Tech Section

Early Bronco

Late Model






Off-Road Driving Info Sheet and FAQ

Version 1.2
Full release

Print date: Sunday March 31, 1997
First begun Friday July 26, 1996

Compiled by Mike Graham

Table of Contents

Why an ORDFAQ?
Where to get it
Lawyer Drivel
Sharing the blame
Future Plans
What can you do to help?
Vehicle Familiarization
Safety Check
Safety Gear
Minimum Gear
Remote Gear
Trail Ettiquette
General tips on Treading Lightly
Right Of Way
General OR Driving Hints
Getting Unstuck
Winch Alternatives
Traction Pads
Jack Tricks
Slingshot Extraction
To Spot, or Not To Spot? The battle rages
A note regarding obstacles
Steep Climbs
Steep Decents
Stalling on a Steep Grade
Water Crossings
Deep Mud/Snow
What if? Dealing with emergencies
What's the big deal about a Hi-Lift jack?
Do I really need a tow rope if I'm driving alone?
What kind of fire extinguisher do I need?
Which Winch is Winchiest?
PTO Winches
Electric Winches
Hydraulic Winches

Why an ORDFAQ?

At the time that I purchased my LandCruiser, My off-road experience had been limited to dirtbikes. I knew that there were significant differences between off-roading on a dirtbike, and off-roading on four wheels, but I couldn't find a source for hints on how to get up that gravel wash without spinning back down again, or how to cross a slope of tuff without holing a tire. This FAQ is an attempt to rectify that situation.

Why not just have this information in the standard Off-road FAQ? Well, it's just not there, now, and besides, I felt that compiling this FAQ would help me learn about off-roading on four wheels. It has.

Note, please, that this FAQ is not intended to be the be-all and end-all of Off-road information. Many aspects of off-road driving simply cannot be learned from the printed page, but rather must be learned from the untrodden path itself.

Where to get it

The ORDFAQ is available for download through the world wide web by connecting to:

Lawyer Drivel

Here we go.

There is no guarantee, expressed or implied, that this information is either useful, or accurate, or both. It is merely the personal opinion of the applicable author. Use it at your own risk. I could be a psychotic delusional who delights in the thought that other people are going to wreck their trucks trying to follow my advice. Use your own discretion, and go slow until you know what you're doing, then you can assess the risks for yourself.

This collection of information is copyrighted by myself, Mike Graham. You can look at it, share it, collect it and trade it with your friends, but you can't try to sell it, or make money off of it without my expressed permission.

Sharing the blame

The following have contributed (officially, or unofficially):

Future Plans

I didn't deal with anything mechanical, really, but I'd like to see hints on common trail-side repairs and jury-rigs.

Ultimately I'd like to see a section of the ORDFAQ dedicated to trail problems. For instance, if you were planning on running a popular trail, you would check the listing in the ORDFAQ and find out whether it would be a really good idea to take an extra spare tire, or iron rods to use as a winch anchor. It's a way to share knowledge. Also, I'd like information on whether full-size vehicles can make it through, or only 'Zukis and chopped Broncos.

What can you do to help?

Point-form trail reports would be nice. If you know a trail that isn't listed in the FAQ yet (or if you know information missing from the description in the FAQ) then let me know! Here's a Trail Report form you can use to fill in for trail info:

Trail Name:
Whatever the standard name is (or names are)

City/area/country other info to help (like 5 miles north on the I-5 from Hampton, Conn or something). If you know the coordinates of the trailhead (for the guys with GPS equipment) then please add it.

Difficulty Rating:
Specify also, what the rating base is (Rubicon? Alaska?) and preferably also give a general description.

Scenery Rating:
Just a number from 1 to 10 describing how scenic you feel the trail is. Some highly technical forest trails have nearly zero scenery, and that's fine if you're just after a challenge, but if a person is looking for a nice view, they should be able to find one.

Short wheel base only? Skinny trucks only? Summer only? Lockers only? Winch a must-have?

General Terrain:
Just a vague bit of info to let people know what they might be getting themselves into. Like 'Desert and scrub, some rocks, but nothing serious.'

Special Problems:
Real easy to hole a tire? Deep water crossing?

Overall Impression:
Did you enjoy the trail? Was it too relentless, too much easy driving between hideous obstacles?

In addition I really need info on taking automatic transmissions off-road (is the compression braking sufficient to take you down a hill?) and info on obstacles that I'm not familiar with (sand, cane, tricks for bog/muskeg etc.)

I need suggestions for the 'Trail Etiquette' section. That's a section that I never even thought of, yet it is very important. Any input is appreciated.


0.00a 8/26/96
First Pre-release to the Off-Road list.
0.00b 8/29/96
Second Pre-release. This release added the 'Trail Etiquette' section, and the 'Getting Unstuck' section. Many other little upgrades, as evidenced by the number of additions to the 'Sharing the Blame' section.
0.00c 9/05/96
Third Pre-release. I'm not getting as much feedback as I'd like, so I'm sticking with pre-releases for now. No one has mentioned a desire to write an article on driving in specific conditions (snow/mud whatever) and I'd like to have those articles done before I release 1.00. This version has had the section on winches added, and the 'Etiquette' section increased. Several valuable additions to the 'obstacles' section, as well.
1.00 9/19/96
First official release. It doesn't have all that I want in it, but it's time to put it in long pants. I've added the section on slingshot extractions, and expanded the Mud section (thanks to the Great Lake Extraction of '96) as well as some info on using a Hi-Lift jack for extractions (which I am now an expert at 8-/)
1.01 10/21/96
A slew of new info has come in in the form of an excellent article on water crossings by Runar Sigurjonsson. Additional information dealing with automatic transmissions and CB antennas crept in when I wasn't looking.
1.2 03/31/97
Lots of slippery-conditions info. Now that winter is here, I am doing a lot of testing regarding driving on slick surfaces. The underlying format of the FAQ has been changed. Instead of using a word processor as has been the case in the past, I am now editing it directly in the text version. A bit simpler in the long run.

Vehicle Familiarization

Before you can safely point your wheels at the great beyond you need to be familiar with your vehicle, and take some precautions. You need to be able to answer the following questions:

What is your ground clearance?
How big a rock can you drive over without worrying about it hitting something tender, like a gas tank?
Is everything strapped down?
If you roll, you don't want to get smoked in the head by your toolbox. Is the battery restrained? If the battery jumps out of its housing it can short against the hood, or another engine component, causing big grief.
What is your approach angle?
If your bumper hits the slope before your wheels do you'll have to come at it from an angle.
Similarly, what is your departure angle?
If you exceed your departure angle then your rear bumper will hang up on the hill and your rear wheels will leave the ground.
Where are your differentials?
Drivers side? In the middle? This is important to consider when you're going over obstacles.
Can your engine run at an angle?
If it's carbuerated, a steep grade can drown it post haste. Fuel injected vehicles generally handle steep grades better. Diesels and cylinder-injected gas trucks can pretty much run upside down without dying.
Does your vehicle have a high center of gravity?
A high center of gravity makes it more susceptible to tipping and rolling? Most jeep-like vehicles share this fault to various degrees.
Do you have full wheel travel without hitting the fenders?
If you have monster meats on your truck, it's quite possible that before the axle hits the bump-stop the tire hits the fender. Jack up one front wheel high enough for the axle to hit the bump-stop and run your hand around the tire to see if it's hitting anything. Now turn the wheel full to the left and check. Now turn it to the right. If it hits anything then you have to decide whether you want to tear up your tires or not by doing serious off-roading. Check a rear wheel, too.
Does your vehicle have a big, long 6' whip antenna that's going to injure a bystander or spotter?
Long whip antennas aren't even allowed on some trails due to the damage to the environment that they can inflict.

Safety Check

Now is the time to consider whether any of your fluids are low. Got enough power steering fluid? Enough oil? Enough coolant? How about windshield washer fluid? Have your brakes been checked fairly recently, or might you need to replace the pads/shoes? If you're traveling in a group at night, it's worth checking your taillights. Even alone at night you want headlights and reversing lights that work.

Safety Gear

The amount of safety gear that you need will depend on several factors. The first is how hard-core the off-roading is that you're doing, the second is how remote an area you're going to, and the third is based on the climate of the area you're going to.

When I'm just booting around in my back field I don't bother taking much. If I get stuck or broke, I just walk back home and get the tractor. If, however, I was doing a four-day solo enduro through Death Valley, I would be taking significant precautions.

If you're traveling as one vehicle in a party, then the danger is obviously not so acute. You can get a lift back home with someone else and come back with spare parts later (hoping against hope that no unscrupulous type finds your truck in the meantime).

Minimum Gear

This is the stuff that should be kept in the truck at all times. Add to it when you're doing more serious off-roading.

Spare tire
Jack and handle (stock jack is fine)
Lug wrench that FITS. (been there, done that, didn't like it.)
Fire extinguisher (1A/5BC or other approved for auto)

Remote Gear

If you're going back of beyond (especially by yourself) then you really should take precautions. Any mechanical breakdown that you can't fix or jury-rig could leave you stranded. Don't scrimp on the navigational equipment if it's unfamiliar turf; you can't always count on your St. Christopher medallion to get you home on time. 8-)

Do yourself a favor and take along some food and water for emergencies, and waterproof lifeboat matches.
Tire irons and an inner tube or an extra spare.
Compressor or manual tire pump
2 Gallons of water for the rad (or a filter to strain groundwater if it's available)
1 Gallon of engine oil
5 Gallons of spare gas/diesel in a jerry can
Appropriate manuals for the vehicle to aid in trail-side repairs.
A CLEAR understanding of where you're going, or at least how to get back.
Navigation gear (map GPS, local guide, whatever)
Replace regular jack with a Hi-Lift jack (or Jack-all) 48" min.
Jack pad sufficient for the vehicle's size and terrain traveled
If using a Hi-Lift as a winch, you need blocks to keep the truck from rolling backwards during the 'taking in the slack' phases.
A tow-rope is still a good idea, even alone.

Trail Ettiquette

In this day of trail closures and EPA pressures, it is more crucial than ever to tread lightly. To this end, I have assembled some guidelines divided by terrain type.

General tips on Treading Lightly

None of us want to see our trails closed down. Few of us want to see our environment destroyed, either. It is the duty of all off-roaders to consider the ramifications of leaving a beer can, or shredded spare tire lying on the trail. Would you want a news crew with their cameras catching your garbage and suggesting that all off-roaders are insensitive to environmental issues? It has happened before, and it will happen again. Don't let it be your mess.

To contact the groups dedicated to keeping our trails open, see these websites:

Tread Lightly
United Four Wheel Drive Association
BlueRibbon Coalition
Some do's and don't on the trail...
Don't spin your tires.
Don't run more aggressive tires than you need (lugs chew up the ground)
Don't litter (cigarette packs, drink cans, oil containers, etc.)
Don't play obnoxiously loud music when others are around.
Don't blaze a new trail; stay on the established path.
Always use a tree strap when using a tree as an anchor.


If you need to pile stones up to get over an obstacle, then put the stones back where you found them afterwards.
Don't leave oil spills, shredded tires, or other materials on the trail. Clean it up and pack it out.
Try not to scrape up the rocks.


Don't cut down trees, and try not to tear branches off while driving.
Your vision is limited by the trees; don't go flying around a bend only to smash into a disabled vehicle, or run over a hiker.
Keep to the trail. If the mud is too deep to get through, then you shouldn't be on the trail in the first place. If everyone cuts a new set of ruts, the trail starts to look like a battlefield. Use a winch to get through.

Right Of Way

The right of way on a trail is basically like that on the ocean. Generally, everyone just stays out of everyone else's way. Pass on the right, veer right in head-to-head situations, etc. If there's only room for one vehicle at a time, then channel rules take over and the more maneuverable vehicle should make way. If it's a situation where only one vehicle can pass at a time, then the drivers must decide amongst themselves who goes first. Usually this amounts to just a 'waving through', but sometimes it requires a bit of discussion on foot.

In the event that you find yourself head-to-head with someone on a single line, so that one person has to back up or move aside to let the other pass, the more capable vehicle should get out of the way, as the less capable vehicle might not be able to make it back on the trail.

Sometimes these rules don't work so well; if the guy driving a stock Sammy knows his stuff he can easily outmaneuver a modified Jeep driven by someone who isn't really familiar with off-road situations. The primary thing to remember is that bad things happen when people don't know what's going on; make sure there is clear communication, and the other driver knows that it's your turn to go.

When two vehicles meet on a grade, the vehicle traveling uphill should have the right of way, as it is much more difficult to get going again when you're pointing uphill as opposed to downhill, and backing up uphill is safer than backing up downhill (as long as it's done smoothly so as not to stress the front axle).

When two vehicle meet head to head, they may need to pass on the left. When there is a sharp shoulder dropping to a deep ditch, for instance, you need to drive with the drop at the driver's side so that you can see more clearly where the edge is.

Again, these 'right of way' rules are general at best! Unless both parties know what's going on, an accident can happen. Make sure there is communication. If needed, get out of the truck and chat for a while. Maybe the rules have to be bent to avoid a truck being bent. You can't just chug on assuming that the other truck will move just because you are supposed to have the right of way.

General OR Driving Hints

Friction is your friend. With friction, you can move. Without it, you are stuck.

There are two kinds of friction; static, and dynamic. Static friction is the kind you have when your wheel surface is not moving relative to the surface you are driving on (i.e. when you are not skidding). Dynamic friction is what you have when you are skidding. Static friction is much more powerful than dynamic friction. It is for this reason that threshold braking will stop you quicker than just stomping on the brake pedal and skidding to a stop. So the key in the vast majority of situations is to try very hard not to spin your wheels.

Don't drive with your thumbs wrapped around the steering wheel. Even if you have power steering it's possible for the wheels to fall into a rut or something that will crank the steering wheel to one side, and possibly break a thumb. Nasty.

Driving off-road isn't like driving on-road; you can't just choose a line and insist upon it; the truck will let you know what it wants to do. Keep it more or less where you want to be and just 'suggest' directions to it. Anyone who rides a horse knows what I'm talking about.

"Drive as slowly as possible, and as fast as necessary."
Andy Philpot

Don't straddle rocks or they'll smoke your diffs; ride the wheels over them to raise everything out of harm's way.

Ditches and ridges should be crossed at an angle (like railroad tracks) to keep you from getting bogged down when both front or back wheels drop into the ditch.

Be wary of water crossings. What you don't know can hurt you. See the section on water crossings below.

Airing down your tires to 15psi or so will increase your contact patch and increase friction. Don't do it unless you have some way to re-inflate your tires, though. In some technical rock-crawling situations people will air down to next to nothing (2 pounds or so), but I wouldn't advise this for the uninitiated as you could blow a bead.

Maintaining speed on bumpy terrain can be very difficult because the pitching of the truck throws your foot (via momentum) into the gas pedal, causing the truck to surge, causing more momentum, causing your foot to get thrown harder into the gas pedal... It's ugly. There are two regular solutions: the good way, and the sort-of-works-most-of-the-time way. The good way is to have a hand throttle. A hand throttle will keep your vehicle moving as smoothly as possible. The other way is to keep the side of your foot planted against the transmission mound, operating the gas pedal only with the ball of the foot. This keeps your foot planted, so it can't go flailing into the gas pedal. At least, not as much.

If you drive a late-model truck with air conditioning, it might be worth shutting the AC off when you're in a tight crawling situation, as the AC compressor will kick in at odd moments and cause the idle speed to jump, which is at best a pain, and at worst could pitch you off of your line and drop you on a rock.

Some hints from Chris Siano:

Driving posture is something I've never seen printed fully anywhere. Things like, seat up, sit a little closer to the steering wheel, thumbs out of the wheel, foot resting on the transmission hump to keep vehicle from surging as it bounces over the trail. Seat belt!

Prepare for getting stuck. If you and your buddy are going out, and you have an old CJ and he has a Cummins Dodge, there is no way you are going to pull his truck out of bumper deep mud. Therefore, don't get into bumper deep mud. If the strap is 30' long and the mud is 200', there is no way you can pull anyone out of the middle. I guess, the best way to sum it up is to be sure to look before you leap. It only takes one big stuck and a 4x4 wrecker or tractor extraction to realize how important this is.

Lastly, a new driver really needs to know the size of his vehicle. If you don't know where the tires are, you can't put them on the rocks. Only takes an hour in an empty parking lot with some cones to learn how wide your rig is, and how tight you can turn it. This is especially useful in full size trucks as you can't see anything on the passenger front any closer than about 10 feet away. This time spent can easily save lots of time and $$ in damages to a new truck.

This point about knowing where your tires are is very important. Most people use points on their hood to estimate where their tires are. This works fine as long as your head is always in more or less the same place. This means you should have a standard off-road seat location and seat-back angle and stick to it. With your head in the same place all the time, you'll be able to judge your tire location much more effectively.

Getting Unstuck

Everyone gets stuck. You ever seen a tank winch? Well I have. Even they get stuck. So how do you get unstuck? Lots of ways.


The easiest, fastest way most of the time is to use a winch. See the section in the FAQ on "Which Winch Is Winchiest?" for info on the pros and cons on the different types.

With a winch, a snatch block (a pulley with a hook on it), a tree strap (to keep from maiming the local flora), and some leather gloves, you can get yourself out pretty quick from just about anything.

Normally you just need to single-line your way out. Just switch the winch to freewheel, pull out the line to the nearest big tree, throw the tree strap around it, hook up, and pull yourself out. If the winch stalls, then hook in the snatch block (when using a snatch block, hook the end of the winch line to your tow hook, not to the winch mounting itself, or you might tear the winch right off your truck).

If you're winching someone else out of the mud, and your truck keeps skidding towards the vehicle you're winching, then you need to either put good-sized blocks under the wheels (like SureClaws) or attach your truck to an anchor (like a tree) but connect the line from the anchor to the end of your vehicle that has the winch on it, otherwise you might end up physically stretching or twisting your truck frame. Bad stuff.

If you keep stalling the winch, even with a snatch block, then you have to reduce the workload. Try putting chunks of wood in front of the wheels to act like ramps to keep the wheels from plowing deep furrows in the mud. If you're winching over rocks, then try piling up smaller rocks to make ramps. Hopefully you won't have to unload your truck.

