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The 4WD Recovery Handbook: Everything you need to know

Those of you who have been unlucky enough to sit around a campfire with me would know I'm very fond of two things. Rum, and sayings I often don't entirely understand but make me sound smart.

My favourite would have to be "When all you have is a hammer, every problem starts looking like a nail."

It's something that lends itself perfectly to 4WD recovery situations. After all, the difference between an ordeal or a quick foot note can be something as simple as having an extra bow shackle floating around in the bottom of your drawers, or having the knowledge on how to effectively use your gear.

Arming yourself with the right equipment and the know-how to use it can turn even the hairiest offroad situations into a non-event.

The Gear

Winching

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The two biggest mistakes people make time and time again are shock loading, and ignoring their winches duty cycle. Despite the manufacturer's claims, winches aren't that strong, in most cases you're putting the full weight of your 4WD onto a brake that'll fit in the palm of your hand. When you start bouncing a couple of tonne off it, brake failure is just a matter of time.

Similarly, ignoring the duty cycle is another quick way to overstress the winches 12V motor. A duty cycle is a pretty straightforward thing. A 50% duty cycle means for every minute it runs, it needs a minute to cool down. Keeping your winching down to 30 second intervals will help keep the winch motor running strong and stop your batteries draining flat.

With those two things in mind a winch can be a get-out-of-jail free card, allowing you to drive hills too thick to walk, knowing you've got a steel cable holding you in place. With a bit of ingenuity and a few snatch blocks it's even possible to completely shift a 4WD sideways, a skill that'll come in handy should you ever slip off a track. If you can afford it, your 4WD should have a winch, it's as simple as that.

Snatching

A snatch recovery is often the quickest and easiest way to get out of strife. It's about as controlled as a pack of bulls running through Spain so if your mate is hanging off the edge of Billy Goats Bluff with a wheel cocked in the air there might be safer options. That said, if you're stuck in mud or there's water creeping through your door jams, a quick snatch recovery is the perfect answer.

What a lot of first timers (and old hats) don't realise is a snatch strap is a whole lot different from a tow strap.

A snatch strap acts like a giant rubber band, it'll stretch a certain amount and then try to snap shut. It's this snapping shut action that actually pulls a 4WD out of the goop.

There's a certain art to pulling off the perfect snatch. There's dangerous amounts of forces at work during a snatch recovery so the first step is to pull in a direction that offers the least resistance, this is normally back the way you came.

The vehicle in the mud or sand needs to accelerate just before the strap is tensioned. Too early can make it dig deeper, too late and you'll still be stuck. The vehicle doing the recovering needs to head in a straight line; it'll get pulled backwards if the recovery isn't successful which could lead to a roll over.

And last but not least, if you're the vehicle doing the pulling never do a snatch recovery in reverse. A 4WD's diff gears are built in a way that makes the reverse side a whole lot weaker; doing a recovery in reverse places huge amounts of load on the weak side of the gears and onto the CV joints in the front axle. Not a solid plan!

Traction aids

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Traction boards have been around for decades and can get you from stuck to unstuck in about two minutes flat. The difference between new and old is instead of being made of steel they're now made of ribbed plastic. This makes them a whole lot lighter to carry, easier to use, offer more grip, and not rip your tyres to shreds.

The only downside is they're easily damaged, if you don't know what you're doing. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out a spinning mud tyre is going to make mincemeat of moulded plastic, no matter how tough it is.

The good news is they're perfect for solo trips just about anywhere, and can make winch or snatch recoveries that little bit easier. Simply dig a little out in front of your wheel and use them as a ramp to get you up and out. With wheel spin controlled the lugs provide plenty of traction.

If it's not enough let your tyre pressures down or reach for a strap as well. The difference between quality and cheap and nasty is normally less than $100. Buy once, cry once.

The Terrain

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Mud

Mud is the most common terrain to find yourself stuck in. It'll clog even the most aggressive tyres leaving you with mud caked slicks scabbling for traction.

You're only stuck when you stop moving, so if there's any forward or backwards movement, rock the steering wheel from side to side while driving.

If you're skating on top and going nowhere in a hurry, a winch is the perfect way to get yourself out of strife in a controlled manner; a snatch can potentially make your 4WD a two-tonne flying projectile with no steering or way to stop.

If you're stuck in boggy mud your biggest enemy is normally suction, so back off the accelerator before you sink. A snatch recovery is the quickest and easiest recovery method, although if you're not coming out easy you'll need to reach for the shovel to dig out a ramp in front of the tyres and clear out anything touching the chassis or drivetrain.

Sand

Sand is potentially one of the most dangerous situations to be stuck in. Murphy's Law has it you'll be stuck below the high tide mark right as it starts rolling back in.

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With that said a quick and easy recovery is exactly what's needed here. Dropping the tyre pressures and reaching for the traction boards should always be the first step. Failing that a snatch recovery will get you out of 90% of situations. Winching is difficult at best in sand so is generally reserved for off-camber situations up in the dunes where control is necessary and you have all the time in the world

Rocks

The technical challenge of rock driving is hard to go past. Unfortunately the price for getting it wrong is often serious panel damage. The fact most rocky tracks are generally steep probably doesn't help.

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If you're high-centred or struggling for traction to get up a ledge the first step should always be to roll up your sleeves and pack the track. No recovery is a whole lot easier than an easy recovery.

If this doesn't work a winch is the perfect option. The slow, controlled nature is perfect when even the slightest mistake could have your 4WD sporting a punched-in door and a red-faced owner.

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Snow

Snow is a lot like mud. You'll either be skating along the top with no traction, steering, or control for that matter. Or you'll be up to your wheel nuts with no hope of forward momentum.

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While the causes are vastly different the techniques are more or less identical. Keep wheel speed to a minimum, dig a little and get snatched out if possible. Or if you're slipping and sliding in every direction hook the winch up as a safety line before things get too out of hand.

The one piece of advice for snow wheeling is to never, ever, go out alone. You never know what's lying under the surface. What looks like a flat section of track could be covering a 1m vertical drop that could leave your 4WD on its side and you walking a long way for help.

The Recovery Checklist

  • Snatch strap x 2
  • Rated recovery points (each end)
  • Long Handled Shovel - leave the folding ones at home
  • Hi-Lift Jack
  • Tyre deflator
  • 12V Winch
  • Traction Boards
  • Recovery Kit
  • Extra Winch Extension Strap
  • Extra Snatch Block
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