How to Properly Tow a Car

When it comes to getting a car unstuck, the best way to do it yourself (safely) is to use the proper gear in the right way, namely tow straps, hooks, and cables and the proper precautions.

Towing with Straps, Hooks, and Cables

tow strap truck
Properly attaching your tow strap is crucial. Matt Wright

A tow strap is a strong nylon strap with hooks hard-sewn into each end. Because of their small, lightweight size (except for the hooks), these are ideal for keeping on hand in any vehicle that's prone to getting stuck. Used correctly, a tow strap can be a life saver but used incorrectly and you can cause damage to your car, or maybe worse.

Although some people prefer the tow chain to the nylon strap, there is surprisingly little difference in the strength of these two methods, but a lot more can go wrong with the chain if it breaks. More likely than breaking, both hooked devices have a chance of slipping free of their attachment points, which is where the difference in weight can make a huge, well, difference.

If you experience any type of failure with the strap or chain, it will likely be while they're under tremendous strain as you try to pull the disabled vehicle. It's at this point that both the materials — the nylon strap and the steel chain — and the placement of the hooks are most vulnerable. If something slips or breaks, there's a good chance the free end will come flying toward the end that's still attached. If it's a nylon strap, you'll have far less weight hurtling toward you, which is ultimately safer. 

Attaching The Hook To The Pulling Vehicle

Strap attached securely.
Attach the strap's hook to a secure mounting point. photo by Matt Wright, 2008

Most vehicles have a solid mounting point in the rear of the car that is usually attached to the bumper mounting points or nearby, and if a vehicle has a trailer hitch there are steel loops there for mounting a hook; either of these locations will provide plenty of structural support for most towing operations.

However, hooks should only be attached to one of these secure locations, and you should make sure that the hook is properly attached to the mount before moving on to the next steps. Fortunately, some tow straps come with clasps, which help ensure that the hooks won't slip from the mounts while in use.

As an extra precaution, you should give the tow strap a few tugs while on the way to the car being pulled to make sure that the hook is securely fastened on the pulling vehicle's mount.

Attaching The Tow Strap To The Car Being Pulled

Strap attached securely to front.
Attach the other end of the strap to your car's tow hook. photo by Matt Wright, 2008

Before attaching the tow strap, you should also make sure that the strap itself is not twisted. Although this does not greatly impact the capacity or strength of the strap, it can wear on the nylon so you should flatten the tow strap out and ensure there are no kinks, twists, or knots before finishing this step.

You will now need to attach the tow strap to the mounting hook on the car being towed. This time, though, there should be a tow hook or a strong steel loop mounted just underneath the front bumper (or sometimes closer to the center axle). You should check the owner's manual to be sure.

Do not attach the tow strap directly to the axle or any other metal part hanging out under the front of the vehicle as there are many sensitive parts that might not be the towing hook. Some vehicles have plastic covers over the hooks while others are hidden in recessed nooks.

Pulling With The Tow Strap

Pulling with a tow strap.
Pull the strap tight before you start to pull the car. photo by Matt Wright, 2008

Now that you have both ends securely hooked in, you're ready to pull. There are a couple of things to remember:

  • Never pull an unattended vehicle with a tow strap.
  • Never use a tow strap to tow at highway speeds.
  • Smooth is the word of the moment (as in not jerky).

With both vehicles manned, slowly creep the pulling vehicle forward until the tow strap is tight. Don't try to get a running start, that's not how this works. Once the strap is tight, you can begin to pull the other vehicle. Remember to keep all of your movements nice and slow. Anything abrupt will be felt doubly by the car you're pulling.

What Not To Do When Towing a Vehicle

A bad way to attach a tow strap.
Never attach a tow strap to your bumper!. photo by Matt Wright, 2008

Never attach a tow strap to anything that's not a solid steel hook mounted firmly on your car. In the old days, the bumper might have been able to take the pressure, but modern cars and trucks have bumper made out of plastic and thin tin. Attach a tow cable or strap to them and you'll just destroy the bumper or pull it off altogether!

As mentioned above, you should also avoid rapidly accelerating while towing, especially before the line is tight. Sudden, abrupt tension the strap could cause it to break or the hook to come loose from the mounting, which would result in both flying toward one car or the other, causing further damage to the vehicle or even the driver.