Car AdviceTop 5

Friday Five: How to self-recover your 4×4 when bogged

Getting stuck while driving off-road when you’ve got mates around isn’t such a big deal. Here’s how to self-recover your 4×4 when bogged.

DRIVING OFF-ROAD IS FUN AND EASY until you’re stuck, and then suddenly you realise just how far away you are from help. That’s why off-roaders generally go out in convoy and take lots of recovery gear that they know how to use. But life is unpredictable, and we all make mistakes, so you may need to get yourself out of trouble.

For these tips we’ll assume you’re solo with just a stock-standard car and limited 4×4-driving experience, but you have the most important recovery tool, your brain, and Internet access so you can read this:

  • Use your 4×4 system – modern 4×4 systems are complex and have all sorts of traction aids. It’s impossible here to discuss them all and how they work in all sorts of situations; you’ll only gain that skill with lots and lots of experience and training. However, what I can say is that just about every 4×4, including soft-roaders, has different ways you can use the drivetrain. That might be selecting different drive modes – did you know rock modes are great in some sand situations, and often snow mode is hopeless in deep snow? It might be using, or not using cross-axle locking differentials, low range or not. You might even put a car into 2WD, as I’ve done to spin the back end around. And the first thing you should check is that the car actually is in its best 4WD mode, for example, locking the centre differential (if it has such a feature), or selecting 4WD (again if applicable), or locking the hubs. Consult the owners manual, or just keep trying different options, even if they seem silly.
  • Dig and build – sometimes a little fist-sized rock in front of a wheel is the difference between being able to move or not. Make a ramp in front of each wheel as best you can. Maybe you can move, but not make it up and out. There will be two main reasons; traction and clearance, and both can be fixed by building. Fill in holes where the tyres spin, and reduce the height of anything the car is grounding on. If you’re smart, you’ll do both at the same time. You may need to sacrifice the internal floormats or other trim. Use rocks rather than wood to build. You can also perhaps remove the spare tyre and use that if the hole is really deep. In the back of the car there should be a tyre changing kit, use the tools there to dig, like the tyre lever.
  • Lower tyre pressures – very often a reduction in tyre pressures helps with traction offroad. If you don’t have a gauge, remove the valve cap, find a tiny stone and let 30 seconds worth of air out, then another 10 if that doesn’t work. You should see the tyre look markedly flatter, which is fine for low-speed offroad work but you’ll need to keep the speed below about 60km/h once you’re out to avoid overheating the tyre and killing it.
  • Jack – use the car’s jack to lift up a wheel to build underneath. Try to use rocks not wood. Be warned that jacking a car is dangerous, and especially offroad as the car can easily slip off the jack. Also be aware that the jack may sink into the ground, so a strong base is necessary, maybe rocks, gravel or wood.
  • Wait – over time, tracks change. Wet tracks dry out, hot sandy ones cool down, and time is good for letting ideas come to you.

You might also try lightening the vehicle, especially throwing people out of smaller 4x4s. That can make a big difference. Also, maybe remove any tow hitches which are dragging on the ground.

Some things not to do:

  • Try too hard – if it’s not working, give up immediately as you’ll just make things worse. ‘Not working’ means wheels spinning, car not moving. Reset, and try again. Recovery can be time consuming, but you need to take that time.
  • Keep trying the same thing – if it failed once, it’ll fail again. Next time you need a different angle, more or less speed, or just try building, digging or something else. Look at every attempt as a learning exercise, try and figure out what didn’t work and why, then fix it.

Finally, do not leave your vehicle unless you are absolutely, 100% certain you can easily walk to safety, both distance and direction. And in the case of the Outback in the hot sun, just don’t even think about it. Many people have died trying to walk out. You can survive overnight in a car without water or food, but your chances are much reduced if you’re sleeping unprotected in the bush. Your vehicle is easy to find and offers protection from the elements, so stay with it.

If you need to contact people, try SMS which is typically more reliable than Internet access, and you may find reception by moving uphill, or even waiting for a different time of day. But don’t rely on mobile phone access, ever.

And when you’re out, enrol in a good quality 4×4 training course, and buy a good book!

Do you have a story about getting out of trouble in a 4×4? Comment below, or maybe even submit it as a Reader’s Write.

Further reading

  • Andrew Riles

    Great article…..have used a few of those tips over the years to get out of trouble…..

    Also, emptying the vehicle of a carload of people not only lightens it, but means you have some extra muscle power to push and/or rock the it while one person drives it…..

  • Desertman

    Good article for beginners Robert. One vital technique that was not mentioned was reversing out of trouble. Often, when forwarded momentum has stopped, it’s a simple case of selection reverse gear and if that fails, then proceed to all the other steps you outlined.

    To me, airing down the tyres is the first & most fundamental technique for off road driving. When the bitumen ends I lower my tyre pressures immediately. This, of course, means that a compressor should be included with other basic recovery items.

Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper is a freelance journalist, driver trainer and photographer interested in anything with wings, sails or wheels. He is the author of four books on offroading, and owns a modified Ford Ranger PX which he uses for offroad touring. His other car is a Toyota 86 which exists purely to drive in circles on racetracks. Visit his website: