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Trail Savvy: Using recovery tracks

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Recovery tracks work on the same principle – no matter whether they are the steel or aluminium ‘sand ladders’ that overlanders have been using since WW2, modern composite versions, or a host of other fold-up or roll-up contraptions.

Quite simply, when you are on a soft or slippery surface, these all spread the load under your wheels to provide a grippy platform that helps you to get going again. At SA4x4, lightweight plastic recovery tracks are our first go-to recovery aid, and we never leave on a four-wheeling trip without them.

The Australian company, Maxtrax, was one of the first to perfect a composite version which is semi-flexible, tough and effective. That was back in 2005; and since then, dozens of clone products have arrived on the market with similar looks but varying ability… not always based on price.

Today, almost all recovery tracks are made of a durable plastic and vary widely in their quality. The currently available Maxtrax Mark II, for instance, uses a UV-stabilised, flexible, super-tough engineering-grade reinforced nylon. It is rigid enough to use as a partial bridge, but also bends enough to mould over the surface to some degree. (The much older Mark I version we used and abused for many years was a tad too brittle, and finally cracked on one end during recovery of a heavily loaded Gelandewagen.)

We have found that the cheaper products fall into two camps: those which use much softer plastics that bend right out of shape under load, and those which are too brittle − with the added complication that their poorly-designed grip lugs break off when a wheel spins even mildly over their surface.

Another key factor for storage and use is the ability of the tracks to ‘nest’ closely. Cheaper tracks, or those from unknown brands that do not nest, are cumbersome to pack and transport; and, apart from that, they cannot be doubled up to add rigidity when used as a bridge.

Various sizes and heights and forms of recovery track are available, but at the end of the day, they all work in a similar fashion − and are much quicker and easier than packing stones.

DIFFERENT TYPES OF TRACKS

What types of recovery track are available? Here is our short (but by no means complete) list of the options.

Steel bridging ladders

These are the most old-school of self-recovery tools, and feature a simple ladder-like design made from stainless steel (or lighter alloy). These ladders can often be seen bolted to the roofrack of an old Landy, and work better than modern recovery tracks do for bridging wide gaps. These bridging ladders are fantastic in rocky situations and for crossing wide dongas, but they are long, heavy and cumbersome.

PSP & alloy ‘sand ladders’

Not to be confused with bridging ladders, the original design for the modern alloy items was known as PSP (Perforated Steel Planking), and hailed from bridging sections used by the US military in the Pacific during WW2. These were designed to keep military vehicles on the move by interlocking to form temporary roads through sand and mud, and platforms for aircraft on slushy ground. So, they were wide, brutally heavy, and tough enough to recover a tank.

The more modern, lightweight alloy interpretation are typically pads about 2m long, made of thick alloy, and perforated with holes for lightness and traction. They are still bulky, and not particularly light. Place these with the bottom of the holes upright so that your wheels can gain purchase on the edged surface. Sand ladders are fairly smooth on the underside, and, as such, are less useful in mud. They are effective in rocky situations, and as bridging sections due to their channel section, but remain relatively heavy and bulky.

Composite recovery tracks

These popular and effective tracks are made from injection-moulded plastics. They are typically 1 to 1.2 metres long, about 30cm wide, and light. They weigh no more than 4kg each, feature deep channels to resist bending, and have sharp spikes or knobs on the upper side to provide traction. Prices vary widely, and the best brands are expensive. Any wheelspin when on the tracks will invariably wear out or break off the traction knobs, or literally melt them. They are brilliant in sand, but also effective in a variety of self-recovery situations.

Rubber ground mats

These strips of rubber connected with rope or cable theoretically add traction over rocks, and stop wheels from spitting rocks out from under as easily. They are also compact, and easy enough to fold up for packing purposes. They are, unfortunately, nearly useless in sand, and also not much better in mud, as they simply sink into the ground or get shot out from under spinning wheels.

Grip pads

Imagine a 1m-long skateboard deck with no wheels. These planks sound like a decent idea, but in practice, cannot be used for bridging, are prone to breaking on rocks, and get spat out on sand. In mud, the sandpaper-like surface clogs up instantly. They’re better than nothing if you’re stuck, but not much better than jamming a branch or two under the wheels.

Sticks and stones

If you’re stuck in sand or mud, adding plenty of sticks and stones to the track may be your only recovery option. It takes some effort, but will eventually work. The added detritus provides additional traction and lifts the undercarriage clear of the obstruction that’s keeping you immobile. Road-building with rocks will also help when it comes to big steps, large dongas or washed-away trail sections. Be sure to carry a pair of gloves and bring along your heavier-set friends to help.