If you've had trouble with your winch not being powerful enough (i.e. your wife gave you a 3000pound winch for Christmas and it's the first official acknowledgment of off-roading she's ever made and you just know that you can't take it back) then a last-resort possibility is to have extra snatch blocks. With three snatch blocks you can set up a block and tackle that will give your winch 4X its normal power. This is good, unless the tow hook to which you attached the block and tackle can't handle it and tears itself off the truck. Then it's bad. In addition, you won't have more than about 20 feet of pulling capability, because the wire will be doubled up around the pulleys so many times. Whenever you are using a winch of any variety it pays to lay a coat, sleeping bag, or other largish, soft object over the line, so that if the line snaps it will be less likely to be really dangerous.

Winch Alternatives

There are several things out there that aren't winches, but are supposed to do the same job. One is a Hi-Lift jack (HLJ) or similar jack, and another is a come-along ratchet hoist. An HLJ is meant to be able to pull 7000 pounds or so (says the weight rating on the box) and the mechanical advantage is so high that it doesn't feel too scary to use it. If you're using an HLJ as a winch then lay the jack right on the ground with the handle pointing upwards, that way you can put a foot or something on the end of the i-beam to keep it from lifting when you're trying to lever the jack handle.

A come-along is a different animal, indeed. It has a short handle (less than a foot long) and gives you significantly less mechanical advantage. They are usually rated only a few thousand pounds when double-lined (i.e while using a snatch block). They way they creak and groan while you're using them, standing 10 inches away from the thinnest cable ever seen on a winch-like object scares me to death. I don't like them, but they can save you if you have nothing else. Definitely use the coat trick when dealing with these. Due to the short length of them, they don't stay parallel to the line of force very well, so it's very frustrating to use them (they wobble and pitch when you're trying to work the lever). I don't like them, but I must admit that I have one in my pickup truck. Just in case. I keep an HLJ in my 'cruiser, so I don't need one in that. The one benefit of a come-along over an HLJ is that the come-along will pull for 20 feet or so, whereas the HLJ will pull for less than 4' at a time (limited by bar length; could also be 3' or 5' depending on jack model). To use an HLJ as a winch requires blocks, or some other way to keep the truck from losing ground while you're resetting the jack. To be fair, there are some come-along models out there that are pretty tough. If you get one that's rated to 4000 pounds or so, then it should be able to actually pull you out of a bad situation. If you plan to use an HLJ as a winch alternative, then make sure you have hardware on hand to do it; you can't thread a 3" wide tow strap through the little hole in the jack. Get a clevis that fits.

Traction Pads

Those ladder-like things for ice and snow can be a blessing, or a curse. A couple of those beneath your wheels will usually get you going again. For a couple of feet. Then you have to stop and pick them up. If you're using these, put it in granny low, let the engine just idle, and feather in the clutch. You don't want to spin the wheels on these things because it is possible to send them flying into whatever is in their path (other vehicle, the underside of your vehicle, you...)

Regular ladder-type pads don't work in mud (they just sink) but they're great on ice and slicked snow. For mud you need something with a semi-solid surface that will stay on top of the mud. You might think that an old ski- doo track would be great. They almost are. In shallow stuff they work great, but in really deep stuff they let the tire push them down, and your truck just ends up having to drive 'uphill' against the mud. They still work, but not as well.

The ultimate traction aid is a pair of 15' 2x10s. Jack up each side of the vehicle and put the boards under both wheels on each side and you can get out of just about anything. Tough to transport, though. 8-)

Jack Tricks

With a jack that will lift at least a corner of your vehicle 6" or so (even a stock jack will do it) you can lift the wheel and stuff traction material under it. Floor mats. Rocks. Sand. Dead branches. Kitty Litter. Irritating relatives. Anything. Lower the wheel again, and do the other side (or all four corners) and you should be able to get going.

Slingshot Extraction

I wasn't sure whether to include this because the potential for tragic results are great, indeed. Still, as long as you understand that you really have to be careful doing this, and understand the risks involved, then it might get you out when nothing else will.

[Christian Falzon writes:]

First a disclaimer:
This technique may be extremely dangerous if not done properly ( maybe that's why no one mentions it ) - so make sure you know what you're doing. My description here is only a rough guide, the exact technique, rope type, etc. are up to your judgement - though I'm sure that many others will contribute such information. It also needs considerable skill to be done safely.
The technique is snatch pulling and is (in principle) very simple. You need:
  1. A very stretchy rope. This should be about 2 inches in diameter and made of nylon.
  2. A bogged down or stuck vehicle (you wouldn't be trying to pull it out if you didn't have that :)
  3. A vehicle which is not bogged down and has at least 25 feet of clear ground on which to accelerate.
  4. Very robust tow points on both vehicles.
When to use it:
This technique should only be used as a last resort - it is to my knowledge the most powerful way of pulling a vehicle loose - except for using an Abrahams tank or a Sikorski Sky Crane. Unfortunately it is probably also the most dangerous and I have seen some incidents which could have had a very nasty ending if it weren't for tons of luck. The pulling force that you can generate (if done properly) far exceeds that of any winch or conventional pulling - even if the towing vehicle is on very slippery ground.

Basically all you do is
  1. Fasten the rope between the two vehicles, just as if you were going to tow.
  2. Back up the mobile vehicle as close as possible to the bogged one. Make sure that the rope is laid out neatly on the ground and cannot get tangled or caught in anything
  3. Make every bystander get the heck out of the way - at least twice as far as the length of the rope
  4. The bogged/disabled/stuck vehicle should be started if possible (and should contain a driver :-)
  5. The towing vehicle accelerates forward - do not overdo it.
  6. The slack in the rope will be taken up, but the vehicle should continue accelerating. At the same time as the rope comes under tension, the bogged vehicle should do its best to move as well.
  7. As the vehicle keeps moving forward, the tension on the rope increases more and more, in the process slowing it down. This deceleration can be very rapid and a driver not wearing a seatbelt will almost certainly smash into the windscreen.
  8. Hopefully the tension in the rope will be enough to pull the other vehicle loose. In any event, once the towing vehicle stops moving forward, the tension in the rope will start accelerating it backwards with great force. The driver should be prepared for this and immediately press the clutch and use the brakes. The vehicle should then be eased back on the brakes until there is no longer tension.
  9. If this doesn't work just back up again and repeat the snatch pull with a heavier right foot until you are successful.
IMPORTANT tips that may keep you and others alive:
  1. The drivers in the two vehicles MUST MUST MUST MUST wear seat belts and certified crash helmets.
  2. The towing points on both vehicles must be very robust. The force generated by snatch pulling can be of the order of several tons - up to about four times the weight of the towing vehicle (even if only for a few seconds). If you are not sure about the strength of the tow points you are inviting disaster.
  3. The rope should be tied directly to the towing point - NO metal fittings such as eyes or shackles may be used.
  4. The vehicles must both have roll cages (real ones not chrome decorations)
  5. Everybody else (spectators photographers and whoever) MUST stay at a distance of at least twice the length of the rope being used. If anybody insists on staying (perhaps to take photos or something) DO NOT PROCEED until he gets out of the way or you are sure that he's Bill Gates.
  6. Use decent knots to tie the rope. The knot should be as small as possible - consult some good seaman or rock climbing junkie for the best knot to use. It is important that the knot be as small as possible.
  7. If at all possible avoid snatch towing a small light vehicle (eg. a Sammy) with a much heavier vehicle (i.e. anything :-)
  8. Make sure that the towing point does not have any sharp edges that may cut the rope
  9. DO NOT use a rope which does not stretch - AVOID AVOID AVOID chains, steel ropes, Kevlar, Carbon fibre, 'pre-tensioned' or non-synthetic ropes. The rope should be Nylon or a similar material which can stretch to almost twice its length without breaking and must have a breaking strength in excess of 25 tons.
So what exactly is so dangerous about it?
What we are doing here is changing the momentum of the towing vehicle into energy stored in the tow rope. Its like we are using the towing trucks engine to 'wind-up' the rope. What this means is that all the energy that your fire-breathing V8 has produced in those seconds of acceleration is now stored in the rope ready to be released at an instant if something goes wrong. What we want is for that energy to pull the bogged vehicle out of its mud-hole but what if it doesn't do it?

The main dangers in order of magnitude are:

  1. The worst that can happen is that the towing point (or indeed a chunk of chassis) of one of the vehicles gets torn off. If this happens, the piece torn off will shoot off (accelerated by tons of tension in the rope) and can easily reach speeds of almost 500mph (yes, five hundred miles per hour) depending on the size of the chunk extracted. I can leave it to your imagination what happens if said chunk hits someone.
  2. If too much force is used at once, the bogged vehicle may come loose with the rope still having lots of stored energy to spare. This stored energy then makes your newly de-bogged vehicle accelerate faster than an F-15 on steroids and literally go airborne and come crashing down (most likely onto the towing vehicle - been there done that). The important thing is that you always start gently and gradually use more force at each attempt.
  3. The rope may break. This usually happens where it is in contact with the tow point. This results in a missile launch similar to when the tow point breaks except that this time only the rope is flying. That is why the knot should be as small as possible. A messy multiple knot will easily smash through a steel body panel at that speed. The smaller the knot, the less the damage it will cause. Having said that, even the rope itself can be lethal but you have made sure that everybody is far away. The drivers of the vehicles are not normally in danger since the rope will get tangled in the vehicle and also lose most of its energy before reaching the driver. One may still get injured if extremely unlucky however.

