There are chocks . . . and chocks (I needed the latter)

Inadequate . . . Now and then it’s good to be reminded of the laws of physics.A few weeks back I conducted a training weekend for a lovely couple who had recently purchased a very well-optioned Sportsmobile. They wanted to become familiar with its capabilities (and theirs), to learn recovery techniques, and especially to learn the use of their winch, an accessory new to them both.We spent the first day, Friday, driving and marshaling, and I think hugely improved the confidence of both of them, in addition to opening their eyes as to just how capable a Sportsmobile can be despite its size. Saturday was winching day. I’d picked a dead-end bit of trail where we wouldn’t be in anyone’s way who happened to pass. It was a hill steep enough to actually work the winch, but not so steep as to be intimidating. The Sportsmobile was equipped with a Warn 12,000-pound winch and synthetic line. For an 11,000-pound vehicle that’s marginal if one applies the standard one and one-half times GVW formula for speccing a winch’s capacity, but we discussed ways to ameliorate this by running out more line and, especially, rigging a double-line pull whenever possible.The only trees available were both marginal in size and behind a barbed-wire fence, so I set up my FJ40 as an anchor, facing down the hill at the top of the slope.It was then I realized I’d forgotten my set of Safe Jack chocks, the substantial ones I normally use for winching. All I had with me were the smaller folding chocks I keep in the vehicle for tire-changing duty and the like. No problem, I figured—I set the folding chocks in front of the front tires of the Land Cruiser, and we lugged a couple substantial rocks to put in front of the rear tires. I was in low range, reverse selected, engine off and parking brake pulled out stoutly.The first, single-line pull proceeded without drama. The winch did not seem to be working over hard (although I remarked that it was one of the loudest winches I’d ever heard). So we re-rigged for a double-line pull, running the Sportsmobile’s line through a 7P recovery ring linked to one of the 40’s front recovery hooks, and back to the Aluminess bumper of the van. I stood to one side and directed while Emmett sat in the Sportsmobile’s driver’s seat and operated the winch remote. He began to spool in and the van crept slowly up the hill.For about five feet. Then a front tire happened to hit a bit of a rock ledge I’d failed to notice, perhaps eight inches high. The Sportsmobile came to a halt—but the winch, of course, didn’t.Even as I was raising my fist to give the “stop!” signal, I turned to see my 40 pulled gently but inexorably over the folding chocks, which collapsed as if they’d been soda cans. Behind them the rocks in front of the rear tires had held, but were themselves being dragged with the vehicle.The winch stopped, and I signalled Emmett to apply the brake and shift to park, then let out some slack in the winch line.The Land Cruiser had only moved about eight inches. Had we for some reason continued to power the winch, it would simply have kept on being dragged slowly across the ground; there was no chance of it careening out of control. Nevertheless, it was a good lesson in the force an 11,000-pound vehicle and a roughly 24,000-pound-equivalent double-lined winch can put on a 4,000-pound vehicle, even on a moderate incline. The math is pretty simple. These would have been better. From Safe Jack. What could I have done differently? Having the larger and sturdier chocks might have made a difference, as might using big rocks instead of the little chocks. Even putting the rocks we used in front of the front tires, and the small chocks under the rear tires, might have made a difference, as the front of the Land Cruiser was being pulled slightly downward in addition to forward. However, a more secure option would have been to daisy-chain the 40 by its back bumper to the base of one of the trees on the other side of the fence with the endless sling I had on hand, then pull forward until the sling was tensioned, then chock.A good lesson that there’s no such thing as “enough” experience, and there’s never a time to stop learning.For much more on the forces involved in winching, please read this.

