Ropes for Towing

In this chapter David Bowyer explains what ropes are available and how to use them.

Every Land Rover, Discovery or Range Rover owner will at some time or other need to either recover someone else, or be recovered themselves. For some it’s a necessity to haul and recover stuck loads and vehicles as part of their profession. Then there are some of us who simply enjoy the opportunity of getting one or other stuck firmly in the mire creating recovery situations. Great fun.

All recoveries by rope in any situation could be potentially dangerous, especially if the stuck vehicle is bogged well down. Not only is it essential to use the correct type of rope for the job in hand, but also it is extremely important to attach the said rope to proper strong towing points that should always be fitted to both the front and rear of the vehicles.

Before getting tied up with knotty explanations of what type of rope to hang around with, let’s consider where and what we intend to hook onto. This is a serious subject, so don’t read between the lines if I spin a yarn or two! I’m sure I can think of several puns.

Every 4 x 4 should have a proper rear towing point. All Land Rover products are very capable towing machines, probably more so than what some of you may think. Before now, I’ve towed a fully laden 38 tonner off a bend on the A30 where the broken down lorry was a danger to other road users. I’ll come back to emergency heavy towing techniques later.

Without doubt the standard Land Rover supplied fixed height rear towing unit with either a towing ball or universal jaw and ball is the best for the majority of on and off road recoveries.

If you have an adjustable towing unit made by either Dixon Bate or Witter, be sure to only recover heavy loads with the adjustable slider unit raised to it’s highest point. This is to ensure you pull in line with the chassis and not at some point way below. Never contemplate carrying out a heavy recovery with a tow ball mounted at the bottom of an ‘extended’ drop plate. Doing so could cause serious damage to the rear cross member.

Whilst on the subject of rear cross members, make sure you know how good yours is, or that of your mate’s Land Rover if he’s about to zap you out of a mud hole. Rust is the biggest killer of strength in the rear end of a chassis. And the front end come to that!

It is also vitally important that any towing unit and it’s tow ball or jaw is installed correctly to the vehicle in accordance with both the vehicle’s and the towing unit manufacturer’s instructions using only the correct grade of high tensile bolts.

An alternative for the serious ‘off roader’ is having a heavy duty Nato towing hook fitted to the standard drop plate on either a Discovery or Range Rover or direct to the rear cross member on a Land Rover.

One securing point that should NOT be used for recovery purposes is the lashing eyes that are fitted to both front and rear of coil sprung Land Rovers and Range Rovers. These lashing eyes are only designed for chaining the vehicle down on a transporter. They are only secured to the chassis with a single bolt and therefore cannot take the stress of a heavy recovery.

However in an emergency, providing they are installed as original on the outside of the chassis with the bolt head against the side of the lashing eye, one could use a bridle across the pair, either on the front or rear. Your mediocre recovery point would be the centre of this bridle thereby halving the load on each side. These lashing eyes should not be relied upon as they could bend easily if you carried out a heavy recovery using only one of them.

Worse still, if they have been re-fitted incorrectly with the bolts the wrong way round so that the nuts are up against the lashing eyes, then woe betide. Under high tension, the nut can spring off the bolt never to be seen again, leaving the lashing eye to catapult along the axis of the rope with alarming results. I’m not making this up, in years gone past I’ve proved it!

A far superior recovery point to use in place of the lashing eyes is a pair of ‘Chassis Shackles’, also known as Jate Rings. These towing rings are specially forged and installed using new longer high tensile bolts and appropriate shims so they fit snugly around the chassis. They are ideal for use as major recovery points with a bridle in between. These ‘Chassis Shackles’ will fit either the front or rear of all coil sprung Land Rovers, Discoverys and Range Rovers. They are stocked in our Off Road Shop coming complete with high tensile bolts, nuts and washers to suit.

My personal favourite securing points for all Land Rover series 1,11,111, Ninety and One Tens is the ‘Bumper D Ring’. This galvanised towing ring is attached to a heavy base plate with four holes in it. The rearmost holes accept the original (or new replacement) high tensile bumper bolts. After fitting the ‘Bumper D Ring’ to these bolts, insert a drill bit down through the front two holes and drill into the bumper to take two shorter bolts. When fitting these D Rings to a Ninety or One Ten it is easier to remove the louvred grille first so as to remove the bumper bolts. When refitting the grille, cut or file away a small part of the bottom louvre to miss the back of the ‘D’.

Lightweight Land Rovers are often fitted with lifting eyes both front and rear. As these forged eyes only have two securing points at a right angle to a strain exerted when carrying out a heavy recovery, I would prefer them not to be used. They are only intended for steady helicopter or dockside lifting operations and furthermore will not accept a 3/4″ shackle pin (unless reamed out). Best to use ‘Bumper D Rings’ instead.

I do not like the American style chassis/bumper forged hook as ropes can fall off very easily with embarrassing results.

Large dynamo lifting eyes, providing they are well plated behind the bumper do have a place, but should never be used for a ‘Kinetic Recovery’.

Finally on the subject of recovery points, our BRB Roo Bars and Winch Bumpers have recovery points fitted as standard, one each side in line with the chassis.

Fibres used in rope making

When I first started driving Land Rovers in 1960, all that was available to me were natural fibre ropes for recovery. For steady pulls and on-road towing they were fine, but there were disadvantages.

The most common natural fibres that were available in years gone past were manila and sisal.

Manila consists of the sheath fibres from the leaves of a type of banana tree, Musa textilis, indigenous to the Philippines. The leaves are picked when the plant is three years old and the stems are cut into narrow strips 20 – 30 mm wide and about 5mm thick. These are scraped against blunt knives. In this way the soft juicy parts are removed, leaving the fibres clean. They are then dried and made ready for packing and export. This treatment was first done in Manila, which gave this type of hemp it’s world famous name. Manila is also grown in the Sunda Islands (Sumatra manila), India and the West Indies.

The fibres are very hydroscopic and swell considerably in water, where the rope will shrink, stretching again when it dries. A manila rope is identifiable by it’s slightly speckled appearance, due to the fact that both darker and lighter coloured fibres are used in its manufacture. A new manila rope is smooth in appearance and slightly shiny, unlike sisal.

Sisal hemp consists of the fibres in the fleshy leaves of the various aloe and agave plants, in particular Agava rigida var. Sisalana, indigenous to the the dry, high, stony plateaus of Central America and first shipped from the small port of Sisal on the north coast of the Yucatan peninsula.

The sisal plant has a long stem and the large, sword like leaves grow in a big rosette near the ground. The leaves are first picked when the plant is three to four years old and are put through a machine which washes and separates the fibres from the fleshy parts. The clean fibres are then dried on racks before being baled for export.

Sisal hemp has long even fibres. New sisal is distinguishable from manila by it’s uniform pale yellow colour being duller in appearance to manila. Around the turn of the century sisal growing was introduced into East Africa and later into Sumatra and Java. Nowadays it is grown in many tropical areas, particularly Tanzania and Kenya.

There are other natural fibres as well used in rope making, but none of them are as strong as manila and sisal.

Stronger man-made synthetic fibres

Nylon rope was first used only about fifty – sixty years ago and it didn’t take long to cotton onto (excuse the pun). The fishing industry took to it very quickly as nylon fibre rope is unaffected by water, and size for size against manila and sisal it is at least 50% stronger allowing smaller diameter ropes to be used for rigging, fishing and towing.

Synthetic fibres are man-made fibres which are produced entirely by chemical synthesis from simple basic substances. As compared with natural fibres they are of better uniformity and continuity. Fibres made of Polyvinyl alcohol and of Polyvinyl chloride are now almost exclusively made only in Japan.

Nylon fibred rope is very elastic. It can stretch up to about 30% returning to it’s original length when the tension is released. This elasticity is particularly useful in certain applications, but also carries with it a certain amount of risk: if a nylon rope breaks under stress it may act like a rubber band in contracting and catapult say, a heavy shackle or part of a towing point back towards the other point of attachment which could be highly dangerous. However, in our off-road field we use this ‘Kinetic Energy’ to our advantage – with an awful lot of care.


All nylon tow ropes have a shiny surface. It is amply strong enough for all towing applications, as it is rated at 12 tonne

In more recent years there has been growth in other man-made synthetic fibres such as polypropylene, polyethylene and polyester. All these fibres have far less stretch than that of nylon though are slightly less strong.
Nylon, polypropylene, polyethylene and polyester fibres are manufactured in long threads – the length of the rope. This produces ropes that generally have a smooth, slippery surface.

Weaker ropes are made from carded waste. This spun fibre has a vaguely fluffy surface, not unlike cotton. This type of rope is called staple spun and is not used for our type of work.


