Snatch recovery – rethinking the wisdom on gear selection

Which gears should you use for snatch recovery?

So we have two cars, one stuck which we’ll call the casualty, and one which will recover which we’ll call the recovery vehicle.

Which gear should each select?

There are two schools of thought. One is that the casualty should select a lower gear than the recovery vehicle, usually first low, and the recovery vehicle uses second low. The idea here is that the casualty doesn’t run into the back of the recovery vehicle.

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The other school of thought is that the casualty vehicle selects a higher gear than the casualty, so the strain on the strap is minimised.

While there is logic to both techniques, there’s too many exceptions to consider them hard and fast rules.

First off this advice dates from decades ago when everything was a four-speed manual, and second low in one car was pretty much equialent to second low in another. Today we have cars with up to nine ratios, including several eight speeders. So we could be in a situation where an auto Discovery 4 (eight speed) is recovering a Patrol 3.0 diesel auto (four speed).

So the rule says select second low on the Disco, and first on the Patrol. But second low on the Disco is a lower ratio than first low on the Patrol, so to comply with the rule you need third low on the Disco. Should every recovery need a table of relative gear ratios to compare effective gearing across gearbox, transfer case, final drive and wheel diameter?

And what of 4x4s without low range, such as the Santa Fe pictured above. If that was being recovered by the Patrol then the Patrol would probably have to use third low or first high not to break this rule about the recovering car being in a higher gear than the casualty. The latest 2017 Discovery has a version without low range, the Amarok auto has never had low range, and we can expect more of that.

Then we come to just plain old appropriate use of gears. If the casualty is in a slippery boghole do you really want to start it in first low? You’d surely want at least second, otherwise excess wheelspin, and potentially more stress on the strap. Let’s also say the recovery vehicle is on nice hard, dry rocky ground, lots of lovely traction. Why go for second gear which means momentum when you could perhaps try first low, just off idle, and pull the casualty out? With the rules you’d need to select at least second low in order to be a gear above the casualty…not necessary if the job can be done in first low at idle. Especially if you’re an F250 towing out a Jimny.

Or how about the opposite situation, where the casualty is in a high-traction situation but stuck, maybe hung up on some ruts and the recovery car is in slippery mud. A fair pull is required. You’d want the casualty in a low gear so it can stop soon as it is off, but a quick snatch with the recovery car in first low? Better for the recovery car to be in second gear, which means the second rule seem silly

Fundamentally, offroad recovery is about common sense and it is way too dynamic a situation to make rules like this and blindly stick to them, or hand them to students without explanation. Use the most appropriate gear and revs for the situation for both recovery car and casualty – that may be few revs in second low, idle in first low, or momentum in a higher gear.

Every snatch situation should be evaluated for risk, and that includes the potential for the casualty to hit the recovery car. If that is a risk, then mitigate it. Maybe join two straps, dig the casualty out, winch, use traction ramps or something.

Just don’t rely on a tired old rule to see you safe, and always question the received wisdom.

Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper is a motoring journalist, offroad driver trainer and photographer interested in anything with wings, sails or wheels. He is the author of four books on offroading, and owns a modified Ford Ranger PX which he uses for offroad touring. His other car is a Toyota 86 which exists purely to drive in circles on racetracks, and that's when he isn't racing his Nissan Pulsar. Visit his website: or follow him on Facebook or buy his new ebook!