Get yourself out of a rut and hit the trail prepared with my favorite recovery gear.
Emme HallFormer editor for CNET Cars
I love two-seater, RWD convertibles and own a 2004 Mazdaspeed Miata for pavement fun and a lifted 2001 Miata for pre-running. I race air-cooled Volkswagens in desert races like the Mint 400 and the Baja 1000. I have won the Rebelle Rally, seven-day navigational challenge, twice and I am the only driver to compete in an EV, the Rivian R1T.
Off-roading can give you a thrill like no other extreme sport. Whether you're just getting started or you're a longtime off-roader, you'll want to stay prepared with the best off-roading essentials. Maybe you're wondering what kind of four-wheel drive truck you should buy, or whether or not a Jeep Wrangler is the right choice for you. Perhaps the most important question you have is this: What off-road recovery gear and off-roading essentials do I need?
I've been an off-roader all my life and I've been stuck in some pretty weird places. Sideways on a dune in Morocco with a broken side-by-side below me? Check. Buried axle-deep in mud on a "dry" lake bed in Baja, Mexico? Yup. Heck, I even did that in California. How about high-centered on a rock with only one wheel touching the ground? Guilty as charged.
The point is, I've gotten myself out of some sketchy situations, and you can too as long as you have some key gear and off-roading essentials in your recovery kit. It's also always smart to wheel with a pal, tell someone at home where you're going and when you'll be back and bring extra food and water. And now, on to the recovery equipment!
There are plenty of recovery boards you can buy, but I like to go with the original Maxtrax. I've used these nylon recovery boards to get a Defender unstuck from Moroccan sand dunes, for vehicle recovery of a stock bug out of silt in Baja, Mexico, and to build little bridges across gullies that otherwise would have damaged my front end in Johnson Valley, California.
The premise is easy. Just dig out under the tires as much as possible and shove the Maxtrax as far under the tire as you can. Slowly roll on to the throttle and your rig will pop up out of the mess you've gotten yourself into.
The problem with Maxtrax is that it's pretty easy to wear down the hard plastic teeth that do the gripping. One quick spin of the tire and those little guys are melted right down. If you don't trust yourself to be easy on the throttle in recovery, I recommend the heavy-duty Maxtrax Xtreme with the replaceable aluminum teeth. Yes, they're more expensive, but your boards will last longer.
I also recommend a tether of sorts to easily find and pull your Maxtrax out of the sand when you're recovered. There's still one of my Maxtrax buried in the dunes of Glamis somewhere.
So what if you're stuck badly enough that a shovel and Maxtrax just won't do it? Kinetic rope to the rescue! It's one of the important off-roading essentials. Unlike a traditional tow rope or tow strap, which can snap under heavy loads, a kinetic snatch strap allows the rescuer to get a running start. The rope then stretches and acts kind of like a sling shot to pull you, the rescuee, out of your predicament.
I like Bubba Ropes as they are UV-resistant and come in a variety of break strengths and lengths. It's best to multiply the weight of your vehicle by four and choose a recovery strap rope that has a break strength equal or greater to that number. Using this formula, this 19,000-pound rope is best suited for midsize vehicles like Jeep Wranglers.
Bubba Rope comes with a closed loop end. If your tow points are also closed you'll need a shackle. Again, I like the Bubba Rope brand and have a . It's stronger than a metal shackle, floats in water and won't rust.
This kinetic rope from Bubba Rope is also UV-resistant, but with a break strength of 28,600 pounds. It has all the same slingshot properties as the Renegade rope above, but it's more suited for heavier vehicles like full-size trucks and SUVs.
There are a lot of expensive tire repair kits out there, but I've been happy with my little Slime kit for years now. The last time I used this kit was to plug a tire on the Rebelle Rally. We eventually needed that tire as a spare. Had I not had the plug kit, our rally would have ended. I'd call that $19 well spent, wouldn't you?
I like this kit because in addition to the plugs, reamer and insertion tool, it also comes with rubber cement, which helps with plug insertion and keeping the plugs in place so you don't lose tire pressure. Why spend $60 when this compact kit is just as good and three times cheaper?
