Four wheel drive recovery

Four-Wheel Drive Recovery Procedures

Knowledge, preparedness, proper gear and planning are the keys to successfully getting a stuck vehicle retrieved to continue your journey safe and undamaged.

Following are basic techniques to vehicle recovery, usually always applicable to four-wheel drives, but can be used on any vehicle. We highly recommend undertaking a Four-Wheel Drive operations and recovery course before embarking on an off-road adventure.

Four wheel drive recovery
Four wheel drive recovery

WARNING: Even though we have undertaken multiple four-wheel drive operations and recovery courses with decades of experience working with 4WD’s in quite literally the harshest landscapes in various environments within multiple positions, this information can be regarded as suggestions only and we take no responsibility for your negligence!

Vehicle Recovery Gear

Vehicles bogged in sand, mud, snow, watercourses and wet areas require different recovery methods dependent on the diverse array of circumstances where a car, four-wheel-drive, caravan, trailer, bus and truck can get bogged. ‘Snatch-Straps’ can be used as one recovery method if another vehicle is available to pull a stuck vehicle out.

Four wheel drive recovery

A vehicle recovery snatch-strap is basically a giant heavy-duty industrial elastic band. Snatch-straps and a recovery kit are a favourite amongst 4WD enthusiasts and are a constant prerequisite companion when the off-road vehicle is being tested. Basic contents of a 4WD recovery kit include:

1 x 8000kg snatch strap

1 x 4500kg winch extension strap (10m x 50mm)

1 x 6500kg tree trunk protector (3m x 75mm)

1 x 8000kg snatch block

2 x 5 tonne bow shackles

1 x snatch strap dampener

1 x pair of leather gloves

1 x heavy duty storage bag

vehicle recovery kit

Vehicle Winches

4wd winches

Of course a vehicle winch, whether fixed to the front or a portable manually operated one, are great assets to aid in vehicle recovery. The benefits of a portable winch are that they can be attached to the rear of a bogged vehicle to pull it out backwards if more suitable, to pull a stuck vehicle out if alone or there is no space for a ‘towing’ vehicle, to pull a rolled vehicle back on its wheels, to recover other unfortunate vehicles that may be blocking your progress, or more importantly when your mates behind you with all the beer get stuck.

Always be careful when using a portable winch, as a great deal of pressure can be stored within the winch mechanisms, which can result in a sudden and powerful back-lash if the cog latch does not hook properly. If needing to secure any winch to a tree, use a tree strap, that not only protects the tree, but provides the best form of winch attachment. Choose a solid tree with a diameter greater than 30cm, as easily a tonne of force can be generated.

Four wheel drive recovery
Tree protector

And if there are no trees available, consider burying the spare wheel to anchor the winch to. This is particularly viable in sandy environments but does require some effort. The long handled shovel becomes valuable.

Anchoring the winch hook to the tyre with a recovery tree trunk protector will help protect the spare tyre. Ensure the entire tyre is buried, aiming for 30cm underground, and at a near perpendicular angle facing the stuck vehicle. It is surprising how much anchoring force is created with this technique. Fill in the hole after the recovery.

Snow & Mud Tyre Chains

Vehicles bogged in mud and wet conditions will usually be more difficult to extract then those in sand due to a far greater suction force. When four-wheel driving in snow country, it may be imperative to utilise snow chains, also effective in traversing through mud, especially in a combination of both. Snow chains can also be life saving when used on any vehicle on any road type in snow conditions.

Snow Chains

Tyres & Tyre Pressure

The golden rule in many off-road conditions however is to reduce the tyre pressure to match the terrain. In soft sand it may be ideal to go as low as 15 PSI (pounds per square inch), or 100 kPa (kilopascal), but more commonly to around 20 PSI (140 kPa), to create a larger ground contact area or ‘foot-print’ for greater traction and aid in ‘flotation’. Serious off-road adventuring will require the need to use more ‘aggressive’ tyres that have ‘chunkier’ tread and side wall tread. There truly is an incredible difference between factory tyre tread and off-road aggressive tread, and hence off-road performance.

Four wheel drive recovery

Always be sure to pump back up the tyres when returning to firmer ground, otherwise they may become excessively hot and actually explode. Normal average ‘on-road’ 4WD tyre pressure is around 36 to 45 PSI or 250 to 310 kPa (32 to 38 PSI or 220 to 260 kPa for normal cars). The correct tyre pressure must correlate to your specific vehicle and type of tyre, so consult the vehicle manual, tyre guide placard usually located inside the door archway, your tyre shop and written on the tyre itself.

Usually the higher the pressure with larger vehicles and when carrying heavier loads. Also consider that the hotter the tyre, the greater the pressure will be, so always carry with you a good tyre pressure gauge and check your tyres frequently. Tyre pressure guides are usually always a measurement for ‘cold’ tyres, or at least not central Australian temperatures after a thousand kilometres on the Stuart Highway in the middle of summer. Investing in a quality 12V tyre compressor is essential.

