A bad, a really bad, winch mount

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As I’m sure many of you do, I like to look at how others have set up their vehicles. I’m always impressed by clean and functional work. 

Sometimes I’m impressed by the opposite.

This truck was parked at a hotel in Eagar, Arizona, last winter when I was there hunting. It sported one of the dodgiest looking winch mounts I’ve seen in years. If this thing doesn’t wind up starring in a YouTube video someday featuring large bits of metal taking murderous trajectories across the landscape, I’ll be stunned.

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I couldn’t even actually tell how all the bits of the “mount” had been welded together to gain a tennuous foothold on the chassis, but one weld at the back appeared to have pulled free. The winch itself was bolted to a plate welded to a male receiver hitch insert. I’m not sure if the droop was the result of forces incurred while (wince) actually using this thing, or if it just wound up at that angle after all the welding was finished. The steel cable was pulled under the winch and hooked on the back of the plate. Lettering on it read, “HI-TEST.”  Yeah, I’ll bet.

Since it was mounted in front, I don’t think I can hope this thing is only used for pulling ATVs up on trailers. I just hope the owner’s survival instincts are better than his fabrication skills.

I don’t make fun of the owner/fabricator whose only sin is being an overenthusiastic beginner. But potentially life-threatening jobs such as this need to be called out.

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Bespoke sand ladders

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I didn't get a chance to inspect closely—or try—these compact aluminum sand ladders that my friend and 7P/Overland Expo trainer Nick Taylor had welded up and brought to the show, but I like the concept. It's no secret that I'm a fan of Maxtrax (on the left), but in certain situations a rigid aluminum (sorry Nick, aluminium) ladder has advantages, especially for bridging. 

This pair is amazingly compact, and Nick had them made slightly different in size so they nest.

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Given their abbreviated length, getting out of anything but a short bogging would require repeated deployment, but most boggings (except those in mud) can be overcome with a very short extra bit of traction or flotation. And these would be excellent for bridging a small ditch or climbing a ledge. 

I'm thinking about finding an alumin(i)um welder in Tucson and having a pair of my own made.

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Old school and new school . . .

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Here's something you don't see every day: a PTO winch spooled with synthetic line.

PTO (Power Take Off) winches were common decades ago on Land Rovers and Land Cruisers. Rather than being powered by electricity, they ran off a driveshaft attached to an auxiliary gearbox on the transfer case. The advantage to them was that as long as the engine was running, the winch would run as well, with zero danger of overheating as is quite possible with the electric version. The disadvantage, of course, was that if the engine was not running, neither was the winch. These days very few vehicles are equipped with the take-off point on the transfer case that accepts the PTO driveshaft.

I had a PTO winch on my FJ40 for some time, but after I swapped transmissions I kept putting off cutting the hole in the new tunnel for the operating linkage, so the winch became nothing but a fashion item. When a Warn 8274 electric winch presented itself as the perk from a review, I swapped that in and sold the PTO for four times what I'd paid for it.

Probably a mistake—one Maggie McDermut did not make with her BJ74 Land Cruiser. At the 2018 Overland Expo West, the lads from 7P Overland spooled 80 feet of 3/8ths-inch Dyneema onto the drum, and spliced in a Factor 55 thimble. She now has the best of old and new. 

The drive mechanisms on PTO winches varied from year to year and maker to maker. Maggie's is perhaps ideal, in that the winch can be run in any gear, depending on the speed and power needed. Choose first gear for low speed and high power, or run it in second or even third with more throttle if you're just pulling a small log off the road. The single disadvantage of her setup as it is now is the hawse fairlead, which is inset into the chrome front bumper, and could very well let the line contact the edges of the opening on either a right or left-side off-center pull. She'll need to use caution to arrange a straight pull.

I hope she gets a chance to use it on her journey to Alaska as a Change Your World Fund grantee.



Revolutionary . . .

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It's not often I use that word. It certainly applied to the introduction of the MaxTrax, and it absolutely applies to this product (displayed by Kelsey Huber) being debuted at the Overland Expo. More about it soon, but it's going to have a massive impact on the practice of vehicle recovery. 


The 7P Recovery Ring is actually a winch pulley (or snatch block) with zero moving parts. The soft shackle simply slides slowly around inside the opening as the winch line is pulled across the pulley. Surprisingly, there is minimal heat buildup—in testing the Recovery Ring successfully extracted seriously stuck military trucks with no issues. Note the MBS (minimum breaking strength), an astounding 40,465 pounds.

Video to follow . . .

Field testing versus Expo testing

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The training area at the Overland Expo is obviously an artificial environment, so one could argue that testing equipment there is inferior to doing so in the field. And indeed I do the latter as often as possible.

