Getting Stuck: How to Avoid it and What to do if it Happens
Many of you are preparing for or are just starting out on your new vandwelling life and part of that might be exploring out-of-the-way places in the back-country. If you are on a tight budget, the cheapest way to live is by boondocking on Public Land. Both the National Forests and the BLM allow “Dispersed Camping” which means that you just find a place you like and pull over and set up camp. You aren’t in a formal campground and there may not be anybody else around for miles. Best of all, it’s free and there are no hosts to boss you around.
I love dispersed camping and do it year-around, but it does come with a disadvantage that you are at much greater risk of getting stuck. Many of the roads you’re traveling on are not maintained and at certain times of the year can become impassable. When I first went full-time as a boondocker on public land I was in a 4×4 truck and never got stuck. After 3 years I sold the truck and bought a van. In the 3 years since selling it I’ve been stuck six times; three times in the mud in the NF after a rain and three times in sand on BLM land.
For some people the answer is to just stop taking risks and only go where you know for sure you won’t get stuck. While that is the safe way, the problem is every other camper is doing the same thing so they are all camped close together in the “safe” areas, while just a little ways down the road the “risky” area is empty. If you don’t mind being surrounded by others, you will be very happy there. My problem is, I’m not happy with being surrounded by strangers, I want to step out of my trailer and not see anyone around me except the people I’ve invited to be there.
For example, I was camping outside of Moab, UT once and I headed down a road that was well known as a boondocking spot. About a mile back it ran into a 30 foot wide dry wash that was sandy enough no one except the Jeeps and ATVs crossed it. If I had my 4×4 truck I would have crossed it no problem, but with my van I wasn’t willing to take the risk. So I camped with all the other campers. Had I been able to cross that wash I would have gone another 1/2 mile and been all alone. That’s what I want! At that moment I very much regretted not having 4×4.
But, even if you resign yourself to always stay in safe areas, there is still a risk you still might find yourself stuck. All over the country there are roads that once they get soaking wet, they turn into a type of gumbo mud that you can’t drive through. Often those roads are posted with a warning telling you that, but just as often they are not. And sometimes the area can get an unusually great amount of rain and roads that typically would not be a problem are suddenly impassable and you’ll be stuck instantly if you try to drive on them. Or, a desert area might look perfectly safe, but all of a sudden you’re in deep, loose sand, and bam, you’re stuck.
How to Not Get Stuck, or Get Unstuck if You Do:
1) The single most important thing to do is to carry an air compressor and air down your tires. That alone will do more than even 4×4 to get us into the easy places the majority of us want to go. As soon as your tires start spinning, stop!! You’re not stuck yet but digging a deeper hole will only make things worse and you will be stuck! Get out, go back and air down your tires to 10 PSI, then try to very slowly get out again. The majority of times, this alone will be enough to get you out and you never really did get stuck. After you’re out, air your tires back up.
2) Get more aggressive tires on the rear axle. The combination of airing-down your tires and having aggressive tires will make it much more likely you get out before you get stuck. Notice in the pictures of my tires that they have lugs on the sidewalls; when I air them down the sidewalls are down on the ground and bear some of the weight adding flotation to the tire; they also provide more traction. That’s your best hope to avoid getting stuck in the first place.
- Is it deep, loose sand? That’s always a risk but even if it looks hard packed, you can still get stuck. I’ve done it lots of times!
- Is there a deep ditch or tall knob you can high center on? Can you drive around it?
- Has it been raining with water standing on the ground?
- Can you get a running start and keep your speed up across it? Airing down and keeping your speed up will get you through some pretty bad stuff.
- If it’s a puddle or sandy wash, how deep and wide is it? Are other people getting through it?
- Is it a steep hill? Can you drive it without 4-wheel Low Range? If you don’t have that, avoid steep hills.
- Are there any boulders that can break something like your oil or transmission pan?
