How to Use Recovery Boards the Right Way

When I’m helping someone out who needs their vehicle recovered, I have a saying, and it goes like this… “If you haven’t been stuck somewhere in your 4WD, you probably haven’t been 4WDing!” This is …

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Mar 10 2023
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When I’m helping someone out who needs their vehicle recovered, I have a saying, and it goes like this… “If you haven’t been stuck somewhere in your 4WD, you probably haven’t been 4WDing!” This is an attempt to make people feel better about needing recovery, but it’s not far from the truth.

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One thing is for certain; if you go prepared for the reality that you will get your vehicle bogged somewhere, then when you do, you can enjoy the experience and laugh about it later.

Out of all the recovery gear that I believe you should have in your kit, recovery boards are right up there on the list of things you should take on your next adventure.

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What exactly are recovery boards and where did they come from?

Recovery boards or sand tracks originated many years ago, widely used by overland travellers and the military to assist vehicles and even planes to travel over soft ground by spreading weight over a larger surface area. They were constructed from steel or aluminium and varied from a short, narrow track to large sections connected, creating an entire airstrip.

You might see old images of 4WDs overlanding with metal boards attached to their sides, roof or bonnet. Many of these where lightweight alloy to reduce the weight and they would be used by placing them under the tyres of a stuck vehicle to help with its recovery.

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From these many versions of old styles of boards it would seem obvious to create a product that is more suited to today’s off-roader. Something that would be lightweight, flexible and extremely strong. A product that would be easy to use and save many people from the stress of being stuck somewhere.

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Many years ago, I was contracted to photograph an expedition, following the footsteps of early explorer Eyre, with Ron Moon from 4X4 Australia magazine. I was using a support vehicle supplied by Holden Special Vehicles (HSV), the H3 Hummer.

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While everyone was at camp, I would drive off on my own, chasing photographs. When I would get stuck in amongst the soft sand of the dunes, I’d drag out my MAXTRAX, sort out the problem, and in no time, I’d be on my way again chasing the next shot.

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This was one of the most amazing products around and allowed me to successfully recover this H3 Hummer solo, time and time again.

But where did these things come from, and why do they work so awesomely well?

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The idea of a recovery board suitable for recreational use came to Brad McCarthy when he nearly lost his 4WD to a rising tide on a remote beach in Far North Queensland. He was out exploring for one of his guidebooks, and was travelling alone, which is not unusual for Brad. Although he was extremely well prepared, his vehicle became stuck and on that day back in 2001, he decided to create a device to assist in retrieving a stuck vehicle, even if you are on your own.

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I have had the pleasure of travelling the outback with Brad and I must say, he is an absolute gentleman and an off-road enthusiast. After many designs testing all types of nylon materials in pursuit of a lightweight yet extremely strong solution, he created what is now known as the MAXTRAX. This Australian-made product comes in all sorts of colours, is famous worldwide and has helped in the retrieval of countless vehicles from all sorts of terrain.

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MAXTRAX has become to recovery boards what Stanley is to utility knives; a brand name used so regularly for a product category that it’s what the average user knows it as regardless of who makes it. Similar designs like ARB’s Tred are also available today, providing the end user a couple of great options.

How do you use recovery boards?

The key is to create a ramp. I have stood there on the beach telling people how awesome MAXTRAX are and the reply from well respected and experienced 4WDers has been that they can’t make them work.

Now my Dad always said “A good tradesman is only as good as his tools”, but these tools are amazing for the 4WDer, as long as you know how to use them.

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They are actually really simple to use if you understand a few basic concepts. These apply to both sand and mud, but we will concentrate on sand for this explanation.

Let’s focus on the reason you are stuck in the sand, which is usually because the underside of your vehicle is sitting on the sand after your tyres have dug in. This will take the weight of the vehicle off your tyres, allowing them to spin freely, unable to find traction.

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Tip 1: Place your recovery boards properly

The recovery board needs to be placed correctly to enable the tyre to ride forwards and upwards, lifting the vehicle’s undercarriage off the sand.