12v compressor

Proper Gear Selection

Transmission gear that is! Make sure your 4WD is in the right gear for the conditions experienced, engaging four-wheel drive mode, potentially low range for steep and uneven terrain, and locking in manual free-wheel hubs on older vehicles. You may definitely need to study the manual in the more expensive later models available today, as these have many computerised options for different off-road conditions.

Get Out and Look!

As always, prevention is the better course of action, so if in doubt, before crossing a water-course, climbing a sand dune or navigating through suspect terrain – GET OUT AND HAVE A LOOK FIRST! Simply assessing the situation before hand could save you time, your vehicle, potentially a lot of money, extensive inconvenience for you and others, and even the lives of people involved.

Four wheel drive recovery

When traversing sand-dunes never forget that someone may be doing the same on the other side! A ‘minor’s flag’ attached to your vehicle is a very effective addition to help warn on-coming traffic, particularly when traversing sand dune country. I have personally witnesses serious injury with head-on collisions at the top of desert sand dunes. Always remember that when off-road, medical help can be extremely difficult to obtain.

Getting Bogged

Once bogged there is no point in spinning the wheels if not progressing forward! Continuing to rev the engine and spin the wheels in the benign hope that this will relieve the predicament usually only results in the vehicle to become more bogged. This will require further effort to recover the vehicle.

Four wheel drive recovery
Four Wheel Drive Safety

So once stuck, it only takes a minute to get out and inspect the underside for rocks and sticks that may cause damage to the underside components of the vehicle including sump, brake-lines, diffs, gear box etc. This is important as the vehicle’s clearance has now been reduced.

A busted sump means that vehicle is completely inoperable and can equate to an incredibly expensive recovery tow job. Getting a vehicle carted out of remote central Australia, for example, will cost more than $10,000. Another good reason to be prepared! For a check list of preferred equipment, click this link.

This is where a ‘Bash-Plate’ becomes a very worthwhile investment, and will help protect the under-side of your vehicle in any off-road excursion. Another worthwhile investment is the purchase of a pair of ‘Recovery Tracks’, a relatively inexpensive and simple apparatus that alone may get you unstuck.

Recovery tracks
Four wheel drive recovery

A bogged vehicle may require the vehicle be unloaded to reduce its weight and increase its ground clearance, which may be enough to get the vehicle out under its own steam or require less pulling power for another vehicle to tow it out. Some digging may also be required at this stage, and a long handled shovel is best for this job for a better reach. Remove sand or mud to increase the ground clearance thereby reducing friction that is impeding the vehicles progress. Remove any sand or mud from in front of the wheels that is acting as a chock.

This strategy alone may be enough to allow the vehicle to become un-stuck under its own power. When trying to test your unloading and digging attempts by driving out in older manual 4WD’s, use second gear – the first gear sometimes referred to as the ‘bog’ gear – and do not rev excessively which may contribute to the problem.

Take into consideration that in muddy conditions, the tread of the tyres, no matter how aggressive, will pack in with mud effectively forming a slick tyre and of no assistance in providing grip. When the vehicle is stationary, and preferably turned off, and safe to do so, try remove as much as possible the mud that is packed within the tyre tread. A finger is the best apparatus for this job. Employing any strategy will help recover a stuck vehicle.

The Snatch-Strap Vehicle Recovery Process

However, if remaining bogged, where ever possible make only one suitable person in charge of a snatch-strap recovery operation. People have been put in hospital and worse by not abiding by this precaution. The last thing needed are conflicting instructions. This is where hand held UHF radios become advantageous.

For a 4WD vehicle to pull a stuck vehicle out it is imperative to always consider the safety of all involved. Everyone involved in the operation needs to remain well away due to the fact that things can and do go wrong. A basic rule is to remain at a minimum distance of one-and-a-half times the length of the recovery straps.

4wd snatch strap recovery
4wd snatch strap recovery

Always inspect the condition of snatch-straps and associated recovery gear before use, and preferably before embarking on any 4WD expedition. Only use load rated equipment and vehicle recovery points. Always be aware of the load rating values of each piece of kit. The Safe Working Load (SFW) of a piece of gear determines the recovery potential, and the weight of the vehicle, the degree of slope to tow up and the ground condition must all be calculated to determine the selection of equipment for a safe recovery.

Remember that the piece of equipment with the lowest rating is therefore the maximum force of weight that can be towed. Snatch-straps that are starting to fray and deteriorate are dangerous, so the best plan of attack starts before the journey. Snatch straps cannot be repaired, they are not expensive and it is often a good idea to carry more than one.

