Functional Tool or Fashion Accessory?
Overland Journal tests five of the most popular traction mats and bridging ladders
By Scott Brady
Photography by Scott Brady and Chris Marzonie
The western Sahara is an inhospitable place, a sea of dunes flowing up against the Atlas Mountains, whipped into 1,500-foot-tall ergs. In 2006, I found myself in the middle of that trackless landscape, prepared for a 2,000 kilometer event that would take us into the most challenging terrain that region had available. As a precaution, we had fitted two Mantec sand ladders to the Rhino Rack on our race-prepped 70-Series Land Cruiser. Over the week we spent in the dunes and remote pistes of Morocco and Algeria, the sand ladders remained firmly affixed to the rack, unneeded thanks to the 4-10 PSI we were able to exploit in our internally beadlocked BFGoodrich tires.
Despite my experience to the contrary, sand ladders have adorned the racks, bumpers, and bodywork of expedition trucks for decades—so we set out to determine not only which product performed the best, but if or when they are even needed at all.
While there is no doubt that homemade sand ladders and sand mats have been in existence since the first Ford Model T proceeded gingerly across the plank road crossing the Algodones dunes near Yuma, Arizona, the first readily available and truly functional (i.e. not carpet or planks of wood) option was Marsden Matting, first devel- oped in the United States by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at the Waterways Experiment Station (now called ERDC) in Mississippi. Its primary function was to enable ground crews to quickly construct temporary airfield landing fields on soft or soggy ground. The matting was first manufactured in 1941, and an estimated 800 million square feet was used during World War II, costing an estimated $200 million. The most typical mat was the M8, constructed from high-manganese steel to limit rust. Each unit weighed 66 pounds, and was 10 feet long by 17 inches wide. In later wars the mats were called Perforated Steel Planking (PSP), which is how they are commonly known today. PSP is still used, and can be found along El Camino del Diablo in southern Arizona, preventing erosion from the heavy border patrol traffic. The Marsden Matting was also produced in aluminum, called PAP, which weighs 40 percent less than the steel equivalent. Mili- tary surplus PAP was the first traction matting to be commonly used by expedition vehicles, and became popularized on the sides of Land Rovers in the Camel Trophy.
The primary use of the sand ladder is to provide traction and flota- tion for the vehicle in soft terrain (sand will be the most typical me- dium, but mud and snow can present similar problems). Flotation is provided by distributing the weight of the vehicle over a much largersurface than the tires; traction is enhanced by perforations, cones, or other surface features the tires can grip. The surface traction of the ladder becomes most critical in wet conditions, when the adhesion of the tire’s rubber is reduced. The same issues existed with the original PSP—the braking performance of aircraft benefited from the dimple- die holes punched in the surface. As with most things, this can create a compromise, either by reducing the matting’s flotation or by limiting peripheral uses (more on that later).
Some sand ladders are rigid enough to function as a short bridge, to get a vehicle over a deep but narrow ravine, or up an abrupt ledge. I think a sand ladder should also be capable of bridging to justify its bulk and weight. I have encountered several scenarios in which a bridging ladder would have greatly improved safety and reduced the effort required for forward progress. The most notable was in Copper Canyon, Mexico, where we took a little-used track up the side of Bato pilas canyon, where the switchbacks had deteriorated from heavy rains. At one corner the road had washed out, leaving a three-foot trench. We had no bridging device on the truck, so hours of digging with a pick and shovel ensued, and still resulted in a dangerous traverse when the relocated material shifted and compressed under the weight of the Toyota. A bridging ladder would have reduced the effort and time, and provided a more stable and safe crossing of the ditch.
A sand ladder with enough structure for bridging can also be used for ramping, both to improve breakover, approach, and departure angles, and to allow better access for field servicing the driveline and underside of the vehicle. Eroded riverbanks are a common scenar- io in developing countries, where the infrastructure cannot support bridge-building in remote areas. A bridging ladder is practical in these scenarios, reducing the angle of the bank and reinforcing the surface. This can also be applied to earthen ferry crossing ramps.
There’s no doubt that a pair of PSP sand ladders mounted to the side of a Land Rover looks all the business (coordinated nicely with the limb risers), but we must ask the critical question: How often will I need or use them, and what other functions could such bulky, expensive, and heavy items serve? At a minimum, I would want the sand ladder to provide traction in soft surfaces, to function as a bridging/ ramping device, work as the flooring of my roof rack (if I used one), and have other useful attributes in camp. Maybe as a table between two Pelican cases, or as the flooring of a camp shower. An item so rarely used should justify its weight and space in your vehicle.
Given the above uses, here is how we will define different types of traction devices.
Sand ladder describes any rigid configuration, including PSP and traditional rung-style traction ladders. In our preliminary testing, the rung-style ladders (which look like a ladder used to access a roof tent) performed poorly, as the ladder easily sank in the sand. When select- ing a sand ladder, we recommend a unit at least 10 inches wide and 40 inches long. The units that won the sand climb tests were closer to five feet long.
Sand mats will always be flexible, and often rollable, and include a wide variety of carpet, rubber matting, rolling segments of recycled tire carcass, etc. Prior to selecting the final candidates for this test, we evaluated several soft and rollable mats, and found that none per- formed satisfactorily. As we discovered in preliminary testing, a critical attribute of a sand ladder is its rigid shape, which effectively transfers the rotational force of the tires. For this review, the only mat we test- ed was the PillowTrack, which can be partially inflated for additional structure and support.
Bridging ladders should perform equally well in sand or as a bridging device. The additional bulk and weight of a bridging ladder should be justified when planning for a trip. Be sure it’s required for your intended terrain or vehicle capability. The bridging ladder is a serious tool, and brings to mind scenarios of axle-deep mud in Borneo, or sketchy dugout canoe ferries in Ecuador, loading your beloved 4WD from eroding riverbanks. A bridging ladder will perform impressively when needed, but comes at a serious cost to the pocketbook and GVW.
In addition to empirical weights and measures, the sand ladders in this evaluation were subjected to three field tests. The initial trial was in a wash in central Arizona, where the ramps were placed on a 20-degree grade, the surface renewed between each climb. Climbing at a set speed, we evaluated the stability of the ladders and the amount of resulting wheelspin.
The second test was conducted at the Imperial Sand Dunes in California, which are more consistent with the extensive dune fields encountered when overlanding in the Sahara and Australia. For this test, we evaluated performance from a stuck position, and climbing a 28-degree windward sand slope. We measured pass/fail from the stuck position, and length of climb on the sand slope. For bridging, we spanned a 32-inch-wide washout, and measured deflection and evaluated stability. Units not advertised or warranted for bridging were stacked two high.
MaxTrax $290/pair (Australia) – Overland Journal Value Award
(Editor’s Note: Maxtrax has redesigned their product offering since this article was published. In the newest version, several elements of the design have been improved)
The MaxTrax certainly looks the part of a modern sand ladder, in high-visibility orange with aggressive molded lugs. On initial inspection, the low weight stood out, as did the ease of transport with the integrated handles. The mat is constructed from UV-stabilized, reinforced nylon, which allows for the unique shape and molded lugs, and also ensures long-term durability.
The units are clearly designed with the primary goal of traction, with a ramped leading and trailing edge, and large supporting cones with integrated cleats. To resist bending, and for use in light bridging, the MaxTrax has two full-length supporting beams. In use, the MaxTrax is easy to carry, and can be turned over and used as a shovel.
The clear downside of the MaxTrax is its limited use beyond a traction device. Bridging and ramping can only be considered with a standard sized 4WD, and it would be impossible to use as a work surface, table, or shower flooring.
In our gravel and sand hill climb, the MaxTrax performed in the upper third of the results, sinking into the surface somewhat, but providing good traction. The unit did not pop up or slide out. On our dune climb, the MaxTrax was buried deeper than the Mantec units, but still provided excellent traction, allowing the rear tires to make contact. This resulted in the third highest climb. If the units were even six inches longer, they would likely have scored the win in that test. I expect that the MaxTrax would do well in mud and snow.
Bridging and ramping
The MaxTrax is not intended or warranted for bridging, but we submitted it to our ramping and bridging tests for assessment. When two units are stacked, the MaxTrax easily took the weight of a corner of our 5,000-pound Land Rover, deflecting just over 2 inches on a 32-inch span. It also worked well in ramping, as the fore/aft ramps dug into the dirt at the bottom and cupped the rock face at the top. maxtrax.com.au; available from sierraexpeditions.com, 866-507-4254
- Best performance in mud and wet conditions
- Lightweight, at 18 pounds for the pair
- No sharp edges
- Difficult to mount and store
- Limited capacity for bridging and ramping
The Mantec bridging ladder is a handsome piece of equipment, with PSP-style perforations in the traction surface, and bent and welded support beams along the sides. The units are heavy at 21 pounds each, and must be carried with gloved hands (which should be worn during all recovery operations) due to sharp edges along the beams. The units are clearly designed with bridging in mind, with fore/aft ramps and four-inch-tall structural beams. Also of note are the perforations, which are stamped with the bevel pointing upwards, providing excellent grip to the tires. With very little work, these units could be modified to use as legs for a table, and would also make a good shower platform. The Mantec bridging ladders performed the best in the sand and bridging, at the cost of being the most heavy and expensive units in the test.
