How to Get a Car Unstuck from Mud, Snow, and Sand

There are plenty of ways you can get stuck while on the road – from being stuck in the mud, a vehicle that has slid off the road and down a bank, a vehicle stuck in a snow bank and the most common, probably – stuck in the sand! These will quickly put a road trip or even worse, an evacuation, to an end.

Getting a vehicle out of the mud quickly can be tricky depending on the angle. Often, vehicles veer too close to the edge of the road and the muddy bank gives way and they slide down a bit.

suv being towed from mud

One recovery we had to perform involved a vehicle down a bank but parallel to the road. It was standing at an angle, and we were worried if we pulled from the road above with a winch cable the back might slip further down or the vehicle might roll over (and there was a large marshland further down the slope).

We decided to attach a winch to the front of the vehicle, and to use another vehicle to attach a recovery rope to the back of the one that was stuck.

With the two recovery vehicles on firm ground above it was a case of coordinating their movements so they pulled at the same time – moving the stuck vehicle forward and upwards to the road, but keeping the pressure on the recovery rope at the back so the vehicle could not slip at an angle, or roll.

On all our off-road adventures we, as a family have been stuck more times than I can remember but you live and learn and I’d love to share these tips with anyone new to getting stuck!

I love getting behind the wheel of a 4×4 in thick sand and the challenge of getting through without getting seriously stuck.

Quick Tips for Getting Your Car Unstuck

Here is a handy shortlist of what to do. We’ll discuss them in detail in the remainder of the article.

  1. Don’t spin the wheels – you will only sink deeper or risk burning out the clutch.
  2. Clear the area around the tires.
  3. Clear the snow/sand/mud under the chassis.
  4. Let some air out of the tires so there is a greater area of contact with the ground giving more grip, but only if you have a tire pump handy – you don’t want a flat and no means to pump up the tire.
  5. Insert your traction mats, or if you don’t have these, your rubber car mats (not particularly good, but if you have nothing else…) or some branches will help.
  6. Check the exhaust is clear – if its blocked up with dirt or snow you won’t be going anywhere – It’s amazing how many people forget this simple step.
  7. Rock the car by going forward and backward – but be careful you don’t want to mess up the transmission. This could get you enough momentum to get out.
  8. Turn wheels left and right so compacting an area for the tires to gain some traction.
  9. If you just happen to be carrying rock salt around with you place some in front of the tires to deal with ice under your tires.
  10. Try starting off in second gear if you can – first gear may be too powerful and cause you to sink deeper.
sand for car during winter
A small bag of sand mixture in the trunk can help me get moving when stuck on an icy road.

If all these fail, you’ll probably need someone with a winch or recovery strap to help get you out.

The Dos and Donts of Getting Your Car Unstuck from Mud, Snow or Sand

Don’t Spin the Wheels

What is the most important thing to do when you start losing momentum? Use your brain. So often we have a knee jerk reaction to a situation, and the immediate response it so try put the pedal to the metal and heave the vehicle out.

Yes, I’ve done it far too often but it’s often counterintuitive, only digging you in deeper until the chassis is on the sand, mud, or snow, necessitating a lot more work to get the vehicle out.

If you are not sure about a situation, take your foot off the accelerator and hop out and check what is happening with your wheels.

I once watched a person in a 4×4 on the beach whose vehicle was getting bogged down repeatedly. Some people came to assist and dug the sand out from in front of the tires, and pushed the vehicle time after time, but after racing off it became bogged again. They struggled for nearly an hour to get the vehicle to move.

Eventually, someone crawled under the vehicle and discovered the chassis was sitting on a flattish rock, the same colour as the sand. So when the wheels spin it may not just be the tires that are getting stuck.

There could also be some hardened snow underneath the chassis that would prevent movement. A person has to look for all the possible problems in order to get the vehicle out.

Use Traction Mats

If you are stuck in a car or vehicle that does not have four wheel drive or a winch, then you will have to rely items like traction mats, a recovery rope, a shovel and some heave- ho (unless a 4×4 happens to drive by conveniently equipped with a winch).

Now, traction mats have taken off in recent years, replacing the chains people used to carry in their vehicles. Traction mats, made of hardened plastic with gripping nodules are great for sand, snow and mud, as they are lightweight and easy to fit under the wheels.

You may have to do a bit of digging with your shovel to get them sufficiently under the front of the tires, so as the car moves forward the wheels can get a grip.

