April 28, 2021
I attended college in one of New York’s more rural counties. Just off campus was a vast network of seasonal and fire roads that allowed me to easily log 100 miles without touching pavement. Scouting turkeys one April morning, I was crawling up a steep, ice-covered hill when the frozen crust gave way and my old Jeep was instantly buried to the frame in mud. It took every trick I knew to extricate the vehicle from the hole that swallowed it.
Hunters and anglers spend a lot of time past the bounds of blacktop, chasing blue lines or pushing deep onto public land in search of their next trophy. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to avoid getting stuck or damaging your vehicle on these adventures.
For starters, shift into four-wheel drive before you encounter an obstacle, not after you become stuck. Deflate your tires slightly by letting out 10 to 15 psi, which will help you "float" over soft surfaces such as mud or sand and will increase traction on slick surfaces.
Drive with your windows open and listen to your tires. If you hear them suddenly start to spin faster, immediately back off the throttle. Drop down to a lower gear or put the transfer case into low range if possible. If the RPMs start getting up there, your tires will bury you. Travel slowly but maintain momentum. Avoid obstacles such as rocks and deep ruts whenever possible.
Travel backroads long enough and you’ll eventually find yourself buried in the mud—usually outside of cell service. If you sense that your vehicle is starting to get stuck, immediately take your foot off the gas. Exit the vehicle and perform a walk-around to assess the situation, looking for objects that would impede progress, then map the most likely way out.
You may be able to rock your way out by shifting from forward to reverse in an effort to regain momentum. If this doesn’t get you out quickly, give the vehicle a minute or two to cool down. The rocking action, coupled with the lack of cooling airflow, is enough to cause transmissions to overheat. The transmission fluid could eventually boil and spill out of the vent, and could ignite if it comes in contact with the vehicle’s exhaust.
GET A GRIP
If you have some sort of traction aid in your vehicle, now is the time to retrieve it. The simplest of aids are the floormats right under your feet. Sometimes, placing them on the soft ground in front of or behind your tires can provide enough flotation to get you out of the hole you’ve dug.
Floormats are less than ideal, though, so you should carry another solution. Recovery tracks help by distributing your vehicle’s weight over a wider footprint and giving your tires something more substantial to grip (see sidebar). Place these in front of or behind your tires, and slowly drive out.
Devices that strap over your tires can also help you regain momentum, acting like a paddle to propel you forward. If you’re not totally buried, these will usually have you back on your way in no time. One word of caution: They can dig you in as quickly as they can dig you out. Use the lowest gear possible and go easy on the throttle. If you don’t get moving again quickly, shut it down and think about another approach.
Jacking up the vehicle and filling in the holes created by the tires is an excellent way to get yourself out of a bind. This is often easier said than done, however, as you’ll need to clear away the mud by your vehicle’s jack points. You’ll also need some sort of hard surface such as a 2-foot square of 3/4-inch plywood to prevent the jack from becoming buried under the weight of the vehicle.
Once you have the space needed, jack the vehicle up until the tires are above the surface and fill in the ruts, compacting the loose material with the back of the spade as you fill.
Sometimes, nothing but elbow grease will get you out. Carrying a full-size shovel makes digging out easier, though it’s never a pleasant task. If you find yourself mired to the frame, use the shovel to create gradually sloping paths back from your tires. You’ll need to create clearance underneath the vehicle as well, making sure that nothing will get hung up when you apply the throttle again.
BACK ON TRACK
Three recovery aids that will have you on the road again in no time.
If you’ve ever watched a desert truck race, you’ve probably seen a set of recovery tracks strapped to the side of a well-equipped
Land Rover. These innovative tools get vehicles moving again quickly by spreading the vehicle’s weight over a larger area and giving tires something to bite. While you could use a pair of two-by-six boards to help get you out of the mud, there are a number of higher-performing aids on the market that are durable and lightweight.
- Maxtrax (from $199; maxtraxus.com) were among the first molded plastic recovery boards available on the market, and many off-roaders believe they’re still the best. The large, aggressive cleats sink into both the tire and the terrain to get you unstuck fast.
- Smittybilt Element Ramps ($150; smittybilt.com) can support up to 7,700 pounds, despite being made of lightweight nylon-reinforced plastic. They come with a heavy-duty nylon carry bag to keep muddy ramps from mucking up your interior.
- OKoffroad Expeditions Sand Ladders (from $229.95; okoffroad.com) are made from aluminum plate and dimpled for strength and weight reduction. Their solid material allows the boards to be used for bridging gaps or as ramps.