From our point of view, nearly all the rope that we are likely to use with the exception of braided capstan rope and 8 strand Kinetic Energy Recovery Rope (KERR), will be 3 strand rope.

If you look at a piece of lets say 3 strand tow rope it will most probably have a right hand lay – that is, the three strands go up and around the rope clockwise just like a screw thread. This is ‘hawser laid’ rope that has been twisted three times in the course of the manufacture: the fibres are initially twisted to make the rope yarn, the yarn is then twisted into strands, and the strands twisted into the final rope.

Three strand ropes can either be tightly or loosely laid (twisted). The specification I ask for when having our ropes made up is between the two, giving good strength and wear characteristics.

Eight strand nylon rope is made by using four strands of left hand lay and four strands of right hand lay, which in turn is plaited in pairs to form the rope. It is this rope that we use for our ‘Kinetic Energy Recovery Rope’ (KERR).

In years gone by, one only referred to the ropes’ size by it’s circumference in inches. Nowadays, certainly in the case of synthetic rope, we quote their size in mm for their diameter.

As regards to the strength of the rope, we quote Minimum Breaking Load. We are not talking of lifting, but if we were, we would divide the above figure by six to give Safe Working Load (SWL).


Splicing at its best, five ‘tucks’ with loose ends ‘dogged’

Choice of Rope

In my earlier days of Land Rover recovery there was not much choice, you used what you had! My rope was sisal, purchased from a nearby ex WD dealer by the coil. I found a piece of it the other day when clearing out the garage. Having measured it’s size, I’ve just worked out that it’s Minimum Breaking Load is only 4 tonne. No wonder ropes never lasted long in those days!

When choosing a rope you must decide what you are going to use it for, i.e. there’s a big difference between swinging the children, tying loads on the roof rack and pulling a stuck One Ten out of a bog.

Manila and sisal ropes are fairly cheap and for the first two uses above it will be fine, but for towing or recovering vehicles between two and three tonnes, think again.

Another sound reason for discounting manila or sisal is that they don’t like being stored wet as this leads to deterioration of the natural fibres of the rope. It will also smell horrible.

The second best rope is a polypropylene rope made from fibrillated film tape. This man-made raffia type fibre is in fact a twisted ‘tape’ as you get in baler twine. Normally light blue in colour, has a slippery surface and is quite cheap. I don’t like it for on-road towing as it has no ‘give’ in it. In other words, it is a ‘Dead’ rope. Polypropylene ropes also come in ‘Monofilament’, which is made up of single filaments enlikened to fishing line. This is more expensive, very slippery and difficult to handle.

If requiring a cheaper rope for whatever reason, I suggest a Staple polypropylene tow rope. It has a ‘hairy’ surface similar to sisal, easy to grip, not too expensive, but still has no ‘give’ in it. The colour is always white. If you prefer a ‘Dead’ rope, then this is the one to have.

Polyethylene rope is similar to monofilement polypropylene and is normally orange in colour. It is no good whatsoever in large diameters for towing as it is very slippery and awkward to handle. However, in much smaller sizes, in an 8 strand versions, we supplied thousands of tow ropes for the ‘car field’. This was in fact our ‘Easytie’ tow rope – the simple to splice rope that we had on Tomorrows’ World.

That was in the late seventies. As you can tell, I’ve been tied up for years in the rope field!
The third best tow rope is without doubt a three strand nylon one. It’s the strongest of all the normal man-made fibre ropes, but what’s more important it’s got some give in it. So when you are towing someone on-road you won’t get all that nasty jolting that you get with a polypropylene ‘dead’ rope. Nylon rope is always white in colour and has a smooth surface.


Perhaps this is a good time to explain how to tow another vehicle on-road, or off-road come to that.

Firstly, the maximum distance between vehicles when being towed on road is 4.5 Metres, so it’s appropriate to have a 4.5 M tow rope. Ideally, all tow rope should have a soft eye spliced loop in each end with no less than five ‘tucks’ to create the best possible splice. As a matter of interest all the ropes that our shop supplies has their loose ends ‘dogged’. This prevents the splicing coming apart however badly the rope is misused.

Obviously adequate towing points are essential – tow hook on the recovery vehicle, shackleable point on the vehicle being towed.