But there are advantages to testing under controlled conditions too. First, at the Expo we engineer genuinely demanding scenarios that can be just as hard on equipment as the field—in fact at times it might be harder, since if a student fails at an obstacle he or she is likely to repeat it until successful. Second, we’re always monitoring the proceedings carefully, so when something fails we know exactly when and how it did so, which can be helpful in figuring out why. Was the product overstressed or employed outside the manufacturer’s prescribed use, or did it simply fail due to poor materials or workmanship?

As an example consider the pair of Traction Jacks we’ve been using. I briefly tested these in the field (here), in sand, and they seemed to work well. The folding design had clear advantages for storage, and they seemed stout—in fact they were surprisingly heavy at 28 pounds per pair, compared to, say, MaxTrax at 18 pounds per pair. So I decided to throw them into the mix of recovery gear we use in various classes at the Expo.

They did not last long. The first incident was closely described by instructor Tim Hüber. He was teaching a class in lockers and traction control, for which we use two massive roller assemblies to simulate complete loss of traction. A Dodge pickup was having trouble getting up onto the first roller, and spun the rear tires with the diff locked. So Tim backed the vehicle up, made a ramp with doubled MaxTrax for one front tire, and placed a Traction Jack where the rear tire had spun. Tim estimates there was a depression about an inch deep under  device, which he figured it could flex into without harm. Not so—as soon as the tire rolled onto the Traction Jack it snapped in two sharply, without any sign of flexing or bending first.

The second one broke at some point thereafter, right at the hinge, under circumstances I’ve not yet discovered. The other half of that unit is missing completely.

I checked back on my initial review of the Traction Jack. The model we have is rated for 1,900 pounds per tire according to the manufacturer. The weight over the rear tire on a full-size Ram might well be close to that, but not over by much. So it doesn’t seem like the unit should have failed with the minor flexing it would have experienced—unless the composition of the Traction Jack relies on it remaining perfectly flat and supported underneath when weight is on it. I’ve emailed the company for more information but have not yet heard back. Originally the Traction Jack was offered two weight classes, the 1,900-pound version and a heavy-duty alternative rated to 4,500 pounds; however, I no longer see two models listed on the site.

Our experience with the Traction Jack might be limited, but it is in marked contrast to our extensive experience with the two sets of MaxTrax in our kit, both of which have been used and abused for years, up to and including being employed to recover the BFGoodrich semi from mud.

Until I learn more, if someone asked me about the Traction Jacks as a more compact alternative to traditional sand mats, I would strongly recommend restricting their use to lighter vehicles.

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Shackle destruction test, and thoughts . . .

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The lads at Unsealed4x4 in Australia recently released this video, which shows three types of shackle being tested to destruction. It’s always interesting to see stuff destroyed in controlled conditions, and there is some value here. 

To summarize their results:

  • The tiny unrated shackle snapped at 4,485 kg (9,888 pounds)
  • The rated steel TJM shackle—a standard 4.75-ton WLL example (9,500 pounds if it is a U.S. ton, 10,469 pounds if a metric ton)—identical in spec to what many of us carry, failed at an impressive 35,219 kg, or 77,644 pounds. That handily surpasses the industry standard 6:1 safety margin for rated shackles.
  • The soft shackle, rated at 8,000 kg (17,637 pounds) broke at 9,327 kg or 20,562 pounds when pulled over two rounded edges. However, it broke at just 6,930 kg (15,278 pounds) when stressed over one sharp edge, and at 7,686 kg (16,945 pounds) with a sheath in place between the shackle and the edge. Soft shackles do not yet have an industry standard safety margin; users are expected to abide by the working load limit (WLL) or minimum breaking strength (MBS), which this one easily exceeded when deployed carefully. The below-rating breakages pointed out the vulnerability of soft shackles when stressed over a sharp edge, such as many bumper shackle mounts have.

Several thoughts come to mind:

  1. Testing one of each piece means zero statistically. The TJM shackle could have been an outstanding example of its type while one of the soft shackles might have had a flaw (not that they in any way “failed” except as should be expected), or vice versa.
  2. The much smaller unrated shackle actually performed pretty well, and would probably have held up in a majority of winching situations—not that it would be a good idea to try it. A much fairer comparison would have been to test an unrated shackle of similar size to the TJM. 
  3. While the TJM shackle failed quite suddenly (admittedly at a very high load), the soft shackles seemed to give clear visual warning of their imminent demise had a spotter been watching. In fact it appeared one of them could have been re-knotted and reused in an emergency situation.

While as I said this test is not statistically significant, I believe it accurately reflects the strengths and weaknesses of soft shackles. Their greater safety factor is a huge point in their favor—just as with synthetic winch line, there is far less kinetic energy stored in a soft shackle than in its steel counterpart. (Notice that the engineers didn't even bother to place a guard over the soft shackle when they tested it.) However, they are not ideal in every situation. In our driveway right now are two vehicles—our FJ40 and our Tacoma—which have shackle mounts I would never hook to with a soft shackle. 

