Using the right tow-point for off-road recovery can be tricky. There are core competencies to the tow-point – strength, anchorage, accessibility – all of which are necessary for any pull to work. Strength (how good is the connecting point?), anchorage (how well is it attached to the vehicle?) and accessibility (how easily can you work with it?) are all essential. Missing any of these factors increases your potential for all sorts of trailside misadventure, violent injuries and damaged vehicles amongst them. On the other hand, with strength, anchorage and accessibility satisfied, you can yank or be yanked and not have to cut down on your adventures in getting lost and stuck.
We’ve searched, questioned and read through about 20 different sources to get hard info on what’s useful when hooking up, i.e.: stuck truck tow-points. We also had a goodly bit of advice from recovery retailer and trail dog Bryan Hubbard of UDS Hardware (310-715-1356, udshardware.com), and George Carousos, owner of recovery gear supplier Extreme Outback Products (707-447-7711, extremeoutback.com).
The shackle block is universally useful, but mind the pin – safety-wire it.
Good Tow-Points: The D-Ring
The D-ring has become a near ubiquitous tow-point, and with proper anchorage can serve your recovery needs from multiple angles. About 3/4 of a D-ring can take a strap, and they’re easy to install and remove – all you need is a suitable (and professional or factory-installed) adapter, clevis, tow loop or frame point. Also known as a bow shackle, be sure to find a D-ring rated for off-road work, as many nautical applications are not and can turn into a lethal projectile in the same fashion as a tow-ball. Never connect two straps with a D-ring. Never use a stainless steel D-ring. A 30,000- to 40,000–pound test rating is normal for recovery settings, though some D-rings are stronger. Those available from UDS and Extreme Outback are rated to work at 4.7 tons, and test to over 33 tons (66,000 lbs.). Safety-wire the D-ring pin if you plan to leave it in, as the pin can rattle out on the trail.
Hitch-mounted tow points are effective when that hitch is secured to the vehicle’s frame. There are frequently tow loops or metal ears on the tow bar itself (occasionally called a draw-bar) but they’re not always OEM-strong. Straps can be looped around a tow-bar as well. A wonderful device called a shackle block (not to be mistaken for a snatch-block) uses a burly block of steel milled to slide into the two-inch hitch. That steel block holds a D-ring to enable pulling from the hitch center – UDS’s version is patented. Hubbard from UDS told us: “If I’m pulling from the rear, the first place I look for is a shackle block.”
|A trick for gauging the strength of a hook or loop is to check the size of the bolt holding it (and the rating). A D-ring turns this from hook-friendly to loop-friendly.|
The OEM hitch isn’t a bad place to look for a tow point, and if you’re using a shackle block it’s usually a great place. A hitch not installed by the factory begs the question: is it good enough? Auto manufacturers have high standards that others don’t always live up to. You need to know your hitch. How well is it mounted to the frame? Can you use it without damaging any sheet metal? How well is it made?
In the case of uni-body vehicles like the Jeep Cherokee, towing from a central hitch reduces the chance of making the frame “diamond” (being pulled out of square from a corner tow-point). Front-mounted hitches will work for this purpose, but they reduce approach angles and aren’t very compatible with stinger and crawler bumpers.Yanking on the Frame
Towing from the frame itself is a mixed bag, and uni-body rigs always benefit from prior reinforcement. Some spots on a full-frame vehicle will readily receive a hook or D-ring (or come with a hook from the factory), and a full-frame under a truck is generally strong enough for a little abuse. “Most every car sold in the USA had ‘D’ holes in the ends of the frame to tie it down for transportation,” said Carousos from Extreme Outback. “A slip hook often fits into these holes.”
Getting a good attachment can be tough, and some factory tin is not as strong as others. A strap-saver (a short section of strap sheathed to protect it from pointy frame parts or other sharps) is useful for non-standard frame-based recovery. The frame is a good place to bolt or weld a tow-point like a pintle ring, D-ring adapter or clevis mount. Make sure strong enough bolts are used, and make sure you’re installing the tow-point to a good spot on the frame. That must be done properly to avoid fatiguing any metal involved.
A clevis mount further expands the usefulness of a D-ring tow-point, with bumper or frame-installation a matter of four holes.
The pintle hitch and hook are commonly seen in the military, on service/DOT trucks and in farm country. Usually applied by the 10,000-lbs. and up crowd, a pintle hitch makes for a nearly indestructible (though heavy) hitch, and the pintle ring on a trailer is nothing more than a burly steel loop. Pintle rings are readily available through towing and recovery outfits, and they make excellent bumper-based tow rings when attached properly. Many folks attach them redundantly (with bolts and welds), but with proper hardware, nuts and bolts alone should be sufficient.
|A clevis hitch can work as a good tow-point with a proper drop-pin.|
Of course, if your bumper sucks, no amount of welding will keep the tow-point attached. It’s very important to note that the pintle and ball combo hitches are subject to the same weaknesses of any tow-ball, because tow-balls are not made with the same high-grade steel as a proper D-ring or pintle hitch & ring. Never, ever use a tow-ball as a tow-point.
The rally and special stage folks have a trick for emergency/low-buck tow-points. Using a length of braided stainless steel cable (3/8 – 1/2-inch OD), they loop a section of frame or the suspension cradle (something structural) and close the loop with two proper C-style cable clamps. It’s ugly, but this technique pulls the sideways guys out of the forest and bogs every weekend, and it can be replicated on any truck that you’ve got good frame or hard-point access. Of course, the same effect could probably be had with a well-placed strap-saver after the fact.Questionable Tow-Points: OEM Hooks & Loops
The hook debate is divided, and opinions vary regarding their use. Many OEMs install tow hooks for recovery purposes, and if they’re manufactured properly (as with factory parts) their correct use should not cause alarm. When we asked Carousos, he said “Frame mounted hooks are great, just make sure the hook is rated for the potential load. Most open hooks sold in retail auto or four-wheel drive shops are a 10,000-lbs. hook. A 20,000 lbs. snatch strap is already double the potential holding power of that hook … Don’t even think about a three-inch 30,000-lbs. strap.”
