How to Free a Stuck Car in a Ditch

Ralph J. Jiminez explains how to free a car from the mud or a ditch using a rope, tree and secure knot-tying abilities, including diagrams and directions.


The key to this setup is the nylon rope, which doesn't jerk like a chain . . . but is elastic, like a rubber band.


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Here in New Hampshire, the word "road" is used pretty loosely . . . to mean any track a vehicle just might be able to make it over in most seasons. During my first winter on the homestead, I quickly learned that getting there is a lot less than half the fun when you're scratching your head in minus 20 degree weather, wondering whether a crane would work better than a team of oxen to put that old heap back on the road (and you next to a fire). Since I have a strong aversion to shelling out the week's grocery money to a guy with a tow truck a couple of times a year, I've picked up a few tricks for liberating a car in a ditch . . . and I'd like to share them with you.

Freeing a Car in a Ditch

The elemental problems drivers usually encounter are snow, ice, mud, and the roadside ditches that machines are prone to leap into if not properly supervised. Since those of you in the city will probably meet only the first two conditions, I'll begin with them.

Often, coming unstuck from snow is only a matter of getting enough traction. Snow tires or studs will usually take care of this . . . and, if you have a front-engine auto, keeping a little extra weight in the trunk will help.

Still, those measures don't always do the job. On sheet ice, for example, snow tires get even less traction than standard tires because — at any given moment — they have less surface area in contact with the road. Which is why that extra weight in the trunk should be sand . . . and please note that you can't just scoop up a couple of boxfuls somewhere and leave it at that. Unless your non-skid material is properly prepared before it's packed away with the jack and tire iron, you may find yourself trying to throw a 100-pound frozen brick under your wheels (which won't do any good at all).

I know only two ways to keep stored sand from freezing:

[1] Mix salt with it

[2] Dry it thoroughly and stash it in an airtight container.

Although the first method is easier, I've preferred the second ever since I read that one-sixth of the salt mined annually in the United States is spread on roads . . . where it eats cars and makes the soil and water much more saline than they should be.

Tire chains — another traction-boosting device — will easily pay for themselves whether you live in the city or country. For emergency or light duty, short clip-on lengths of chain (available for a couple of bucks) will do. For frequent use or for rural roads, though, you should get a good set of wraparounds . . . which will cost from $15.00 to $40.00, depending on size and quality.

Once the chains are in place, you'll usually make it anywhere you have to go . . . but I've never met anyone who thought installing such devices was fun, and there'll probably be times when you're just too cold or lazy to do so before the car gets stuck. Well, don't despair! You don't really have to drive over the spread-out chains to fit them to the wheels . . . a good thing, too, since it's obviously out of the question when the truck or whatever is already lodged in a snowdrift.

Here's how to install chains without moving your vehicle: First make sure there are no twists or kinks anywhere in one of the pair. Then drape the chain over the top of the tire and hook up its catch-link on the inside of the wheel. (Practice will enable you to do this without lying on the ground.) The next step may be a bit of a fight, depending on how tightly the chains fit: Work the cross-links down over the tire's tread while pulling the ends of the chain until you can fasten the outside catch-link. Finally, add the spreaders. Then repeat the process on the other rear wheel and drive away. I once saw a guy go through this routine in the dark, with both back wheels two-thirds under water . . . which just goes to show that the job isn't as hard as it sounds.

If the wildest place you ever drive is the L.A. freeway, of course, there's no need to make your car's trunk look like Admiral Byrd's dogsled . . . but if you're like me and live (or are planning to live) back up in the woods, it pays to take a tip from the Boy Scouts and be prepared for the conditions you're likely to meet. This means you'll have to find room in your auto for a few "extra" items.

One piece of emergency equipment — a shovel — is a must . . . and is required by law in some states. A bow saw or axe can also come in handy. It's really frustrating to have a single downed 8-inch tree between you and your destination . . . when the only woodcutting tool you're carrying is a penknife.

Of course, no reader of this article would ever drive about without a working flashlight . . . and its friendly beam will indeed be ever-ready (despite faulty switches, carelessness, and children's fingers) if you'll always store the electric torch away with one battery reversed. Then, when you bog down on a backroad some dark night, just turn the cell to its "right" position and the light will shine!

You'll most likely have a jack with you anyway. . . and if yours is a bumper model, of better quality than those the big three include with their new cars, it can be used in a pinch to get your vehicle out of mud. Set the jack on a wide, flat plank or rock — to keep it from disappearing into the mire — and hoist the auto up enough to get boards, stones, or whatever under the tires. Always expect the jack to slip while you're doing this (that is, stay clear of the support and try not to keep your hands under the automobile or truck wheels any longer than necessary). Be aware, too, that the planks, etc., may be shot backward when you get the stuck car rolling . . . which means that your helpers should grasp the door handles and push from the sides rather than the back.

