What Is A Tow Rope?

Tow ropes are durable, heavy duty lengths of rope designed for towing, recovery, and perhaps other uses as well. When people refer to tow ropes, however, many times they may refer to various other accessories as well.

You may find tow straps, recovery kinetic ropes and even wire rope cables referred to as tow rope, but if you want to be specific about it, a tow rope should be an actual rope – that is, twisted and braided strands made from natural or synthetic fibers, with both ends terminating in either braided loops, hooks, shackles, or clevises for attaching them on to the vehicles.

Tow ropes provide you with a versatile tool for a wide variety of towing applications, and if you live in an area that sees heavy snow, you won’t want to drive out without one. They can be used for general purpose towing, and they are especially effective at recovering stuck or mired vehicles, too. Tow ropes are also a popular choice for watersport and boat towing, as well as for aircraft use and other industrial applications.

What Are Tow Ropes Made From?

Most of the tow ropes available on the market today are of the synthetic type, and made from a variety of materials that offer varying degrees of stretch, break strength, abrasion resistance, and other characteristics.

There used to be a time when all the tow ropes used for towing were natural fiber ropes, and they worked fine for on-road towing, steady pulling and other applications where consistent force is applied. You may still find them around, and they do come cheap if you’re willing to overlook their disadvantages.

Natural fiber ropes that are more or less suitable for towing applications include manila rope or sisal, and in terms of strength, none of the other natural options come as close. That said, even heavy duty natural fiber ropes are rather limited in terms of breaking strength.

Man-made synthetic fibers, on the other hand, offer much higher break strength ratings, along with other desirable properties such as water and abrasion resistance. Nylon rope was one of the first synthetic options that were quickly adapted for tow rope use, and it still remains as one of the most popular options for building recovery ropes.

A tow rope made of nylon is very elastic, and it can stretch to as much as 30% of its original length under tension. The elasticity of nylon and other similar synthetic fibers make them useful for building tow ropes designed for kinetic recovery, which we’ll look at later.

A tow rope made out of 100% nylon could be too stretchy for regular on-road towing, so other synthetic fibers are also used to make tow ropes with less stretch. You will see tow ropes made with polypropylene, polyethylene or polyester, usually blended with a certain amount of nylon, to make tow ropes with significantly less stretch.

Towing ropes are rated for breaking strength, and most manufacturers will color code their products to correspond to their maximum pulling capacity. Nylon is still the preferred choice for making versatile tow ropes that can be adapted to both on-road towing and vehicle recovery, and heavy duty tow ropes are typically made up of 3 strand nylon tow rope or braided ply.

Nylon, for most cases, still remains as a top pick for getting the right balance between affordability and towing capacity, and tow ropes made from nylon can bear a very high weight capacity when braided or twisted as a multi-ply rope.

Nylon is also highly resistant to water, oil and other substances, which makes nylon tow ropes especially suited for automotive applications.

Tow Rope Attachments:

​A tow rope will usually come with features for attaching the rope to the vehicles. These can be as simple as a hoop on the ends of the tow rope. Some tow ropes may come with hooks, safety snaps or shackles. Tow ropes are also sometimes used with retractable rope housing accessories, ratcheting systems, or winch drums as well.

For general purpose towing and recovery applications, most experts recommend a synthetic tow rope without hooks, especially in the case of kinetic tow ropes designed for vehicle recovery. The sheer amount of energy that these elastic ropes can store under tension can be very high, and the resulting rebound when a hook or a shackle fails can be deadly.

Tow ropes have been known to send hooks right through the cabin rear window or injure bystanders that way. On the other hand, tow ropes that use loops at their ends are significantly safer in this regard.

Tow Rope With Hooks

Tow Rope With Hooks

Tow Rope With Loops At The End

Tow Rope With Loops At The End

D Shackles For Tow Rope

D Shackles For Tow Rope

What Is the Purpose of A Tow Rope?

Tow ropes are used for towing another vehicle along the road, or for the recovery of stuck or mired vehicles. Tow ropes may not be the ideal accessory for certain applications, such as for on-road towing or for recovering overturned vehicles – in these cases, a tow strap is usually the better option.

The tow rope does offer important advantages over tour other options such as tow straps, tow cables, and tow chains, especially in terms of versatility.

Tow ropes can be used to tow vehicles along the road, and it will work just as fine if not as highly recommended as a tow strap or a tow bar. The same tow rope, on the other hand, can also be used to rescue another vehicle stuck in the mud – something that can’t be said so easily for tow straps.

Tow ropes are also lightweight and easier to handle compared to tow cables or tow chains. If you have a tow rope with a soft eye spliced loop at each end, then you also have a much safer tool at your disposal compared to wire cables or solid steel chains. 

The tow rope also has one thing that none of the other options have, and that is elasticity. Tow straps do offer some “give” which helps take off some of the stress from the attachment points on the vehicles, but stretchy tow rope is still significantly gentler on both of your vehicles. Towing accessories with zero give, such as tow cables or tow chains, can require much more attention to safely tow with.