A guide to recovery jacks, for the beginner . . . or procrastinator

A few years ago I was helping lead a group trip along the Continental Divide, when one of the participants badly sliced a tire on his Tacoma on a back road in Wyoming. Roseann and I were riding tail gunner, and as we pulled up the driver had already chocked the wheels, retrieved the factory scissors jack, and placed it under the rear axle. But he was failing completely in his efforts to raise the axle and tire, straining mightily but futilely on the crank handle. Why? Because mounted on the back of the Tacoma was a Four Wheel Camper, which was in turn loaded with water, food, and supplies for a two week trip. We stopped, I got out my four-ton hydraulic bottle jack, and we effortlessly lifted the truck and swapped the tire.With very few exceptions—such as the superb Italian-made hydraulic bottle jack supplied with solid-axle Land Rovers for some time—factory-supplied jacks are designed to minimal specs to lift the vehicle, on pavement, just high enough to change a tire. Load that vehicle up with bumpers, winches, roof racks, camping gear—or a camper—and you might find that jack whimpering under the load. Actually it would be you who were whimpering.If you want something that can handle a tire change on a loaded vehicle, as well as recovery duties—for example to lift the vehicle off a high-centered situation, or to shovel substrate under a bogged tire, or insert MaxTrax—you need to step up the game with something rated to at least half to two-thirds the GVWR of your rig. And then you have a major decision to make: Do you want to lift from up top, via a bumper or slider, or from below, via an axle or the chassis?The advantage to a bumper jack is, first, you don’t have to crawl under the vehicle to lift it—nice for staying clean but also possibly critical if your 4x4 is buried right to the axles in sand or mud. Or water. Disadvantages? First, your vehicle must be equipped with sturdy, recovery-capable bumpers front and rear—and preferably with rock sliders as well—that will accept the jack’s tongue. Second, to lift a tire off the ground with a bumper jack to change it you have to cycle through the vehicle’s full suspension travel first, which can mean a foot or more of wasted elevation and leave the vehicle precariously tippy. Finally, bumper jacks tend to be heavy and bulky.The axle/chassis jack is compact (with the understandable exception of the Pro Eagle here), doesn’t waste lifting height to raise a punctured tire, and with a few accessories can perform a variety of recovery tasks. But access to the underside of the vehicle is mandatory, and bottle jacks in particular tend to have limited lifting range—often only six or seven inches unless you buy a double-extension model, which will increase that by another four or five inches. Still paltry compared to the 30 inches or more of a bumper jack.My suggestion: If you mostly need a sturdy jack for tire changing and occasional recovery work, look at the chassis jacks here. If you like to challenge yourself and your vehicle and frequently find yourself a bit buried, consider making room for the Hi-Lift or the ARB X Jack. Hi-Lift jack ($100 48” all-cast) How many products survive a century virtually unchanged? Yet the antediluvian Hi-Lift still scores points in this group with its low price, rugged simplicity, ease of refurbishment, and versatility—it’s the only product here that will also function as a clamp or a (very slow) winch. The Hi-Lift’s 4,660-pound rating has become the de facto standard for competitors, and in this group its range of lift is second only to the ARB Jack. Downsides include the Hi-Lift’s 29-pound mass and jam-prone lifting mechanism (the latter usually rectified with a dousing of almost any lubricant, including, according to my nephew, Keystone Light). Also, while proponents always bring up those “clamping and winching” functions, the number of times I’ve done either except to demonstrate it is exactly zero. (On the other hand, I once successfully sleeved a broken tie rod with a Hi-Lift handle and a bunch of baling wire.)To lift a vehicle by a bumper with the Hi-Lift, you must raise the lifting tongue—along with the entire lifting mechanism—up the main beam to the height needed. Thus if you’re using the common 48-inch model and your bumper is 36 inches off the ground, you’re left with just a few inches of travel (since the mechanism can’t go all the way to the top).The big red flag in the Hi-Lift’s manual of arms, as anyone who’s used one knows, is what I call the ZoD: the “Zone of Disfigurement” circumscribed by the arc the handle makes. Let your head stray inside this arc—whether you’re raising or lowering—and you’re asking for a broken nose or jaw if you lose your grip. When lifting a heavy vehicle—especially if the operator isn’t heavy—it can be difficult indeed to apply enough force to accomplish the task while simultaneously staying out of the ZoD. And lowering a load takes exactly as much force as raising it, so don’t let down your guard just because