Also — if you've run off the road, but not too far off — you can use the bumper jack to correct matters, by hoisting the vehicle and pushing it off the support sideways in the proper direction. I don't like to do this because it's slow and dangerous and may damage the auto. If you must try, though, you'll find it advisable to push with a long sapling shoved under the frame or bumper to act as a lever. This not only gives you a little more thrust, but serves to put some distance between you and the jack (which can move very rapidly on occasion).

Incidentally, I've heard that you can winch a stuck vehicle out of a bad spot by means of a length of chain and the jack placed horizontally. Could be. I tried it once, and decided that my life was worth more than a towing charge.

Actually, the jack — in any position — is my least favorite means of coming unstuck. I know two other ways (apart from human or vehicular brute force) to accomplish the same purpose, and both work so well it's a joy to write about them.

First, if you live in the country, I'd strongly advise spending about $35.00 on a come-along (see Figure 1 in the illustration) . . . a compact manually operated winch. (The two-ton model is only slightly more expensive than the smaller sizes, and is well worth the difference.) I'd need an entire article to describe all the uses for this little wonder (even if I knew them all), so I'll merely point out that it can get a vehicle out of almost any drift, ditch, or mudhole.

The operation of the come-along is simple. The winch has a grab-hook on the back of its frame and a hook and length of cable on its spool. (Check the line for wear periodically, and make sure all connections are secure.) When in trouble, one fastens the towline to the auto's frame or some other solid portion of its anatomy and the winch-hook to a piece of chain moored to a sturdy rock or tree. (If possible, protect the trunk of alive tree with an old inner tube, piece of cardboard, etc., to prevent damage to the bark.) These hookup positions can be reversed, depending on where it's convenient for the winch operator to stand.

If you're alone, you'll just have to muscle the vehicle along . . . but it's best if someone else can help by driving. When the cable is very taut and the auto is just starting to move, the driver should spin the wheels fast enough to help progress and reduce friction. (Don't do this, of course, if the car is simply digging itself in deeper.) When the machine moves forward, the cable will go slack, and the driver must then hit the brakes to keep the vehicle from sliding back while the winch operator catches up.

So much for the come-along. Which brings us to my favorite little-known and highly effective device: the magic rope. I met it myself back before I had the come-along, when Babe — my old three-quarter-ton pickup — maliciously put her left front and rear wheels into a muddy ditch a mile down an abandoned road. At the time I wasn't especially concerned, since nearby friends of mine had two four-wheel-drive Land Rovers. A few hours later, though, when one Rover pushing and the other pulling still hadn't budged ale Babe, I was getting worried. I felt pretty sure that a tow truck would do no good, even if I could get a driver to go back to where my pickup was bogged down . . . so I called Robbie, a local guy who has unstuck more vehicles than the Triple-A.

"Come and get my rope," Robbie told me when he'd heard my story.

"No rope is gonna get Babe outta there," I said, surprised that the expert would suggest anything so inappropriate to the direness of the situation.

"This one will, it's special," Robbie laughed . . . and, since I had nothing to lose, I went over to his place and picked up a contraption like the one shown in Figure 2 of the illustration.

The key to this setup is the nylon rope, which doesn't jerk like a chain . . . but is elastic, like a rubber band. The result is that the towing vehicle can drive away from a stuck car or truck at some speed . . . and believe me, that helps. Why? Well, suppose you eased a truck up to a brick wall until the bumper touched, and then pushed. OK, now imagine hitting that same wall at 50 mph. The difference, of course, is momentum, and the springiness of nylon allows you to harness that energy.

To use the magic rope, be sure any tangled cords are untwisted, back the rescue truck up against the immobilized auto, and attach one end of the line. Then coil the remainder of the rope so it will feed smoothly, and fasten the other grab-hook to the towing vehicle. All that remains is to drive the already mobile machine away. With old Babe, the first try — at 5 mph — rocked her back and forth, and after the next run — at 10 mph — I was on my way home.

I've never seen this technique damage a vehicle (the shock travels very slowly and evenly through the nylon, and the car moves forward smoothly rather than jerking as it does behind a cable or chain) . . . and I've never had to drive the tow car or truck away at more than 15 mph to make the magic rope work.

If you want to make a towing device like the one I've described, you can get the necessary half-inch nylon rope at a marine supply house . . . and a few friends might do well to get together and share the cost (because this stuff is expensive). And don't plan to use the cord for any other purpose, because those knots will never come out.

Well, I hope you don't get stuck at all this winter . . . but if you do, the tricks I've mentioned should help. Pleasant motoring!