Talking of shackles, if towing or recovering another heavy 4×4, always use no smaller than a 3/4″ shackle, with a 3/4″ pin. This size shackle has an approx Safe Working Load (SWL) of approx 3 tonnes, which equates to a Minimum Breaking Load of about 18 tonnes. Put it this way, I’ve never bent a 3/4″ pin yet!

Always carry with your tow rope a 3/4″ D shackle, a 3/4″ large Bow shackle and for hooking up smaller ordinary cars, a 1/2″ D shackle. With this combination you can tow anything.

Good communication between the two vehicles is extremely important whether by sight, hand signals and the driver behind anticipating ahead, as well as closely following his mates brake and indicator lamps in front. If you have CB communication in both vehicles – use it!

Towing vehicle should have headlights on. Towed vehicle, side lights. By rights the towing vehicle should have a reflective sign up front say ‘TOWING’ and the towed vehicle having a reflective sign on the rear saying ‘ON TOW’. Make the ‘dead vehicle’ safe, gearbox in neutral, steering lock free and driver aware that the brake servo will not be working.

Towing vehicle takes up the slack and proceeds when clear to go and aims to to maintain a steady speed of probably no more than 25-30 miles per hour.

It is very important for the person being towed to keep the rope in front taught at all times. If the rope starts to go slack, then gently apply the foot brake to hold back. The aim is never to let the rope fall to the ground until the journey is concluded. If you can do this you will avoid any vicious snatching and reduce the risk of breaking a weaker rope. This usually happens when the towing vehicle reaches slower moving traffic, comes up to a road junction or proceeds down a hill. As the recovery vehicle starts to pull away from you, come off the footbrake. This way you will have a reasonably pleasant journey without too many frighteners.

A nice large white nylon rope is obviously a good choice, a bonus being, it shows up well between the vehicles. Be very careful when you pull out of a junction turning right across the traffic. Try and plan your journey ahead so you don’t have nasty blind junctions, as you could risk some idiot driving too fast around a corner to your right and possibly driving between you. Oh, it can happen!


Land Rover to the rescue, using a blue Polyprop ‘Dead’ rope

Pulling someone out of a ditch is another use for a tow rope. When you, as a ‘knight in shining armour’ offer to help some poor unfortunate person, be certain what you are hooking your nice strong tow rope onto. I will never forget the day, many years ago one Winter, when I came around this bend in thickish snow and found a sports car gone off the road and into a small ditch. Naturally I pulled up, got my tow rope out to offer my help.

I asked the owner, ‘what should I attach to’, he replied ‘that tube under the front’. So I did. As I pulled forward with the Range Rover, I pulled the tube clean off the car. It wasn’t after all a solid part. Much embarrassment, a lesson learnt, look twice at what you are hooking on to.

Want a ‘bump start’, no problem, my 4 x 4 can pull anything! Well of course it can. But do check all the obvious first, ignition, fuel etc.

Again good communication is required. Make sure that the person you are towing knows what to do. Get a thumb up from the driver behind when he or she has the ignition on, in gear usually third, foot on the clutch and handbrake off. Make sure that the person knows when to let the clutch out (about 5-10 MPH) and that they must blow their horn as soon as their engine is running or want you to stop.

Here’s another tip to remember. Your friend’s Land Rover has just stalled when off road and it won’t re- start. You back up, hook on, without thinking he selects first gear. Normally not a big problem, but he is still in low ratio! Ping-pong and the rope breaks as he lets the clutch out. Remember to go back into high ratio if you want a non-dramatic bump start.

Perhaps you are called upon to move a very heavy lorry a short distance. You will by now have got the message that a good strong nylon tow rope is essential for all towing with a 4 x 4 such as yours.

I recommend a 3 strand nylon tow rope, 4.5 Metres long, soft eye spliced loops each end and 24 mm in diameter. This size of nylon rope has a Minimum Breaking Load of 12 tonnes and therefore sufficiently strong enough to get even the largest load moving providing you have a rolling load.

Attach your rope to a strong point on the front of the lorry (most lorries have a centre pintle for emergency bar towing) and the strongest point on the back of your 4 x 4. If you have a universal combination jaw and tow ball, use only the pin through the jaw to attach to. These units are stronger here than the neck of the tow ball above.

