Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Guest Post: Getting Unstuck

by Xander Opal

It's a situation that will eventually happen if you drive on snowy roads or go cross-country: your vehicle will get stuck. Or perhaps you'll get a call from a friend or family member who is stuck, or encounter someone whose vehicle is stuck.

I have had quite a bit of experience getting stuck, from tractors in a field to a car on a snowdrift. Hopefully, you can learn a bit from me about what to do, and what not to do. This article is about getting unstuck, rather than recognizing Where Not To Go.

Know when to stop trying to get out by yourself.
Sometimes you can get out by rocking back and forth, shifting from drive to reverse to back in quick order, but that can just dig your vehicle in deeper, especially in mud. It's a lot easier to pop a vehicle's wheels out of relatively shallow divots than it is to drag a vehicle that's axle- or frame-deep in muck. It gets even more complicated and difficult if you have a trailer or piece of equipment in tow.

Generally, if you feel the vehicle settling deeper when attempting to change directions, or there is no progress more than a few inches in either direction, stop.

In all cases, it is very important to know where it is safe to hook a chain or strap onto your vehicle, as well as the towing vehicle, to prevent damage or injury. (For example, there's the time I discovered it was a bad idea to wrap a chain around the radiator mount on a truck.)

Additionally, when a stuck vehicle is being pulled out, ensure that onlookers are standing back more than the length of the strap or chain used. That strap or chain is being loaded with the energy it takes to move several tons of metal; if it breaks under load, you do not want that energy being applied to the human body.

Stuck in Snow
Useful gear:
  • A shovel (one that can be disassembled for easy storage is good)
  • Some kind of grit (sandbag, oil-absorbing material, kitty litter)
  • Carpet scrap/tarp/welcome-mat sized 'rug'
  • Safety orange reflective vest

When hung up on a snowbank in the middle of the road:
  1. First make sure there is no other traffic; you do not want to be outside of your vehicle in a freeway pile-up. You also want to be visible to any other drivers, which is where the safety orange reflective vest comes in useful.
  2. Determine which is the clearest method of travel. If the road ahead is as bad as the spot you're hung up on, it is best to turn around and find another route or a safe place to wait for the road to be cleared. 
  3. Use your shovel to clear out the snow from the direction you want to go, and also pull the snow out from under your vehicle if you cannot see clearly to the other side. Take special care to ensure that the wheels are not stuck in a packed snow/ice 'dish' under each.
  4. Pour a bit of the grit material before and behind the wheels, both under the vehicle and a car length in the way you're going to go (pickup truck drivers often put bags of sand in back to put more weight over the drive wheels). This will give the tires something to grip and move you with better than the icy snow-pack it had just created. You can also put the carpet/rug pieces right against the powered wheels of your vehicles in the direction of travel (front wheels of most cars, rear wheels of two-wheel-drive trucks).
  5. If you are not stuck too badly, putting the vehicle in low gear and gently putting your foot on the gas should get it moving back to a safe spot, at which point you can pick up any carpets used and proceed on.

Stuck in a Ditch
Useful gear:
  • Tow strap or chain
  • Some kind of grit (sandbag, oil-absorbing material, kitty litter)
  • Distress signals like flares and/or reflectors
  • Safety orange reflective vest

Unless you have a winch and a handy stout tree in a direction nobody's going to hit the cable with their vehicle, you're going to need help if your vehicle can't move itself. This is a bit more complicated, especially as traffic is more of a concern since your rescuer will be in the way of at least one lane. Signs to warn other drivers, such as flares and reflectors and bright visible vests, are a necessity.
  1. Again, make sure the tow strap or chain is attached correctly to the proper locations.
  2. Do not jerk or yank suddenly to try to break the stuck vehicle free. This is a good way to break the strap or chain, and possibly do damage to one or both vehicles. 
  3. Carefully draw the strap or chain tight, then gradually apply more power. If the rescue vehicle is having problems with traction, it is a good idea to sprinkle grit over the working area. 
  4. Slow is best in all things. The rescue vehicle will have to angle down the road; it often helps to pull the stuck vehicle out in the direction the end toward the road is aimed. 
  5. The rescue vehicle needs to be ready to stop when the driver sees the formerly stuck vehicle getting closer, meaning it has traction. The formerly stuck vehicle's driver needs to be ready to stop when they see they're at that point as well.

Stuck in Mud
This is where knowing when to stop is very useful, and if you don't, you've literally dug yourself a hole.

Useful tools:
  • 2-4 boards, 2x4 or 2x6
  • Shovel
  • Carpet scrap/tarp/welcome-mat sized 'rug'
  • Long chain or tow strap
  • Boards
If you aren't stuck too badly and you're by yourself, you can wedge 2x4 or 2x6 boards behind the wheels of your vehicle (tree branches may also work in a pinch) and use them to back out of your situation.
  1. If your vehicle is loaded down with a lot of weight, remove that weight before attempting to get it out. It is a bit of a pain to deal with, but not as much as getting stuck worse from failed attempts. 
  2. Use the shovel to remove high points of dirt/mud from behind the wheels, and from under the vehicle if it is resting that deep. 
  3. Ease the vehicle with slow acceleration to get it onto the planks or branches (tarp or carpet scraps can be handy here for this). If you can get up on there, accelerate quickly and Do. Not. Stop. until you get well onto safe, dry ground. 
  4. As always, make sure any bystanders are a safe distance away.

More often, a rescue vehicle is needed. This is why long chain or tow strap is specified; I've linked a good 40' or more of logging chain together to get a tractor out of a bad spot. At worst, two or even three rescue vehicles (and thus tow straps or chains) might be required if the vehicle is well and truly stuck.
  1. Remove as much weight and stack the material out of the way.
  2. Hook the chain or strap to the correct places on both vehicles; a shovel might be needed to get to the right spot on the stuck vehicle. 
  3. Keep the rescue vehicle on good, safe ground, and bystanders well away. 
  4. Pulling the stuck vehicle at an angle, even a sharp one, can be useful to get it out of the ruts getting stuck makes. 
  5. Very gently take the slack out of the tow chain or tow strap, then gradually apply power to keep traction and not break the chain or strap. 
  6. As noted above, the driver of the rescue vehicle must be ready to stop when the formerly stuck vehicle is onto safe ground. The driver of the formerly stuck vehicle needs to be ready to stop when they see the rescue vehicle has stopped. 

A Few Notes on How to Pull Someone Out
  • Agree on signals for "Ready," "Go," "Faster," "Slower," "STOP!!".
  • The rescue driver watches the stuck vehicle driver, and does not begin until the stuck vehicle driver signals readiness.
  • Both parties watch for the possibility of a bystander in a bad spot, a broken chain/strap, or a chain/strap that comes undone.
  • Try to stay calm and methodical. It is easy to be angry or frustrated, rush through the process, and make the situation worse by getting stuck more deeply, breaking the only means of getting un-stuck, or worst, causing injury.

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