Horror stories:

I have seen two near accidents caused by improper snatch towing which could have had a very nasty ending.

The first instance involved two Land-Rovers about six years ago. No amount of winching would make the bogged landy budge. Also digging was impossible as the mud was too fluid and Hi-Lifting impossible. So they went for snatch pulling. Even the most violent acceleration brought no results. They then decided to use two ropes (to double the length) with the result that the towing Landy reached speeds in excess of 40mph!! before the rope slack was taken up. Just as the Landy started to loose the battle against the increasing tension of the rope an appalling impact and what sounded like a rifle shot was heard. The tow rope seemed to have vanished. What had happened was that the towing point of the stricken Landy was pulled right out of the chassis and catapulted at awesome speed towards the towing landy. It went right through the rear door, the bulkhead and through the front windscreen, scattering bits of glass and aluminum all over the place. The towing point had actually passed within a few inches of the drivers head!! He was wearing a helmet but I doubt what protection that can afford against a 6 lb supersonic towook!

So what did they do wrong? The worst thing was to use too much force without thought about the consequences. One must stop and think about an alternative before just applying more and more brute force.

The other incident involved a Land-rover de-bogging a Sammy. What happened this time was simply that maximum brute force was used right away. The Landrover accelerated about 20 feet to approx 20Mph before the rope started tensioning. All of a sudden the Sammy catapulted out of the ground flew a distance of about 25 feet and came crashing into the roof of the Landy just above the level of the tailgate. The only thing that prevented the driver of the Landy from getting killed was the substantial rollcage. What went wrong here was very simply that maximum brute force was applied first time. There was probably four times as much energy in the rope as was needed to debog the 'Zuki.

The moral of it all: snatch towing is a great way of recovering otherwise unrecoverable vehicles. I have seen many otherwise unrecoverable vehicles (even my mog) recovered by snatch pulling. If done with care, it is safe but if not can be lethal. Always try winching, HiLifting and digging before snatch pulling.

[ How's that for an explanation? ]

So we've heard what the process can do, and we've heard a whole lot about what can go wrong. Bottom line? If nothing else works, this might, but be darn careful if you try it. It's really not that scary at low speeds (10mph max). Here is a table supplied by Guy Hammer that tells you how much force can be exerted by various weights of vehicles at various speeds:

     Vehicle/Snatch-strap load impact (in ft./lbs. energy)

     Speed                    Vehicle Weight (lbs)
     (mph) 3,000    4,000     5,000     6,000     7,000
     5     2,506    3,341     4,177     5,012     5,847
     10    10,024   13,365    16,707    20,048    23,389
     15    22,554   30,072    37,590    45,108    52,626
     20    40,096   53,462    66,827    80,192    93,558
     30    90,216   120,289   150,361   180,435   210,505
     50    250,604  334,135   417,669   501,207   584,736

     Strap capacities:

     2" - 18,000
     4" - 36,000
     6" - 54,000

     12"- 108,000

Note: The tow hooks I have seen for sale are only rated for 10,000 lbs. As best have I have been able to determine, the two 1/2" bolts that hold them to your frame could break at 14,000-15000 lbs. Having a tow hook imbedded in the back of your truck (or skull) could ruin your entire day! (And no, I don't know anyone crazy enough to hit the end of a 12" strap at 50 MPH!)

From this we can see that a 3,000 pound vehicle at only 10 miles per hour can apply more power than most of the electric winches on the market. A very powerful tug, indeed. High speeds make for a tremendous amount of power. Always always always start with small tugs at low speeds. There's no sense in tearing the towing points right off of the vehicles. The previously mentioned tug by the 3,000 pound vehicle at 10mph will apply as much force as the stock towing points in many new vehicles are designed to take (the wire loop tow points found on many newer vehicles are an example).

The reality of the situation is that many people use snatch pulling as their primary method of extraction, and think nothing of it. It can be safe if done properly at reasonable speeds. I use snatch pulling to pull people out of ditches. When you're using it, don't be in a hurry to use more power; use a whole bunch of small pulls rather than a huge brute tug. I pulled a minivan from the bottom of a 6' ditch while I was on glare ice by using small tugs, and lots of them. I gained maybe an inch each tug. It adds up, and eventually he came out. Try to get a rhythm going so that you aren't in gear when you hit the end of the strap; rather start going and let the inertia of the vehicle pull you forward, then you will recoil on the strap and you can just stay in a forward gear and use the clutch to 'bounce' on the end of the strap. If I had to shift into reverse for every tug I'd still be tugging away at the guy I pulled out of the ditch last night.

To Spot, or Not To Spot? The battle rages

Every pastime has to have a major bone of contention or two, and this is one of the biggest in the off-road arena. Some people love spotters, some people hate spotters, some people don't know what a spotter is.

A spotter is someone who is outside of the vehicle, and is supposed to be seeing things that you can't see from your vantage point behind the wheel, and passing the information on to you, so that you can make more intelligent decisions during intense rock-crawling.

In my dirtbike background, there is no such thing as spotters. When you can see all of your tires, why the heck would you want someone telling you how to drive?

With big vehicles, it's a bit different, as evidenced by the following:

Chris wrote:

Don't forget about using a spotter. Only one spotter, any more, and you might as well not use any. Trust the spotter, he or she can see things you can't. In many cases, a good spotter is better than a great driver.

Dean wrote:

Am I the only one out there that doesn't like to use a spotter? It is very rare that I will watch or would like a spotter. I much prefer to use my own judgement as I know my vehicle better than most spotters. If I need help or an extra eye on the other side then I will ask for it at that point.

Otherwise I would rather they just shutup and let me do my thing. Maybe I have just seen too many bad spotters. :-)

Jim wrote:

Learning how to wheel I always found spotters helpful. Now that I have experience, here are my two basic rules on spotters:

  1. Use spotters you know, preferably people who drive a rig like yours, and set up as much the same as possible. I pretty much trust the other drivers in my Cruiser club.

  2. Someone said yesterday that they walk the trail twice (terrain then placement). I like to walk it up (its almost always uphill - harder obstacles, and I can't see over my hood), then walk it back down with my spotter saying 'I want to put the tire here, or I want to end up here'. That way we have a game plan.

This is, of course, a nice, mannered discussion of the relative merits of spotters. You usually see a flaming row about issues like this (and clutches, and auto trannies, etc. etc.) but this still gets the point across that there are different opinions out there.

So what do I think? I've gotten myself into some scrapes that a spotter could have helped me avoid. I have not yet gotten into a scrape because of bad advice from a spotter, so on the whole they seem like a useful institution. That being said, however, I would still rather do without them. I tend to be a solitary in my hobbies; I drive off in a random direction for a couple weeks of rough camping, and my rig is really intended to get me to and from potential camping/climbing spots, more so than it is just an outlet for a rock-crawling addiction. I also feel that using spotters frequently might be habit-forming; and in a situation where there is no spotter available you might do a worse job of it because of your anxiety due to not having your crutch. Still, when you're doing highly technical rock-crawling, you don't have much choice but to use a spotter. I put it in the 'necessary evil' category.

If I pull a bonehead move because of my poor judgement, and wreck my rig, I have only myself to blame. I'm not sure I'd trust myself to be rational if someone else was responsible for the destruction of the $300 water separator on my 'Cruiser.

From my point of view, my rig is my transportation. If I have to walk the trail twice to be able to run my rig over it, then it isn't transportation at all, rather it is a chore; it's costing me more work than it's saving. Your mileage may differ.

Pardon me while I install the Halon cylinder next to my e-mail basket...


A note regarding obstacles. If you take nothing else away with you from this FAQ, take this:

"There is no more dangerous obstacle than the obstacle unseen."

Driving through long grass should be done slowly. Driving through very long grass should be done very slowly. Any time you can't see what you're driving on is a good time to drive slow. Through water, mud, grass, willow, reeds, etc. Water could hide a rock, a sharp stick, a broken bottle, anything.

I know a person who once grazed a fire hydrant in long grass. It turned out a company had started building a subdivision, but lost their funding, so there were fire hydrants and curbs, but nothing else, and it had all grown over. There could be an old lean-to, or a junked VW sitting in that long grass. You could hit a young deer, or other animal. Until you've explored the territory, go slow.

Steep Climbs

The natural reaction of the inexperienced faced with a steep hill, or a not-so-steep, but slippery hill to climb is to put the truck in granny low and stomp on the gas. This, is not the way to do it.

There are two forces that can get you over a hill: momentum, and friction. For small hills and bumps, you can safely rely on momentum to get you over, but for anything steep and bigger than 10 or 15 feet, you have to rely at least partially on friction.

You need to have the truck in as high a gear as possible in order to reduce the chances of the wheels spinning. In granny-low, you'll just spin out and slide down (unless you can idle up the hill). Try the hill first in your middle gear (2nd for 3-speeds, 3 for 5-speeds) and see what happens.

If you do start to spin out, ease off the throttle, and hopefully the wheels will grab again. If the wheels don't grab again, then hit the brakes and clutch to hold yourself steady, shift into reverse, and let go of all pedals. Let the engine do the braking. DON'T use the brakes going down a hill, or you will likely lose static friction and you might start sliding down, turn sideways, and roll. That is a very-bad-case scenario, but it has happened. If you didn't make it up, try again in a higher gear.