One set will fit under the front or rear two wheels – depending which ones are bogged down, but if you are travelling in extreme sand, snow or muddy conditions, it’s a good idea to have two sets so you have four mats, so you can place one mat under each wheel.

Engage Low Range on Your 4×4

Low range is an AWD option that allows you to drive your vehicle while a low gear ration is used.

Low range 4 x 4 is useful for soft sand, climbing sandy hills and for rocky surfaces – like crossing a dry river bed, when one of the wheels may not be in contact with the ground and you need the others to power the vehicle over the rocks. Low range is also best for deep mud and snow.

When driving on sand that is firm, roads that have ice or a little snow on them then use high range 4×4 as you’ll be able to travel at a speed of between 35 to 50 miles an hour, but with the added safety of the 4×4 traction.

If you try to get unstuck from sand or mud, high range is not going to help – that is for when you are on the move. Always put the vehicle into low range in sticky situations.

In older vehicles the 4 wheel drive wheels had to be engaged with a lock on the outside – necessitating jumping out of the vehicle but the newer vehicles just require pushing a button and engaging 4×4.

My daughter had great faith in what she called the ‘little gear’ when we were travelling in Africa and the vehicle started getting bogged down. At the age of 4, she thought it had magic powers.

Reduce Tire Pressure

Incorrect tire pressures and the wrong type of tires for the area are often what let people down. Tires are broken down into two categories off road and on road tires, but the tire pressure is most important.

For driving on sand, let the pressure down to 16psi, that’s 1.1 bar or Kpa, for those working in kilopascals.

Dropping the pressure below 1 bar or 14psi can be done if you absolutely need to get that extra bit of traction, but you risk getting grains of sand between the tire and the rim, or even worse the tyre may fold off the rim if the pressure it too low (like below 7psi). You don’t want to damage your tires or rims.

Letting down the tyres allows them to balloon out a bit giving more contact with the surface for better traction and distributing the weight of the vehicle over more of the tyre surface so it doesn’t sink into the sand as easily.

Also carry a tire pump with you. These help in getting your tires back to the correct pressure after an off-roading experience. They plug into the power outlet on the vehicle, you attach the hose to the tyre and let the car run while your tire pumps up to the correct pressure.

If you are stuck, you can let down the tires a little more than 14 psi, but you need to be ready to pump them up to a safer level as soon as you’re on firmer ground.

One evening, while we were all sitting around the campfire someone came over to join us for a couple of beers and some general chit chat. He complained that his new Land Rover wasn’t very good – it kept getting stuck.

A couple of chaps got up from their seats around the fire pit, and wandered over to his vehicle wondering how this was possible as people in the campsite had been eyeing out his very new vehicle with a certain amount of envy.

The first thing they told him was, “Your tires are too hard, mate.” They proceeded to let them down to the correct pressure for driving on sand and said to him to hop in and take them on a test drive.

Mr. New-4X4 owner was astounded and sheepishly admitted he’s been having to dig himself out numerous times on the way in to the beach campsite.

Even cars that do not have 4×4 will handle sand better if the tires are softer. Front wheel drive vehicles handle sand and snow better than rear wheel drive vehicles.

Choose Wet Sand Over Dry Sand

Driving in wet sand usually provides a harder surface for your vehicle than dry sand. This is because the tiny little spaces between the grains of sand are taken up by the water causing less displacement.

You will see vehicles driving closer to the water’s edge at low tide on the beach rather than above the high tide mark. After rain, it is easier to get through thick sand for the same reason.

However, be careful of quicksand, where the vehicle will just go down and will need the help of another vehicle with a winch to extricate it.

Always check beforehand by doing a test with your feet – are you sinking in up to your ankles Don’t take your vehicle on that route – rather struggle through the dry sand.

If you are driving on the beach and see vehicle tracks veering away from an area, you know there has to be a problematic area of quicksand.

Move Your Steering Wheel Side to Side

This helps compact the sand for your rear wheels, making it just that bit easier when you are driving. This trick can also be used if you need to make a compacted area when you’re starting to get stuck.

Keep the Motion

One of the key tricks to driving in sand is to try keep that forward momentum going, the pause as you change down gears on a manual vehicle can be enough to get you bogged, so make sure to make the gear changes at high revs, before the vehicle actually starts struggling.

If you see an uphill coming that looks like the sand is deep and loose, then change to a lower gear and keep that momentum. Also engage 4 wheel drive before you start sinking.

