Preparation essential for tough terrain

Posted Oct. 11, 2008, at 1:30 a.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 6:01 a.m.

My first deer hunting ventures to “The Big Woods” were in a 4×4 International Scout. Since that vehicle hasn’t been built for decades, I guess I’m aging myself. I wasn’t as tall as Dad’s Long Tom shotgun the first few years, but I remember those apprentice outings like yesterday.

One thing that stands out is that, thanks to a Handi-Man jack, bailing wire, electrical tape and a handful of tools, we never got stranded. Trucks were made tougher back then, mechanically simple and reliable inside and out, yet durable and dependable.

Nowadays a sportsman needs a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and a degree in computer programming to deal with computer chips, circuit boards and all the other high tech engineering that comprises a modern four-wheel drive. Thankfully, breakdowns and component failure are rare. It’s weather, road conditions and operator error that lead to most vehicle problems during hunting or fishing trips to remote regions. Regardless of cause, it’s crucial that outdoorsmen be properly prepared with the right tools and equipment whether the outing is for three hours or three days.

Tire trouble

Tire failure and getting stuck are the two most likely dilem-mas facing sportsmen traveling rough, rocky woods roads where mud holes, washouts and beaver dam backups are par for the course. When a boat, snowmobile or ATV trailer is being hauled, the likelihood of both problems magnify due to extra tires and low ground clearance on most utility trailers. Even when snowsleds and ATVs are transported in pickup beds, the extra weight can be a factor.

I learned the hard way this past spring that one spare tire isn’t necessarily enough when you’re two hours from the nearest garage. Woods roads being used for log hauling are maintained with a road grader, and this leveling and smoothing process often leaves a lot of sharp rocks and pieces of shale on the traveling surface. Run over one of these random pieces of rock just right and sidewalls or tire treads can be punctured or sliced like a hot knife through butter. Sooner or later the odds run out and two tires get damaged on the same trip.

Since most modern SUVs come standard with four-ply radials to ensure a good ride, my first step is to replace all five with 8- or 10-ply rubber that actually stands a chance of surviving woods road perils. Step two is to visit a local tire store and buy an inexpensive used tire and rim of matching size and be sure to load this sixth wheel for long drives over secluded washboard woods roads. While you’re at the tire store or local garage, also pick up a tire plug kit and a couple of aerosol cans of tire sealant foam. Both are simple to use, fairly effective, and dependable enough to get back to civilization, especially if there are problems with the spare as well. A complete tire plug kit or a large can of Fix-a-Flat foam with hose and valve stem attachment cost $7-$10 each, an inexpensive investment for the situation they remedy.

Anyone who has changed his own tire in the last few years can testify that removing the spare tire, jack, jack handle and lug wrench is the most frustrating part of the process. This is followed closely by the annoyance of assembling and positioning the flimsy jack, then getting the vehicle elevated. For years I’ve carried a Hi-Lift jack, also called a Handiman jack by some. This sturdy unit with its long handle for leverage will quickly lift a truck for a tire change or when a vehicle is stuck or the undercarriage hung up, one or two of these jacks can raise the entire front or back end. Then rocks or wood can fill the hole under each tire to allow the truck to drive free. When four-wheel drive won’t get your vehicle free, a Hi-Lift jack usually will.

Unfortunately over the last 10 years, SUVs and pickups have become more plastic than sturdy metal and solid lift points for handyman jacks have disappeared year by year and model by model. I still carry a Hi-Lift for deep woods excursions, but for a different purpose I’ll explain later. After last spring’s two flat-tire fishing foray when the truck jack wouldn’t seat properly due to uneven, soft road conditions, I purchased a new jack that will work on all SUVs and pickups as well as trailers laden with boats, ATVs and snowmobiles.

My Craftsman floor jack has rollers, comes in its own hard plastic storage case and uses a detachable two-foot lift handle to operate. With its capacity of 2¼ tons, this low-profile jack slips under a vehicle frame even on rocky uneven ground and has an elevation level of 16 inches, plenty to change a tire or work under a truck or trailer if need be. Despite its diminutive size this roller floor jack is durable, sturdy, easy to store in a vehicle and retails for about $50.

