This feels like bragging but probably isn’t: I’ve gotten my truck stuck way more times than I can count.
It’s a badge of honor, like a battle scar, if you value venturing to very remote places in order to find really good hunting and fishing. It just happens—when rain turns roads to gumbo, erosion removes your path, or snow makes the whole world slick. And no one is truly immune—from the overly-adventurous Subaru to the full-sized, lifted pickup. A sturdy vehicle with serious tires is a darn fine investment for an outdoorswoman or man, but I’m not here to tell you to dump $40K on a new truck right at the precipice of hunting season. Here’s how to get out of the ditch in the rig you’re already riding.
Tools Given that the best way to solve your problems is on your own, it would be a bit foolish to travel far into undeveloped public lands without some basic, affordable tools for getting yourself back out of there. I say this confidently and authoritatively because I have displayed such foolishness many times myself. Having done so, I now barely leave my driveway without the following tools in my pickup bed—just in case a wild hare takes me out some back road. You can easily stash all of that in a DECKD truck bed drawer system or a home-made bunk, just don't strap all of it to your roof like a yuppie.
Those tools include: a full-length shovel, tire chains, Hi-Lift Jack, traction boards, come-along pulley, and a tow strap. The first five will allow you to get yourself out of 75% of truck stuckage situations. The sixth will help someone else help you out, or vice versa.
Shovel: No, not a neat little foldable military surplus model. We’re talking about digging out several thousand pounds of machinery, not a hole to poop in. Believe me, those things will have you in tears far faster than if you’d brought the right tool for the job. A real round-point or spade-point shovel with a 48-inch handle provides so much more leverage for removing dirt, mud, or snow, and you can take five times as much with each bite. When you’re high-centered and have to trench all the way under the rear differential, this makes a giant difference. No excuses allowed—you can get a solid shovel for under $40 pretty much anywhere.
Tire Chains: The rusty old links are a lot more valuable if they are deployed prior to burying the tires in whatever viscous surface you may have found, but they remain valuable nonetheless. I once watched my buddy Nate take a deep breath before lowering his head completely into the mud in order to attach our chains behind the tire. His snorkeling excursion allowed us to get back to camp that night.
The light, coated cable “chains” most folks carry for use around town or on the highway pass are not the best choice for backcountry BLM land. V-bar chains made out of actual chain and big metal teeth are where it’s at. Two are good, four are better (if you have four-wheel drive). Please put them on at least once on flat, dry ground before you do it in deep flash-flood ruts at night. At the very least you'll know if you need to buy tensioning bungees or other parts separately.
Remember that chains adjust and shift on the tire rapidly once they start spinning, so you must accelerate slowly and check/tighten them often. Your situation might get a lot worse if you don’t.
Hi-Lift Jack: The bottle jack that comes stowed away in your vehicle won’t work very well if you’re parked even five feet from the nearest pavement. The base is narrow, the extent is minimal, and you have to get all the way under the axel to use it. A serious off-roading jack can get your rig up off the ground in almost any substrate and it probably costs a lot less than you think. I got my 60-incher for $90 and I wish I’d gone for the 48 instead—the extra length and bulk is unnecessary for my purposes.
The ability to lift your rig off the ground from either bumper is useful not only for changing tires, but also for chaining tires and digging out under the chassis. Just make sure you have a solid base and watch out for tilt as you get the rig up off the ground. You can even use a big jack as a winch in tandem with your tow strap.
Come-Along: Speaking of winches, these little numbers are surprisingly effective for cranking your truck out if there’s a handy tree or other sturdy object within reach. Link it between your tow strap, truck, and pull point, then make sure everything is flat enough that the come-along doesn’t spin. It always feels a bit sketchy to put that much weight and tension on those cables, but that’s what they’re built for. Still, observe the sketchiness because this can be very dangerous if done incorrectly. Make sure you winch on static rope, strap, or chain. Anything that stretches will not work and can create a very sporty situation.
