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Part 1: Improving Traction in the Tow Vehicle of a Trailer

Rewrite: good grief, I started off on how-to trivia before I discussed the 'why' of getting better traction: it will give you more freedom in choosing campsites and provide a higher quality experience. 

But I have gotten-by just fine at dispersed camping without making a big or expensive project out of better traction. My rig was nothing special, traction-wise: a two-wheel-drive van pulling a 4000 lb (loaded) travel trailer. It had the standard open differential and lacked an electronic traction control system which is standard on newer vehicles. 

But remember that an "equipment X worked well enough for me" type argument is a circular argument. You know the limitations of your equipment, and compensate for them by restricting your campground choices. That is what I want to rise above. (Circular arguments like this eat up enormous amounts of time and space on public discussion forums.)

'So what?' if you get stuck every couple years? Be a good sport about it. See it as an adventure. If nothing else, you will leave feeling pretty good about the human race when a passing motorist stops by to be the hero, probably in less than 30 minutes. Then he will not even want to accept a few bucks from you as a token of gratitude, despite having just saved you towing charges and hours of waiting for it.

Work it out in advance so that the hero's time is not wasted: get a piece of chain, a couple quick links, and a nylon tow rope. Find the right spot on the frame to hook to. You might even want to mount a hook or eye-bolt to the frame.

Don't worry, I don't plan on becoming a recreational four wheel drive (4WD) off-roader. But the 4WD sub-cult supports an industry and products that can also help the general public (of non-enthusiasts) get better traction in their tow vehicle.

Recall that somebody (like me) who gets a higher clearance and lightweight trailer needs to finish the job by improving their traction (and possibly clearance) in their tow vehicle.

The Yuma 4WD mafia has already provided some useful advice to me. A business who helps the sub-cult modify their jeeps was clear about where I should start: get the tire inflator needed to "air-up" the tires after you are done with the backcountry road. More on that in a minute.

1) But step one is to use all-terrain tires with more aggressive tread. That is such an obvious thing, but it is hard for a cheapskate not to go looking for the least expensive pavement-oriented tires at one of the big tire outlets. Knobbier tires will probably cost and weigh a little more and take a little off your fuel economy. But if you are serious about getting better traction, you must give in on something!

2) He recommended dropping the tire pressure to 18 psi during off-pavement use. Of course, he was referring to a light jeep, not to a heavier pickup or van. Besides a more comfortable ride, the lower pressure gets you better traction in soft sand and mud since it results in a bigger contact patch ("flat spot") at the bottom of the tire. 

Once again, this is an obvious idea, but it is hard to overcome one's timidity in lowering the pressure to the 20 psi area. 

So why don't we do it? Because it is a hassle to put the air back in, that's why! And you must do so before driving at high speed on the pavement. Say what we will, something must be convenient or we won't do it. Some four wheel guys use pressurized tanks (like little scuba tanks.) Some install on-board compressors. 

3) But the least expensive way to air-up is to use a portable tire inflator. Your mind should turn red with rage over your past experiences with these. You probably bought a cheap piece of crap for $30. In the past I got better results with a screw-on brass tire inflator tip, rather than those hateful lever style inflator tips. Of course, you can get lucky and get a good lever style tip -- one that leaks air slower than the rate of pumping it in -- but over time the rubber ages, or gets too hot or cold, etc. 

4) But there is still a problem if the inflator is powered through the cigarette lighter. These connections are limited to about 9 amps DC; they are also unreliable. There are heavier duty inflators available that clamp right onto the battery posts. Both Viair and Slime make this kind. It permits raising the amperage to 15--30 amps DC. Excellent!

5) What about "getting unstuck" products like "Portable tow truck" and their competitors? (Search traction pad, traction mats, getting unstuck in mud, etc.) These are corrugated mats or boards, usually of tough plastic, that can be jammed in front of the drive wheels when they are stuck. Does anyone have any experience with these?

6) There are tire chains of course. Like most people I have never had these because of cost, weight, noise, and the inconvenience of installing them. Perhaps this last issue is 50% psychological? But you can't install tire chains after you have gotten stuck. 

Ahh but wait, yes you can. There are temporary chains for short distance travel at low speeds that can be installed after getting stuck. They are metal chains that are completed with a nylon strap and buckle -- you just insert the nylon straps through the holes in the rim, if you have them. Perhaps I could overcome my reluctance to bring chains if the cost and weight were low enough.

Next episode I will discuss possible ways to get better traction without getting stuck in the trap of overpaying for a four wheel drive, over-sized pickup truck. 


alfred said…
In answer to 5) above, I have been using traction pads, (specifically the Portable Tow Truck brand) for over a year and they work great in snow and ice (I have yet to try the in mud, or for that matter, sand). They are 36” long, 8 in” wide (and yes there is a “right side up” to them). At $35 on amazon they’re definitely worth the money

In regard to tire chains, there are some that are easier to use than others, and some real chains that can be put on (if you’re careful) after you get stuck (not just the single buckle through the wheel type you mention).

