Towing a dead vehicle – Are you prepared to be dragged out of trouble?

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By Greg Illes
After more than 50 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.

• 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.)

getting towed
Towing a dead vehicle. Photo: Greg Illes

• ALWAYS use a tow strap and NEVER use chains or steel cables when towing dead vehicles. 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.

Once you’re ready to start towing the dead vehicle

• Triple-check your hook-ups before starting to tow a dead vehicle. 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 tow a dead vehicle successfully. As always with all these tips, if you’re not comfortable, confident and secure, don’t do it. Drive (and tow) safely.

Related:

Don’t get stuck — Have a “Plan B” when boondocking

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 www.divver-city.com/blog.

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Bob
2 months ago

I don’t care what is said below. And the article itself says DO NOT USE ROPES. Well I got news for you……the best ROPE to use is a Kinetic Rope. It’s like a huge rubber band. Lets you get some slack and then take off adding more pull to get the stuck vehicle out, or to tow it. Check them out at Yankum Ropes https://yankum.com/

Gene Bjerke
2 months ago

The article implies that any strap is stronger than any rope. That all depends on size and material. Spectra rope is as strong as steel cable, they use it for standing rigging on sailboats.

Impavid
2 months ago

Besides what is mentioned another extremely important piece of equipment are two-way radios. It’s a must to have some type of communication between the two drivers then each can keep the other apprised of what’s happening.

Michael
2 months ago

Not really “towing”, but if you have a dead (or stuck) vehicle, what are your thoughts about using a winch? It will have a steel cable though.
I have always used a tow rope with a large hook on each end.

David Telenko
2 months ago
Reply to  Michael

STOP, No do not use a tow rope with hooks on them! If (when) the rope breaks those metal hooks are now 100 MPH projectiles that can go through your windshield or do bodily harm!
Snoopy

WEB
2 months ago
Reply to  David Telenko

How? IF the hook is on the vehicle and if the rope breaks, it is the broken end of rope the will do the ‘flying’, not the hook. If the hook breaks that is a different story.

Boze Baker
2 months ago
Reply to  David Telenko

Agree, had a friend killed by a hook that “unhooked” and slingshot through the back window of the tow vehicle and struck him in the head. A chain might break parts but drops to the ground if it breaks.

Greg Thompson
2 months ago
Reply to  Boze Baker

Here’s an old trick when using a tow strap. Drape a blanket or at least a coat over the tow strap. If it breaks or comes unhooked, the blanket/coat will slow down and stop the strap.
I’ve seen it work many times. I have yanked out many vehicles including my own while four wheeling on back roads in the west for the past 50 years.
An old trick from an old man

Ron T.
2 months ago

In most areas towing with a strap or chain is illegal on regular roads. If off road, it’s okay but then who’s going to see those emergency flashers? Not that I wouldn’t use them, just struck me as humorous.

Bob Packer
2 months ago

Greg says to never use rope, but a linked article by Bob Difley says to always carry a rope when boon docking.

Greg Thompson
2 months ago
Reply to  Bob Packer

I carry a rope, tow strap and heavy chain with me all the time. My tow strap has loops on the ends, not hooks,