How to Properly Tow a Car

Tow truck tows a car after a collision with a truck. Ruben de Rijcke

When it comes to getting a car unstuck, the best way to do it safely yourself is by using the proper gear—namely, a tow strap—in the right way and by taking the proper precautions.

Choosing a Strap or a Chain/Cable

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

Tow straps are made up of long strands of strong nylon with hooks hard-sewn into each end. Because they are small and lightweight (even with the hooks), they should be part of your vehicle's emergency kit, especially in climates where you are likely to get stuck in mud or snow. But you need to learn how to use one first. Used correctly, a tow strap can be a lifesaver; used incorrectly, and you can cause damage to your car, or maybe worse.

Although some people prefer a tow chain or cable (which also have hooks at each end) to the classic nylon strap, there is surprisingly little difference in the strength between the three. Plus, a lot more can go wrong if the chain or cable breaks. There is always a chance that the strap, chain, or cable will fail under the tremendous strain—either the hooks come free of one or both of their attachment points, the chain or cable snaps, or the strap tears—in which case, you'll be glad you chose the nylon strap. Far less weight will be hurtling at you, a companion or any part of your car if the nylon strap breaks.

Attaching the Hook to the Towing Vehicle

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

Regardless of which line you choose to tow with, you'll attach them all the same way to the rear of the towing vehicle, either to some kind of mounting point located on or near the rear bumper (almost every vehicle has one) or to a trailer hitch, which will have steel loops for mounting a hook. Both of these locations will provide plenty of structural support for most towing operations.

Hooks should only be attached to one of these secure locations—nowhere else on the vehicle—and you should make sure that the hook is properly and securely 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 Other Hook to the Car Being Towed

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 other end of the towing line to the vehicle you are towing, first, make sure that the strap is not twisted. Although this does not greatly impact the capacity or strength of the strap, it will eventually wear on the material, so flatten it out to remove any kinks, twists, or knots before finishing this step.

You will now need to attach the other hook to the mounting hook located on the front of the vehicle that is 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.

Some vehicles have plastic covers over the hooks while others are hidden in recessed nooks. Whatever you do, do not attach the tow strap directly to the axle or any other metal part hanging out under the front of the vehicle. 

Start to Pull

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. Both vehicles should be manned. If the vehicle being towed is functioning, the driver can put it in drive or first gear, with the parking brake off. If the vehicle being towed is not functioning, it should be in neutral gear. Now, as the driver of the towing vehicle, you should then very slowly creep 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 and could cause the tow hooks to come free. 

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 the vehicles. In the old days, the bumper might have been able to take the pressure, but modern cars and trucks have bumpers 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 could cause the strap 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.

Never pull an unmanned vehicle, and never use a tow strap to move a car at highway speeds. Towing in this manner is meant to pull a car safely out of a ditch, snowbank, muddy spot, or any other place off the side of a road or highway. Once the car is back on solid ground, and can be driven, the driver can continue on. If the car is not functioning or is severely damaged, then the owner should call a tow company to move the vehicle.