There are certain hazards you’ll definitely encounter when off-roading. Dirt and dust clogging your engine’s intake, sharp rocks popping even the most rugged off-road tires, the errant bighorn sheep or bear, and the inevitable need to throw away all your personal belongings, say goodbye to your loved ones once and for all, and go off into the woods to become a hermit. You’ll also get stuck. A lot.
Whether your sticky situation is due to mud, loose sand, dirt, or snow, you only have a few options at your disposal to get yourself unstuck. Things like winches and come-alongs are fairly common accessories in the off-road space. But they can also be dangerous and expensive. And tires will only get you so far, especially if the surface and subsurface are more pliable than you first believe. An easier set of tools to use are traction boards, the most well-known of which are from the company Maxtrax.
Last fall, I got sent a set of the Maxtrax Mini traction boards (the smaller, UTV version) to test out. I didn’t get a chance to use them in the mud and sand around our mountain compound, and with winter settling in, I didn’t think I would until this spring. Luckily, we got a weekend weather respite of blue skies, sun, and warm enough weather that we took a family ride in our Can-Am Maverick X3 Max DS Turbo R into the backcountry — while there was still three feet of snow on the ground.
How’d the ride go? Well, we quickly found out that while the Maxtrax Minis are good to have, two isn’t really enough when you get your Can-Am stuck up to the frame rails and the snow underneath it more closely resembles obliterated styrofoam. They’re good, and we’re alive to laugh while telling the tale, but we really needed a full set.
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Crisscrossing the eastern edge of Utah is the Uinta National Forest, a labyrinth of off-road trails and scenic beauty that rivals Austria and its stunning mountains. Some trails are mellow, while others are hard-core. Some I can go flat-out on, doing my best Seb Loeb impression. During the winter months, however, most of the trails are closed to all but snowmobiles or side-by-sides — the official state vehicle of Utah — with tracks.
We found one trail we found that was still open to wheeled vehicles. From an initial jaunt in Hyundai’s Santa Cruz, it didn’t seem all too difficult to explore, especially in the all-wheel-drive, many-inch-travel, turbocharged Can-Am with Maxxis Bighorn wheels. I mean, if the Santa Cruz could get through the first parts, the Can-Am couldn’t be stopped! Plus, the Maxtrax boards were ratchet-strapped to the Can-Am’s frame. If we got stuck, all I’d need to do is pop them off.
With my wife and three children in their seats, we headed off into the Uintas for a couple hours of fun blasting around and playing in the snow.
We quickly passed where we stopped with the Santa Cruz and started climbing and getting deeper into the backcountry. The snow in spots wasn’t too deep, and the trail was fairly well-groomed from countless snowmobiles. The surface felt good and hard, and I wasn’t too concerned about getting stuck. But as we climbed further, the snow’s depth got deeper and deeper and fear crept into my mind.
I figured if I kept my foot on the throttle and kept us moving, we’d be fine. Stay moving, don’t sink. On and on we went. Mile after mile. More and more elevation and farther and farther away from civilization. For what it’s worth, we still had cell reception, but we didn’t check until later.
At a certain point, my wife looked at me. "Let’s turn around and head back to a spot with a field where the kids can get out and play in the snow," she said. I agreed and then chose the worst spot imaginable to pull a U-turn.
Now, that spot looked fine. It was wide enough for the very long Can-Am to turn around in, and there was plenty of space just in case a snowmobiler came flying through. The issue, however, was that while the surface of the snow was solid and could support us going straight, as soon as you broke that surface layer, the snow beneath it resembled sugar, a fine, crystalline substrate that offered zero traction.
Within moments of me turning the Can-Am halfway around, it was beached to its frame rails.
All we had with us to get us unstuck were the two Maxtrax boards, a ratchet strap that kept the Maxtrax on the Can-Am’s frame, and a kinetic recovery rope. At the time, we didn’t have a recovery shovel in the Can-Am, although that’s since been rectified with one from Rhino USA. This was not exactly the best gear to get yourself unstuck alone in the wilderness.
After a protracted sigh, my wife and I were out of the Can-Am and digging out the rear wheels with the Maxtrax to get them underneath. Because of the snow’s consistency, it wasn’t too difficult to get the boards underneath them in short order. And with a few sharp kicks to wedge them in there, I felt confident enough to try and get us moving again. Yeah, that didn’t happen.
Even with the tires grabbing at the boards, the front end was stuck in deep, and we ended up pushing further into the snow. I killed the engine and rested my head on the Can-Am’s steering wheel, trying not to let the idea creep into my mind that I’d just gotten my entire family stuck deep in Utah’s hinterlands. I did forget to take pictures of us stuck, as I was panicked enough to not care about coming home with a story to tell.
I removed the Maxtrax from beneath the rear tires and put them under the front wheels. I was going for an improvised ramp to climb back onto the harder top layer of snow. I tried again, and while the front wheels clawed at the boards, we were still stuck.
What actually helped calm my nerves was that I’d been stuck before without Maxtrax boards or winches. I knew I just needed more traction and to get traction at the front. We also needed to dig ourselves out a little more than we’ had. Simple! Mercifully, there was a grove of dead trees not too far from where were stuck. Just the thing from which to harvest a few more traction elements. With a few hard kicks, some grunting and lumbering through the deep snow with broken logs, we had our boards.
The rears got my improvised units of three logs apiece jammed at a 45-degree angle of the front of the tires. I also reset the Maxtrax boards at the front and re-wedged them in between the tires. After a bit more digging, I got back behind the wheel and gave the Can-Am the beans.
The Maxtrax Minis at the front and my bespoke wedges at the rear, we were freed moments later from the nearly four-foot holes I’d initially dug while trying to turn around.
I’d like to say I’m an off-roading god, a driver so adept at all things non-pavement that I could hit up Dakar or WRC and beat Evans, Ogier, Loeb, or Sainz Sr. in short order. Or I could go to Moab and one-up all the Easter Jeep Safari folks and their custom rigs with portal axles and 37-inch tires. Yet, me getting stuck and then writing about it proves that I’m no god. That’s OK! This is the reason why things like Maxtrax Minis exist, and I’m glad they do.
Without the Maxtrax Minis and some quick improvisation, we might’ve been well up a creek without a paddle. On the day we got stuck, we only saw two other side-by-sides, and they passed us an hour after we’d already got ourselves unstuck and headed three-quarters of the way back down the trail. It’s unclear if they made it past where we’d become stuck, but we didn’t see them again. I’m sure they’re fine.
The Maxtrax Minis can be currently had for $199 for a set of two. That isn’t bad considering how well they work, but you really need four, which doubles the price. That’s still not terrible since they’re a safety item, one that could mean the difference between getting stranded and going home. To me, they’re well worth the investment.