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How to Get a Car Unstuck

Posted on by Defensive Driving Team | in Defensive Driving Tips

I have always had an irrational fear of my car getting stuck somewhere. Whether a mid-winter snow bank or a dirt road filled with pot-hole puddles in March, I’ve done my best to steer clear of potentially sticky situations.

Nonetheless, I ended up in a terrible rut one New Year’s eve several years ago. I was living in southern Africa at the time and working part time in a small rural town. A few friends there invited me to join them at a New Year’s party at a remote farm way out in the scrub land. We would drive out in the evening, camp on the farm overnight, and then drive back the next day. As the sun set, we piled into my friend’s small truck and drove over several miles of sandy road, not a sign of civilization in sight. At last we reached the farm.

One of our hosts directed us to park off to the left, at the bottom of a small incline. Unfortunately, our truck was very light and poorly equipped to deal with the sandy soil. At the bottom of the hill, we sunk deep into the sand. Our driver spun the tires in vain, until we realized that we were simply digging ourselves in deeper. As it was starting to get dark at this point, we gave up and headed into the party. Some of the men who had traveled in convoy with us promised to help dig us out in the morning.

I am a very sound sleeper. So, although we were sleeping in a small, mildew-scented tent, I slept deeply and didn’t wake until late in the morning. The girls I had driven with also slept quite late. We emerged from the tent to a beautiful sunny morning—and an empty field. All but a handful of the party-goers had already packed up their tents and left, including the friends who had promised to help us with the car, which was still mired deep in the sandy soil at the bottom of the hill.

We panicked for a good fifteen minutes before getting to work. None of us really knew how to get the car out; however, through a combination of pushing, wedging stones under the wheels, and slow acceleration, we got the car out of its pit. We drove about three feet, and then the car sank again. So, we gathered more stones and pushed again. Another three feet, and we sank again. We repeated this performance a good five times before we reached the top of the incline, and more firmly packed sand, half an hour later. I, for one, decided that I wouldn’t sign up for any more off-road driving in the near future.

However, I did learn from this experience; if you know what to do, getting stuck in the mud doesn’t have to be a time-consuming disaster. After I got home safely, I took some time to learn the rules for getting unstuck from snow, sand, or mud safely and without damaging one’s car. Although you’re more likely to encounter a muddy road or beach at this time of year, the basic principles for getting unstuck apply to all of these situations and are useful year round.

How To Get A Car “Unstuck”

First, drive prepared. In winter, carry salt, sand, or cat litter in your car. A small shovel and ice scraper, extra mittens and hats, a good flashlight, and high-calorie snacks like chocolate or trail mix should also be kept in the car. The sand or cat litter will also be useful for mud, as long as it’s a brand of cat litter that doesn’t disintegrate when wet.

Next, try to avoid getting stuck. Drive particularly slowly in muddy, icy, sandy, or otherwise sticky conditions. As soon as you do start to sink, however, stop driving. You really don’t want to spin the tires in an attempt to free yourself. This will cause your wheels to sink even deeper into the sand, snow, or mud. If you’re driving in snow, tire spinning will also generate heat, which will melt the snow and eventually turn it into ice.

So, stop spinning the wheels. If you’re in a four wheel drive vehicle, put the vehicle into four wheel drive. If in an automatic, shift into a low gear; most people find second gear works well for getting out of a sticky spot. If in a manual transmission car, put the car into a higher gear. Straighten the wheels, as this will make it easier to get the car out. Then, try to accelerate very, very slowly. If this doesn’t work, try reversing slowly.

If you’re stuck in snow, extra weight will help increase traction. So, you may want to place extra weight in the car before driving. I used to drive a rear-wheel drive car with very poor traction, and so put extra weights in the trunk each winter to avoid slipping on snow and ice. If you’re stuck in sand or mud, however, this extra weight could cause you to sink further. Ask passengers to get out of the car before proceeding.

If you’re still stuck, get out and examine the situation. If you’re stuck in snow, check to make sure that the exhaust pipe isn’t blocked; you don’t want carbon monoxide building up in your car as you try to get free. Try to determine which wheels are spinning. Then, using your handy shovel, clear snow, mud, or sand away from these tires. If stuck in snow or mud, pack sand or cat litter around the slipping tires. If you’re in sand, a piece of wood or carpet mat will be more useful. Then, if you have passengers or can hail a passerby, have your assistants push the car while you gently accelerate forwards. As you do so, you may want to ride the brakes slightly; in many “stuck” situations, one wheel may be spinning more than the other. Depressing the brakes very slightly will help to decrease the spinning, thus distributing power more equally between the wheels.

In snow and especially in sand, letting some air out of your tires may actually help you out of a sticky place. By decreasing the tire pressure, you are increasing the surface area between tire and road and will help to increase traction. Let out pressure 5 PSI at a time; try to avoid decreasing the pressure by more than 15 PSI, and make sure to inflate your tires fully again as soon as possible.

“Rocking the car” is another technique that can be used to get unstuck. To rock the car, put it into reverse and very lightly tap the gas, then release. The car should go back and then rock forward slightly. Repeat this motion, so that the rocking of the car increases (if you find the right rhythm, the amplitude of the back and forth rocking should increase, like coffee being shaken in a cup.) You can also alternate between reverse and first gear (manual) or drive (automatic) to further increase the rocking. While this technique can be particularly useful when trying to get a car out of a ditch, it can be quite damaging to your transmission.  If you aren’t familiar with this technique or aren’t an experienced driver, use this only as a last resort.

Finally, be prepared for when you get unstuck! Make sure that you are ready to continue driving and steering once your car gets out of the mud, sand, or snow. Drive far enough so that you’re sure you won’t get stuck again. Then, once you’ve stopped in a safe place, check the car to make sure you haven’t scratched or damaged anything. If you’ve been stuck in snow, make sure that the radiator vents are clear, so that the car doesn’t overheat as you continue to drive.

As with most tricky driving situations, keep this basic rule in mind: be prepared and try to avoid potential problems, but don’t panic if things do go wrong! It happens to the best (and luckiest) drivers among us.

To learn more about this topic, or a broad range of subjects from “How To Change A Tire” to “How To Jumpstart Your Car”, visit’s Safe Driver Resources website!

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