The FJ40's rear shackle mounts are very sharp-edged. No problem for a steel shackle if the pin fits properly.

The FJ40's rear shackle mounts are very sharp-edged. No problem for a steel shackle if the pin fits properly.

Likewise, this aftermarket shackle mount for the Tacoma has very sharp edges.

Likewise, this aftermarket shackle mount for the Tacoma has very sharp edges.

Soft shackles are a great advance in safety and ease of handling, but only when used in appropriate circumstances. A complete recovery kit should include both hard and soft versions.

So much wrong here

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I copied this photo from the excellent American Adventurist site, where it was posted as an example of how not to rig a winch.

Indeed. Yet this is not some low-budget bodge job on a winch installation. There are quality products represented here—a Warn winch and synthetic line. But several things set off alarms.

Let's begin with the least-egregious aspect: that winch hook stuffed into the recovery loop. There is nothing wrong with the standard open winch hook, although aside from being quicker to deploy it suffers when compared to a closed thimble, which is positively connected to the winch point with a shackle and cannot come loose inadvertently. What worries me here is that the spring-loaded safety tab could easily be stressed and bent the way it is forced open, possibly interfering with its effectiveness or even damaging it.

Next there is the hawse fairlead. As with the hook, there is nothing wrong with a hawse fairlead, although it is a myth that you should use only a hawse fairlead when running synthetic winch line. A roller fairlead is fine for synthetic line and is in fact easier on the line. The problem with this particular hawse fairlead is the extremely shallow chamfer on the opening, which will severely stress the line when used on an off-angle pull. The chamfer on such a fairlead should ideally have a radius six times the radius of the line itself. Here is a much better hawse fairlead:

Hawse fairlead and Viking Dyneema winch line

The real disaster here, however, is the line, which is spooled over the top of the drum rather than under the bottom. Besides causing the remote to work backwards—"in" will spool out and vice versa—and the fact that the line has a much more acute angle to travel through the fairlead, there are two genuinely dangerous results. First, pulling in line over the top of the drum on a winch mounted this way, with the feet down, moves the center of force farther away from the mount, increasing the stress on it. Second, the brake will not operate correctly if, for example, the operator needs to lower a vehicle down a steep incline, although Warn tells me the winch will still not let the vehicle free-fall.

A vehicle-mounted winch is not a tool to be installed casually or carelessly. I worry that the person to whom this one belongs will have taken the same approach to learning how to actually use it. Not a good scenario.

Two kits that will (almost) breakdown-proof your vehicle

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Our modern four-wheel-drive vehicles, virtually without exception, are far, far better machines than those we traveled with 30 or 40 years ago, the rose-tinted recollections of some of us nothwithstanding. (See here for a direct comparison.) Yes, they are vastly more complex: The average car today has between 25 and 50 electronic control units or ECUs (the Bentley Bentayga has 90)—some linked, some independent—controlling everything from shock absorber adjustment to accident-avoidance braking. But those complex systems have brought us more power, better fuel economy, a huge improvement in safety, and cleaner air—all at once. 

Despite this complexity, vehicles in general are more reliable than ever. Solid-state ECUs are incredibly stable and durable; precision design and manufacturing processes and advances in metallurgy have made engines and other drivetrain components much longer-lasting. A car with 100,000 miles on the odometer used to be noteworthy; these days, beater pizza-delivery Civics with 200,000-plus under their faded paint are as common as Domino’s outlets. When something does go wrong, the car will quite likely be able to tell the mechanic what is is. How long will it be before a car can sense a part about to fail, then automatically log onto Amazon and have the piece waiting at the shop when the self-drive function reroutes you there?

These advances have made overland travel easier and safer as well, even if—to be fair to those rose-tinted recollections—if something does go wrong in the bush you won’t be regapping the points with a matchbook cover if the dwell shifts, or disassembling the carburetor and popping in a rebuild kit if a gasket goes bad. (But since we no longer have points or carburetors . . .)

One thing has not changed, and that is the two types of problems behind the vast majority of issues in the backcountry that bring a vehicle to a halt: tire punctures and dead batteries. (Number three—at least on the road—according to the AAA? Locking the keys in the car.) 

While tires and batteries have also been improved significantly in the last few decades, both are wear items and are subject to the whims of chance, whether it be a jagged root holing a tire or any number of things draining a battery. 

What this means, however, is that with just two kits in your vehicle you can fix the vast majority of things that are likely to go wrong in the backcountry.

