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  • Writer's pictureTrail Guide Joe

Overlanding Gear: Choosing Between Tow Ropes, Straps, Cables, & Chains

Let's cut to the point, you want to get out on the trails, overlanding and off-roading, but you're concerned about getting stuck. It's good that you recognize these possibilities and choose to plan for them rather than ignore them and be caught in the middle of nowhere! So now you've found yourself either searching the aisles or browsing online looking at all the chains, straps, and ropes and having no idea what to actually use. Believe me, I've been there too! So what are each of these good for and which should you choose? Great question, let's find out!

Tow Straps

Tow straps are exactly as they sound, a woven strap you can tow a vehicle with. They are, at least where I am, found in almost every hardware or automotive store around, are relatively cheap in price, and range in length, width, and capability for almost any job imaginable. The two I have are generally the two types you can find; hooked or looped ends. So what can, or should, you do with a tow strap? As the name suggests, they are meant for towing. They are built with very little give, or stretchiness, which makes them ideal for low resistance towing. Of course, if you choose to use this for recovery purposes, make sure you have a suitable break-strength rating for what you're about to do or you'll find yourself with a projectile rocketing through the rear window of your vehicle... Especially if you have the hooked ends.

Let's look at the details of tow straps to see how they stack up against the competition!

  • Break Strength: 6,000lbs+

  • Practical Uses: Low-resistance towing

  • Pros: Relatively inexpensive; compact & lightweight next to comparable gear

  • Cons: Not great for recovery of stuck vehicles as they have tendencies to break; potential to rocket through a window or windshield, especially with hooked ends when they break; higher sensitivity to the elements and abrasion

Tow Ropes (Kinetic Energy Ropes)

Tow ropes are a lot like tow straps. Instead of a strap build, it's quite literally a rope. Imagine that! Unlike tow straps, tow ropes are harder to come by where I am. They definitely are not as cheap as tow straps either but like tow straps, they come in different sizes and capabilities as well. So what can you do with a tow rope? Like a tow strap, you can tow with it but you can much more safely recover a stuck vehicle with it too! This is made possible due to the stretchiness of the rope which allows the recovery vehicle to more easily transfer energy to the stuck vehicle pulling it free, hence the other name, kinetic energy rope! Like tow straps, you want to make sure you select a rope with a suitable break strength so you don't have the rope break on you. Fortunately, there are no rope options with metal hooks meaning you don't have to worry about projectiles.

Let's look at the details of tow ropes to see how they stack up against the competition!

  • Break Strength: 7,000lbs+

  • Practical Uses: Low-resistance towing, high resistance recovery

  • Pros: Lightweight to next to comparable gear; not as dangerous

  • Cons: Relatively expensive; can be somewhat bulky; higher sensitivity to the elements and abrasion


Chains and cables are almost nothing like tow straps and tow ropes. They are made of metal rather than synthetic materials, they have a higher size to strength ratio than the straps and ropes, and absolutely no give or stretchiness at all. Chains and cables will also come in different sizes but a smaller increase in size often produces a greater increase in strength, again, due to the construction material. In the case of chains, the quality or grade of the material can also impact the strength. Unfortunately, because of their build material, they are very dangerous to use as high resistance recovery. You don't want to be around a cable that snaps or a chain that breaks... each can be a very deadly projectile and not just the ends in the case of hooked tow straps.

Let's look at the details of chains and cables to see how they stack up against the competition!

  • Break Strength: 1,600lbs+

  • Practical Uses:

  • Chains: Low resistance towing; removing obstacles; securing loads

  • Cables: Recovery (generally with a winch); removing obstacles; securing loads

  • Pros: Can be relatively inexpensive next to comparable gear; less sensitivity to the elements and abrasion though not impervious

  • Cons: Relatively heavy next to comparable gear; chains can be somewhat bulky; cables generally require an expensive winch; cables require unique care when coiled for lengthy durations; chains are only as strong as the weakest link (cables, straps, and ropes are of fibrous construction bringing strength in numbers where, if one strand fails, the others still hold the weight; chains are a single strand of multiple links, when one link fails the whole fails)

What Else?

Each of these devices has their own unique abilities. If you had to pick one, I would suggest a tow rope because, as long as you haven't rolled over, you should be able to get your vehicle free from almost any situation. Yes they are rather expensive but, due to their construction, you are more likely to get your money back out of it in repeated use without failure unlike straps. If you do happen to see yourself, or someone you are with, rolling a vehicle, you might just go for the cable and winch pairing. It is the most expensive option, does have unique care, can be rather dangerous, but with the right additional equipment (snatch blocks for instance), you can recover a vehicle from from almost any situation. Of course there is nothing stopping you from picking up each as, again, they all have their unique uses but you better make sure you know how to use them safely and definitely have room for them all!

Happy Trails!

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