you’re letting down the vehicle. Losing control of the handle while lowering can trigger a feedback loop that results in the handle slamming against the beam and rebounding wildly, ratcheting the vehicle down all on its own. I know experiencedbackcountry drivers who wouldn’t leave home without a Hi-Lift, and equally experienced backcountry drivers you couldn’t pay to carry one. Over the years I’ve migrated between both camps, so I’ll be no help—except to slyly point you to the product below.Bloomfield Manufacturing is here. ARB JACK ($833) Think of the ARB Jack as a Hi-Lift that went to a very expensive finishing school. The coarse mechanical mechanism is gone, replaced with smooth and powerful hydraulics—my 115-pound wife can lift the entire loaded rear end of our 70-Series Troop carrier. At one demo I gave at the Overland Expo using the front of an FJ40, a lifelong Hi-Lift user walked up and gave the handle exactly one pump, said, “That’s all I need to see,” and headed for the ARB booth. There’s zero possibility of face-altering kickback—let go the handle and it simply sits there waiting for you to get back to work—and lowering is quite literally a one-finger operation via a little red lever. While a Hi-Lift can only lower the vehicle in increments of an inch, the ARB can gently ease it down millimeters at a time. In another sharp contrast to the Hi-Lift, to adjust the lifting tongue of the ARB Jack to bumper height, you only have to lift the tongue itself to the appropriate slot on the aluminum body, leaving the full lifting range of the jack intact—up to 48 inches. One quirk: Once the weight is off the ARB Jack when lowering, it does not drop free like the Hi-Lift; there is still a considerable amount of hydraulic resistance. You need to keep the red lever pressed and really lean on the jack to compress it. A separate compression-release button (suitably guarded to avoid inadvertent activation) would be a handy future modification. The ARB Jack is 15 percent lighter than a Hi-Lift, and only 36 inches long in its carrying case. The sealed mechanism won’t jam in dusty conditions, and the base even has a clever cutout to facilitate breaking the bead on a tire. What’s not to like? I just hope you were sitting down when you saw the price. If you can rationalize—and afford—the difference, I will say that the ARB Jack is hands down superior to the Hi-Lift, and, while accepting that this aspect is in large part a function of the user, a far safer one as well. Also check out the ARB jack base, which smartly accommodates either the ARB or Hi-Lift jack foot. One caveat: ARB recommends the Jack be stored upright to protect the seals. I store mine upright at home, but carry it horizontal in the vehicle. So far I’ve had no issues.ARB is here. Safe Jack Bottle Jack kit ($269) There may be more versatile jack systems around, but none that also fits in a .50-caliber ammo can. The 27-pound Safe Jack “Sergeant” kit comprises a six-ton hydraulic bottle jack, a flat (chassis) and a curved (solid axle) lifting attachment, and three extension posts, one of them adjustable. Other Safe Jack kits, from “Private” to, yes, “General,” include fewer or more extras (all of which are available separately).The range of extensions allows you to lift from an axle, the chassis, or a bumper, as needed. Its compact size limits the included jack to six inches of lift; however, as long as the post is compatible, you could pair the Safe Jack attachments to any bottle jack you like, such as the double-extension model I already owned. My Safe Jack kit hasn’t yet met a vehicle it couldn’t lift. A suggestion: Have a blackmsith make you a “wheel claw” similar to the one Tom Sheppard had made and carried in the Sahara for decades (configured for a specific wheel type), and your bottle jack will easily lift one wheel to allow the insertion of a MaxTrax or other recovery mat.Safe Jack is here. Tom Sheppard’s bespoke folding wheel claw lifts one wheel for insertion of traction mats. Surplus M998 scissors jack ($75) and Agile Off Road chassis adapter ($90) Gotta love military surplus. The heavy-duty (3.5-ton) scissors jack configured to lift the front or rear A-arms of the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle—Humvee to most of us—is available by the score on eBay with case, ratchet handle, and extension rods, for around 75 bucks. Add Agile Off Road’s reversible billet-aluminum adapter and it will securely support your non-combat vehicle at either the axle or chassis. A reversible ratcheting handle means you don’t have to crank in a complete circle in a confined space—a brilliant idea—and as long as your truck weighs less than an up-armored HMMWV this jack will lift it easily to a height of 20.5 inches with the adapter in place. A generous 7 by 12-inch base plate ensures support in Middle-Eastern-theater sand, or any other kind. The lifting post on the jack has a bit of wobble built in; Agile Off Road recommends tack-welding this to increase stability. However, I used it as is and had zero problems. I now carry this setup