How to tow a “dead” vehicle out of the middle of nowhere


By Greg Illes

After more than fifty years of driving, and a lot of it off-road, I’ve had a bit of experience towing “dead” vehicles. But not everyone is well-versed in getting a no-longer-lively vehicle out of the boonies and back to civilization. It is a far more complicated matter than throwing a rope around a couple of bumpers and giving it the gas. Here are some caveats and tips on towing.

• If you can get a professional, DO THAT. Those guys do it every day and know how. Besides, if something gets messed up, it’s their nickel.

photo: Greg Illes

• If you are going to tow that dead vehicle out, you will need two active drivers, well-planned and coordinated with each other.

• Make sure that towing the dead vehicle is actually possible (on its own wheels) and that you will not cause further damage to driveline or chassis components. If in doubt, don’t tow.

• Unless the towed vehicle’s engine will start, it will not have any power brakes or steering. It can still be stopped and steered, but with great effort. Put the stronger driver in the towed vehicle. (If it will start, great, just leave it idling and you’ll have normal steering and brakes.)

• ALWAYS use a tow strap and NEVER use chains or steel cables. A tow strap has some “give” to it; chains or cables will destroy chassis parts during the inevitable jerks and yanks of towing. Never use ropes – they are simply not strong enough and will snap at the worst moment.

• If possible, use “tree saver” straps to attach to the vehicles’ chassis. This, too, is a potential area for damage. Attach to the strongest structures you can find – there’s a lot of force involved. Never attach to sheet metal, suspension or steering linkage.

• Turn on the emergency flashers in both vehicles.

• Triple-check your hookups before starting to tow. Remember, there will be thousands of pounds of force on your setup – be sure it’s secure and won’t damage chassis parts.

• Pull gently and slowly, making allowances for turns and dips in the road. The towed vehicle should be kept about 30 feet behind, and that vehicle has to steer to make adjustments for towing angles and speeds.

• The towing driver must never make quick changes in direction or speed, and above all cannot jam on his brakes. That’s a sure way to get rear-ended – what a mess.

• The towed driver must try to maintain a slight tension at all times in the tow strap, but not so much as to fade the brakes. This can be really challenging on long downhill runs. Take frequent stops to rest the brakes and the towed driver’s arms and legs (remember, no power steering or brakes).

• Maintain an even, slow speed, no more than 30 mph or you’re really pushing your luck. Don’t tow more than a few miles or you may damage the towed vehicle transmission. Don’t even think about towing like this on a major highway. But then,  if you’re on a major highway, you can call a pro.

You do need a basic sense of “mechanical right and wrong” to do this successfully. As always with all these tips, if you’re not comfortable, confident and secure, don’t do it. Drive (and tow) safely.

Greg Illes is a retired systems engineer who loves thinking up RV upgrades and modifications. When he’s not working on his motorhome, he’s traveling in it. You can follow his blog at


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Ron Baker
1 year ago

I would have to disagree with the :always use a tow strap” statement for the exact reason stated that they have ” some give”.
What they do is stretch like a rubber band and if the hook disengages, you have a missle flying toward your window. An acquaintance was killed when the hook on a tow strap came through the rear window and struck him in in the head.
A chain is much safer and will just drop to the ground if it breaks or unhooks.

1 year ago

The use of hand held radios is a must so there’s constant communication between the two drivers.

Donald N Wright
1 year ago

When visiting the “Four Corners” states, I have been advised “yes there is a road, but not for your truck.” Perhaps you should hike in, and leave a note on your windshield.

John M
1 year ago

If you look at google maps you can see that there is parking at the four corners monument, not a lot but you do not need to hike in to see it. Hwy 160 goes by and the you drive straight up to the monument. If you are towing a fifth wheel, in a large motorhome it might be best to leave them at the rv park and drive over in the tow vehicle. I have even been there on a motorcycle and rode right up to the buildings.

1 year ago

Good article!