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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Originals versus copies

I remember distinctly my reaction when I first laid eyes on a set of the then-brand-new and revolutionary MaxTrax recovery mats. 

It was something along the lines of, “Eew.”

Plastic sand mats? Orange plastic sand mats?

At the time I was still firmly in the traditional PAP (perforated aluminum planking) camp—they were good enough for the Camel Trophy, right? If anything, I leaned toward the massive Mantec Bridging Ladders—bulky, heavy, but fully capable of spanning a void as well as providing soft-substrate flotation. And either simply looked right bolted to the roof rack of a Defender or Troopy.

Finally, under duress, I tried a set of MaxTrax, sort of squinting to one side the whole time so I didn’t have to look directly at them. And, well, they worked. Not only did they work, they worked better in sand than anything I’d ever tried—the combination of light weight, easy handling via molded-in handholds, and aggressive molded-in cleats resulted in blindingly quick and easy extraction. If they happened to kick up they didn’t produce the awful banging of PAP, much less the potential sheet-metal damage of the Mantecs (which to be fair are rigid and heavy enough that kick-up is rare). Even when torturously overloaded and distorted they sprang right back into shape—as when, for example, we used several sets to help recover the BFGoodrich semi truck that got stuck in the mud at Expo West. 

Suffice to say I was converted—to the point that, when we installed a set on our recently purchased and extremely pukka Land Cruiser Troopy, I didn’t even bother with one of the available earth tones. Our set is proudly the original and instantly recognizable MaxTrax orange—and they look just fine.

In the interim I discovered that MaxTrax work as well in mud as they do in sand (although a MaxTrax packed with mud quickly loses its “light weight” advantage), and that they don’t work very well on ice—devices with sharp metal edges seem to bite a bit better. But I still think they’re still the best-performing all-around traction device available.

The single most common gripe about MaxTrax has been their premium price (“Three hundred dollars for plastic sand mats?”), so it was inevitable that someone would—let’s be diplomatic and say replicate—the design and charge less. And several companies have done just that. The copies range from near-clones of good quality that sell for 20 to 30 percent less than the original, to absolute rubbish available for a third the price.

I’ll be honest up front and say that I find this business model extremely distasteful. Call it arbitrary prejudice, pointless idealism, or admirable moral high ground, per your own philosophy, but I’m firmly in John Ruskin’s camp on the issue. And considering MaxTrax versus competitors, I have some personal experience to reinforce the axiom that you get what you pay for. While that experience is by no means comprehensive enough to be considered statistically significant, I have never broken or even cracked a MaxTrax device, but I’ve now broken or been present at the breaking of no fewer than five lower-priced competitors.

Why is this? Two potential reasons rise to the top. First, it’s possible that my experience is purely coincidental, and that a MaxTrax would also have broken if one had been in use in place of any or all of the units that failed. There is no way to confirm this—even side-by-side field testing cannot control for minute variations in stress. However, it’s also possible that the construction and the material used in the MaxTrax is superior, and less likely to fail under extreme conditions. MaxTrax are made from reinforced nylon, a material I have yet to find listed on any competitor’s product sheet. There’s polyolefin, polypropylene, and simply, mysteriously, “plastic.” Broadly speaking, “nylon” technically can refer to a number of polyamide thermoplastics, so the actual MaxTrax formula is difficult to specify (and no doubt a jealously guarded secret); however, Brad McCarthy, the creative force behind the company, told me it is a “mineral-filled, impact-modified, UV-stabilized Nylon 6.” 

Whatever the proprietary formula, it’s obviously tough. Like all polymer traction products, you must exercise care not to spin your tires wildly when performing a recovery and climbing on to the MaxTrax—it’s possible to melt the cleats. If you do screw up, the MaxTrax has ramps at both ends, unlike some other products, so you can swap the leading edge. They even work pretty well upside down. (I note that the original discount copy and major competitor Tred now advertises a “pro” model with traction cleats claimed to be resistant to friction-induced melting—and a retail price higher than MaxTrax. An interesting approach.)

I don’t think less of those who choose to save on the purchase price and pick a copy of the MaxTrax. But for me, the original is worth the extra cost, both as a reward for imagining, developing, and proving the product in the first place—a massive investment—as well as for what I’ve concluded is arguably higher quality, which, as I’ve mentioned many times, often results in lower cost in the long run.

A more storage-friendly sand mat

The one big problem with proper, rigid sand mats is their size. Storing them inside the vehicle is a pain due both to bulk and their ability to damage nearby gear or luggage. Outside storage demands either a roof rack, a rear tire-carrier rack, or some other specialized arrangement.

So I was intrigued to stumble upon the Traction Jack, a two-piece sand mat only 25 inches long when folded. A pair fits inside a box about a foot wide by six inches deep.

The Traction Jack is stoutly built—in fact a pair weighs a substantial 28 pounds (compared to just 18 for a pair of MaxTrax). They are rated to 1,900 pounds per tire each, which easily handles most overland vehicles; a special-order version molded from high-strength nylon boasts a 4,500 pound per tire rating, which is up in fully loaded Unimog territory.

Obviously, the hinged Traction Jack will be of absolutely no value for bridging, even compared to the relatively flexible MaxTrax, which bridges surprisingly well when doubled. On the other hand, the two-piece construction of the Traction Jack should virtually eliminate kick-up into the vehicle's bodywork as you drive on or off it. 

The company cautions against wheel spin when driving a tire onto the mat, as excess heat can melt the poly composite nubs that provide grip. I'm not sure how one would completely eliminate wheel spin when buried in sand; I expect a little extra pre-recovery shovel work would help—which is a good idea anyway. Fortunately the company's excellent guarantee grants one free replacement of a damaged section, and a discount on further replacements. By then one would hope to have learned the proper technique. It seems to me larger nubs would reduce the issue and provide more traction as well, but I need to test these in the field to be sure.

Even folded, the Traction Jack is thinner than a MaxTrax.

Even folded, the Traction Jack is thinner than a MaxTrax.

Besides ease of storage, another advantage to the Traction Jack is price: At $180 per pair (black), they undercut the MaxTrax by $120.

Competition in the sand mat/bridging ladder market seems to be heating up. The excellent MaxTrax has in a short time become a (slavishly copied) standard by which other one-piece sand mats are judged. I think the Traction Jack will provide a viable alternative for some people, giving up some versatility (bridging) in exchange for convenient storage options.

The Traction Jack website is here. I'll have a pair with me at the Overland Expo. Come by the BFG booth where the sand pit tire demo area is. I'll try to keep them there.