How to get your car unstuck from mud or sand

One of the most frustrating incidents that commonly happen to drivers is when we unexpectedly get stuck in a puddle of mud or sand.

Of course there are many options for addressing the problem. You can call a tow service to pull you car out, although that can be expensive. You can call a friend or relative and request that they use their vehicle to drag yours free using a tow strap or a length of sturdy chain. Or you may be lucky enough to encounter a charitable passerby who volunteers the use of their vehicle. Most often one of these options will pan out.

But if ever you find yourself in one of those rare situations when none of the preferable options are available, here are a few tips for freeing a stuck vehicle the old fashioned way.

Take stock of the situation

If it’s possible to exit and safely walk around the vehicle there are a few details that will indicate the correct course of action to follow. On inspection, if the wheels have buried deep enough that the axle or chassis now rest on the ground then you’ll likely have a lot of work ahead of you. Likewise if you have more than one wheel sunken into the loose, slippery material, and especially if those wheels are the drive wheels, or if the vehicle is teetering by its frame severely enough to alter its weight distribution, reducing traction in the drive wheels. If the case is less severe you may get out relatively easy.

Accept the situation before you make matters worse

When one or more wheels falls into a mud pit or loose sand a common response is to throttle up the engine hoping for an abrupt solution before the car’s motion settles to a stop. In mild incidents this often works. But it should take only a few seconds to determine whether or not this approach is working out. Spinning wheels, squealing tyres, smoke billowing from wheel wells, and negligible vehicular motion give evidence to support the original statement of this paragraph. Accept the situation and think more intently about keeping the vehicle in good working order so it will live to drive another day. Continuous revving of the engine on a thoroughly stuck car may damage tyres, axles, transmissions, drivelines, and in most instances will only dig the car in deeper.

Give the easy escape a try


If the situation seems not to be severe, first try to gently accelerate the vehicle out the mud pit. Use the steering wheel to make sure the front wheels point straight. In an automatic transmission, use the lowest gear setting. On a manual transmission try a higher gear like first or second. Accelerate gently to see if the car will move without spinning the wheels in place. If it moves slightly but doesn’t escape, throttle up and try to conserve the momentum you’ve built up. The wheels may begin to spin faster than the vehicle moves at this point. That’s fine as long as it remains moving in the direction of escape. If the car stops moving and/or begins to drift uncontrolled, then stop, especially if the car starts to drift deeper into the mud or dangerously toward oncoming traffic.

Ask for help

If the car moves on acceleration but fails to fully escape the mud, and you have a passenger, or a willing passerby, ask them for help. Ask them to position themselves at whichever end of the car points opposite the direction of escape.

Following the same gentle acceleration method from the previous tip, select the lowest gear for an automatic transmission, and second or third gear for a manual transmission, and begin to gently accelerate, once again trying to build initial momentum without spinning the wheels in place. This time however, instead of continuous acceleration, as soon as the car moves, decelerate and allow the car to fall back into the ruts, and repeat this process pulsing the accelerator rhythmically, such that the car begins to build momentum by rocking back and forth in its ruts gaining magnitude with each pulse. As the driver, you should feel when the car surpasses the hump. So with the final pulse hold, the accelerator and try to maintain motion until you’ve escaped the hump.

Also, it is important to keep the front wheels pointed straight during this process to reduce drag. However, you may find it helps during rocking to also move the steering wheel back and forth. The back-and-forth turning of the front wheels will sort of wiggle the front of the car, and if timed carefully will help build magnitude to the car’s back and forth rocking. What you are effectively doing here is using the front wheels as flippers in concert with the back wheels. In a very literal sense you are swimming the car out of the mud.

Time to excavate

If none of the previous tips yield success then it’s a safe bet you’re stuck with your wheels and axles buried too deep for an easy escape. If the wheels are buried then most likely you’re struggling against all the material that is being displaced by your wheel. You should be able to see it mound around your wheels and tyres. Use any tool on hand to excavate all the displaced material from around your wheels, and if necessary level the ruts down to a smoother transition out of the mud. Fill the ruts with any dry material available including gravel, rocks, sticks, foliage, even your floor mats to help provide traction.

If you’ve attempted all of these and your car is still stuck, then you definitely need a tow truck!

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