We have all been there, whether it was your first time getting stuck, or your umpteenth time buried knee deep. All the sudden everyone turns into a Mastery Recovery Expert, and for some reason is in a huge hurry to hook up and start yanking. "Grab your tow strap... toss me a D-ring... what's this rope rated for... give it more slack... who's got an extension?" You aren't exactly sure what all this gear is that everyone is tossing around, in fact, you aren't even really sure what you have in your own kit. You don't want to ask questions and appear like you don't know what you are doing, but it seems like everyone else is talking in 5 different languages and things are getting complicated. This is exactly how many very scary YouTube videos are made.
You aren't alone. After decades of bad habits, poor instruction, lack of industry standards, and improved gear technology, it is rare to find any two explorers on the same page when it comes to recovery. With a basic understanding of WHAT recovery gear is, it is much easier to communicate and get on the same page when it comes time to determine HOW to use it on the trail.
The most important part of any piece of gear is its label. If you don't know what you are working with, you don't know how to work it. Some gear has bad labeling, whether the manufacturer is just lazy or trying to mislead you into thinking you have some magic gear, and some gear has no labeling at all. Information found only on disposable packaging is useless as most users will discard it on day one. Tags should be permanently attached to the gear and never be removed by the end user. Avoid gear missing important information, improper labels, or labels simply listing “Rating” or similar vague info. There should be no guess work involved when examining your gear. Once you find gear with proper labels, keep in mind that the listed ratings are for NEW and UNUSED products. There are many factors that can affect original ratings and significantly reduce the integrity of your gear. Listed ratings will decrease as soon as a piece is put into use, even in the most ideal conditions.
Proper labels should include (at minimum):
Tree Strap, Anchor Strap, Recovery Rope, Tow Strap, Yanker Strap, Kinetic Rope, Winch Extension. Say what? These are examples of product types/names, sometimes indicating the intended end use. Note that there are no standards and one manufacturer might use the name “tree strap” where another might call the exact same product “anchor strap.” A “winch extension” and “tow strap” are often the exact same product and have more than one use. Given the lack of standard terminology it is important for you to have as much information as possible (raw material, recommended configuration, etc.) to be able to determine the intended and proper uses of any piece of gear. Most people refer to any steel shackle as a "D-Ring" and in most cases that is wrong (it is very rare to find a true D-Ring in a recovery kit). Old habits die hard but when it comes to recovery gear you cannot afford to be lazy. Do you know the difference between a D-Ring, Anchor Shackle, and Screw pin Shackle?
Be extra cautious when you see the term "tow" on a piece of gear. This is one of the most common misused terms when it comes to product descriptions and marketing material.
Nylon, Polyester, HMPE, UHMPE, UHMWPE. These are examples of actual raw materials (the same as your t-shirt might say 100% Cotton). Manufacturers take these raw materials and process them in a number of ways. Once processed, the raw materials are made into products that largely fit into one of two categories: those designed to stretch under load and those designed with little to no stretch.
Nylon might be woven into a flat webbing, then 2 layers of that webbing sewn together with loops on the ends forming a Recovery Strap, or Kinetic Energy Recovery Strap (KERS). While the term "Recovery Strap" is common, it is not standard for any one specific product and its meaning can often mean something different to the particular manufacturer or the end user. Nylon might also be woven into various types of rope and end up being known as Double Braid Nylon or 12 Strand Nylon. These nylon ropes are often made into products called Recovery Ropes, or Kinetic Energy Recovery Ropes (KERR). Nylon is the proper material for dynamic/kinetic recoveries (one vehicle pulling on another using engine power) as it has the highest percent stretch of the common raw materials used for recovery gear. The amount of stretch a piece of nylon gear has depends on how it is processed and configured. Of the products mentioned above, a nylon web strap has the least amount of stretch, followed by 12 strand nylon with medium stretch, and finally double braid nylon with the highest amount of stretch (13% at WLL with a design factor of 4:1). Some manufacturers create proprietary names for their processed raw materials to try and stand out in a crowd. Often times these names do not give you any idea of what the actual raw material is, or how that gear is meant to be used. When a product label lists the true raw material you are better able to determine what recovery situations are appropriate for that piece of gear regardless of what other names might be attached to it. Photo: @OurOverlandLife