Do not try to change gears on a steep hill.

Short steep hills can be mentally unsettling, because you lose track of the ground. All you can see over your hood is sky. You must pick your line before you start the climb, and hope you stay on it.

You should start climbs head-on, so that both wheels start climbing at once. This dramatically reduces the chance of a roll. Sometimes, however, you just can't start head on, because your approach angle isn't great enough. In these cases you should approach the hill at a 45 degree angle or so (more if necessary) and as soon as the tire closer to the hill has a bite on it, crank the wheels into the hill so that you will turn up the hill.

You want to avoid having one side of the vehicle higher than the other.

You should avoid backing up a steep hill. It puts a lot of stress on the front axle, and specifically the birfield joints (found in Land Cruisers, etc.). It's not too hard to break a birfield backing up a steep hill if you goose the throttle, especially if you have a front locker, and then you're stuck. If you must back up a steep hill, do it smoothly.

Steep Decents

These can be easy or hard. The rule against using brakes on a decent applies here. Use compression braking only. If the surface is firm, just steep, then select granny low, and go down. Don't touch those brakes if you can help it. If you must, then keep the clutch engaged, that way you can't lock the wheels. If the surface isn't firm, then the selection of a gear becomes more tricky. Too low a gear might not let the wheels turn fast enough to maintain static friction, but too high a gear will have you careening down the hill faster than you want to go. Your best bet usually (experience will teach) is to go with granny low, and keep your mitt on the hand throttle. If you start to skid forward, yard on the hand throttle to increase wheel speed and regain traction. If you don't have a hand throttle then be very careful with the gas pedal, as you don't want your foot to bounce into the gas and get you going faster than prudence dictates. Don't try to change gears going down a hill. If the situation starts looking grim half way down a hill, and you just can't keep the wheels spinning fast enough to maintain static friction, then you may have to use the clutch. If there is open space at the bottom of the hill (so you're not going to smack a tree or something) then pushing the clutch won't cause you much grief if the surface is relatively smooth. Remember, though, that high speeds on rough surfaces are dangerous, and the vibration will cause the whole world to blur at the edges, and you won't be able to tell where you're going. If you lose your line down the hill, you might hit a bump, the wheels might bounce to one side, the truck could end up turning sharply, and you could roll down the hill. Slow is better. The general rule with hills is "Straight up, and straight down." Turning on a hill is to be avoided where possible.

Stalling on a Steep Grade

This is a definite hassle. It never occurred to me to put this section in, being blessed with an injected diesel that will run upside down if I want it do, but some carburetors don't like steep grades, and may very well stall on longer ones. Here's what to do.

[From the nimble fingers of Guy Hammer comes:]

Allright, I have a manual transmission, power brakes, and my carb likes to flood out on steep angles. I'm perched way up on the side of this hill with both feet occupied with clutch and brake, and the engine is dead. Now what??!

Number one priority is not to lose the power assist in the brakes at this point. Do not pump or release the brakes. If you do, and exhaust the reserve capacity of the power booster you won't be able to hold your rig from rolling back even if you use both feet! The parking brake won't hold it either!

[Ed. note: Guy is about to get into a discussion about how to coerce a sticky gearbox into shifting into reverse. Most gearboxes aren't going to need this kind of treatment, but you should try shutting off your truck on a small hill to simulate this stalled- climb situation and see if yours is the sticky kind (like a T18).]

Number two priority is to get the trans in reverse. If it won't go just keep stirring the stick between various forward gears and reverse until you get it to drop in. If that doesn't work, release the clutch (not the brake) and bump the starter while pulling it into reverse. Once in reverse now you can release the brake. If your rig doesn't have low enough gears to hold you on the hill, at least the engine turning will help rebuild vacuum in the brake booster. If the gears do hold you, hit the starter and back on down the hill. At this point if the engine restarts, fine, just let it idle you down.

If you get crossed up backing down the hill you may have no choice but to try and re-start the engine and try to pull forward a bit. Stop the rig by releasing the starter (or with the brakes if the gears won't hold it. Be careful with the brakes!) With the clutch and brakes applied, shift into whatever forward gear works best for climbing in your rig. At this point it's useful to know the "racers three-step". Left foot on clutch, right toe on brake, right heel mashing gas. (on my rig anyway.) If you can get the engine to catch, that's half the battle. Rev it a few times to clear the flooding as much as possible, and then simultaneously release the brake and clutch, mash the gas, cross your fingers and hold your breath. (might want to practice this before you get caught on Lions Back ;) With luck this might buy you a few feet or even get you on up and over the hill.

[Here endeth the lesson.]

Basically what you're doing is letting the compression of your stalled engine act as a brake to slow your journey down the hill. Because the engine is physically being turned over (though it isn't actually running) you will get some power back in your brakes (because the pump is running). You can now use your brakes to slow your descent.

The second-to-last-ditch attempt thing to try is to leave your truck in first gear, ignore the brakes, and use the clutch as a brake. There is a built-in psychological aspect to this, because you're used to pushing in the clutch to stop, and in this case you need to let go of the clutch to stop. Irritating little problem. As long as you are in 4WD you will have four wheel braking using this method, so it will hold you on the hill, as long as there is traction. Hard on the clutch, though.

If you are 10 feet away from the crest of the hill then you might want to try the absolute-last-ditch thing, and that is to put the truck in first gear and let the starter drive you up the hill. This isn't inordinately hard on the starter as long as you don't run it for longer than 10 or 15 seconds at a time. When the 10-15 seconds is up, just shut off the key and the engine will hold the truck steady (because you're not touching the clutch or the brakes). After you give the starter a good 5 minutes to cool, then do it again. Sooner or later either your battery will be dead, or you'll be at the top of the hill. This only works on an oldish truck that doesn't have an interlock that keeps you from working the starter with the truck in gear.

It has been suggested to me that you shouldn't get out of your truck on a steep grade unless your seatbelts are of the type that can be pulled out again on a grade (many lock on a grade, and once it retracts you can't pull it out again until the truck is on level ground). Land Cruisers of my vintage suffer this 'feature', and it's a pain. The best you can do is to try to use something like the vise grips from the toolbox (if you can reach it with your belt on) to keep the belt from retracting when you take it off.

Water Crossings

This section has been replaced by an article by Runar Sigurjonsson (apologies for the lack of punctuation). The article was written by him, but it was heavily edited by myself as English is not Runar's first language. Anything in square brackets is an addition by myself.

This is the way we cross the glacial rivers [in Iceland] and maybe this does not fit into what you were thinking about. Those glacial rivers change regularly, they can be passable in the morning but not in the afternoon [due to meltwater, caused by the sun], but then maybe in a different place.....:-( Crossing rivers.

Rivers and your truck:

Water is one of your truck's biggest enemies. If water gets into a gasoline engine, it will be greatly damaged. If water gets into a Diesel engine it will be destroyed. The two most important parts to protect are the air-intake and the electronic ignition system.

The ignition system in newer vehicles is usually very tight and need not be worried about. In older vehicles it can help to spray some water-repelling sprays, but they often make the ignition very dirty.

The air-intake is the route water can get into your engine. If that happens, you are in deep [trouble]. If you are lucky you only need to dry your engine, if not, start looking for a new engine.

In newer vehicles the air is usually fed in from two places, inside the front fender and from around the exhaust-pipes. The fender is well protected from splashes but if you drive to fast the vehicle will make a wave in front and raise the water level inside the fender.

The best place for a air-intake is on the roof or feeding the air through the firewall from inside the truck.

The weight of your truck has big effect on its river crossing abilities and the height up under the body also. As soon as the body goes into the water the weight that is sitting on the tires is greatly reduced, making it easier for the current to push the vehicle its way. For example if your vehicle weighs 3300 pounds and the body-tub is 7x5 feet and it sinks one foot into water the weight on the tires is reduced to only 1220 pounds [assuming no leakage of water into the tub].

No precautions need to be taken for the exhaust system, there is no way water can get past the exhaust [as long as the engine is running].

Where to cross:

In general it is best to cross where the river is wide and has adequate current. Adequate current means that it is not as deep as where there is less current, and it also means that the bottom is more solid. [ If the river is a consistent 13 feet across, and one area has a faster current than another area, then that area with the faster current is shallower.]

The current carries with it mud and sand that it puts down where the current drops and that makes the bottom soft and dangerous.

Never cross in a place that cannot be waded. If the place is unknown to the driver he should examine it by wading over himself.

He needs to check how deep it is, how fast the current is, and how [firm] the bottom is. To wade in a safe manner the person should have a stick (the heavier the better) and face up the river, leaning on the stick, with slightly bent knees. This gives him the best stability. He should be tied to a rope that one person holds onto on the riverbank. It is very important that the end of the rope that is on the riverbank, is not tied to anything. If the person wading should fall, the one on the bank should run down the river at the same speed as the victim is floating and pull him to the riverbank. This way the effect of the current is eliminated and very little force is needed to pull the victim to the riverbank, your ten year old is probably strong enough for it. If the end on the riverbank is tied to something the current will push the victim down into the river possibly drowning the victim.

