These 5 pieces of essential gear can help any off-road enthusiast get unstuck or survive until help comes.
By Drew Hardin
Getting stuck is an unavoidable part of driving off-road. But there’s a difference between garden-variety stuck and the big stuck: the mud hole, stream, dune or snowdrift that grabs your 4x4 with so much clamping force that there’s no way to get un-stuck without help.
If you’ve gone four-wheeling with a buddy in a second truck, which we highly recommend, problem solved. He can snatch you out with a tow strap or winch cable. Or, worst case, the two of you leave your rig and drive out in search of a professional tow service that will gladly take your money to set your truck free.
If you’re out by yourself, however, it’s a different story. Depending on weather conditions, time of day and how far you are from civilization, the safest thing may be to stay with your truck and wait until help arrives. A key element of this strategy, though, happens before the trip, when friends and family were told where you were going and when you expected to be back.
No one plans to get stuck, but you can mitigate the consequences of an unintended extended stay in the backcountry by stowing these five essential pieces of gear in your rig every time you head out. It’s always better to have it and not need it than vice versa, right?
Help prevent the big stuck from happening in the first place by always carrying recovery gear. A winch can be indispensable in these situations, but even a simple tow strap will get you out of trouble much of the time—as long as there’s another truck nearby. ARB’s Weekender Recovery Kit packages a 17,500-pound strap, two galvanized shackles (to securely tie the strap to the recoverer and recoveree) and a pair of leather gloves in a slim, easy-to-stow bag.
Those who travel by themselves can often drive out of their stuck situation with the help of some added traction. Maxsa Innovations offers a family of Escaper Buddy traction mats that can be put under your tires to add grip to any slippery situation. They’re made from high-impact polypropylene and come with Velcro straps to hold them together when not in use. The Escape Buddy XL ramps, are 17.5 inches wide and can accommodate even the beefiest off-road rubber.
Other recovery tools that are well worth carrying include a Hi-Lift jack, full-size spare tire, tire chains, and shovel.
Quick Tip: How much water should you drink? Opinions vary. One rule of thumb is a gallon of water per day, some say double that, especially at higher elevations (10,000 feet or more). Hydration pack and bottle maker CamelBak built an online Hydration Calculator that indicates how much water to drink based on personal information (gender, height, weight, age) and conditions (ambient temperature, activity, exertion level).
The best plan? Bring plenty of water.
Exposure to the elements in the cold months can bring on hypothermia, a potentially fatal condition in which your body loses heat faster than it can produce it. If you must spend the night stuck, stay in the cab, a snug shelter warmed (somewhat) by your own body heat. Mitigate the loss of that body heat by bringing warm outerwear, no matter how nice the day was when you started. REI’s 650 down jacket is named for its 650 fill-power down insulation, wrapped by a nylon shell that’s water repellant to shed light rain and snow. This particular jacket is perfect for in-truck storage as it compresses down to pack within its own left-front pocket.
And while the old saw that you can lose half of your body heat through your head has been debunked (it’s more like 7 to 10 percent), why lose any? REI’s Power Wool beanie like the down jacket, has a water-repellant synthetic fiber outer layer and Merino wool inner layer that wicks away moisture.
Other clothing to consider includes extra shoes/boots/socks, warm gloves, sunglasses, bandana (a brightly colored one can be tied to the radio antenna to make the truck easier for rescuers to find), sleeping bag and raingear (tops and bottoms).
Fire & Light: Redundancy for fire-starting is always a good idea. Make sure your survival kit includes stick matches (in a waterproof carrier), a high-intensity butane lighter that won’t blow out in a wind, flint and steel (and small waterproof container filled with dry cotton balls for catching sparks from flint and steel), flares, flashlight(s) or head lamp, extra batteries for all.
Food: Bring your protein- and calorie-rich favorites: energy bars (the caffeinated ones will boost your mood when spirits get down), trail mix, jerky, but avoid sugary foods that cause insulin spikes and drops. Want something heartier? Mil-spec MREs (meals ready to eat) are commercially available—even in gluten-free varieties—at Amazon and outdoor outfitters.
Water: Water is essential (see our Quick Tip), though plastic bottles can rupture if they’re loose in the cab. Consider a hydration pack instead. They’re durable enough to stow anywhere, easy to drink from, and you can wrap extra clothes around them in their packs to insulate them from freezing.
Truck Repairs: If the big stuck is due to mechanical issues, having these items on board could get you moving again: Basic hand tools, tire repair kit, on-board air compressor, Hi-Lift jack, accessory-drive belts, extra oil and gasoline, duct tape, radiator stop-leak, antifreeze, brake/power steering/automatic transmission fluid.
Personal items: Toilet paper (stow this in a zip-top plastic baggie to keep it dry), trash bags, daily medications, spare eyeglasses.
Today’s multi-tools are not only versatile, with their pliers, knife and saw blades, screwdriver heads and bit-drivers; many are also situation-specific. Leatherman’s Signal has 19 tools, with all the cutting, crimping and opening functions you expect, plus outdoor-survival features like an emergency whistle and a fire-starting rod. It closes down to a compact 4.5 inches, weighs just 7.5 ounces and comes with a black nylon sheath. Leave one in your center console or glove box so it’s always with you.
Batteries do not like the cold. This applies to truck batteries, cell phone batteries, flashlight batteries and so on. When help does finally arrive, make sure your 4x4 will start by packing one of the many jump-starter power packs available. Weego offers several models; the 44 produces 2,100 peak amps and 400 true cranking amps, enough power to start gas engines of up to 7.0 liters and diesels up to 3.5 liters. The 44 also incorporates a 500-lumen LED flashlight in its body, and also has a USB port to charge cell phones and other portable devices. As a back-up, there are a variety of other charging options on the market for keeping cell phones and the like powered up wherever you’re traveling.
This is the one piece of gear you hope you’ll never have to use, but you’ll sure be glad you have it if the need arises. First-aid kits come in (literally) all shapes, sizes, and levels of complexity, thanks to suppliers adapting them for activities ranging from rock climbing to youth soccer.
The MyFAK (My First Aid Kit) from MyMedic packs a lot of triage supplies in a nylon bag that’s small enough to clip to the back of a seat headrest. Inside are items to treat bleeding, burns, and sprains and fractures, plus analgesics, topical ointments, even handy items like a penlight, tweezers, a rescue blanket and an emergency whistle.
About The Author: Drew Hardin’s work in automotive journalism began while he was still in college in the late 1970s. After a 14-year stint at Petersen Publishing, where he was Editor of 4-Wheel & Off-Road and Sport Truck magazines, he transitioned into a freelance career, covering topics that range from vintage hot rods and classic muscle cars to 4x4s and green vehicles.