Trucks belong in the dirt. That’s an argument you will hear over and over, and I can’t say I disagree. Because of their heavy-duty construction, diesel pickups have a lot of great parts which make them perfectly suited for an off-road build. Strong axles, heavy duty steering, beefy transfer cases, and of course the torquey diesel engine mean crawling over rocks, plowing through the mud, or even cruising across the desert are second nature. Of course, you will need to modify your truck with parts like lifted suspension, the proper gear ratio, lockers, and of course the tire of your choice, but those are all parts which get you deeper into trouble. Here’s what I mean: the more capable your off-road truck, the further off the beaten path you can get, which means you’re further away from help if something were to go wrong. There will always come a time when you run out of luck and skill, and we’ve all found ourselves stuck in a situation where we need some assistance to get back on solid ground, or even back on all four wheels. Today we’re focusing on parts which will make your truck actually belong on the trail rather than just look like a mall crawler, and that’s recovery equipment.
The most basic vehicle recovery method is simply using one truck to pull out another. My old man would always carry 30-foot-long steel chain in the bed of his truck, and he rescued me many times from a snow drift in the middle of the woods, and the one thing I’ll never forget is the jarring impact when the chain became taut, even if you tried to gently ease into the throttle. Discomfort aside, a chain isn’t designed for impact and is even slightly dangerous to use in a recovery situation, because the tow hooks on the truck or the chain itself can break free and act as a projectile. A gentler and much safer way to transfer force between two vehicles requires a little elasticity, and this is where the Bubba Rope Jumbo excels. It’s made from double braided 1 ½” nylon which is dipped in a polymer for protection so it can take some abuse, and they’re available in a variety of sizes for vehicles from small to large. You can get a little running start with the rescue truck and give a good yank on the stuck truck without having to worry about the rope breaking, harsh impact, or bodily harm from a flying steel tow hook.
Which Winch you Want
If you venture off the beaten path alone, a simple rope isn’t going to do you any good when you get stuck. For any wheeling, ESPECIALLY if you go solo, there is no question the one piece of recovery equipment you absolutely need is a winch. If you’re not familiar, a winch is a device which mounts on the front or rear of your truck and has a rotating drum with a cable wrapped around it which is retracted by an electric motor. All winches are rated by pounds of pulling power, and at first you might think to pick the option closest to the weight of your truck. As it turns out, a 7,500-pound winch on a 7,500-pound truck won’t do you any good, because you have to consider the extra resistance of the mud, snow, rocks, and anything else you need to pull your truck over or through. A good rule of thumb for winch sizing is to take the weight of your truck and add 50% and pick the next size up. For a 7,500lb truck an extra 50% would be 11,250lbs, which means you’ll want to choose either a 12,000 or 16,500lb winch to make sure you can get out of any situation you find yourself in.
Once you have the weight rating sorted out, there is still one more decision you’ll need to make; whether to pick a steel wire or synthetic rope. For the longest time, steel wire was the go-to. It’s inexpensive, very durable, and can withstand a lot of abrasion from rocks or trees, but a steel cable can kink, develop sharp burrs, rust over time, and if it ever does snap, there is a lot of stored energy which can cause harm if you get hit. Synthetic winch rope is lighter and just as strong as steel, plus it floats which is great for pond recoveries, but it is susceptible to UV damage from the sun or abrasion from mud and sand, but either option will last a lifetime if properly used, cleaned, and maintained.
Just having a winch doesn’t do you any good unless you have a way to securely bolt it to the frame of your truck, and most modern pickups don’t have any space behind the factory bumpers. The best solution is to install an aftermarket bumper which has been designed specifically for winch duty. While there are tons of designs available which will give your truck a commercial or agricultural look, AEV or American Expedition Vehicles offers some great looking and functional winch bumpers which won’t add a ton of weight and will look better than factory. They attach securely to the frame and can mount up to a 16,500-pound winch and keep it hidden in plain sight.