If you've plugged a tire, then you probably need to add air, and there are plenty of air compressors out there. Since I am always in different rigs, I love this portable air compressor from ARB. It's heavy, but it can fill a 35-inch tire from 15 pounds per square inch to street pressure in 3 to 4 minutes. At 19 feet, the hose is long enough to fill all four tires without having to move the box and the power cord is long enough that I can leave the compressor on the ground and still reach the battery with the alligator clips. I've never had it overheat, even after filling up all four tires and loaning it to air to other rigs on the trail. The only bummer is that it does not come with an integrated gauge, so be prepared with a stand-alone gauge.
However, the ARB compressor is a bit of overkill for my little lifted Miata with 27-inch tires, so I'm planning on pulling the trigger on this smaller air compressor from Slime, dubbed the 2X. It has an integrated gauge, connects directly to the battery and has a long power cord and hose so I won't have to move it around to get to all four tires.
If you find yourself high-centered on some soft sand during your off roading adventure, it's gonna take an awful lot of digging to get you out. If you've high-centered on a rock, forget it. You need to get your rig up in the air so you can move that obstacle. Further, if you've got a hole in the sidewall of your tire, you're going to have to change it. You need a jack.
A lot of people go mad for the Hi-Lift jack. You know, those complicated-looking tall jacks, usually red, that Jeepers have proudly strapped to their rig. They have their problems, however. They can be really dangerous if you don't know what you're doing and they are useless for many applications if your truck doesn't have steel bumpers or rock rails.
The truth is, unless you've got to jack up your truck to the stratosphere, a bottle jack can suffice. It's easier to deal with, it's smaller and it's safer. I like this 12-ton capacity jack from Big Red, as it has a lifting range of 9-⅛ inch to 18-¼ inches. There are models that can handle more or less weight, but the lifting range isn't as much. Remember to bring along a flat piece of wood on your off road trip to use as a jack base.
I'm not saying Hi-Lift jacks don't have a place in recovery gear, because they do. If you have the requisite equipment on your rig and someone to teach you how to use a Hi-Lift jack, they can be indispensable. You can lift with them, winch with them, clamp with them... heck, I even used a Hi-Lift jack to take a tire off a wheel when we needed to patch the rubber from the inside.
Having said that, they require maintenance and training. Remember, Hi-Lift jacks lift the chassis of a vehicle, so if you're changing a tire, you'll have to strap the axle to the chassis so it doesn't droop. (See my Rebelle Rally problem in the shovel category). I like this one because it's all-cast, will last forever and the 48-inch size is good for all but the most lifted of rigs.
So with all this offroad digging and Maxtraxing and such, you'll want to protect your hands. These Ironclad all-purpose gloves are great with padding on the knuckles and a reinforced palm. They are machine-washable and come in XS-XXL, so little lady-hands like mine or big man-hands like my dad's are covered.
If you know you're really going to get out there in the rocks on your off-roading adventure, you're going to want a winch. Only one of my vehicles was equipped with a winch, a 1969 Baja bug, and I don't have a ton of experience here, so I talked to Harry Wagner. Wagner is a fellow off-road journalist and a co-driver in the infamous King of the Hammers race, which means he has run a lot of winch line in his day.
Wagner likes Warn recovery winches for their durability and full product line. While the premium Zeon model is full of bells and whistles, it's also well over $1,000. Most people will do just fine winching with a standard duty winch. You'll need 1.5x your vehicle's gross weight capacity, so if you're rocking a two-door Jeep Wrangler or other midsize SUV, an 8,000-pound winch should be fine. Go for the synthetic winch cable, as it's lighter than steel and you don't necessarily need gloves to work with it.
Again, like Hi-Lift jacks, winches can be dangerous if you don't know how to use them. Ask a trusted pal for a lesson or get thee to an off-road training class for professional instruction.
This may all seem pretty expensive, and I'm not going to lie, it is. However, you can spend money now and be self-sufficient, or you can spend money later and pay someone to come tug you out of a dangerous situation. It happened to me once to the tune of $875. Learn from my mistake, folks.
Of course, you can really get into the weeds with recovery gear. I didn't even get into what hand tools, cutting implements or fluids you should carry with you. However, with this list as a starting point, you should be able to have some pretty good adventures. Just remember, wheel with friends, stay on the trail and above all, tread lightly and leave the outdoors better than you found it.