A good recovery kit includes a recovery dampener bag to place over the elastic snatch-strap midway along its length. Fill it with sand, dirt, water etc. to weigh it down. Better again is to use two recovery dampeners placed at thirds along the snatch-strap.

If the strap breaks under pressure the dampeners will significantly reduce the otherwise intense recoil force. If a recovery dampener bag is not available, try using something else like the recovery kit bag itself or any suitable bag, sack etc. filled sufficiently with sand etc. to ‘dampen’ the snatch-strap in case in fails. Even an old blanket or mat will do.

Inspect the bow shackles for damage before connecting the snatch-strap, and when tightening the bolt to the shackle, back it off a third of a turn otherwise the bolt may lock due to the force of towing a vehicle. Ensure that the thread does not get damaged at the vehicle recovery point by placing the ‘bow’ part of the shackle against metal parts.

4wd snatch strap recovery

If connecting two straps due to there being a greater distance between the ‘bogged’ and the ‘recovery’ vehicles, usually required to reduce the chance of the recovery vehicle getting bogged and to get to firmer ground with more traction, place a rolled up magazine or large diameter stick within the looped connection, as shown. Otherwise the loops at the ends of the connecting straps will tighten under often tonnes of force and become near impossible to undo.

To join two straps together, simply thread the eyelet of one end through the eyelet of the other, taking the end of this other strap threading it through the eyelet of the first. Never use shackles to join straps as they can become lethal missiles.

Attach the shackles only to the specific rated recovery points of the vehicles. Refer to the vehicles ‘User Manual’ if in doubt. On many modern 4WD vehicle, or on professionally installed modifications, rated recovery points are coloured, usually in red.

4wd snatch strap recovery
4wd snatch strap recovery

Never use the tie-down anchor points, tow ball, the bull-bar or bumper bars as these are not rated and simply not strong enough. When these components are placed under load from a stretched snatch-strap and bogged vehicle, they can easily become lethal projectiles. Tow-balls used in these situations have been known to kill people and literally penetrate clear through vehicle body panels, travelling at up to sixty metres a second. Picked up a tow ball lately!

With the use of a large bolt, of around 5 inches, as shown in the image, a suitable anchor point can be made through the leaf-spring attachment, where the bolt locks in through the attachment arm. Such a bolt can be a very useful piece of gear to add to your recovery kit.

4wd snatch strap recovery
4wd snatch strap recovery
4wd snatch strap recovery
4wd snatch strap recovery
4wd snatch strap recovery

So to a ‘Recovery Hitch’ which converts a standard tow-bar into a rated recovery point and makes the whole job of vehicle recovery a lot easier.

Communication is the key to a successful snatch-strap vehicle recovery! The snatch-strap is attached to the bogged vehicle with a bow shackle, the towing vehicle is backed-up towards the bogged vehicle leaving two to three metres slack in the snatch-strap, which is then attached with another bow shackle. Ideally, have a person in charge standing at a safe distance to one side of the operation, being able to fully observe both vehicles, preferably giving instructions over UHF radio’s.

4wd snatch strap recovery
4wd snatch strap recovery
4wd snatch strap recovery
4wd snatch strap recovery

With both vehicles with engines on and in second gear (usually), the bogged vehicle sounds the horn to commence the recovery tow, and is ready to apply moderate acceleration immediately upon being pulled to assist in the towing process. Under no circumstances is any one to be located any where near the snatch strap during the recovery procedure.

4wd snatch strap recovery
4wd snatch strap recovery

The towing vehicle accelerates off as if taking off from a set of traffic lights, usually only needing to travel 20 to 50 metres but dependent on the circumstances. Due to the stored energy within the stretching snatch-strap, the bogged vehicle will usually always simply pop-out within a few seconds. It is important that the bogged vehicle sounds the horn again immediately once free to indicate to the towing vehicle to stop.


For those new to this procedure it can feel quite daunting, however after you have done it once it becomes quite simple and extremely effective. It may be described as a slightly surreal experience due to the expansion and strength capabilities of the snatch-strap.

Do this more than once and most people become reasonably proficient, and for those experienced in vehicle recovery it becomes almost second nature. However, as this can always be a dangerous exercise, experienced operators never become complacent.

4wd snatch strap recovery

It is good practice to spend just a short amount of time repairing the damage to the ground caused by the bogged vehicle. This will help those following to get through. And as with any operation, it is more than worthy to clean such equipment as soon as possible to keep it in good working condition; enabling it to be readily deployed again.

As with all vehicle recovery operations, talk through before hand with all involved on how the procedure would ideally be carried out. Keep those not involved well clear of the whole operation. If possible, have only one person providing direction, remaining at a safe distance. Take you time and go slow, remain calm, and most importantly, remain safe.

4wd recovery
4wd recovery
4wd snatch strap recovery