How to Free a Stuck Car in a Ditch

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

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:

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

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

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

“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!