[ Ed. note: I've had a long discussion with Runar about the 'running down the bank' point because on this continent we are blessed with those tall green things with bark that make running down the riverbank quite difficult on occasion. My opinion has always been that the rope tied to you should be tied on the bank as well, but Runar has convinced me that even with the rope tied high under your armpits you will plane down into the river if the rope goes taut. I'm not sure where this leaves us. If there are no trees on the riverbank to impede running or snag the rope, then his method is by far the best, but in a forest probably the best method would be to have the person on the bank hold on to the rope and feed it out as necessary so that there is a line between you but there is little or no tension. It's a tough question, with no good answer. ]

Seeing another vehicle cross is often enough to see where to cross, but remember that it is often not best to go over at the same place in both directions.

Never go over a big river without a buddy four wheeler in his/her truck.

Driving over:

If the river is only hub deep there is usually no danger. Just cross in a slow manner, and remember that it could suddenly get a lot deeper.

Always drive in 1st-gear 4-wheeldrive low range (remember to lock the hubs) and be in that gear before you get into the river because shifting gears in a river is an emergency only. When you press the clutch pedal down, water can possibly get between the clutch-disk and the flywheel making it impossible to engage again.

Drive slowly (1st-low at 1500-2000 rpm) over and try to drive down the river. That way the current will help to push the vehicle across and a wave will not be generated in front. If you drive up against the current a big wave will be in front adding to the chance of taking water into the air-intake. Besides that your vehicle may simply not have the power or traction to go up against the current (even if you have a 454).

In most cases the current will try to push the vehicle down the river and the rear end will be pushed faster. Be prepared to turn the front wheels in the direction of the "slide", as you would in other circumstances. If that is not enough, accelerate so the front tires can keep up with the rear tires. If that is still not enough (you should not have chosen this place!) and the vehicle turns, facing upstream, put it in reverse and try to reverse up to either bank.

Going forward is not an option in such circumstances.

Turn the headlights off. The sudden cooling of them can destroy the bulbs.

Tying a rope to the hitch is a smart move. If things go in the worst way, it makes a rescue a lot easier.

Want to learn more? Take your mountain bike to a innocent, about knee deep river and experiment. That way you will get a better understanding of all the forces that the river puts on your vehicle.

In case of an emergency:

Like I said before never cross a big river without some spare truck on the bank. If your vehicle stops halfway across and can't get any farther the first thing to do is to get the people to dry land. Never jump off of the truck on the upstream side, since the current can push you down under the truck and you could easily get stuck on some stuff in the frame and then nothing can save you. Try to get a rope to the shore and have the people there pull everyone over.

To dry an engine:

If your engine stalls from water, don't try to start it as that could make things worse. Have it pulled to dry land and then open the air cleaner. If there is water in it chances are that water got all the way into the engine block. If not, this is probably the blame of wet ignition. If water is in the air cleaner, remove the filter and all the spark plugs. Then try to start the engine. It will of course not run but the water inside will be pushed out of the spark plug holes. If it doesn't turn or turns with an awful sound, you are facing a big repair bill or the need for a new engine.

Also check all lubricants for water. If water gets into the engine oil and you don't have any replacement oil, wait for an hour or so or until the oil and the water has separated, with the water lowest in the pan. Loosen the drain plug until the water flows out and when oil starts coming out, too, tighten it again. Drive to the next service station and have all lubricants changed.

[ End of article ]

Runar's article is quite complete, and pretty much overwrites everything I wrote previously. There are still a couple of points that I'd like to make:

Generally speaking, driving through water no higher than the top of the wheel rim is not a big problem, and just about any 4x4 will do it if the bottom surface is reasonably firm (packed sand, smooth-grade rocks, etc).

Any deeper than this, and you have to consider what will get dunked. Will you get water in your differentials? Will your radiator fan get purchase on the water and claw its way into the radiator? Will you douse an electrical component that won't like it? If you get the vehicle's computer wet it is game over! You will need a new computer ($$!), and a tow home.

Even if you can see the bottom of the water, you should investigate carefully where you're going to cross. Some slow-moving streams have an incredibly thick layer of crud on the bottom, something which Runar wouldn't have ever seen before (rivers in Iceland are pretty much all glacial, so they have strong currents, so no heavy mud layer) and what looks like the bottom of the stream might be just the top of a 3 foot deep layer of stinking ooze.

A fast-moving stream is more reliable; the speed of the water carries soft stuff away. A sandy wash can usually be trusted as long as the sand surface is rippled (indicating currents at work). If the sand is smooth, it might just be the underwater equivalent of 'quicksand', and a good poking with a pole is in order to check the situation out. If you see pebbles on the surface of the river bottom then you are pretty safe driving on it. If it was quickstuff down there, then the pebbles would sink. Don't count on your vehicle being able to pull itself out if your front wheels fall off a shelf into deeper water. Unless you have a winch on the back of the vehicle, you're in trouble.

Point hints:

  1. Be very careful of stream deltas (where they empty into a lake) as they are often clogged deep with mud, and it's a wider area to cross. In cases other than deltas, wider is often better because it indicates a shallower section, but deltas are to be avoided!
  2. Consider the firmness of the banks of the stream. Are they steep? Will they slide under the weight of the truck? Will you be able to climb the other side?
  3. Don't blindly trust an assumed fording point where a logging road crosses it; the road might have been used only by skidders, which have huge 60" chevron-tread tractor tires on them.

There has been some spirited debate regarding the question of whether to cross a fast river at a downstream angle as Runar suggests, or whether to go straight across. I have done significant mental exploration of the situation with my old physics and hydrodynamics texts, and done various experiments with model vehicles and moving water. What I have found out is this:

  1. This is not an issue unless the current is fast (at least 3mph/5kmh or so).
  2. In water that doesn't reach the level of the differential, the difference is very insignificant.
  3. In water that reaches the axles and differential but not the body of the vehicle it is slightly better to be headed downstream.
  4. In water that reaches up to the body of the vehicle it is significantly better to be pointing downstream.

Since water has the disturbing tendency to get deeper when you least expect it, you might as well cross rivers on a downstream tack.

This whole argument is pointless if there is only one exit point from the river (due to trees or a steep bank).

When you reach the riverbank and it starts to get steep, you need to turn the wheels into the slope so that you climb it straight up, as per the instructions under "Steep Climbs".

Deep Mud/Snow

When faced with deep mud or snow, you might find yourself bogging down and making little progress. A rapid swinging of the steering wheel (by placing one hand at the 12 o'clock position and swinging it from 'knee to knee' it will help you move forwards. This works by giving the front wheels purchase on the sides of any ruts you might be in. This only works, of course, if your truck has front wheel drive or four wheel drive engaged.

The consensus on the list is that although in theory it should also work when reversing, the added stress on the front drivetrain, and the added possibility of the wheels catching hard and shooting you in a direction that you don't want to go, make this a 'last resort' method when in reverse.

Well, I was just stuck in some nasty frame-deep lake-bottom mud, and what I did (and it worked, praise be!) was to crank the steering wheel left to right, but all the way to the steering limiters, while the truck was in low reverse idling backwards. I would change from left to right whenever it stopped moving. Every now and then it would 'hook up' and I would just let it move in whatever direction it could get traction in. Obviously there are situations where that method isn't a good one; for instance if you are on a lakeshore and you know that going towards the lake is just not a good idea, then you might try going full turn, back to center, and back to the full turn always pointing away from the lake.

Try to make small corrections with the wheel, rather than large ones.

As soon as you get the wheels points more than 5 degrees or so off center they will start to just churn and not help in moving forward. The front wheels act as rudders in the deep stuff, but if you don't have the power to push forward then you're lost. If you start to slip and lose traction, and end up coming to a halt, try straightening your wheels and rocking a bit (just put it in reverse and use the clutch to alternate between power and neutral until you get a good rocking going), then try to scoot backwards enough to get some room to accelerate forwards again, and keep the wheels straight.


Mud is everywhere. Some love it, some hate it. Some love to get dirty, others hate having to spend $10 at the coin-op to get the black, stinking swamp ooze off of their truck. No matter which camp you inhabit, you might find yourself hub-deep in the sticky stuff some day, so a few hints might come in handy.

Unless you have well separated lugs, mud can be impossible to deal with.

Regular 'all terrain' tires will just fill with mud and give you all the traction of a racing slick. You need a tire that satisfies the M+S (Mud and Snow) designation for self-cleaning lugs. Not every M+S tire will self-clean in the sticky stuff; it's got to have a good, wide lug spacing (like 1/2" or more) to clean properly.

Mud can be sneaky. Sometimes you're on top of it and don't even know it.

There's a story that Mike Taylor related in the first newsletter of the True North Toyota Land Cruisers. This story illustrates so well several things that you should not do, that I feel that it was destined to be added to the FAQ, and I'm sure Mike will agree (once he finds out that I used it, that is!). 8-)

I had my first good stuck the other day; I went fishing with my dad and we were trying different streams in the Jock river area.

As I was starting to cross a grassy field to get to one small creek, the back wheels spun. I got out to look; the grass was wet, but no worse than that. As a precaution, I locked the hubs and put the machine in 4-low. With one touch of the gas, I was sitting frame-deep in gumbo; brown, sticky, the worst. There I was, hi- lift at home, no shovel, my Warn 8274 8000lb winch sittin' in my garage DOIN' ME NO GOOD AT ALL. My new rod and reel with 4-pound test wasn't an option. Fortunately, a neighboring farmer towed me out with his tractor. [snip]

Now we get to critique Mike's driving. Easy to do from this armchair. 8-)

Now, as soon as the wheels slipped, he got out to check out the situation.