I have been using Thule’s XB-16s (size 250) on my Ford E-250 van with great success. Yes they weigh a bit (14 lbs), yes they are pricey ($150 +/- but they have a 5-year warranty), and yes they are a bit fiddly to get on (make sure you get the right size!). However if you practice once or twice before you need them, putting them on and off is not too bad a chore.

You are right about tires, and just as important as a knobby tread pattern is to make sure you buy light truck tires (as opposed to passenger car tires) which are identified by the letters ‘LT’ preceding the size. The difference is in the number of plies, and I’d suggest ‘E’ rated LT tires which are much more resistant to sidewall damage than ordinary passenger car tires (could come in handy outside of Yuma).

Of course this brings up just how far off the beaten path you travel. If you go into the backcountry, these consideration are more important than if you stay closer to the beaten path (where that passing motorist is much more likely to appear).

then again....

From recent posts I thought you were focused on larger issues, rather than all this mundane practical stuff.

long an appreciative lurker, now a poster,

Alfred, I'm not above discussing the practical when there is a conspiracy of silence over a special topic that can save me thousands of dollars.

Glad to hear about your experience with chains and portable tow trucks, even if they were for snow instead of mud.

I don't really see how to install regular full chains when the wheel is already stuck in a hole 6 inches deep.

Typically I only have short distances to travel through muddy two-tracks or across one nasty arroyo before I can make it from camp back to the main gravelled road. We are required to camp 100 yards from the road typically, by the national forest road plans. I have no need to travel in the back country except in getting to camp. The mountain bike is my means of recreational travel.

Anonymous said…
In regards to point 6, you can make your own "cheater chains." Just cut a length of chain to fit and add a quick link. I've only used them on semi trucks, though. Not passenger vehicles. YMMV.
Hey, that is an idea if your rim has a wide enough hole for the chain to pass through.

I'm surprised that the quick link would hold the chain tight enough to the tire.
Wayne (Wirs) said…
I was looking at those traction pads on amazon. Most of the reviews were for snow, not sand, which is more atypical of the full timer. The reviews for sand that I saw often mentioned them "being shot out" the back as the truck tried to get unstuck. I had this experience with much shorter "mats" (these: ) but I also was hitched to my trailer and had street tires.

I wonder if you could anchor the "portable tow truck" pads (which look 100% better than what I had used) down? This might be as simple as drilling a hole in them and tying a rope through the hole and attaching the other end to a rock/tree. Thoughts?
alfred said…
Hi Wayne!

I have seen a hole drilled through these devices, but not for holding them down, but to carry them along once the vehicle gets going (the cord was attached to the pad at one end and the vehicle on the other) thus eliminating having to walk back for them.

In regard to traction specifically in sand there is a somewhat different device often used and the generic term for these are ‘sand ladders’. Perhaps the definitive review of such products (a comparison test) appeared here on expedition portal:

I can see kaBLOOnie shaking his head at such yuppie excess, and yes, you’ll probably want to take a deep breath after you find out what they cost, but if you are in situations where you are far from help, the cost might be justified.

By the way, I enjoy your blog very much as well.

I guess the ideal thing is to have big corrugations on the bottom of the traction pad so it doesn't shoot out.

I am holding off on the portable tow-trucks because they are made of polypropylene, which might be the wrong plastic. ABS plastic (as in automobile fenders and bumpers) might be better.
Anonymous, thanks for getting me to work on looking at cheater chains or nylon strap/metal chain combinations.

Everybody will have to look at the holes in their rims to see if they can pass a nylon strap (probably yes) or a metal chain (no in my case.)

But looking more carefully on my van, I see that a couple brake parts (non-rotating of course) are separated from the (rotating) rim by only a 1/4" gap, too narrow for a cheater chain, and troublesome for a nylon strap. What if the strap twists or slips! Sigh!

But your rig might be different!
Anonymous said…
How about a come_along winch and a metal fence post?
Ed said…
ARB Bushranger X-Trax II Sand Track are expensive but I like the concept of how they work. They are flexible and can mold to the shape that you may be trying to get out of ie a hole. They are made from Heavy Duty Cast Rubber connected by Galvanized Steel Cable which should be as long lasting as rigid ABS plastic sand ladders.
Ed, I had a look at those ARB sand tracks. They seemed excellent. But ARB makes outrageously priced goodies aimed at the "enthusiast", who is a sucker for anything. It seems as though I have seem rubber/steel wire welcome mats that might work as well.