permanently in my FJ40.Agile Off Road is here. Pro Eagle Off Road jack ($440) A floor jack with off-road tires—why didn’t someone think of this before? Take a two-ton hydraulic floor jack—the easiest way ever to lift a vehicle on a concrete driveway—add solid axles and burly composite wheels, and you’ve got an all-terrain floor jack. The Pro Eagle rolled over my gravel driveway effortlessly, and lifted the entire front end of my FJ40 in a sandy wash without digging in more than a couple inches. Given the fat tires plus a full-length underbody “skid plate,” it shouldn’t sink in any substrate that doesn’t have a current. Pop on the adjustable extension post for a full 26 inches of lift height. I certainly wouldn’t carry this bulky, 52-pound jack for field duty in the FJ40, but if you’ve got a full-size truck or Sprinter (there’s also a 3-ton version) or are traveling with a group, it will make any recovery a breeze. And, of course, at home it’s an excellent shop jack (I sold my old standard floor jack). One operational note—like all such jacks, the lifting pad moves through an arc as it rises. If you employ the extension, and both the jack and vehicle are held stationary by the substrate, the extension can wind up tilted significantly at full height. Plan ahead. A full-length bottom plate prevents sinking even in sand. Pro Eagle is here. ARB X Jack ($270)Some of the jacks here are easy to operate; some are difficult to operate—but only one is effortless to operate. Situate the deflated X jack under the chassis of your 4x4, hold the inflation cone over the exhaust pipe or connect an air compressor to the Schrader valve, and the expanding bag will lift up to 4,400 pounds up to 30 inches in the air.Truck buried to the bumpers with no way to get a bottle jack or Hi-Lift underneath? All you need is four inches of scooped clearance for the X jack to slide underneath. Stuck in rocks with no secure base for a bumper jack? The X Jack molds itself around virtually any substrate, and the hard rubber “teeth” on the bottom help prevent slippage. Included is a thick square of guard material to protect the already-stout envelope, but it’s best to remember this thing is still a heavy-duty balloon, and keep it away from bolt ends and hot exhaust pipes. I’ve seen two punctures resulting from (extremely) careless placement, although the envelope can be patched effectively with the included kit.Another possible issue with the X Jack is compatibility with your exhaust opening. The jack’s connector is a simple rubber cone, and if your exhaust tip is rectangular you might not be able to achieve a tight seal, critical for inflation. In that case an air compressor will work, but it’s much slower—the X Jack likes a lot of volume and low pressure, the opposite of what most compressors produce.Finally, remember that at full height your vehicle is supported on air inside a flexible casing; expect a bit of squidginess.But then, you wouldn’t get under a vehicle supported only by any if these jacks, right?ARB is here. A final note: None of these jacks should be employed unless the vehicle is securely chocked. Among the best of that breed I’ve seen are the Safe Jack nesting chocks. One is slightly smaller than the other and so fits inside when folded, yet the pair is substantial enough to serve as chocks for winching duty.

The Pro Eagle Off Road Jack Review

A floor jack with off-road tires—why didn’t someone think of this before? A floor jack is the easiest way ever to lift a vehicle on a concrete driveway. But most will be stopped in their tracks by a quarter-inch-diameter pebble. Pro Eagle took a two-ton floor jack, beefed up the chassis and added fat tires, and invented the all-terrain floor jack. The Pro Eagle rolled over my gravel driveway effortlessly, and lifted the entire front end of my FJ40 in a sandy wash without digging in more than a couple inches. Given the fat tires plus a full-length underbody “skid plate,” it shouldn’t sink in any substrate that doesn’t have a current. The Pro Eagle barely sank lifting the front of the FJ40 in sand. An adjustable extension post (stored near the base of the handle) pops on for a full 26 inches of lift height. I certainly wouldn’t carry this bulky, 52-pound jack for field duty in the FJ40 (although a convenient carrying handle helps moving it around), but if you’ve got a full-size truck or Sprinter (there’s also a 3-ton version) or are traveling with a group, it will make any recovery a breeze. And, of course, at home it’s an excellent shop jack. I’ve abandoned my standard floor jack because the Pro Eagle is so much easier to move around—even in urban settings—and because of its greater lifting capability.One operational note—like all such jacks, the lifting pad moves through an arc as it rises. A floor jack on concrete will roll slightly to compensate for this. If you employ the extension on the Pro Eagle, and the jack is immobilized in sand or rock, the extension can wind up tilted significantly at full extension. Plan ahead.Pro Eagle is here. The two-ton model retails for $430.