The chain gang

There’s a wide assortment of tow straps on the market with varied lengths, tensile strengths and end hooks, but I’m a firm believer in chains. No piddly little quarter-inch, small-link version, but 30 feet of heavyweight, pull-a-trailer-truck steel with links as thick as your little finger. I carry two such chains, each with an open hook on one end and a jam hook on the other so it can be latched onto one of its own links to yield whatever shorter pull length is required. Over the years my chains have pulled dozens of vehicles out of bad spots, removed downed trees from roadways, and even hoisted deer, moose and bear for cleaning and skinning.

On more than a few occasions, my trace of chains has rescued my own truck from dire circumstances. Once a bridge collapsed as my Dad and I slowly started across, leaving both front wheels hovering over a 10-foot drop and the vehicle setting on its frame. Remember I mentioned a second use for a Hi-Lift jack. Well, here’s how it works. Hook one end of a chain to the step-and-tow bumper, tow hook or truck frame and the other end to the bottom of the jack. Hook one end of the second chain to a special receptacle on the top of the jack and then around a tree trunk.

At this point it’s just a matter of levering that long handle a few dozen times to move a vehicle or object 3-4 feet, reposition the jack and chains and do it again if necessary. This trick got our wheels back on solid ground after the breathtaking buckling bridge episode. This lateral jack and chain hookup is amazingly strong. You can actually drag a pickup with the brakes set. If there’s no tree close enough, there actually a way to bury a short log at an angle in the dirt for a makeshift terminal hookup point. In this case a round-point short-handled shovel is a great asset.

The other chain I never venture into the deep woods with-out is attached to the 22-inch bar of my Stihl chain saw. Nestled in its bright orange form fitting case, this saw packs and travels well and seldom leaves the truck, but when it’s needed boy is it a lifesaver.

Once on a late November deer hunt in Escourt, the real Crown of Maine, a sudden storm blew in with terrific winds, and suddenly trees began to break off or uproot. To get back to the main road from the old logging trail we drove in on, we had to cut and move seven trees and then two more from the hauling road on the way out. With just an ax we would have been all night and, boy, did my chains come in handy for twitching the cut trees from blocking the road.

Having said this, don’t forget a small can of gas and extra bar oil for the saw and always pack an ax as well. Mechanical things break down or malfunction, an ax will work as long as you do! Worse comes to worst, both can be used to construct a shelter and cut firewood as well as many other lifesaving purposes. With that in mind, some sort of well-stocked first aid kit is essential, as gashes, knife cuts, fish hooks in fingers and burns are just a few of the accidents that may need to be patched up, or perhaps just a couple of pain relievers for muscular aches from playing all those fish or dragging that big buck.

This and that

A flashlight, headlamp or even a high-intensity work light that runs from a plug-in lighter insert are essential. Vehicle problems sometimes need to be addressed before dawn and after dusk when most sportsmen travel. I often carry an extra 12-volt car battery, especially on fishing trips where a dead boat battery can ruin an outing. This extra can replace a bad truck battery in a pinch or another option is to purchase one of the portable high-power jumpstart units. Another great asset is a small electric air compressor for refilling tires. This, too, runs from a DC lighter plug in the vehicle.

I have a similar product made by Black and Decker that has detachable jumper cables, a portable air compressor and plug-in receptacles for lights or small appliances. This outfit can be recharged again and again at home, is a bit larger than a 12-volt battery but weighs the same. Also among my woods traveling paraphernalia is a two-ton come-along with 36-to-1 leverage, steel cables and grab hooks at both ends.

A hard plastic tool box holds vise grips, adjustable wrenches, a quarter-inch and half-inch drive socket set, wire ends, wire cutter and crimper, duck tape, electrical tape, extra batteries in various sizes and a two-foot long set of bolt cutters. In a two-gallon pail are paper towels, several lengths of plastic zip ties, plastic garbage bags, a hunting knife, needle-nose pliers, matches, a folding belt saw and a multi tool. These items are mostly for retrieving water and cleaning game birds and animals but could be useful in multiple situations.

Although I’ve mentioned a lot of tools and gear, in bulk they take much less space than might be expected. Most of them stay in my truck all fall. Ninety-nine out of a hundred trips to the woods are uneventful, but that one can be a major problem if not properly equipped. I’ve learned the hard way it’s better to have it and not need it than really need it and not have it at hand. Rod- and-gun outings are more fun and less likely to be problematic when sportsmen travel prepared.

bgravesoutdoors@ainop.com

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