I have watched younger men with fancy 4×4’s start a competition to see who can get to the top of a challenging sandy hill fastest. They all come short, bogged down in the sand, then the old timer came chugging along gently with his old Toyota Land Cruiser in second gear and climbs to the top without sinking.

No wheel spinning, Mr. Harry Casual old timer leaves the others way behind. He then asks them if they need to be towed out.

Rocking Out

If you are stuck try going backwards and forwards – but be careful not to burn out the transmission. The rocking movement may help smooth a bit of a pathway, and then you can gain momentum to get out of the rut.

Improvise

No traction mats? Improvise by checking out what is handy. Place branches under the tires; -or stones or bricks that may be lying around can be laid in front of the tyres and may help to get you out, but make sure no one is standing behind the vehicle as the stones may come flying out.

Which reminds me, if you’re helping push a vehicle out of the mud, you will likely be sprayed with mud as the tires spin if you stand behind the rear wheels.

Check Exhaust Tailpipe

If the vehicle gets stuck often the sand, mud or snow will block the exhaust outlet and unless this is cleared your vehicle will not be performing, and you could risk damaging the engine.

This happened to me once – a was driving behind someone in muddy conditions, his truck got stuck in the mud as he tried to do a U-turn and backed into a bank. After clearing the wheels we managed to get the vehicle out, but it wouldn’t go.

The owner was busy finding the number of his mechanic as he’d had the vehicle in for a service two days prior.

With all the experience of years going on off-road trips I wandered around the back to see what could be the problem. Sure enough, the exhaust pipe was plugged with mud from the bank, and after prying it out with a stick I asked him to try once more. It started.

Tips for Safe Driving in Sticky Situations

Drive Within Other Vehicle Tracks

You’re off road and there is a track ahead where vehicles have passed through, and even though the route may look a bit difficult, don’t try making your own track – many vehicles passing through compact the ground, making the route an easier one for your vehicle.

Climbing Sandy Dunes

When climbing a dune or a soft sand hill never, if you get stuck, try to turn around. Straight up and straight down is the rule – reverse to the starting point if you can.

Reverse is the operative word – keep the vehicle in gear and do not take it out of gear or you will lose control and may slip sideways.

If you are the last vehicle to get stuck and everyone has made it to the top, then someone ahead will give you some assistance with a winch to help you get you up.

If you try to go sideways up a sandy hill, the weight will be placed on the downward side of the vehicle, leading to the sand sliding away and getting you bogged down as the belly of the vehicle sits on the sand.

Worse than this is taking the slope at such an angle that the tipping point is reached and the vehicle overturns.

Essential Tools to Get Unstuck

Tire Deflator

This is useful if you are in a hurry to deflate tires – going from an on-road 30 psi to an off road 14 psi can take a bit of time and this handy piece of equipment speeds up the process with the gauge being designed to be unaffected by temperature, altitude or humidity so you always have an accurate psi.

Tire Inflator

Once you have let the tires down you need to get them back to the proper pressure when heading home, or you will risk major damage to the tires and lack control at high speeds on hard roads. This is why the tire inflator is a must-have.

Winch

If planning on going off-road a lot then a winch is an amazing helper.

On one of our fishing trips in Africa, the road was so deep and sandy through a coastal forest that even though the tires were the right pressure now and again, because we had a camping trailer, we had to pull out the winch cable, and fasten it to a tree further along the road and winch ourselves out.

When doing this, do make sure the tree is super sturdy and healthy-looking.

Ease yourself out gently – you don’t want to go pulling the tree down on the vehicle. Don’t aim for the nearest tree – pull the winch cable out a bit more and find a suitable tree further away. If there are no trees, then the spare tire can be buried in the sandy ground, directly in front of the vehicle, at an angle, like so:

Snatch Block

The snatch block doubles the capacity of your winch and also enables you to pull heavy vehicles out without burning out your winch. Also remember that the speed of the recovery will be reduced by half when using the snatch block.

See this video on how to use a snatch block, or two or three, with the rigging explained. Basically, you are distributing the force by creating a double line from the snatch block back to your vehicle:

When using the various rigs using snatch blocks it’s important to remember safety – use a winch cable dampener (if you don’t have one a blanket, large wet towel or heavy jacket will help), wear gloves, and never use a hook but rather a shackle at the ends of cables.

Recovery Shackle Kit

The electric winch sitting on the bumper is just the start to extracting your own rig, or helping others out of sticky situations, you can still add a winch accessory kit to aid in recovery.