So a hitch ball is okay as a recovery point? (But I saw it on the Internet!)

A couple weeks ago Gigglepin 4x4, a UK company that specializes in high-quality 4x4 recovery gear, especially for competition, posted a video on Facebook that showed someone attaching one of their rapid-deployment Hook Link recovery hooks to . . . a hitch ball.The reaction was swift. Several people, including me, posted replies saying any suggestion to use a tow ball for recovery was inconceivably irresponsible. One of the first inviolable lessons any 4x4 training school with which I’m familiar teaches is to never, ever use a tow ball as a recovery point. The next day the company responded . . . by reporting my post (and, I presume, others as well) as spam and having it removed.Then something interesting happened. The original video, as far as I can tell, was taken down. Instead, the company posted another video on their website explaining “what we actually meant” in the first one. In it, the spokesman first demonstrates attaching a Hook Link and strap to a proper recovery point on a Discovery, and notes that it is, “Much safer than placing the strap or rope over the tow ball.” He then says that using the Hook Link and strap on a tow ball is “ideal for recoveries on the road and light duties around the workshop,” and adds that it’s “not ideal” for extreme recovery situations. Confused yet? He then says, even more confusingly, that the MSA (Motorsports South Africa) rule book allows some UK-style tow balls—which, unlike typical U.S. versions, are usually flanged and fastened with two M16 bolts—to be used for recovery in racing.Contradictions aside, let’s look at this. First, as far as I recall (since I can no longer find it), the original video contained no such explanations or caveats; it simply showed the Hook-Link being snapped over a hitch ball, quite clearly as a suggested application. The opportunities for this to be interpreted as a universally acceptable practice by inexperienced 4x4 drivers/Facebook users are rife.Second, a friend who called my attention to the first video followed up and contacted a well-known supplier of  this type of tow ball in England, to ask for their stance on the use of such balls for recovery.The response:“Towbars are designed to pull the safe rated load that they were tested and type-approved at in a smooth and controlled manner. They are not designed to be subjected to any sharp impact or snatch, using them for this purpose is most likely to overload and cause damage, possibly invisible to the naked eye, that may not become immediately apparent but weeks or months later may cause failure and pose a danger to other road users. Using a towbar in this manner would be classed as outside of their intended use and would invalidate any warranties.”There’s another potential factor at work in such a scenario. I couldn’t find any specs of the Hook-Link that listed the width of the neck of the hook. It appears to be around two inches or more. If the neck is larger than the tow ball over which one hooks it, a sudden jolt and slack could pop the hook off the top of the ball. In the U.S. standard tow balls start at 1 7/8 inches in diameter.I noticed one more confusing aspect to the Hook Link. The spokesman noted there are two  versions of the product, identical in size but employing different aluminum alloys in construction. The model in 6082 is rated at 4.5 tons, the one in 7075 to 6.5 tons. I assumed he was referring to a metric ton (2,204 pounds) and, indeed, the Hook-Link shown on the website is stamped “Break strain 4500kg”—which is 9,920 pounds, and 4.5 times 2,204 equals 9,918 pounds.  But . . . “break strain?” That doesn’t sound like our familiar working load limit (WLL) with a 2X or 3X (or greater) safety factor; that sounds like the point at which things might come apart precipitously. Perhaps it’s a matter of cross-Atlantic nomenclature, but here we like to see both a WLL and a separate minimum breaking strength (MBS).I’m going to restate the rule: Don’t use a tow ball—any tow ball—as a recovery point. Period.What about alternative methods for employing a receiver hitch as a recovery point? Many articles and trainers suggest inserting the loop of a recovery strap into the receiver tube and fastening it with the hitch pin. This has the advantage of securely anchoring the end of the strap or rope. However, look at the diagram below, from Dougal Hiscock, a mechanical engineer at at Engen Consulting in New Zealand, which shows the relative stresses exerted on a tow ball and a hitch pin subjected to a 5,096 kilogram (11,235 pound) steady pull. The stress is three times higher on the pin due to its smaller diameter. The pin is also subjected to a three-point bending load, from the strap in the middle of the pin and the through-points on the side of the receiver. When towing a trailer using a hitch insert the pin is subject only to sheer loads, as the square receiver insert rides closely against the wall of the tube. A wide strap or rope, such as the one illustrated, might reduce the focus of this bending stress, but it will still be much higher than that exerted by a receiver tube under the same load. The only acceptable way to employ a receiver for recovery is to use a receiver shackle insert and shackle to attach the kinetic strap or rope. Even then, I much prefer a dedicated shackle mount on a bumper designed for recovery duty, or a chassis-mounted recovery ring.