The carpets of your 4×4

As a last resort, the carpets in your vehicle may provide just enough support to get your vehicle out. Dig away any obstructions, and put the carpets in front of the intended direction of travel to provide some grip. The carpets will most certainly be ruined, and will probably just be spat out behind the wheel if you spin, but it’s worth a try.

8 WAYS TO USE YOUR RECOVERY TRACKS

We have listed some of the more common uses for composite recovery tracks below, although they can, of course, be used in almost any off-road situation.

Sand or mud recovery 

Recovery tracks work the same way in either sand or mud. If you get bogged in deep sand or mud, it’s vital that you first dig away the piles accumulated ahead of both front and back wheels, in the proposed direction of travel. Obviously, this reduces resistance: that’s what the spade section of the composite tracks is made for. However, having a good pointed shovel on hand will make this part of the task easier.

Next, position your recovery tracks ahead of the wheels that are most bogged down, by pushing them by hand as far under the wheel as possible. Point them upwards. Then, while you accelerate as slowly as possible, the vehicle should climb up onto the track − at which point you should accelerate a little harder to give your vehicle enough momentum to escape.

Sand or mud manoeuvring

If you’re trying to do a sharp turn on sand or mud, the rear wheels will naturally push the vehicle forward while the turned wheels at the front will try to plough on straight. To make a tight bend, turn your wheels to full lock before setting off, and position the tracks ahead of the wheel path. This can help you to make sharper turns on soft or slippery terrain.

When using tracks in thick mud, and particularly in the dreaded cotton soil, your tyres and the tracks will rapidly become clogged. Keep pulling the tracks back out of the mire – they are useless when buried – and shake or scrape mud off the tracks to ensure that the knobs are exposed.

Hill climbing

Whatever the terrain, you can position the recovery tracks anywhere up a hill climb and they will provide a boost of traction in the trickiest sections. They can also help when you are accelerating from standstill off soft ground to gain momentum, or are in a critical position on a hill climb and need to boost speed when your vehicle loses momentum.

They are most effective up hills with axle twisters; in this case, put the tracks into the holes that wheels would otherwise fall into and spin.

Axle twisters

Although this is most relevant to those without lockers, recovery tracks can be instrumental in getting you through axle twisters by providing traction to opposing wheels that would otherwise be in the air. Place the recovery tracks in offset, opposing, positions before you enter the axle twisters.

In many cases, a vehicle with open diffs can be helped by using the tracks as makeshift ‘lockers’. By providing traction to wheels that are spinning in the air, torque will naturally be sent to the other wheel that is pressed into the ground, resulting in forward progress. Be careful not to wheelspin on the tracks, or you will melt or tear off the knobs.

Bridging

By putting two recovery tracks on top of one another, you can use them to bridge (smaller) gaps that your wheels would otherwise fall into. As recovery tracks are flexible, it’s best to offer them some support when bridging, by placing a rock or other available material under the middle, if possible. Tracks that nest – we’re talking about quality items such as the Ironman TRED Recovery Tracks, or the new Maxtrax – offer double the support of cheapies that do not nest.

Winch or towing directional assistant

If your vehicle is stuck in a ditch, pulling it or winching it from the side will typically result in the vehicle being dragged along in the ditch, and not escaping it. If you put tracks in the proposed direction of travel ahead of the front wheels, these will help to bring the vehicle back on track. Remember, the more tracks you can link together here, the better. Ask you buddies for their tracks to build a temporary recovery path.

Rock crawling

If a rock is too large for your tyre to climb up, use the recovery track as a ramp to crawl up it slowly. It’s especially important to use gentle throttle on rocks, as recovery tracks have a tendency to be spat out from under the wheel if they are not wedged into the ground properly. For this to be most effective, pile some stones between the recovery track and the rock that you’re trying to climb over – this will prevent them from bending excessively (and potentially creasing), and makes them less likely to be spat out from under the wheel.

As a shovel

Because of their clumsy shape, recovery tracks make pretty poor shovels; but they are often better than nothing, especially in sand.  Because recovery tracks have no place for you to rest your foot, penetration into the dirt is difficult, and because of their channels and spikes, cotton soil sticks to them like glue. Use a real shovel if you have one.
By Andrew Middleton

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