If you’re not sure, and don’t have the time or knowledge to get yourself unstuck, don’t risk it. But, if you have the time, and you want to learn enough to be able to travel freely, you’re going to have to take some risks and try things out and risk getting stuck. It’s better to do this with someone else along who has a winch or can snatch you out. After trying different terrains, you’ll build up a database in your mind of where you can safely go and where you can’t. Just be careful and slowly build up your risk-taking so you are never in any danger, just inconvenienced.
- Air Compressor: Nothing will do you as much good as airing down your tires to 10 PSI. But you can’t drive at speed with tires that low, so you MUST fill them with air before speeding up. I highly recommend a MV-50, 12-volt air compressor to every vandweller!! It’s by far the best bang for your buck and I’ve never had it let me down. Many Jeep-ers carry them with complete confidence. Buy one!! I bought mine from Amazon here: MV50 High-Volume 12-Volt Air Compressor
- Snatch Strap: With a friend along he can pull you out from your hole. A tow strap will work but a snatch strap is better. It is designed to be slightly stretchy so he can get a running start and “snap” you out. Get at least a 3 inch strap rated for 30,000 pounds and 30 feet long. Having a tow strap along is also a good idea. I bought mine from from Amazon here: Smittybilt 3″ x 30′ Recovery Strap – 30,000 lb
- Come-Along: If you are alone a simple come-along will get you out as long as there is a nearby tree or rock to anchor to. If worse comes to worse, you can deeply bury your spare tire and hook up to it. You do have a shovel, extra tow straps, clevis pins and chains don’t you? I bought this one from Amazon: TEKTON 4-Ton Dual Gear Come-Along
- Portable receiver winch: If you take a lot of remote back-country roads, you might consider a winch. Instead of permanently mounting it, you can buy them that slide into and out of your receiver hitch. I put a receiver hitch on both the front and back of my van so I can put the winch either place. Smittybilt is a very good name at a very good prices. I haven’t bought one of these yet because they are expensive, heavy and bulky. You’ll have to decide for yourself if they’re worth carrying. Smittybilt Winch – 9500 lb. Load Capacity
- Sand Rails: These are plastic or aluminum strips you place under the stuck tires to drive up on. I own the “Portable Tow Truck” brand and so far I’m very pleased with them. I’ve driven over them several times and they are very strong and bendable. They have little nubs on both sides that bite both the tire and the ground so they grip hard. I’ve not used them when I was stuck, but I think when I do get stuck again, they should work well. I bought them from Amazon here: Portable Tow Truck (orange)
Now, do some shopping, get these few essential tools, and get out there and have an adventure!!!!
bob, also a piece of carpet!! shag carpet if you can find it !!!! in baja we call it Mexican four wheel drive!!!!! lmao, ps you also use to wipe your feet!!!
Great idea Gary! Thanks for the reminder.
Tekton and 200 feet of steel cable can get you out lots o trouble. Good stuff!!
Very true CAE!
I haven’t done much with deep sand, but that’s a time thing. Mud, snow, gravel, and like that are familiar. What I’ve seen of sand leaves me thinking it’s a good bit like snow.
I have a belief in the come-along ever since I saw my mother’s boyfriend drag a pulpwood truck through about half a mile of hub-deep Louisiana gumbo mud using a Chevy LUV truck and two come-alongs. If anything is available as a base, come-alongs can drag anything out of anywhere. Well, maybe not as an absolute but they’re extremely useful.
Calvin, I agree totally, every boondocker should have a come-along on board.
Thanks Bob. I will remember this and look into getting some equipment. It is something I think about as I drive around. I’ve only driven 2000 miles in this van and am not really sure what it can and cant do.
Nancy, there is a learning curve to knowing the capabilities of each van. You’ll get it figured all out soon!
I’m wondering why you didn’t mention using a lower gear to get unstuck in some of these places and also to just plain drive in them.
Man on the Run, do you mean a lower gear like 4 wheel low range? I’m assuming most people don’t have 4×4 so there isn’t a lower gear for most of us. A few might have a pickup with a compound low but very few and I would just assume anyone who owns one would know to use it.