Very good. Many people would have just stomped on the gas. The driving error was using so low a gear with too much throttle. Mike's truck is a diesel 'cruiser with a granny low of about 55:1. If you so much as breathe on the gas from a stop in that gear you will dig down fast. Now the non driving related error: he had no unstucking gear. So what should Mike have done? Well, definitely lock the hubs, and switch to 4WD, but use as high a gear as you can start in easily (3rd gear, in Mike's case) and feather in the clutch without touching the throttle. Now, Mike didn't have any indication that he was on quicksod, but when I suspect that wheel-spin will be tragic and I have to start from speed zero, I will use the hill-trick of shutting off the truck, putting it in the second lowest gear, and then without touching the gas just turn the key to start it. The starter motor will drive you smoothly for 5-10 feet before the engine starts. Since the starter motor doesn't have all that much power you won't spin the wheels.

This only works if your truck doesn't have an interlock that keeps you from starting it in gear.


Ice gives you little or no traction, no matter what kind of tires you have. If you're on slick ice, then all you can do is plan ahead. Give yourself lots of time to slow down. Stop at the crests of hills to check out the situation. Is there a rut that might grab your tires and throw you into the trees? Studs will perk your tires up incredibly on ice, but they're not legal in all areas. Chains don't have as much of an effect on ice unless they're specifically made to grip ice.

Slippery Stops

Compression braking is the way to go, here. Keep the vehicle in gear during the stop, and it won't be able to lock the wheels. You'll have to use the clutch before the engine stalls, of course, but you can get down to a very slow speed before you have to rely on the brakes alone.

What if? Dealing with emergencies.

Let me start off by saying that this is not intended to be a survival article. There are way too many books on that subject already. What I'm going to do is give you some hints on making it easier to be found. In other words, rather than instruction on snaring rabbits while waiting to be found, I'm going to tell you how to make it easier for the Search And Rescue (SAR) boys and girls to find you faster.

Rule #1 is to let someone know where you're going. If you get lost or stranded, it really sucks to not know whether anyone is looking or not. Having people actively looking for you greatly increases your chance of being found. Using your credit card to buy gas is a good thing, as then the searchers can find out where you last fueled up, and that might give them a clue as to where you are. Best is to phone home every time you fill up.

Rule #2 is to listen to the weather forecast for the area you will be travelling in. If there's bad weather coming you might want to postpone your trip, or at least take precautions

Rule #3 is to always have emergency equipment suitable for the area you will be travelling in. You don't need bug juice in midwinter in the Yukon, but you'd better have your shovel. See the lists of expedition gear above.

Rule #4 is to have good navigational gear so you won't get lost in the first place. If it's too late to avoid it, keep reading.


Lost is more a state of mind than a state of body. The first thing to do (and I mean the FIRST thing) is to sit down. Sit down and mellow out. Don't drive. Don't walk. Don't run. Sit down. If you're in the truck then shut it off and wait. For half and hour or so. When you realize you're lost your brain starts doing backflips and your glands start pumping out enough epinephrine to put a yak into a coma, and if you give in to the fear you will run... and run... and run... until you are totally exhausted and well and truly lost!

So mellow out until you can think clearly. Sometimes this is all it takes. You will suddenly realize where you went wrong and will be able to find your way back easily. No matter how certain you are that you know where you're going at this point, leave a trail so that you can get back to this location. This location is where you realized you were lost, so it must be close to where you need to be to be found. If you can stay in this location, you'll probably get found faster.

If you're hopelessly lost, then you might as well be stranded, so follow the advice in that subsection.


The vehicle is inoperable. There is no way it's going to take you anywhere. A wheel fell off or something. Now you need to be found.

Do you have a cell phone or CB/shortwave transmitter? If so, call for help (as long as you have battery power). If not, there are still several options.

First off, calm down. A human being in reasonable physical condition can survive for a month with no food, as long as they have water. Do you have water? Even if you don't, you can still live for a week or more, though you'll be in a bad way by the fifth day or so. Do not drink radiator water if it has antifreeze in it! It'll crash your kidneys and leave you in a bad way. Unless you want a (brief) lifetime of dialysis, don't do it. If you don't have water, then don't eat, as digestion will use up your water reserves. From personal experience I know that the second day without food is the worst. After that it's not too bad. Just relax and don't think about it.

Conserve your energy. Rest. Food in the wilderness is fairly low calorie, and won't be keeping you up as well as you think it is. For instance, say you were on a fishing trip and you're stranded next to a trout stream. You have your fishing tackle and pole, and you are pulling 6 one and a half pound trout out of the stream every day. You think you're eating pretty good (6 pounds of trout a day, after they're cleaned). In reality, those trout are only providing about 250 calories each, so you're only getting about 1500 calories a day. An active man breaking trail in the woods needs more like 4000 calories to remain at a normal energy level. The bottom line is to conserve energy. Catch the fish, but don't go jogging. By the way, you don't have to worry about scurvy or any kind of vitamin deficiency for a loooong time, so don't bother getting yourself in a pucker about them. If you're in the bush that long, scurvy will be the least of your worries.

In cases where people 'disappear' in their vehicles the vehicle itself is usually found in just a few days after the search begins.

What this means is that you want to stay with the vehicle. As long as someone knew more or less where you were going, and when you expected to be back, you shouldn't have to wait more than a week before you're found. The vehicle is not a perfect shelter, but it will cut the wind. In extreme heat (30C plus) don't stay in the truck, but rather under it. That way you will get shade, and you won't be in the oven that is your truck. If you have blankets then you can make a lean-to tent against your vehicle to provide shade. Don't exert yourself in the heat. Try not to sweat, you will waste water. Move slow. Don't talk. Suck on a pebble to keep from mouth-breathing. In extreme cold (colder than about -20C) the vehicle won't help you any insulation-wise, but it will keep the wind off of you, and if you lie on the bench seat (if you have a bench seat) and pile your blankets on top of you (loose, not tight) then you will be warm enough to live, as long as you have food to keep the furnace stoked. If you know how to build a snow shelter, then I'll leave it up to your discretion whether to use one or not. Don't sweat. Don't get wet.

If you have to leave the vehicle (it's in an avalanche area, or you're just going to try to scare up some cattail rhizomes to eat) leave a note. If you don't have paper, then you can write it in dirt sprinkled on the seat, or some other method can be employed. Make sure the wind won't blow your note away. And blaze a trail. Just break the tops of bushes as you go so that they point back towards camp. Using this technique you shouldn't be able to lose track of the vehicle, and if searchers find one of your blazes they'll be able to find your camp.

In the interest of being seen from the air you should have the vehicle as conspicuous as possible. Parked in the middle of an open area, for instance. If the top of the vehicle is dark then a light-coloured tarp will help it remain visible (unless you're on snow, of course, in which case you want the top dark, and keep clearing the snow off of it).

The international distress signal is a group of three. Three blasts on the horn, three gunshots, three columns of smoke, whatever. In a wooded area you just build up a punky fire with rotten wood and green vegetation (or forest loam, or engine oil) and wait. You can burn a tire, and it will smoke a lot, but it burns really hot, so don't just toss your spare on the coals next to your lean-to; give it some room. It's a good idea to have a fire set up under a tarp or other rain-proof covering that you don't use unless you see a plane, then you can quickly build a fire that the pilot can see, and he won't be gone by the time it's going. Mirrors are excellent signals in the daytime. A mirror can reflect light for a staggering distance. You have several mirrors on your truck, so make use of them, even if you have to tear them off to use them.

In the usual 'backwoods' places of today (not including the deep interiors of the far north of Canada and Alaska, and the Australian outback) if you build a smoky fire by day, and a bright fire by night, you're pretty much guaranteed to be found within a week.


What's the big deal about a Hi-Lift jack?

A Hi-Lift jack (HLJ) or equivalent (Jack-all, etc.) does far more than just lift a corner of your truck to change a tire. An HLJ can be used (tediously) as a winch, but it's main feature is its ability to pivot an end of the vehicle from point to point.

If you jack up the front end of a vehicle from the center of the bumper so that both front wheels are off the ground, you can push that end of the car over to one side, thereby moving the front wheels a couple of feet to one side, and effectively turning the vehicle 20 degrees or so. Can be very handy because it's faster to pivot the front or rear wheels out of a deep hole than it is to winch it using the HLJ.

The situation where pivoting with the HLJ becomes really crucial is when you get yourself in over your head on a boulder problem. It's happened to everyone. You see a line that looks doable. You start moving in. You miscalculated. All of a sudden your rig is belly down on a rock, and all the fancy driving in the world isn't going to get your truck out of there. You just want to be home. In bed. With the covers over your head.

Using a winch in this situation will just cause major scrape-damage to the underbelly and potentially rip brake lines, fuel lines, etc.

The thing to do is to use your handy-dandy HLJ to lift the front (or back, depending on your lie) off of the obstruction and slowly inch it over. You have two choices: either crank it real high and push it over, hoping that it won't land on anything tender, or you can crank it up, push it over a foot or two (but not so much that it overbalances and falls) and lower it slowly onto the rock again, repeating until you're far enough over that you know for sure that you can pivot it fully without maiming your truck.