Once the winch is securely bolted to the front of your truck, you’re almost in business, but unless you have a few more accessories you aren’t going to do much pulling. First, you need a way to attach the winch line to whatever object you are pulling against. While you can piece together everything you need a-la-carte, an easier option would be to pick up The Ultimate Winter Recovery Kit. Despite its name you can use it year-round for getting yourself or a friend unstuck, and it all comes in a handy self-contained bag which neatly stores under the back seat or in a toolbox. The kit includes a 16-foot tree strap with loops on each end, a set of Gator Jaw Shackles, and a pair of gloves to protect your hands from the cold weather or the steel line on your winch. Now, you are set for just about any situation, unless you need to change the direction of your line pull to get around a tree or other obstacle. The last part you should include in your winch kit is a Snatch Block. You can use it to pull at an angle without damaging the winch line, or if you want to increase your pulling power, a snatch block can be used as a pulley to double the available force, which also makes things easier on the electric winch motor and gear assemblies.
Inspector Gadget’s Truck
With a properly equipped winch, you should be OK for 85% of the situations you may find yourself in, but what if you are in the middle of a mud hole or field of snow with no anchor point to pull against? What if a tire is wedged between two giant boulders and the only way out is straight up? A diesel truck is designed to haul a ton, so why not take advantage of that and pack a few more things along for the ride? After all, there are some gadgets which can really help when the going gets rough.
The first is especially important if you ride in soft terrain like beach sand, mud, or snow. In conditions like this, your spinning tires can quickly dig a hole and sink your axles to ground level, in which case your truck is going nowhere. If you have no solid winch anchor point, a set of MaxTrax Recovery Boards can be a lifesaver. They have large cleats on the surface which will grip into the ground, and when you jam ‘em in front of your tires, you’ll gain some much-needed traction, and their 10” x 45” footprint will keep your truck on top of the softest mud instead of sinking deeper.
Occasionally, you might get a tire stuck in a hole, have a flat which should to be changed, or just need to stack some rocks underneath a tire. In situations like this, the jack which comes with your truck for roadside tire changes won’t be able to raise the vehicle high enough to be useful, so its common practice to bring a High-Lift jack on an off-road adventure. While mechanical jacks are popular and inexpensive, they are cumbersome to use and very clunky, which can cause damage to your truck if they suddenly drop. A smoother option is the ARB Hydraulic Recovery Jack which can raise and lower your truck much smoother and with less effort than the old-school High-Lift. It can move up to 4,400 pounds and has a maximum height of 48” so it can get even the tallest of trucks out of a pickle.
Light the Night
While red LEDs shining on the inside of your 24” wheels won’t do you any good on the Rubicon Trail, when you are building a multi-purpose off-road rig, you actually do need a fair amount of exterior lighting. Just think about all the things you might need to see after dark, and you’ll quickly realize your headlights alone won’t cut it, as you need a full 360 degrees of illumination. Rock lights for example, are compact and inexpensive LED’s which shine straight down underneath the truck near the suspension and tires and are surprisingly helpful after dark for the driver or spotter when maneuvering across technical terrain. On top of that, you’ll need to see obstacles in front of and behind the rig, and at times directly to the sides. Basically, you need a full 360 degrees of illumination, and to achieve that will require a few different beam patterns, from a fully diffused scene light for the sides, to a wide-angle flood for the rear, to a focused spot beam for high-speed driving. While personal preference dictates your final choice, instead of massive bars or oversized round halogen lights, I prefer several smaller “cube” style LED’s which can be discretely mounted out of the way on a roof rack, under a bumper, on the windshield cowling, or anywhere else you have a little extra room. While there are plenty of great brands to choose from, Baja Designs has a large variety of lighting and brackets to choose from, so you can get every light you need from one source in a convenient, easy to install package.
Pack the Spares
There is a ton of gear which should be packed in the truck, but it’s hard to give up valuable interior or bed space, so a better storage solution is needed. You could get a roof rack, but they’re difficult to reach and may impede overhead clearance if you park in a garage. A better solution for a work truck, daily driver, or expedition off-roader is the Active Cargo System from Leitner. It’s a bed rack of sorts, but its most helpful feature is the modular storage solutions which are accessed from the side of the truck and can be easily installed or removed. Options include waterproof Gear Pods for smaller items, XL Pods for larger stuff, or the specific brackets available for MaxTrax Boards or fuel containers. Plus, you’ll now have a handy spot to mount some lighting and store a few spare parts.
The Details Make the Difference
The drivetrain modifications you make to your truck are what will get it onto the trail, but it’s the parts which help get it back home which make a true off-road rig. If you go wheeling far from civilization or in the dead of winter, having the right recovery gear can even be a matter of personal safety. At the end of the day, getting stuck is all part of the experience, and if you have the tools and knowhow to get un-stuck, it actually can be quite fun.