With an automatic putting it in low just locks it in 1st gear, it doesn’t get lower.
I don’t know what you mean by plain drive in them.
Carry a metal fencepost to use with the come along. They can be easily pounded into the ground if nothing else is available.
Mcbe, that is a very, very good idea!
I have similar tires on my Tacoma (Goodyear Duratrac) and they have served me very well in all types of conditions. My truck is a 4X4 but you’ve convinced me to add a come along to my travel kit.
A bit off topic but everyone should also have a plug kit with them as well in case they get a flat. I use the slime kit that comes with the reamer and plug tools with the T shaped handles. Plug kit + 12 Volt compressor has saved me a few times.
Joe, that’s a great reminder, a plug kit can save you bacon and only costs a few dollars.
Bob great post…thanks so much.
You’re welcome Buffalo Bob.
Great post, Bob, lots of important information here!
Just a word about tires. There are passenger car tires (recognized by the letter ‘P’ before their size) and light truck tires (recognized by the letters ‘LT’), and there is a big difference between them.
Although many tires from the same manufacturer come with as either P or LT (your Goodyear Wranglers among them I believe), LT’s have more plies and are stouter than comparable P tires. This makes them somewhat more resistant to punctures and more importantly in this case, to sidewall damage.
Yup they are heavier than P rated tires, and can cost a bit more, but they may be worth it for some folks.
And oddly enough, most pickup trucks (even 4×4’s) come with passenger tires from the factory.
always a pleasure to read your blog
Alfred, thanks, that’a a very good reminder about tire ratings. The Wrangler I bought comes with a version with Kevlar belts for quite a bit more money. In retrospect I wish I had bought them instead. But, at the minimum you want LT tires.
“I’ve been stuck six times; three times in the mud in the NF after a rain and three times in sand on BLM land.” Don’t forget the time you backed off a residential street and into a ditch and got high-centered while trying a three-point turn. ;^)
Teasing aside, I had to be yanked out of the sand once, and almost got stuck another time, so my new iron-clad rule is to avoid sand — unless I KNOW it’s wet and hard packed and others have just driven through it ahead of me.
Al, you know the rules, we aren’t supposed to talk about that!!!! We don’t want everyone to know I can be as bone-headed as anyone else!
Sand is a tough one. Makes me wish I had a 4×4.
thank you for this post! Very informative!
You’re welcome Ming.
Very well written! I’ve been stuck dozens of times. My motto used to be, “If I’m not getting stuck at least once a year, I’m doing something wrong,” or something equally stupid like that. I can’t make heads or tails out of some of the stuff I did as a youth. Like a disturbing dream that you can’t quite remember. Lol.
I like to keep a swatch of burlap to place under my jack on ice or snow; does a surprisingly good job of keeping the jack from sliding.
These days, if I’m anywhere near ice or snow, then I’ve done something very wrong. One reason I became a vandweller was to get away from that stuff.
Al, me too!!
Good idea, thanks Canine!
I was just wondering what size come-along (how many tons?) your friend used to pull his 4×4 van out of his stuck spot? I’m thinking the bigger the vehicle, the bigger the come-along right?
Richard, I have a 4 ton, but generally a 2 ton will get the job done. There is is so little difference in price and size i’d recommend the 4 ton. The Amazon link is to a 4 ton.
I avoid mud, dirt and dust.I rather be parked on a parkinglot on the pacific watching the sunset then the desert. I like Asphalt and Concrete.
Sorry for being dumb, you mentioned installing a locker on the back of the Van….could you explain locker. I’m guessing, a locker to hold tools ect., which extends beyond the rear bumper adding weight to the rear axle. Not sure what you meant. Thanks Mike. PS I stuck my truck in the desert years ago, allways had a come along. Let me tell ya, digging a hole in the desert, and burying a spare tire is rough work. Much easier to jack up the rig and fill the hole with gravel and big rocks and let the jack down. I allways carried a 2 ton jack with me.