It's irritating. It's tedious. It's the only game in town, unless you have a friend with a cargo helicopter.

Using the same general technique you can lift a wheel back onto a rock that it slipped off of to re-establish your line.

Additionally, a Hi-Lift brand jack can have a top jaw added that makes it look like a giant woodworker's bar clamp. It will inflict many tons of crushing pressure; just the thing for straightening bent frames and suspension parts (if you can get in there.. the irritating thing is that you can't do this with the vehicle jacked up, obviously.. unless you have two jacks).

Some people claim success with moving a vehicle forwards or backwards with a HLJ using the pivot method. I advise strongly against this, as the potential for damage (due to the jack beam hitting something) is just too great.

Be careful using the pivot method to move your truck around by the back bumper if you have bumperettes. If you don't have a free arc to swing the jack beam in, the method won't work. Jacking from the bumperettes can be done, and I have had to do it, but it worried me, and one of them bent. If you have the option, don't use the bumperette as a jacking point.

Keep your Hi-Lift oiled. I have been warned that they can get 'sticky' and not work properly (it sucks to get your truck jacked up only to find out you can't get it back down again). I had this happen to me in the Great Lake Extraction of '96, and it was annoying. When the jack doesn't operate smoothly it's just another thing to worry about when you really need to focus on other things.

Do I really need a tow rope if I'm driving alone?

It's a good idea. You might need it to keep your truck from sliding down a cliff if you drop a wheel off, and you'll need one to use your Hi-Lift jack as a winch, or if your regular winch cable isn't long enough to reach a good anchor. There is also the ever-popular 'sloped trail washout crossing' which requires a tow rope or two. It's a good idea to use a safety rope when crossing unknown rivers that might get deep in the middle.

What kind of fire extinguisher do I need?

Automotive fire extinguisher chemicals vary in composition. Normally, extinguishers have three different chemicals referred to by the letters 'A', 'B' and 'C' for ordinary fires (wood, and other 'dry' things burning), flammable liquid fires, and electrical fires respectively. Now, the right extinguisher for any given situation depends on what is burning. In a car, a fire is usually started by an electrical problem ('C') but if you do end up with oil or gasoline burning ('B') then that's something that needs to be dealt with VERY quickly. If, however, the seats or carpet is burning, you need 'A'. It isn't practical to have three different extinguishers, so the manufacturers use custom chemicals that effect various ratios for different purposes. The most common automotive ratio seems to be a 1A/5BC mix, or thereabouts. That means that six pounds of the chemical used in the extinguisher will extinguish as much burning material as 1 pound of a dedicated 'A' chemical, and 2.5 pounds each of dedicated 'B' and 'C' chemicals. Gives you a 'broad spectrum' approach. You can buy either disposable extinguishers, or refillable.

Disposables are inexpensive, and in a situation where you may well never use your extinguisher, it's a satisfactory selection as long as the disposable unit holds at least a pound of chemical. Two pounds is better. The drawback to the disposable units is that over time all extinguishers lose pressure, and you can't just 'top up' a disposable unit. You have to buy a new one. Keep in mind that disposables generally are filled with a dry chemical, so when you use it you will end up with a car full of white crud everywhere. Better than losing the car, but gas extinguishers (such as Halon) don't have this problem. Halon, however, acts like CFCs in their attack of the ozone layer. So if you might never use it, why have it? Just in case you're one of those unlucky souls who does need it. My cousin's car just burned down around him about a month ago. He didn't have an extinguisher. This wasn't an ancient clunker, it was a decent, certified car. It went up so fast he couldn't do anything to save it. I gave him an earful for not having an extinguisher, because he should know better. He's a professional firefighter.

Here's more vehicular fire-fighting hints from Chris Siano:

  1. When putting out an engine fire, do not open the hood. Spray through the radiator, or from a wheelwell, or (if possible) from below the front bumper. Opening the hood simply allows air to flow and the fire may flare up directly into your face.
  2. Hot batteries can explode. There is no way to tell if a battery is shorted or damaged without raising the hood, and you don't want to do that (see (1) above). While fighting the fire, avoid the general area around the battery. Do not face into the radiator, and otherwise try to keep your face away as you spray into other areas. You may not be as effective in stopping the fire, but it is better than getting a face full of hot battery acid. Even when the fire is out, be very cautious of the battery. A warm battery releases hydrogen gas, the slightest spark can cause trouble. This is especially important if you need to disconnect the battery for any reason. A battery switch can be a wise investment.
  3. Modern Catalytic converters can easily reach 600 or more degrees Farenheit. Parking, stopping, and even driving over high grass can ignite it. Be very cautious.

This same phenomenon (grass-induced spontaneous combustion) was mentioned to me by Henry Cubillan. It's a wise move to check for dry grass stuffed around the engine block every half hour or so when driving in deep grass.

Which Winch is Winchiest?

This is another religious debate. The question is not one of size (astonishingly enough) as the established requirement is 1.5 times the gross weight of the vehicle. So my BJ42 with its slightly over 5000 pound GVW would need a bit over 7500 pounds, so I'd go with an 8000 pound winch (unless, of course, I saw a good deal on a 9000 or 10000).

Many people feel that bigger is better, though. A 10000 pound winch will generally use less energy pulling 7000 pounds than a 7000 pound winch will.

The question, though, is which kind of winch? Electric or hydraulic? PTO? Planetary gears or worm gears?

In general, you want a winch that's strong enough to pull your truck out of the mud, and you want one with the options that you feel are worth the money.

Some common options are:

  1. Remote (wired, or wireless) so you can stand out of the path of any broken cable etc. and you can get a better view of what's going on.
  2. Freewheeling. This is the ability of the winch to be put into 'neutral' so you can pull out the cable you need and don't have to wait for the winch to slowly unspool it.
  3. Roller fairlead. By default many winches come with a hawse fairlead, which is just a slot cut in a sheet of metal. A roller fairlead has steel rollers that don't cause the cable as much grief, so the cable lasts longer and doesn't get as hand-maimingly frayed.
  4. Gears? Worm gears are slow, but they have the benefit of having reliable built-in braking; there is no worry of the winch giving way and letting cable unspool under load. Planetary gears are faster, but they don't have the inherent braking properties. Auxilliary brakes are installed in these winches to overcome this lack. All in all, planetary gears look like the choice of champions.

PTO Winches

The ultimate grunt winch. Nothing will out-pull a PTO winch.

They're tough, they're reliable, and they'll pull a barn off of its foundations. A PTO winch can run faster than an electric or hydraulic (over a foot per second), because you can put the truck into whatever gear you want. A PTO winch can run all day without a problem (as long as you have enough gas in your truck 8-)

The bad part is that they're heavy, they're dear as diamonds from the dealer, and they only work if the engine is running. If you stall and can't get the vehicle re-started, you're out of luck. PTO winches also tend to be somewhat spartan; no remote, no other 'goodies'. Many don't freewheel (unless there's a dog-clutch on the winch itself, which means getting out of the cab and walking over to the winch). In theory, you can run a PTO winch off of the starter motor if the truck stalls. Might be worth a try.

Before plunking down good money for that aged PTO winch at the wreckers, made darn sure that you can get parts for it. According to my Toyota dealer, there are no spare parts available for their PTO winches. Make sure you can get them for the winch that you want to buy.

Electric Winches

The most common solution. These run off of your battery, so you need to have a pretty serious battery if you want to have full power from your winch (good sized winches have a draw of around 400 amps).

You operate these winches with the engine running, otherwise you'll just drain the battery that much faster, and you might not be able to get the truck started again. Even with the engine idling you can't run them for long, as alternators generally supply between 50 and 100 amps (though alternators of up to 250 amps are available for some trucks for welding applications, etc). These are the heaviest winches, so you might need to upgrade your front shock absorbers to compensate. Make sure that the solenoids are protected from moisture; if they get wet your winch won't work until they dry. If the solenoids stay dry (they can be installed remotely in the cab) then an electric winch will work under water.

An electric winch with a permanent magnet motor has much less of an appetite for power than a series-wound motor, but has the drawback of overheating easily. If you plan on being the 'winch guy' in the group and pulling everybody else up, you had better get a series-wound motor.

Hydraulic Winches

Possibly the best solution for most of us. There are two general types available; the variety that runs from the hydraulic pressure in the power- steering pump, and the type that runs from a separate, dedicated pump. The former is cheaper, the latter is better.

Hydraulic winches are strong and light, and are sort of a middle-ground between electric and PTO winches. You can get hydraulic winches with remotes, though many of them can only freewheel when you turn the handle on the winch itself. They run cool, and most have a 100% duty cycle. Decent hydro winches have a great appetite for power. Running a hydro pump hard enough and fast enough to power a winch pulling in 8000 pounds at 36 feet per minute (way faster than electric winches) takes about 20 horsepower. You can't run this serious a pump off of the crank with a belt. The belt will slip. You can try using a double belt, but generally the hydraulics are set up with the pump being powered directly from the crank (via a direct coupling) or via the PTO drivegear on the idler shaft of the transfer case (if you have a PTO drivegear). Hydraulic cost a lot to set up, but I think they're worth it.

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