Recovery Gear You Actually Need for Overlanding with Slow Roamers

The Road Diaries

So you think you’re an overland vanlifer, eh? As of the past few years, two terms have come to the forefront of social media, marketers and industry: vanlife & overland. We have seen a huge surge in companies jumping on board with the popular trend of people moving into their vans to wander around America and those looking for the path less traveled, delving into the wide-open stretches of America’s wild lands. But there is a new breed of traveler slowly coming to the spotlight and that is the Van Overlander. People who want both, the ability to live out of their van and travel throughout the USA but also hop off the highway and hammer down a long gravel road, unafraid of any obstacles in their way. 

I’ll admit, we’re self-proclaimed Van-Overlanders, and in a 2WD van no less. You see, we love the outdoors, and long gravel roads and have an active sense of adventure just like many others in America, but my background has a long lineage of off-roading attached to it. I’m no specialist, but I know my way around a trail and how to handle a vehicle on challenging obstacles. When vanlife was becoming a thing I was certainly intrigued, but held onto my pickup and rooftop tent for quite some time. It wasn’t until a month-and-a-half long trip through Alaska and Yukon in 2017, a large portion of that trip with a wet mattress from a crazy rain storm that came through my tent door, that I really started looking at vanlife as a viable option for me. I was sure envious of those travelers who could comfortably hide inside their vehicle in a rainstorm instead of sitting in their front seat to wait it out. Some of those vanlife people even had heaters and could cook inside, away from all the bugs. Comfort aside, I started seeing a few of those vans with A/T tires and bumpers and that looked pretty cool. 

Fast forward to today and my partner and I are driving around in a jacked up, 2006 Chevy Express 2500 with bumpers, a winch, a roof rack, an autonomous electrical system, and, yes, a place to sit inside, away from bugs and torrential rain. Collectively, we’ve been living in the van for about a year, with a massive rebuild in the middle. As of October 2023, we’ve been wandering around, finding hikes, beaches, long gravel roads, and lots of adventure, all infused with iconic North American scenery. Most recently, we took a 200-mile trip across Nevada, much of it on gravel. On this particular trip, we got very stuck, out on a remote mountain pass with no one around, no cell service, and no second vehicle to rescue us. It was up to our whits, braun, and recovery gear to self-recover. 

This experience got me thinking about the kind of gear that every adventurous vanlifer/ RVer or overlander should carry with them. If you’ve taken a close enough look at the pictures you may have noticed that we do in fact have a winch on the front of our van. Lots of people see a winch and think it’s the end-all-be-all of vehicle recovery. This isn’t really true and a winch can be an expensive and often unnecessary addition to your recovery gear. However, you may be glad to know that there is a lot you can do to self recover yourself in a variety of different circumstances with the correct, inexpensive, and easy-to-access tools. To preface this, I’m going to focus on four items that you can bring with you. There are a myriad of off-road self-recovery do-dads that one can purchase, but the four I’m going to list will get you out of most situations.

1. Recovery Boards (aka Sand Ladders) 

Recovery boards come in a variety of different sizes, shapes, and materials. Most people will be familiar with the brand Maxxtrax, however, a less expensive Amazon alternative will more than often do the trick and take you out of a pinch fairly easily. What often happens to travelers who find themselves stuck on a surface that is either soft, slippery or perhaps well below the surface of their tires will experience a mechanical phenomenon called “one tire fire” which refers to the power distributed by your vehicle’s differential sending power to the wheel that is spinning, in the case of the stuck traveler, the wheel that’s on a slippery, soft or non-existent surface. Where the traction boards come in is giving that spinning wheel a rough surface to grab so that both wheels have a solid, gripping surface to push off from.

recovery boards, recovery gear mounted on a van

So, next time you find yourself stuck whether it be on mud, sand, snow or otherwise, if you have traction boards, shove them under the tire that is spinning, or both drive tires for that matter, and watch as your vehicle easily walks out. Sand ladders can be applied in a large variety of situations and people are more than often, in my experience, very surprised at how effective they are. As mentioned, there are a variety of sizes and shapes, purchase based on the amount of space you have, it’s better to have them than not. 

2. A Shovel (bigger the better) 

Believe it or not, the next recovery item on our list is a simple shovel. Admittedly, this tool could probably be in first place, but unfortunately, a shovel doesn’t work as a very good recovery board whereas you can in fact use a recovery board as a make-due shovel. A shovel, as you can imagine, is a great way for moving around aggregate material, like dirt. It beats the heck out of using your hands to move dirt, that’s for certain. So, I encourage people to drive around with a shovel of some sort at all times. I see a lot of people, when stuck, hop out of their vehicle with a small, folding camp shovel. These certainly work, but my personal policy is “bigger the better”. We carry around a medium-length shovel, with a firm handle, large spade and big steps. I bought this shovel from a hardware store about nine years ago for probably around $30, it has shoveled out a fair few of my and others vehicles over the past years. If you have the space for it, carry a big shovel and I guarantee you’ll be thanking yourself when you find yourself stuck somewhere. 

3. An Air Down tool & Compressor 

Airing down your tires goes a very long way in both increasing your level of ride comfort on gravel roads and increasing tire traction and having the proper air-down tool will drastically reduce the amount of time you spend stationary and will increase the ease of airing down. 

There are a variety of tools that can be purchased on the internet, we happen to use an ARB brand EZ-deflator. This tool removes the valve core so air can escape the tire easily, but contains the core so you don’t lose it. Attached is a gauge so you can easily see your desired tire pressure. When you air down your tires it increases the tire’s contact patch and allows the tread to do its job as well as helping your suspension absorb a lot of the smaller bumps on a gravel road.

dual-piston compressor recovery gear tool

The flip side of this coin is that you’ll need to air up your tires when you make it back to the pavement. Driving down paved roads will increase wear on your tires as well as present a number of different dangers, so it is not advised to do so. We carry a large dual-piston compressor because we have large tires and it decreases the amount of time we spend on the side of the road, but we have used a smaller single-piston and a battery-powered compressor made by DeWalt. If you intend to utilize the air-up/ air-down method of gaining traction, be sure to carry both your air up and air down tools. 

4. A Recovery Strap 

We carry both a classic 40,000lb recovery strap and a 15,000lb kinetic recovery strap with us. Having both is not necessary, but we have used the classic strap as an aid while winching. Straps are great to carry with you in the event that your other recovery methods cannot get you free or if you’re with another vehicle. Often a quick tug from an accompanying vehicle will get your vehicle free or if you locate a rescue vehicle, you won’t have to rely on a less substantial or more dangerous method of towing your vehicle out. If I were to choose one of the two, I would strongly suggest carrying a kinetic strap. This is a great option for a couple of reasons: a smaller vehicle will have an easier time pulling out a larger vehicle and will result in less potential damage to both vehicles in the event that there is an accidental heavy-footed acceleration. If you don’t know how a kinetic strap works, there are a lot of YouTube videos demonstrating how effective they are at vehicle recovery. 

couple standing in front of van off-road

There you have it, four effective and inexpensive tools for recovering your vehicle from the mud, sand or snow. These tools, combined with some effort and common sense will get you out of most of the predicaments that you’re likely to find yourselves in and won’t cost you a small fortune. So, with that knowledge, are you going to go out and get stuck for fun?

Learn more:

What is Overlanding?

How To Drive Off-Road with a 2WD RV with AsoboLife