  • A backup for the starting battery
  • An air compressor and tire repair kit

Let’s, er, start with the battery. A lot of people now have dual-battery systems in their overlanding vehicles, so the auxiliary can be used to power fridges, etc. without draining the starting battery. Most of these systems have a switch that will tie in the auxiliary to the starting circuit when needed, thus solving the problem of a dead main battery in a few seconds. If there is no switch, the auxiliary can be physically swapped with the main battery. Since the chances of two batteries dying simultaneously—at least when installed with a proper isolating system—are scant, you’re more or less immune to battery woes.

A dual-battery system with an automatic isolator, such as this excellent National Luna, will virtually guarantee starting power for your engine

A dual-battery system with an automatic isolator, such as this excellent National Luna, will virtually guarantee starting power for your engine

If you have only a single battery for all your systems, I have just one word for you: Microstart. These have been around for several years now and I’ve been preaching their gospel to the point of fanaticism, but I still run into people who have never heard of the product and are blown away when I jump-start their dead 3/4-ton pickup with a battery the size of a VHS tape. I have used and abused a half-dozen of them (we keep one in every vehicle) and they’ve performed perfectly. Early on in their history, master fabricator Tim Scully and I wondered if they could be used for field welding. We duly hooked up three in series and produced several excellent beads, after which the trio continued to work perfectly for their intended use. When I called Scott Schafer at Antigravity Batteries he expressed mingled astonishment and horror at what we had accomplished. (Current Microstarts include an overload device that prevents such shenanigans. Blame Tim and me.) In any case, a Microstart will that ensure a dead starting battery will not leave you stranded. Buy the XP-1 if you have a gasoline-engined mid-size SUV, or the XP-10 if you have a big diesel-powered truck, and top it up (on either AC or DC) every four or five months.


The only real alternative to safeguard a single battery is a low-voltage cutout, which will shut off current flowing from the battery if it senses voltage dropping to levels that would make the vehicle difficult to start. While this might be fine as a backup, I've found that a lot of people who install them are overburdening their battery to begin with, for example by running a fridge while still relying on the battery to turn a high-amperage starter. Better to go with a dual-battery system if you have that much draw.

That leaves tires. As with batteries, they’re a lot tougher and longer-wearing than in years past, but still vulnerable to damage, especially when driven on rough roads and trails. Yet I’m surprised at how many overlanders confine their backup tire kit to a single spare and perhaps a can of Fix-a-Flat. We can do better, and all it takes is a compressor and a proper tire-repair kit.

The repair kit is easy. At its most basic you want a plug kit, which will handle the majority of punctures within the tread area, usually without even needed to remove the wheel and tire from the car. But skip the Pep Boys versions and get a good one. This isn’t just tool snobbery talking: plugging a tire involves shoving pretty hard on the reaming tool and the plug-inserting tool. You do not want a cheap plastic-handled tool breaking during the procedure. ARB makes an excellent plug kit with everything you need for most simple punctures. If you want to step up from that and be prepared to handle virtually any tire problem short of a carcass-shredding blowout (including sidewall splits and broken valve stems), get the Exptreme Outback Ultimate Puncture Repair Kit. It’s expensive at $99, but you’ll never have to buy anything else to repair tires as long as you live.

The ARB Speedy Seal kit includes a proper metal-handled reamer and plug inserter.

The ARB Speedy Seal kit includes a proper metal-handled reamer and plug inserter.

Once the tire is repaired you’ll need to re-inflate it. While there are air compressors available from $19.95 on up, skip the cheap ones. They fail with miserable frequency, and even when working are so slow that you could hike out, buy a better unit, and be back before your tire is properly inflated. At a bare minimum get one of the ubiquitous Super Flow MV50 units, which are available from around $60. The MV50s have their issues but in general are reliable and reasonably fast, and if you’re a tinkerer there are dozens of web articles detailing worthwhile hacks for the product. 

Personally I prefer buying a better compressor to start with, both for repairing tires and for the much more frequently needed function of airing all four tires back up after airing them down for trail driving. To step up in quality look at the Viair units and anything from Extreme Outback. My current favorite compressor is the blindingly fast ARB Twin, expensive but worth every penny. Use the Twin to air up and you’ll be finished with your own vehicle and a friend’s before someone with an MV50 has done two tires.

The ARB Twin is available either as the portable kit shown here,which includes an air tank for operating air tools, or as a stand-alone unit for hard mounting in the vehicle.

The ARB Twin is available either as the portable kit shown here,which includes an air tank for operating air tools, or as a stand-alone unit for hard mounting in the vehicle.

Part of what defines overlanding is self-sufficiency. Making sure battery and tire troubles can’t bring you to a halt will go a long way toward guaranteeing that self-sufficiency—and if you travel far off the beaten track might just save you a sat-phone call and a very expensive recovery.