Many people will simply place the board against the front of the tyre and hope they grab traction, but this won’t usually do much.

You need to dig a little. Using one of the boards like a shovel, dig under the front of the tyre’s surface enough to allow a section of the board to get under the tyre. When placed into position, the board should be at an angle of approximately 15-45 degrees from the grounds surface.

If you are wearing boots, strike the heal of your boot on the end of the tread to wedge it as far under the tyre as possible. This will provide better contact with the tread of the tyre.

How many do you use? That depends on how stuck you are, and how many you have. A couple under the front tyres will usually do the job but if you have 4, why not use them to assist you lifting the vehicle out of the sand? Also, if you only have 2 recovery boards and are trying to climb a dune, the weight distribution is concentrated over the rear axle, so placing the boards under the rear tyres might assist better.

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Tip 2: Use straps to pull recovery boards back out

If you have them, attach the bright orange straps that come with the boards to the visible ends and run these out from the vehicle. Let me tell you, I have lost boards deep in the mud because we didn’t use these, lesson learned! After the vehicle has been recovered, it’ll make it easier to find the board under the sand or mud and drag them free without having to dig for them too much.

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Tip 3: Check your tyre pressures

Have you dropped your tyre pressures? It might be a great opportunity to get this vehicle out and make the rest of your day a bit easier. There is a reason you got stuck and sure, it might have just been a bad patch of sand, but it’s very common for 4X4s to get bogged because their tyre pressures were too high.

Lowering tyre pressures gives them a larger contact patch to spread the weight of the vehicle over a larger area, which makes a big difference on soft surfaces like sand and mud, but also for gaining traction on recovery boards. This will make both the recovery and the rest of your day a little less stressful.

Below 15psi is about where you start to risk tyres slipping on rims or rolling off the rim, so if you need to use extremely low ’emergency pressures’ to get your vehicle out, be sure to air back up to something a bit more suitable for the terrain and the speed you’ll be crossing it at.

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Tip 4: Drive gently and use your 4X4’s gadgets

Low range first gear is the go here and tyre spin is the enemy. You don’t want your tyres to spin as this will damage both them and the recovery boards. Be gentle on the throttle but once you’re starting to move, try to maintain that momentum.

If you’ve got diff locks, engage them to let the tyre/s with the most traction do the work. If you don’t and your 4X4 doesn’t have fancy off-road traction control, applying a little brake while edging forward can limit wheel spin on unloaded wheels.

Hopefully, the tyre’s tread will line up with the recovery board’s lugs, providing the much-needed traction assistance to get out.

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Tip 5: Don’t celebrate too soon

The tyres will drag the recovery boards down into the sand as the vehicle grabs traction, and the vehicle will rise as it’s moving forward. As this happens, keep driving forward to higher ground and away from the high tide mark, turning the vehicle downhill before parking it up on the firmest surface you can find to reduce the risk of getting stuck again.

This means that when you’re ready to head off down the beach, your forward progress is assisted by starting on a downhill slope. It’s tempting to stop and celebrate as soon as you’re out, but it’s unlikely that the terrain would have changed much in a couple of metres, and you can always walk back to retrieve the boards.

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Tip 6: Look after your recovery boards

Clean off the recovery boards and assess them for any damage. If you have water, wash them down to get rid of all the sand before packing them away. The last thing you need is to have a heap of salty sand or stinky mud getting into your roof rack or roof structure, or in your tray or canopy, even into the car, as it could erode the painted surfaces and connections.

You should also have a good look at your tyres to ensure they are not damaged. If the boards are used correctly, there should not be a problem with either the boards or the tyres, but remember, you have just driven over these boards with the distributed weight of your vehicle.

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I hope that these tips that I’ve learned after countless recoveries with the assistance of boards help you understand how to use them properly. Recovery boards have become a bit of a fashion accessory but they are a great bit of gear and hugely beneficial to have on board if you ever happen to get stuck, which you probably will at some point no matter how good you are!

If you are interested in watching an interview with Brad… Follow this link


-Michael Ellem

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