Hey Mike. A locker is installed in the carrier (pumpkin) of the axle that allows both tires to turn at the same speed or near the same speed. Otherwise the tire that has the least traction is the one spinning leaving the one with the most traction to sit idle. Having both tires turning is a huge advantage.
Thanks for the clear explanation Canine.
Mike, Canine basically covered it. To allow your tires to travel at different speeds around a corner they turn at different speeds. The tire on the outside of the turn has further to go so it turns faster than the inside tire–they travel at whatever speed they want. But when you get stuck, the tire with no traction can then just spin away like a mad man and the tire with traction gets no power. A locker makes them travel at the same speed so the tire with traction will drive you out. Positraction is a factory option that nearly does that but not quite as well as a locker. The ones that never trun off are cheaper and simpler but they do create some driving oddities like bumps and noises.
Lockers come in many configurations I won’t go into but some are permanent and never go off, and others can be turned on and off. Figure $500-$1000 and you will drastically reduce your chances of getting stuck.
To each their own Opa, there is not right or wrong way! Me, I love nature in all it’s forms and want to be in it all I can.
This is the post that I have been looking for! As you know I was stuck in the sand here in Ehrenberg before Thanksgiving and I was almost 3 miles from my camp. I had to hike back and all the time I had a 12 volt air compressor with me yet didn’t know what to do. After hiking back to camp and having Brice pull me out of the sand, I had no idea I could have done this my self. At the time I had no idea what to do…and now I know! ! ! Thanks Bob for this very valuable information. Thank you very much!
Thanks Sameer, I had you in mind when I wrote it. But having been stuck so often I know how easy it is to do so don’t feel bad! Hope this helps for next time!
Your best friend is gonna be a full sized shovel, this is a multi tasking tool with many uses, a shovel will dig a path along with gathered rocks will give a path and traction to get out of bad spots at the cost of sweat and a bit of cursing… PS 4×4 is great, but guarantee,s nothing….
Thanks Steve. A shovel is essential!
I have learned by experience many times, and have gotten stuck at least half those times. I was able to get unstuck pretty most times without needing a second vehicle.
I was driving in a rocky river bed south of phoenix, went over a dirt burm, had to crank hard on sand. Had to take the sensitive stuff out of the truck, and get a ride home to then get the truck unstuck the next day with the help of a friend and his dodge 4×4 with a custom lift and aggressive tires. That’s what i get for riverbedding with a 2wd pickup with commercial tires.
I was driving on a fairly narrow road and nearly went of a cliff. The drivers rear tire went off and was saved (through the grace of God) by the spare tire and receiver. My buddies and i used a small jack, rocks and rope to get it back on the road and backed it down the road in which we came. The cliff was about 50 feet almost sheer.
I learned the airing down the hard way as well. Keep hitches out of the receiver unless towing, this helps keep you from getting stuck in low spots, especially in longer vehicles.
My brother always said, “Having 4 wheel drive just let’s you go farther before you get stuck.” I try not to get in that kind of predicament, but I’ve had to walk and get help a few times. That was when I was young. Hopefully I’m smarter now!
Marie, I think that is true for real adventurers, but for the average person like most of us it’s all good with little bad. Except it’s more expensive than 2×4. I never got stuck with 4×4 but get stuck often with 2×4. But I just want to go a little further than the average guy and I am not a true w-wheeler.
that’s funny, in aviation its said that on a twin engine plane (small plane) the second engine is guaranteed to get you to the crash site
This is so helpful. I need to replace the tires on my little Mazda MPV 4WD this spring, so I’ll keep this in mind, along with several of the other items. My sister warned me that the MPV was more highway 4wd than off road. This info will give me a bit of confidence to experiment a bit when I have the time and easy access to help.
Let’s not discuss the need for body lift, please … 😉
Naomi, any 4wd is a good thing and the Mazda should serve you well. When you get tires, just remebmer that with 4wd all the tires need to match or you can do damage.
I promise, no more mentions of “body lift!”