A couple of recovery straps, shackles, and a Hi-Lift jack can help tremendously. Most of what you will need comes in this handy kit. When you winch yourself out using a tree you don’t want to damage it and this kit has a tree protector.

Winch Dampener

Another important item when using a winch is a winch dampener. It looks a bit like a hi-visibility vest, but is heavier and made for safety and fits over the winch cable or recovery strap.

When a vehicle is being recovered it is very possible that the winch line may snap and under tension that steel cable can be lethal.

The only two people involved in getting a car unstuck using a winch should be the winch operator and the driver of the vehicle that is stuck – safely inside his vehicle. Everyone else should be kept well away.

If it breaks, that cable can cut through flesh and bone, almost severing a leg or arm. A damper is meant to absorb some of the recoil when a strap or cable breaks. There have been some horrible injuries caused through the shackles or shackle mounts on the end of recovery straps.

This is particularly true when vehicles are stuck in the mud – some of those mudholes need a huge amount of force to get the vehicle out. The mud seems to suck on until eventually the force is too much and the vehicle pops loose like a cork out of a champagne bottle, or the strap/cable breaks.

All you need to know about recovery gear is explained here including when to use soft shackles versus hard shackles for recovery:

Every recovery situation is different. Sometimes, if a vehicle has got bogged in a stream, it’s as simple as attaching a winch cable or a recovery strap to the vehicle and towing in out backwards.

It’s always wise to send someone ahead to test the ground when crossing a stream– you just don’t know where the ground might dip away, or there may be a large pothole concealed under the water, or thick mud.

Hi-Lift Jack

When you buy a 4 wheel drive vehicle it comes with a handy little jack – which is perfectly fine for on road situations. When you head off road, leave that jack behind and invest in a Hi Lift jack, as this will get you out of a lot of situations.

Adding the bumper lift accessory can make life even easier when you need to get the vehicle out of a sticky situation. The Hi Lift Jack will make changing tires easier too.

Shovel

Always have a shovel in your vehicle – they fold up small enough not to be a nuisance, and can be put to work getting you out of snow mud and sand. A small, non-folding one may be better as it is less likely to break.

Protective Gloves

Wearing heavy duty gloves when using a winch, guiding the cable onto the drum, using a shovel and working with recovery straps can save injuries and blisters to your hands.

Off road experiences are meant to be fun, and you don’t want to end up in the emergency room at worst, or having major blisters or cut for the duration of your trip.

Final Words

The most important thing about getting your vehicle unstuck is to take it slowly, think through the plan and get everyone in the vehicle to help rather than people arguing over the best method and allowing egos to dominate.

One should know exactly how to use the recovery tools carried in the car or how to improvise, and that is where watching videos is very helpful.

Everyone just wants to be able to get on with the journey and not be frozen in the snow, stuck in the mud, sinking, or bogged down in the middle of nowhere.

Equipped with the above tips and best practices, you’ll be looking forward to testing your vehicle on adventures, or simply getting around without having to worry about how to extricate your vehicle should you get stuck, because you’ll have all the knowledge and gadgets.

getting car unstuck Pinterest image

2 thoughts on “How to Get a Car Unstuck from Mud, Snow, and Sand”

  1. Avatar
    Hogjowlhomestead

    Really good article, you have a lot of experience to share!

    The last section, take it slowly is probably the best advice. The moment your really stuck, when the excitement turns into desperation and your stomach gets heavy. Thankfully i’ve had friends who were a phone call away when self recovery fails because no wrecker was getting back in some the holes we have Adventured in.

  2. Avatar

    Sure wish I had read this article BEFORE last Friday! I got royally stuck in mud on my own property just as the whopping snowstorm we had over the weekend hit. By the time a tow truck could come out to my rather remote location 14 hours later, there was already a foot of snow on the ground. What’s really maddening is that I have a hi-jack in my truck and boards on my property I could have used, but didn’t even think about in my frustration. I need to print this article and put it in my truck. BTW: at least I did try the 4-wheel low and rocking it, obviously to of no avail. Alas! The accompanying videos are really great. With all of the trees we have in the PNW (and on my property), a winch and the other recommended accessories will be my next investment. The MatTrax are a fantastic idea, and likely two sets would have done the trick.

    I sure appreciate the great articles you write and post. I’ve been able to learn quite a few things, or reinforce that which I do know. Unfortunately, some of our wisdom comes with a 20-20 hindsight. So it’s best if we can learn first before the need arises and save ourselves a lot of aggravation!

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