4X4 recovery guide: the basics

4X4 Australia is kicking off a series of tried and true vehicle recovery techniques to keep you safe and on-track.

4X4 recovery guide: the basics

You don’t have to look far these days to see someone getting seriously injured off-road, often because they have cheap gear and it fails, or they simply have no idea what they’re doing. So we thought we’d take the initiative to try and do something about it.

Call us sentimental, but we’ve kind of grown fond of our readers over the years, so we’d like to keep you lot around as long as possible. Starting from right now we’re launching a series telling you everything you need to know about recoveries.

From the gear you need and how to use it, right through to advanced winching techniques and driving out of sand with your floor mats. Every month we’ll be touching on a different topic that can help get your 4x4 back on solid ground and, more importantly, save your life.

Checking track depthTo kick it off we’re taking things back to basics – getting yourself out of strife before you’re in real strife. It may seem like an odd point to start with, but the reality is people often call it quits long before they’re actually stuck. If you’re stuck in mud, sand, or rocks, these tips can see you back where you want to be without reaching for the recovery kit.

1. Back off and back up
Now this one should be the first tool in your recovery arsenal, but it’s surprising how many ‘experienced’ people don’t get this simple concept. If your 4x4 is bogging down and you’re not going to make it, stop, immediately. Continuing is likely to dig you down to a point where you’re so stuck it’s going to take a whole heap of winching to get you out. It will also rip the track to shreds, making it impassable for folks behind you.

Technique 1 back upUnless you were carrying a heap of momentum, you know that the terrain just a metre ago was solid enough for you to drive on, so before burying your foot and sinking your 4x4 to its axles, back off, back up and follow the tracks you’ve just made. If you had minimal wheelspin until now, the weight of your 4x4 should have compressed the terrain you just drove on. It’s nature’s own recovery board and allows you to try again.

2. Rock the steering wheel
If you’re stuck in mud, your tyres might be the key to success. Any mud tyre worth its salt is going to have side biters, which add weight to a tyre and extend the tread. These grip from underneath the tyre and onto the sidewalls. Use them.

Technique 2 rock the steering wheelBy steering back and forth while you’re in the slop you can do two things. First, you’re able to push the slick mud out from underneath your tyres, allowing you to dig down to the hard base that’s hopefully just under the surface. The other benefit of this technique is that it allows the sides of your tyres to dig into either side of the rut you’re sitting in.

It’s never going to get you as much traction as the base of your tyre, but if it’s the difference between no forward momentum and a little bit of forward momentum, it can be just the ticket to get you back on solid ground.

3. Spin the wheels
Now, in normal circumstances spinning the tyres excessively is a sure-fire way to get you branded as the numpty of your group, with no idea what you’re doing, and rightfully so.

Technique 3 spin the wheelsBut in certain conditions a quick spin of the wheels can be exactly what the situation calls for. Let me explain. Mud tyres work by acting like hundreds of little shovels strapped to your tyres. They’ll move the soft stuff out of the way until they find something to bite into and then push you forward.

In thick mud the tread on your tyres can build up with mud clogging the gaps between tread blocks. Rather than a hundred shovels strapped to your tyres you end up with what is basically a large slick tyre and no chance of grip. A quick blip on the throttle is often enough to dislodge the mud, flicking it clear and giving your tyres half a chance.

4. Drive back and forth
Reversing out of strife should always be your go-to self-recovery technique, but if you start reversing and find yourself stuck again, the fat lady still hasn’t sung. If you have any sort of movement at all, you’re not stuck yet – it could be a build-up of mud or sand in front of your tyres, or you could simply be in a soft section with a lip in front and behind you.

Technique 4 drive back and forthBy driving back and forth over the same section of track you can hopefully push any built-up mud or sand out from in front of your wheels. This should enable you to find just enough traction to get yourself up and over with a little momentum, either forwards, or back the way you came.

5. Give yourself some grip
The only reason you lose forward momentum in any situation is because your tyres don’t have enough grip to push you forward. It’s pretty simple when you look at it that way.

Now this can either be caused by there not being enough traction on the surface that your tyres are spinning on, or something high-siding your 4x4, taking just enough weight off your tyres to make them spin uselessly.

Technique -5-give -some -gripBoth situations can be solved by track building. If you need to lift yourself up over an obstacle, or smooth out a steep surface such as a ledge, the best way to achieve this is by packing rocks where you want your tyres to run. If you’re in mud or sand you can simply jam anything harder than what you’re driving on in front of your tyres to give yourself a solid foundation. Branches, sticks, and rocks are normally the go.

6. Drop the pressure
Most 4x4ers know to drop tyre pressures off-road, but a surprising amount of them don’t fully understand why. Dropping pressures doesn’t make your contact patch wider – it makes it longer.

Think of it more like a tank tread than a tyre tread and you’ll get the idea. The problem with dropping pressures too low is that it can do tyre damage at speed, and you also run the risk of the tyre unseating itself from the wheel. It does take a bit of force to make that happen, though.

Technique 6 dropping tyres pressureIf you’re heading straight, you can often safely drop tyre pressures down to high single digits to provide a massive increase in traction. It’s almost a given you’ll roll a bead if you turn too sharply, so drop pressures, drive straight out and pump them back up again – you don’t want to be trying to reseat a bead in mud.

Quick Tips

  • If you have any form of movement, you’re not stuck… yet.
  • Tyres can be dropped to single digit pressures in emergencies.
  • Track building can be used to solve almost any situation.
  • Tyre side biters can be dug into ruts to keep you moving.
  • A quick spin of the wheels can clear mud from tread blocks.

If you want more info on 4x4 recoveries check out:


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