The world’s best recovery shovel . . .

If you want to start one of those 47-page debates on an overland forum, just type, “What’s the best recovery shovel?” in the topic line.On one end you’ll be assured that a $20 folding entrenching tool is all you need. On the other you’ll learn that you absolutely must carry a full-length garden shovel so you can reach under to the middle of the vehicle with it. And you’ll hear everything in between. I’ve tried and owned a lot of them, including oddities such as the WWII Wehrmacht entrenching tool, which is awesome for its size, indestructible, and has one sharpened side edge to use as a semi-effective hatchet. Much superior to the folding U.S. entrenching tool in my opinion. There’s an interesting history of them here. I also have a factory Land Rover T-handled shovel (half of their “Pioneer Kit,” the other being a pick), which is excellent: Also an all-steel Wolverine (review here), which is also excellent, if heavy and decidedly crude in construction (I know, it’s not a fly rod, but still . . .).  Being all-metal, the Wolverine also gets blisteringly hot if left in the sun. I sampled one of the Krazy Beaver shovels . . . . . . and managed to bend one of the teeth my first time out, in addition to which I didn’t like the pinned plastic handle. Not many people realize that you should occasionally sharpen your shovel, and doing so on the Krazy Beaver would be a real pain. I also tried a Hi-Lift Handle All, which comprises a shovel, sledge hammer, axe, and mattock all in one, and, as typical with such things, performs poorly as any of them. It was indubitably versatile, but utterly awkward and uncomfortable to use. And before you ask: No, I’ve not tried one of these because I do not live in fear of a Zombie Apocalypse: I briefly tried an early example of the DMOS Collective folding/collapsing shovel, which felt a bit rickety to me, and full of moving bits begging to be jammed with mud. However, I’ve not tried one of the later models, which I understand are sturdier. They are available with a very nice mounting bracket, and will store easily inside the vehicle, a boon unless you’re into ostentatious exterior displays of all the recovery gear you rarely use. However, I still I can’t imagine that a folding shovel with a collapsible handle held by numerous spring pins could possibly be as strong or last as long as a single-piece model. Also: $239 for the Pro model? Even my broad latitude for equipment elitism blanched at that. The bracket, incidentally, adds another $239 . . .Through all this experimentationI learned that I strongly prefer a mid-length wood shaft with either a T or D-shaped handle, as on the Land Rover Pioneer unit. Why wood? I live in southern Arizona and most of my foreign travels have been in warm countries. And even when wearing gloves, the steel shaft and handle of the Wolverine were uncomfortably hot if I set down the shovel for a few minutes when the air temperature was above 90ºF and the ground temperature 40º higher. And it was just as uncomfortable in freezing weather. Fiberglass is better, but then the question of aesthetics arises, and what can beat a wood shaft? Its only disadvantage is weathering if left exposed to the elements, but I’m willing to keep the shovel stored in the garage except when I’m on a trip. Judicious re-varnishing would reduce the issue as well. Technically a steel or fiberglass shaft might be stronger, but I can count the broken wood shafts of mid-length shovels I’ve seen on a closed fist. I like a T or D handle because it’s often necessary to punch the shovel into the substrate (not just when doing a recovery but for many camp tasks), and a T or D handle is way more comfortable for this, and produces more power as well. Finally, the mid-length shovel is just the best compromise for length. It allows you to reach far under the vehicle yet retain sufficient power, and is of course a lot easier to store than a full-length garden shovel. (Also, I have seen long wood shovel shafts break if abused.) All this, the world’s longest lede (the correct spelling for the introduction to an article), is leading (leding?) up to my nomination for the world’s best recovery shovel—and I’ll bet it’s one you’ve never encountered in those 47-page threads. Plus it has the coolest name ever for a tool.It’s called a poacher’s spade. Told you.Originally—according to tradition—cut down from an old full-size spade, the poacher’s spade was used by poor rural tennants in Britain to dig out rabbits to supplement their meager diets (also to dig out the ferrets and terriers sent after the rabbits). This hunting was illegal since all game was the property of the estate owner—thus, poacher’s spade (or rabbiting