if your locking axle has traction on one wheel, you can drive out as well.
If you have AWD or 2WD, the open differentials mean that if one wheel has lost traction, you aren’t going anywhere. You still have a few options though. Gradually accelerate while lightly holding the brakes. Holding the brakes will help lock the spinning wheels, and perhaps allow the other wheels to drive the vehicle out. This will activate your vehicle’s limited-slip differential too if it’s equipped with one.
If you have traction boards, most situations can be fixed in minutes. Place the traction boards on each tire underneath the same axle of your vehicle. If the vehicle is 2WD, place them on the driven axle. Wedge the board against the tire as much as possible. Then, gradually accelerate out and over the boards. If you’re far from decent ground, you can ladder your traction boards over and over until you make it.
Chains are effective, but not as much as traction boards for emergencies. Nevertheless, they can give you the friction you need to escape. Installing them is a slow and annoying process though. Familiarize yourself with how to install your chains so you can do so in the field.
Chains are the superior option when you have a long-distance before good ground. They remain on your tires, and you shouldn’t lose traction again. For example, I had to put chains on when a snowstorm covered an unmaintained road with a foot of snow in just an hour. I got stuck, and still had a few miles to go. Chains let me make it all the way through.
Tire Pressure Lowering
Lowering your tire pressure is an effective way to get traction and keep traction. You can do it on its own or in tandem with any of these methods. Unscrew your valve cap and lower your tire pressure with a gauge, tire deflator, or a narrow pointed object depressing the valve. You should ideally have a gauge so you can monitor the pressure. You don’t want to lower it so far that you pop out the tire bead. If not equipped with a gauge, you can “eyeball” it based on the tire contact patch and by squeezing the sidewall.
After lowering the tire pressure, you end up with a larger tire contact patch. This increases the available friction, which will help you drive out. If used in combination with the other methods, it improves the combined friction as well.
After recovery, you need to raise the pressure back to normal levels. If you hit the highway with your tires at 10 psi it’ll be bad news. You can use an air compressor, gas station air gun, or even a bicycle pump.
Improvised Friction Methods
There are dozens of improvised methods to help with recovery. You can place your floormats underneath the tires like traction boards to drive out. You can use any flat object you have as well. I’ve used the blade of my shovel, an empty duffel bag, and blankets. You can use anything in some capacity. In Boston, many people carry bags of kitty litter or sand. When they lose traction, they spread the material underneath their tires to get traction and drive out.
You can use the environment around you to help. If you’re near a gravel road, bring some gravel and place it underneath and ahead of your tires. If you’re near rocks, do the same with the rocks. You can also use dead branches, brush, sand, scree and dirt.
Improvised friction methods will often take the longest. I’d start by reducing tire pressure before resorting to these methods.
Digging a Clear Path
Digging can help as well. The goal of this method is to use your shovel to dig a clear way out for the vehicle. In this case, you aren’t adding friction. Rather, you’re shaping the terrain so that your vehicle needs less friction to escape. It may involve flattening the ground, compressing the soft surface, or removing terrain blocking the vehicle’s progress.
Unfortunately, the best way to improve at vehicle recovery is through practice. Reckless drivers have an advantage here – they get stuck the most often! The next time you find yourself taking a curve too fast, don’t slow down. Embrace it. Get some practice.