Smittybilt "Recovery Strap"

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Before last year’s Overland Expo West, as we were juggling trucks and trailers and various four-wheel-drive vehicles to make sure we had all the transport and training equipment we’d need in Flagstaff, Roseann mentioned that we should have a basic recovery kit—a Microstart and a recovery strap—in every vehicle. Of course our main travel vehicles already had full kits to go with the winches on them, so I went online and found some inexpensive (Chinese-made) but brand-name “recovery straps” from Smittybilt. I tossed one in each of the spare trucks. 

This morning, for the first time, I took one out of its cellophane wrapper, and was incredulous at what I found.

Nowhere on either the paper label or on the strap itself does it indicate whether this is a kinetic recovery strap or a non-kinetic tow strap. The only mention of materials is the note that it has “ballistic nylon reinforced ends,” which of course says nothing about the composition of the strap itself. Elastic nylon or non-elastic polyester? The paper label claims the two-inch-wide strap is rated to 20,000 pounds. Nowhere on the strap itself does it indicate this, or whether that rating is a working load limit or a minimum breaking strength. The sole scant indication of intended use comes all the way down the list of characteristics on the label, a line that says simply, “low stretch.” Does that mean minimal stretch, as one needs for a tow strap, or low stretch as in it will stretch if used kinetically, but not a lot?


My conclusion is that the Smittybilt “Recovery Strap” is actually a non-kinetic tow strap. But the lack of solid information, especially regarding the composition of the strap, and its advertisement as a “recovery” product, could effortlessly lead a consumer to employ this in a kinetic situation, with potentially disastrous consequences.


This is a bad, bad effort on Smittybilt’s part. 

If you’re shopping for a tow strap or a recovery strap, make sure what you buy lists clearly its:

  • Precise intended use—towing or kinetic recovery
  • Materials—stretchy nylon or non-stretchy polyester
  • Working load limit (WLL) or minimum breaking strength (MBS)

And make sure all this information is on a durable label on the product itself.

Don't risk "Gargo damage." And note that "Strenght" could be reduced . . .

Don't risk "Gargo damage." And note that "Strenght" could be reduced . . .

A new fuel can

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Carrying extra fuel, whether for the vehicle or an accessory such a a generator or chainsaw, always requires balancing different requirements. First and most critical is absolutely leakproof storage. Next comes ease of handling, and the speed with which the fuel can be dispensed. Then there must be a way to secure the container so that it will not shift even in the event of a traffic accident or rollover on a trail.

The gold standard as far as I'm concerned—despite its origins in 1937—is still the classic steel NATO-style (ex-Wehrmacht) jerry can, with the original cammed lid. I've found them to be absolutely leakproof, even when stored on their sides in full summer sun. The clamp-on spout incorporates a breather that makes dispensing a very fast process—convenient now but essential when your Kubelwagen was about to be strafed by a Spitfire. Even without the spout attached, dispensing fuel into a funnel is easy thanks to a built-in lip. I have a pair of NATO cans on my FJ40 that I bought at least 15 years ago—and they were surplus then. I've replaced the cap gaskets once; they still function perfectly.

When the U.S. reverse-engineered the Wehrmacht can in WWII to produce the so-called Blitz can, we sadly cut corners. Rather than perimeter-welding the seam, we used a crimped bottom and side seam, and replaced the brilliant cammed lid with a screw-on lid that was too large in diameter, making it virtually impossible to tighten enough to prevent seepage. I've never owned a Blitz can that didn't seep at the crimped base and leak at the lid. Pouring fuel from a Blitz can without a spout is an exercise in annoyance as there is no lip whatsoever and fuel cascades down the can and all over one's boots.

Likewise, my experience with the current plastic U.S. Scepter can has been disappointing, for the same reason: The large-diameter screw-on lid does not develop sufficient clamping force. As proof look at the several styles of double-handed wrenches available to augment one's own muscle power when installing or removing the lid. Not needed with the NATO can's cammed lid.

Of course, to dispense fuel from any of the above three styles of fuel container, you must tip them. And that brings us to the two new containers—one 2.2 gallon, one five-gallon—just sent to me from SureCan.

The SureCan incorporates a clever system that makes dispensing fuel something you could do while wearing your dress Afrika Korps uniform. Unscrew the cap from the built-in spout, then rotate the spout downward and insert it into whatever needs fuel. Press the safety catch on the top lever, squeeze the lever, and voila—fuel dispenses at a very rapid pace thanks to a breather mechanism built in to the valve assembly. Let go the lever and the fuel stops, right now. Tip the can sideways a bit to get the last few drops out of the spout, tip it back up to its locked position and secure the cap, and you're finished. 

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I used the SureCan to fill our generator when I needed to do some welding, and the process was absurdly easy and fast. Dispensing into a vehicle was more difficult, as you need to raise the can above the level of the filler. However, it was still easier than lifting and tipping a standard container.

I don't yet know if the SureCan will function well as an expeditionary fuel container. While it's easy to strap down securely through the handle, it does not fit into a standard can carrier on a rear rack. Also—and this is the big question—I don't yet know if the can will remain tight and leakproof when filled and carried where it will be exposed to high temperatures, full sun, and rough roads. The mechanism is much more complex than a simple lid, and there are more openings, including at the lever and the joint where the spout connects to the can, where leakage or outgassing might occur. I'll report back after trying it.

What I will say is that the SureCan has become my go-to container for around-the-ranch use for filling generators, chainsaws, and the like. A lot of new products seem too clever for their own good, but the SureCan is just clever enough to work. 

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SureCan is here.

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.

Battery decluttering

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Even in a vehicle as electrically antediluvian as a 1973 FJ40, connections to the battery can get out of hand with the addition of just a few accessories. For many years, I’ve used battery terminals incorporating a threaded vertical post to secure positive and negative cables and wires, both for basic functions (starter, etc.) and accessories such as the 2-gauge cables powering the Warn 8274 winch, and the 10-gauge connection to the auxiliary driving lights. 

But over time the connections have been stacking up—there’s now a separate cable to charge the auxiliary battery, and another for the ARB compressor.  Even with the installation of an Optima yellow-top battery with redundant side terminals, it was beginning to look cluttered, and probably doing nothing to maintain adequate current flow.

So I ordered a pair of Pico 0810PT “Military style” (their words) terminals from Amazon. Nothing fancy—no gold plating or built-in digital voltmeter—but substantial, and the horizontal bolt not only doubles the available connections but is far more secure than the wing nut on the old terminals. At $10 for the pair it was a bargain for a significant improvement in my wiring. 

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