Hooks and loops installed by the factory and attached to the frame are a smart place to connect – they satisfy the strength question (automakers must build new cars strong enough to withstand legal abuse, too), the anchorage question (attached to the frame is a good thing), and the accessibility question to some extent (if you don’t mind crawling underneath your truck). Working angles can be tricky with the OEM tow-points, though, because as often as not they’re in a convenient place when the 95 percent/soccer mom crowd needs to be secured to a flatbed, not when the 5 percent/off-roader folks need a yank off a rock. That said, many folks just won’t touch a hook despite its source, so be prepared with a D-ring and a place to put it.
|Some hooks are better than others. This is an OEM Toyota frame hook. If you’re worried about quality, why not score one of these (bolts and all) in a junkyard?|
Low-quality hooks, whether on a cable, strap or vehicle, can break under load, and that broken segment will go ballistic just like the lethal tow-ball. Cheap metal is problematic (yes, it usually is Chinese-manufactured, often with false strength ratings) and you have to count on your recovery retailer to sell you right. Hooks can shift under load (redistributing pulling forces improperly or falling off altogether), and lose strength if the load shifts closer to the tip. The problem with hooks overall is about provenance – where’d it come from – combined with potential difficulty in managing their placement. Hubbard at UDS certified what many others have whispered: “Stock frame hooks, I’ll use. Any other hook, I never use due to the chances of it being of cheap quality, or being attached with cheap bolts that aren’t Grade 8, or having welds that are questionable.”
The general issue of what’s a good factory/OEM (Original Equipment, Manufacturer) tow-point and what isn’t requires the use of common sense. Does that bumper look like a load-bearing unit, or is it a bunch of plastic? Is it bolted to the frame, and with what sort of fastener? When you need to recover a leaf-spring equipped vehicle, the leaf-to-frame brackets can be a good place to look, but they need to be looked at critically. On the other hand, factory tie-downs are not tow-points, and just because it’ll take a bungee doesn’t mean you can pull the truck with it. Apply the rules. Is it strong enough for recovery? Is it anchored to the vehicle? Can you get to it?
PAGE 3Pulling on a Cage
Pintle-hitch loops, also called a tow-eye, can be mounted to frames and bumpers, in a variety of ways, and they’re about foolproof.
Attaching to the cage of a stuck vehicle is a two-sided proposition: ease of access, and (when fabricated competently) plenty of strength, versus reduced control of the connection (there’s a lot of tube there for the connection to wander) and a propensity to destabilize the vehicle’s center of gravity. Professional opinion varies too. Bryan with UDS had a solution, with a caveat: “For roll cages, I use our strap-saver around the tubing, keeping the pull straight with the line of the main tube and at an intersecting tube. Rollovers are always a threat, especially if you’re hooked to a tube in the direction of the pull.”
Carousos from Extreme Outback preferred not to use the cage at all. “I would never connect to a roll-cage for towing or to snatch a vehicle,” he said. “Besides not being designed for pulling loads, if the snatch-strap breaks, the cage could come back at head level to smack you.”Bad Tow-Points: No Tow Balls
Yes dear, bad towing can kill you. There are some no-nos that need a cape and a comic book because they’re the real bad guys of off-road recovery. Tow-balls, for example, are the biggest source of projectile-based lethality when used improperly, i.e.: not for towing a trailer. The metal in a tow-ball is brittle, a much lower grade than a proper tow-point, and it is prone to snapping off. When you break under the strain of 10,000 lbs. of pulling force, unattached leftover bits like a two-pound tow-ball become a tow-bullet. People die every year when folks try to use tow-balls as tow-points for off-road recovery. Just don’t.
|A strap-saver can be looped around all sorts of appropriate hard-points, like a tow-bar or properly built cage.|
Tow-Point No-Nos from the Experts
There are some keystone crap situations that crop up enough that Carousos and Hubbard both found frightening. Their least favorite pulling scenarios? Hubbard warned of bad equipment and bad hookups.
“Under-capacity tow straps, cargo ratchet straps, chains, stainless steel shackles, straps with metal hooks in the eyes, straps shackled together … Going around axles, bumper covers, nerf-bars, they’re all bad. The biggest no-no I see is when bystanders don’t clear the area before any movement is done. I have been in highly congested areas where a dynamic pull is going to occur, and parents and little kids the size of my tires are on all sides, ready to have a close call.”
Carousos’ greatest concern was a lack of knowledge, and he spelled it out: “It really comes down to experience and practice. Sometimes you might have two or three correct ways to recover a vehicle and 30 incorrect ways. If you don’t have someone with experience, people start pulling on tow-balls, suspension shackles, A-arms, stock bumpers, roll bars or cages.
“Always make sure all parties involved are not intoxicated or under the influence. Bad things happen when one’s judgment is blurred during a judgment call.” Carousos with Extreme Outback and Hubbard from UDS agreed on most stuff, but there’s never going to be 100 percent compliance when you’re dealing with smart people – for example, Carousos retails high-quality chains and hooks that Hubbard might not. Do your research, decide what you’re comfortable using, but don’t veer from the essentials of a good tow-point: strength, anchorage, accessibility.