Polyester can also be woven into a flat webbing and made into a product that looks very similar to the nylon Recovery Strap discussed above. A polyester strap, however, should be given the product name of Winch Extension or Tow Strap. Polyester has very low stretch (+/- 1%) and is best used for towing (a non stuck vehicle), winching, and as an anchor strap (tree strap). HMPE, UHWMPE, etc. are all abbreviations of the raw material (Ultra) High Molecular Weight Polyethylene. Manufactures take this raw material and process it in a number of ways, resulting in finished goods often with a proprietary name such as Dyneema, Spectra, Plasma, Amsteel, etc. With extreme low stretch, polyester straps are perfect for use as Tow Straps, Winch Line Extensions, Anchor Straps and Tree Straps. The various versions of UHMPE are most suitable for Winch Lines, Winch Line Extensions, and Synthetic/Soft Shackles. Photo: Matt Frederick @FrederickAfield
Can you see how a company using a product description of "tow rope for dynamic vehicle recovery" can be confusing and very misleading to the end user? We know a "Tow Rope" (or strap) should have very low stretch and never be used for dynamic/kinetic recovery. We also know a dynamic/kinetic Recovery Strap/Rope will stretch under load and should never be used for towing. Giving a piece of gear a magic name does not make it do magic things. The reality is, many recovery gear companies put little or no thought into proper ratings, terminology, or product labels, and they end up putting out bad info that can create dangerous situations. It is often up to you as the consumer to sort through the lack of clear information and deceptive marketing in order to determine proper use. Quality product labels and your knowledge of raw materials and terms are imperative for safe recoveries.
Recovery gear labels should clearly outline overall length of the product (or usable length in some cases) as well as the width of the strap or diameter of the rope. A recovery strap might list 2" x 30' (50MM x 9.1M). This tells you the strap is made from 2 inch webbing and is 30 feet long. It also provides conversions for use by people from around the world who might prefer the metric system.
Minimum Breaking Strength (MBS) might also be listed as MTS, or Minimum Tensile Strength. Note that sometimes when written in long form “minimum” is replaced with “maximum” but in almost all cases is referring to the same break number. This number is determined by tests in a controlled environment. This rating lists the minimum amount of force required to break the rope/strap. This number is determine by actual test standards and should not be altered by a manufacturer under any circumstance. Recovery Gear should never be loaded with a force anywhere near the MBS weight rating. Pay attention to MBS listed for un-spliced rope/web vs specialty configurations when noted. Some manufacturers will list MBS for the raw webbing or rope before it is sewn or spliced. In this case the MBS should also be listed for the finished product after it has been sewn or spliced (the end user configuration and the rating that is most important to you).
Now this is where is gets a bit tricky, but this is very important to understand so stay with me! Work Load Limit (WLL) is a calculation determined by the manufacturer, industry standards, or the end user. This might also be listed as “rated load” “rated capacity” or in some cases just “rated” (even then you really do not know it that means rated-WLL or rated-MBS). WLL is determined by dividing MBS by X. For most off-road recovery gear there is no "industry standard” for X. It is common to find gear rated with a design factor of 2:1, 3:1, 4:1, or 5:1 (with 3:1 being the most popular). Using a higher design factor of 5:1 provides an additional safety buffer for novice users, those not familiar with proper rigging techniques or stuck vehicle assessment, lack of proper gear inspection, and misuse. Gear with a design factor of only 2:1 is far less safe, especially when shock loading (a form of overloading) can translate to 3 or more times the amount of force applied. Safe design factor provides a proper WLL and determines the safe load rating that a piece of gear is designed to be used with many times over. Staying within the WLL will insure gear remains in good working order use after use. Many manufacturers use raw materials from the same mills to produce recovery gear. In the case of common raw materials being used, the products produced should therefore have very similar MBS ratings (varying slightly based on final sewn/spliced configurations). Different companies, however, can choose to use a different design factor resulting in very similar products having very different WLL ratings. Remember, MBS is a fixed number and WLL can be altered by simply applying a different design factor. When you know both MBS and WLL you can easily determine the design factor that was used (5:1, 4:1, 3:1, etc.). When you are provided only MBS you must determine WLL on your own. When you are provided only WLL, you have no idea what design factor was used (unless listed) or what the MBS of that product is. When you are provided only with something like "Rated" then your guess is good as mine for what that manufacturer actually means. You see again here why proper labels are so important! Photo: @OurOverlandLife
Note that both MBS and WLL ratings change based on the configuration. A basket configuration can bear twice the load of the same device used in a straight-line pull. Good labels will outline ratings for various configurations when appropriate. BONUS TIP: NEVER tie knots in your recovery gear.
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