How To Use A Tow Rope:

To use a tow rope for on-road towing, the first thing you need to check is the maximum distance between both vehicles. This distance should be no more than 14.5 feet (4.5 meters), so you need to have the right length of tow rope for the job. Thus, you want a tow rope of around ​14.5 feet long, ideally with a spliced loop at both ends.

These loops should go on the appropriate towing points on both vehicles, and ideally, the vehicle being towed should be secured with a shackle. A 3/4 inch D shackle or bow shackle will give you plenty of towing capacity. You may also want to consider a half-inch D shackle for towing smaller cars, as well.

When towing with a tow rope, the driver in the vehicle that’s being towed should be alert at all times. The driver is in charge of managing the brakes, and they should never let the rope go slack or drop to the ground. A tow rope that’s been allowed to go slack is a tow rope that’s in danger of unhooking, or it may be subjected to a nasty jerk when the towing vehicle suddenly accelerates.

​Keeping the tow rope taut at all times not only prevents it from being snapped by a sudden snatch, it also ensures that there is plenty of distance between the two vehicles as well.

​Tow ropes are also handy for pulling another vehicle out of the snow or mud, or for rescuing a car that’s spun off into a ditch. For vehicle recovery such as these, it’s especially important to make sure that both vehicles use the right mounting points to ensure a solid attachment point.

Another use for tow ropes is for giving another car a “push start” by pulling it along. To do a pull start with a tow rope, it’s always a good idea to rule out all the other issues – fuel, engine light, electrics, and others. Then, make sure that the driver in the vehicle being restarted understands what to do – ignition turned on, transmission at mid-gear, and both foot and handbrakes released.

To give a pull start, pull the stalled vehicle along for around 5 to 10 miles per hour until the other driver gets their engine running or otherwise signals you to stop.

What Length Should A Tow Rope Be?

For on-road towing, a tow rope should ideally be approximately 14.5 feet or 4.5 meters in length to put both vehicles within the maximum legal distance for towed vehicles. For vehicle recovery purposes, however, you may want a longer rope in a lot of cases, and a 20 foot tow rope (around 6 meters) is the usual option.

You can easily double the length of your tow rope by threading the ropes through the looped ends, and putting a bit of rolled-up newspaper or cardboard in the center of the loops will help you easily undo the knot later on.

​You should never use hooks or shackles to double the lengths of your ropes. An elastic tow rope that suddenly snaps can turn those hooks or shackles into deadly steel projectiles that can seriously injure or kill someone.

You should only use one line of tow rope as much as possible, and avoid using two or more of them in parallel.

​It’s also a good idea to tie a heavy coat or blanket along the middle of the tow rope. The weight of the coat can quickly dampen the momentum of the tow rope in case it snaps or comes loose. The same blanket, if it’s brightly colored, can also serve as a visual indicator for other vehicles along the road that there is a tow rope between the two vehicles.

What Is A Kinetic Tow Rope?

Kinetic tow ropes are also referred to as snatch ropes, snatch straps, yanker ropes or kinetic straps. They are designed to store kinetic energy as they stretch, and they are used for vehicle recovery purposes. As you might expect, they are used for yanking a vehicle out of deep snow or mud, and they are made to be used with a specific, and somewhat aggressive, recovery technique.

 Kinetic recovery tow ropes require preparation and proper handling, and it’s very important to carefully prepare both vehicles before doing a kinetic recovery technique. You will need to match the vehicles with the right kinetic tow rope, too.

Too thin of a tow rope will easily snap, as you might expect, but using a kinetic tow rope with too much towing capacity may cause it to not work as expected, as well. It’s very important to establish that you have good attachment points on both vehicles.

You will need to have the right shackles (3/4 inch D shackles work well here) as well as solid attachment points such as hitches, steel bumpers, factory tow points, or if needed, tying the ropes around the frame itself.

How It Works:

The kinetic recovery technique itself involves the towing vehicle doing a short running start to add more energy to the pull. First, the tow vehicle puts a distance equal to the length of the kinetic tow rope and attempts a normal recovery from there. If it fails, the recovery vehicle then tries to back up a bit, and give a strong steady pull from that position. It’s not uncommon for recovery vehicles to back up and get a running start of around 7 feet to execute the recovery.

Kinetic tow ropes typically measure around 20 or 30 feet long, and they are usually made of pure double braid nylon. The material used in kinetic tow ropes, as well as the technique used to braid them, ensures that they can safely extend up to 30 percent of their original length under load and back with no issues.

This elasticity helps the recovery vehicle add significantly more power with a running start, while still being relatively gentle on the attachment points of both vehicles. 

With the right kinetic tow rope and the proper technique, kinetic recoveries can be done even with smaller vehicles or in conditions where traction is an issue.

Here Is A Kinetic Tow Rope In Action:

​The video below shows the basics of a kinetic tow rope in action and how it works. The example shown is for a larger piece of farming equipment that uses a much larger rope but the principles are essentially the same.

Want To Share This?