“strap on tire chains”. google it amazon it. you will need rims with holes of some sort. we were hippy/hillbillies/hicks. havein to much fun. if possible. regular chains are fine. they are a lot more expensive. more difficult to install. hammered the beer budget.
we went looking for mud holes. with strapons you just give it enough power to crawl out. we loved it when we knew the hole, would put our straps on and idle by some rube in a million dollar truck we had old junk, not nice new soon to be junk. in other words don’t drop the throttle at 4k rpms. well you can if you want, please post pics.
they could have drove out if they had aired down.
ice cream raz
I love this and so jealous of your lifestyle! I need to read more, thanks for sharing!
There is a LOT to read here, Shop Jeep Mods.
On your recommendation (and through your Amazon link, of course), I bought a Smittybilt CC330 recovery strap.
On the label, it claims to be “low stretch.” My understanding is that a recovery strap is supposed to stretch. Comments?
I also want to report an improvement in this strap. In your video, your strap got a hole in it. On my new strap, this area is protected with the same black reinforcing material that is sewn onto the loops.
Thanks John for he good news/bad news! That doesn’t even make sense because the definition of a “recovery” strap is that it has some stretch to allow it to give and not break. Hopefully it’s just the lawyers and they have to say that to avoid lawsuits and in reality it is the same old strap.
First I must admit that I have never recovered a vehicle, nor have I ever gone “four wheeling”, not even as a passenger.
With a bit of research I found that a recovery strap stretches and is made of nylon. Recovery straps are used for recovering stuck vehicles, and must not be used to tow disabled vehicles.
The Smittybilt CC330 is marked “low stretch” and appears to be made of polypropylene, the material of choice for tow straps. Also, a careful reading of your article does say that the CC330 is in fact a tow strap. So the lawyers can’t touch you, Bob!
I returned the CC330 and bought the highly regarded ARB 30ft. Snatch Strap, model ARB-705.
I found the article http://www.4wdingaustralia.com/4×4/20-things-you-should-never-do-in-a-4wd-recovery/ to be most informative.
Thanks for the great info and the personal attention!
Indeed upon receiving the ARB-705 snatch strap, it is marked as being made of nylon, and it is made of soft, fine fibers that feel like nylon rope, such as paracord or climbing rope.
The Smittybilt CC330 was not marked with the material, but it was made of coarse, slick fibers that felt like polypropylene rope, such as used around swimming pools.
Thanks for the info John.
Great post Bob! Thanks for sharing. And I love reading your blog posts mann! You are simply awesome.
Bob! You are just amazing mann! I love reading your blog posts Bob. Waiting for the next post
Smittybilt Winch – 9500 lb Or Warn VR 8000 winch is the most suitable for your trip. They are handy, ligh weight and stable enough for most type of cars. They are survive tools when you off-road 🙂
Portable receiver winch you recommend Smittybilt Winch – 9500 lb but this winch is expensive. I had a winch labeled Badlands winch 9500 lbs for my Jeep JK. This winch is good enough for any road I go. Thanks for your great advise!
Finally a write up on not getting stuck off road for a 2 wheel drive.
Every other advice I get is to ditch my super cheap to run 4×2 pickup and get a 4×4. Yet every week I see a post about a standard 4×4 getting stuck. Then a genius will throw in ‘upgrades’ ideas that easily cost 1/5 of the truck.
I started airing down few months back and boy that by itself made a huge difference! Going to try that recovery mat (from whatever brand that is cheap and easy to get where I live) before finally dumping cash on an auto locker.
The DMax can do 40mpg+ on highways and travel in excess of 85 miles per hour on highway 😀
Been there, done that. 😉 Thanks for sharing. Yep – prep and the right equipment is everything when it comes to camping! Took me years to perfect our checklist and I recently put that on my site to help other fellow campers. Stop by if you like. Camp more, worry less. 🙂
Tried that several times and works. Even my enduro cross motorcycle. Deflating tires when muddy and slippery conditions works great. Just have a gentle touch on your accelarator pedal and you won’t get bog on the mud.
Loved it, you shared many unrevealed pieces of information.