Traction Boards: These handy items weren’t a part of my kit until a year or two ago but have paid for themselves several times over since. You simply ram the knobby plastic boards where a spun tire meets the ground and can often crawl right out. They’ll give you traction where there is none. Even better, many models come with a fitting in the center for the base of a Hi-Lift jack to distribute the weight in sinky soil. I got mine for about $70 and have cracked and stripped them but they’re still working great.
Tow Strap: This is the simplest and cheapest member of the truck tool team, but it may get used the most. We always get trucks stuck at my November deer camp, but we always have at least two trucks in order to drag each other out with a tow strap. I bring two sometimes just for the extra distance to reach a tree if I’m alone. The basic loop ends are just fine, but hook ends have some practicality too for locking into weird points on the rig. I also have a couple thick shackles in my toolbox for coupling a tow strap sturdily to my hitch.
When you or a good Samaritan goes to yank your rig, make sure you do it in a slow, measured fashion. Don’t ever jerk it hard unless all else has failed.
It should go without saying that these are not the only tools that live in my truck, but what the hell. I just ripped my toolboxes apart and also found an axe, hatchet, machete, saw, knife, pry bar, pliers, hammer, cam straps, socket set, jumper cables, jumpstart/air compressor box, fuses, rope, trash bags, lug nuts, first aid kit, maps, spotlight, Leatherman, engine oil, antifreeze, funnel, Gorilla tape, rain gear, tarp, water jug, and a small cook kit with emergency food. Abide by the motto "Be Prepared" and bring things that you might wish you had.
Techniques A tool is only as good as the hands that hold it. Trucks rarely get stuck in predictable or repeatable ways, so removing them usually requires a cocktail of tools, skills, and creativity. Most of that comes with experience, but here are a few basic concepts to keep in mind.
Rockin’ Out: Be it in snow or mud, often the first thing to try when you become bogged down is to rock the rig back and forth to hopefully ride out of the rut. There’s a great deal of nuance to this technique. You sometimes need to give it some gas, but the last thing you want to do is spin your tires and dig yourself a deeper hole. Start slowly in reverse. Creep back until you start to lose traction, then quickly shift to drive at the highest point in the rut and then ride that momentum down then back up. At your highest point forward, drop back to “R” and repeat. Incrementally increase your throttle and rocking distance. It may also help to turn your front tires side to side to grab ground that hasn’t already been polished by your spinning treads.
The Crawl: A lot of trucks offer four-wheel low, but relatively few truck drivers seem to know how to use it. I’m no mechanic, but I know that this low gear ratio is meant for low RPMs and low speeds. Read an off-roading guide for a more thorough explanation of the physics, but your tires will be less likely to slip the slower they are going, and low gearing brings a lot of strength even at that low throttle. I only say all this because I so frequently see folks jam down the gas pedal, even in four-low, and dig themselves a deeper rut even when they might be able to crawl out of there with a little patience. Combined with rockin’ the rig and placing new traction sources like sticks, stones, and traction boards, a really gentle touch can work wonders for sneaking your way out of the hole and not digging a new one.
But, then again, there are most definitely times when you need to pin it and spin it and just plow your way through the mucky war zone in the road to keep from getting stuck in the first place. Situational awareness comes from experience.
Sticks and Stones: I once constructed a cobblestone road in soppy wet mud where a creek had formed out of nowhere after a surprise rain hit. The mud pit was abysmal, and if we were to get the truck moving again, we needed somewhere for it to go. While my buddies wrangled the chains into place, I dug tracks through the wet surface mud toward higher ground and spent hours filling those tracks with rocks. Once we got moving, we got all the way out.
This item speaks to a wider wisdom regarding vehicular extraction: use all the tools at your disposal. Before I had traction boards, I’d always try to find sturdy sticks and logs to lodge under my tires. The best tool I ever had for chipping packed gumbo mud out of my wheel wells was a spike elk shed. Still, the first thing I do when forward progress ceases is cast about for useful items. You too should know the basic techniques, carry the proper tools, but remember that ingenuity rules the day. If you get yourself in a pickle, you’re the one who’s responsible for getting back out of it. Never give up.
Feature image via Seth Morris.