spade). It was ideal for the task because the blade was no wider than necessary to unearth a rabbit burrow, and lighter than a full-size shovel if you wound up needing to flee from a shotgun-wielding gamekeeper. The relatively small blade area enhanced rigidity and cut more easily into tough substrate (does England even have tough substrate?).So, you’re asking, how does this translate to efficacy as a recovery shovel? Why would you want a small blade when you might have a half a cubic yard of sand to get out from under a bogged vehicle in order to be able to insert MaxTrax or other recovery aids?The answer dawned on me over the course of many, many scenarios digging out vehicles deeply bogged in sand or mud, whether genuinely stuck or put there for training purposes: I realized that a good portion of my digging time and effort was wasted just making room for the shovel itself. When the vehicle was buried to within a few inches of the bodywork, I spent my first couple of minutes at each wheel just scooping out a ramp so I could get the shovel in to where it actually needed to be to dig out the tire without risking gouging the bodywork with the edge of the blade. I theorized that a smaller blade—perhaps no larger than that on an entrenching tool but with a longer, solid handle—might actually be faster than a larger shovel that frequently got in its own way.I tested the theory with an old trenching (as opposed to entrenching) spade I had, with a D-handled wood shaft and a narrow but square-cornered blade made for cutting nice neat trenches. The blade shape wasn’t ideal but the narrow width immediately showed its superiority in extracting deeply sunk vehicles. There was noticeably less prep work to begin actually uncovering the tires. To my surprise, I found that it wasn’t even at a disadvantage in removing sand, since I typically hold the shovel sideways like a canoe paddle and sweep out sand from the tires. The long, narrow blade scooped out just as much sand as a fat blade.Experiment complete and successful, I had no doubt what kind of shovel I wanted to get.   I  knew about poacher’s spades thanks to a long fascination with the 18th, 19th, and 20th century practitioners of the time-honored pursuit, who elevated the skill of winkling out food from under the noses of estate owners and gamekeepers to a high art. In addition to spades, poachers employed guns, traps, snares, nets, ferrets, terriers—they even developed a particular breed of dog called a lurcher, a cross between a coursing dog and a herding breed such as a border collie. The result was both intelligent and fast—the perfect companion for a poacher (the name comes from the Romany word lur, meaning thief or bandit). I have several books written by legendary poachers such as Brian Plummer, Ian Niall, and Jim Connell, and the tales they tell of close calls are wild indeed. I also knew where to go to get a proper poacher’s spade: Bulldog Tools in Wigan, Greater Manchester, founded in 1780 and still forging tools at the same location. Bulldog made entrenching tools for the British military in WWI and does so today. Bulldog tools are available from several outlets in the U.S., and are sometimes sold under the name Clarington Forge here. I ordered their Premier 28” Rabbiting Spade, which is equipped with an ash shaft ending in a beautiful split and steam-bent D (or Y) handle. The blade and handle socket are forged in one piece, and the socket extends nearly halfway up the shaft. (Strangely the steel part doesn’t seem to get as hot as the Wolverine’s hollow steel; I suspect the wood core might bleed off some heat but I don’t know.) And . . . it’s perfect. The blade is thick and rigid but not heavy thanks to its size. The length is just right. And despite being forged in England in a 240-year-old factory, it was only $66. Let me be clear: A $20 folding Chinese entrenching tool will dig you out if the alternative is staying put. For that matter, your bare hands will dig you out if the alternative is staying put. But for me, having the most suitable tools for a particular job enhances my enjoyment while traveling. And if something has gone wrong—even something as inconsequential as a bogging—those suitable tools take all the stress and a lot of the work out of the situation. There’s another reason to carry a recovery shovel made in Britain: It will lend you a proper British attitude toward getting bogged, which usually involves saying, cheerfully, “Bugger,” then relaxing and having a brew-up before tackling the problem. And while you’re doing that you usually figure out the easiest and safest way to solve the issue, in contrast to the normal American Oh-shit-we’re-stuck-we-need-to-get-out-now! panic attack.Cheers.


Go to Top