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The alternative to heavy steel shackles

We’ve been asked by many website visitors about the viability of soft shackles in 4WD recoveries, so we’ve been testing them for the past two years.

Soft shackles aren’t new, of course. When we’re not off-roading we’re sailing and we’ve been using soft shackles on dinghies and yachts for the past eight years.

Yachties adopted soft shackles once they were sure about the reliability of Plasma, Dyneema, Spectra and other such low-stretch, high-strength synthetic ropes. Soft shackles work well on yachts because they’re easier to connect and disconnect than stainless shackles, don’t gouge decks, don’t have pins that can fall overboard and don’t hurt as much when they hit your head.

The appeal of soft shackles for 4WDers is that if one breaks it doesn’t have the mass of a steel shackle. There have been many reports of flying shackles causing vehicle damage, personal injury and even death.

I was involved in one such incident while participating in the 1986 Camel Trophy that was held in Australia, between Cairns and Darwin, during The Wet. We were snatching a Land Rover out of a bog hole when it lurched sideways, causing a shackle pin on the recovering vehicle to break.

The snatch strap flicked back towards the stuck vehicle and the shackle remnant smashed through the windscreen, missing Ming the driver’s head by centimetres, before punching through the back window and disappearing into the scrub. We couldn’t find it.

A soft shackle in a similar situation may have parted, letting the snatch strap flick backwards, but there would have been no steel missile involved.

Many suppliers are now providing soft shackles for 4WDs, with prices typically between $30 and $100 each. If you’re handy with rope and splicing fid you can make your own for a lot less less. We’re not going to show you how to make one, but there are several websites that have this information.

However, when assessing your skill level you need to reflect on the fact that your home-made soft shackle may need to be relied upon in a life-threatening situation.

All the pre-formed soft shackles we’ve seen are made from high-strength, low-stretch rope, in the same way as marine soft shackles are. That makes them ideal for winching applications.

Some designs use a single bundle of core fibres within an outer sheath, while others have twin bundles. The design isn’t as important as the breaking strain and safe working load ratings.

We’ve used soft shackles in snatch-strap recoveries without incident, but we employ correct snatch recovery technique: a light accelerator foot, with little slack in the strap. ‘Idiot’ technique that we commonly see, using foot-to-the-floor acceleration and way too much slack in the strap could easily break or over-stress a soft shackle.

High-strength, low-stretch rope isn’t designed for shock-load tolerance.

Ideally, for snatch-strap
recoveries, a soft shackle would be ‘stretchier’ and tolerant of shock loading, but more elastic rope, such as nylon, needs to be much bulkier to have sufficient strength.

An eight-tonne-rated soft shackle made from Dyneema rope can loop through a 20mm-diameter recovery point hole, where a nylon one cannot and nylon has been shown in marine testing to lose some of its strength when wet.

Our testing has shown that soft shackles aren’t vulnerable to damage when connected to most recovery points: even those that are drilled through steel plate, with 90-degree hole edges. However, some ’rounding’ of sharp-edged drillings is wise, to shield the fibres in these locations.

We use soft shackles for safety in nearly all recoveries these days, but we have load-rated steel shackles in the recovery bag, just in case.




























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