Engage low ratio, as well as the centre diff lock if fitted, select first gear, take up the slack as the lorry driver releases his brakes. By very carefully slipping the clutch (no problem with an automatic) the tremendous power that you have available will firstly be absorbed by the nylon rope and slowly your juggernaut will follow you. As your load comes with you, remove your left foot well clear of the clutch. If possible don’t slip the clutch at all, but that’s easier said than done! Remember, slipping the clutch for too long or too often will soon burn it out.

You really only ought to be doing this in a straight line. If you steer out too much to either side you risk damage to your transmission through ‘axle wind up’. A Range Rover with a centre viscous coupling unit (VCU) does not have this problem. With an exceptionally heavy load you have to use the centre diff lock if fitted, because as the high load pulls the back of the vehicle downwards the front can lift allowing the front wheels to spin.

Come to a halt very slowly to ensure the lorry stops behind you. Remember his brakes will be very inefficient as he has a dead engine.

When towing is completed, disengage your centre diff lock immediately. If it won’t clear, drive forward in a straight line a few metres, then reverse back also in a straight line. If is still won’t clear, try ‘flopping’ the vehicle on the throttle and as a last resort drive ahead again putting the nearside front wheel just onto the grassy verge and ‘flop’ the transmission again to spin that wheel out.

So there you are. ‘Have a 4×4 and recover more!’

Do bear in mind though, if you go to recover somebody, there may not be insurance cover should you pull something off their vehicle. I am not a ‘legal beagle’, but I would suggest when offering your services you should say in front of a witness:- “I accept no responsibility for this recovery and any damage that may be caused”. After all, in recovering someone’s vehicle from a ditch, their vehicle could slide sideways getting trapped on a hidden rock causing damage. However, as in any recovery situation, stop, observe, and discuss the plan with the other driver before doing it.

Remember, except in an emergency and I mean an emergency situation, you are NOT allowed to tow anyone on a motorway. Recoveries on this class of road may only be carried out by an official recovery contractor.

Care of Ropes

I’ve already mentioned that it’s important not to store wet and muddy natural fibre ropes as they can rot and go smelly quite quickly. If your new, or Ex WD manila or sisal rope gets wet and muddy, hose it down when you get back to base and hang it out to dry thoroughly before putting it away.

Ensure too that mud and grit isn’t caught up within the ‘lay’ or it will weaken the rope the next time you use it in anger. Inspect as well for cuts in the surface and watch out for loose ends pulling back out through the splices.

Sunlight does not affect natural fibre ropes too much, but I still do not recommend that you leave it wrapped around the front bumper or draped over the spare wheel or the bonnet. Best to store it inside the vehicle.

Man-made synthetic ropes on the other hand are impervious to water and does not get mouldy. These ropes can be scrubbed if they get muddied and don’t necessarily have to be dried before being stowed away.

They can however be damaged by high temperatures and melting can occur about 200 degrees centigrade.

Therefore ensure they never come close to a hot exhaust system. Talking of heat and light, never leave a man-made synthetic rope hanging outside, wrapped or draped over the vehicle or stored inside directly inside the windows. These ropes deteriorate with the effect of ultra-violet (UV) light on them. Best to stow them inside a sack or plastic chest as I do in my vehicle. Some made made ropes can be affected by acids, oils and in particular solvents. Best to ensure your ropes are kept away from such fluids.

Again, after nylon and polyproplene ropes have been used in muddy conditions, inspect for wear and tear and give them a good wash. One of my off-road friends places his ropes in their washing machine when his wife is out. He assures me that he uses a warm wash only and rinse cycle. I don’t think many mums and wives would appreciate it though!

So there you have it, always look after you ropes…and they will look after you…for many years to come.

Comparison in order of strength

These are the normal types of 3 strand ropes used for towing Land Rover sized vehicles both on & off road. Based on the recommended diameter of 24mm (3″ circumference) and 4.5 Metres (15′) between soft eye spliced looped ends.

Type Colour Finish Minimum
breaking load
Sisal Pale
Hairy 4000kg
(4 tonne)
Manilla Yellow/Brown Smooth 4500kg
(4.5 tonne)
Polypropylene (‘Polyprop’ for short) ‘Dead Rope’
Yellow/Brown Slippery 8000kg
(8 tonne)
Polyprop ‘Dead Rope’
White Hairy 8000kg
(8 tonne)
‘Stretchy’- The best for towing
White Smooth 12000kg
(12 tonne)

Telephone: 01363 82666


Goodwinch Ltd, Oakleaf Way. Gunn. Barnstaple. Devon. Ex32 7NZ

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