The Mantec ladders were the most effective in the gravel and dune climbs, because of the length and their ramp effect. Once the front tires contacted the ramp, the ladders would set and not shift or move, even under moderate wheel spin. The ramps provided the added benefit of reducing or eliminating the ladder from being kicked up or out by the tire. The ramp also reduced the effect of the tire sliding the ladder rearward under rotational force; the ramps dig in like the blade of a shovel.
Bridging and ramping
As expected, the Mantec ladders performed the best in the test for bridging and ramping. With a wide base and heavily reinforced construction, these units gave the greatest confidence to the driver. The sharp, tapered ramps dug into the surface, providing a solid and nearly flex- free platform. mantec.co.uk; available from britishpacific.com, 800-554-4135
- Best bridging device in the test
- Best sand traction performance in the test
- Can be used as a ramp for vehicle service in the field
- Heaviest pair in test at 42 pounds
- Difficult to mount or store
Mantec Sand Tracks $299/pair (England) Overland Journal Editor’s Award
The Mantec Sand Tracks look the part, and garnered the most attention and desire from our group of testers. With classic PSP looks, these ladders would be right at home on the side of a Safety Devices roof rack, bolted to the top of a Sand-Glow-painted Land Rover. However, there is no doubt that Camel Trophy selected the PAP for function well before form, which was proven in our tests. The units are the longest of the group at a full five feet. They also store nearly flat, and would make ideal flooring for a roof rack. They will be less effective in wet or icy conditions, as the perforations only face towards the terrain surface, with nothing but a smooth aluminum surface on top to provide tire traction.
The Mantec sand ladder had a distinct advantage in sand, being the longest and widest unit in the test. It was easy for the front tires to climb and then maintain enough momentum for the rear tires to grab and continue pulling forward.
Bridging and ramping
We approached the bridging test with some trepidation, hoping that the weight of the Land Rover would not bend the well-loved units in half. As with the other ladders not intended for bridging, we doubled-up the Mantec, and gingerly rolled the Land Rover to the center of the 32-inch span. It only flexed 1.75 inches, impressing the entire test team. These units are not warranted for bridging, but worked beyond our expectations in the test. mantec.co.uk; available from britishpacific.com, 800-554-4135
- Good sand performance.
- Many alternate uses, including a shower floor,roof rack flooring, table, etc.
- Surprisingly effective as a bridging device
- Classic PSP appearance.
- Smooth surface reduces traction in wet conditions.
- Large size makes the pair difficult to store.
- Bridging effectiveness limited to a stacked pair and standard 4WD weight
PillowTrack $295/pair (Israel)
The PillowTrack is the new kid on the block, and reflects much outside-the-box think- ing, like the MaxTrax. The unit is billed as serving a myriad of duties: a traction mat in the sand, a bridging and ramping device, a crossed-axle traction device, a lift to raise the chassis when high-centered—even a flotation device and lounging pad in camp. The construction is completely different from the others in the test. An internal inflation bladder slides into one end of a reinforced and rubber-coated outer shell. The bladder uses a single tube for air intake and deflation. It can be filled partially by blowing into the tube with your mouth or a small camping pump, or, preferably, by inserting the Schrader-valve adaptor and using an onboard compressor. The bag filled within a minute (using our ExpeditionAire compressor) and was impressive at lifting the weight of the axle and even the chassis, much like the XJack from ARB.
During our testing, we encountered the perfect proof of performance for the PillowTrack. With the Jeep high-centered on the crest of a dune, we dug under the front tires and inserted the PillowTracks, then added pressure—and the units began to lift the axle, and started to lift the chassis and skidplate off of the sand as well. With the bags at their maximum recommended pressure of five PSI, we engaged reverse and began slowly feeding throttle. The PillowTracks immediately began to bite onto the tire—but instead of providing traction, the bags began to ball up, twisting and rotating under the tire. When they could rotate no further, the tire began to grip, then slowly peel away at the rubber ribs. We never exceeded a slow rotation, but the ribs quickly chunked away. In a moment, the tire caught, and instead of freeing the Jeep, the tire shot the PillowTrack out from under the vehicle, depositing it six feet in front of the Jeep. This was not a good start.
Having tried the PillowTrack for freeing a high-centered vehicle, we moved on to the sand and gravel hill tests. Per the instructions, we added a small amount of air to the bladders, which noticeably stiffened the unit. Based on our testing, it’s critical to strike the balance between adequate stiffness and too much, which results in the device becoming rounded on the bottom. That creates an unstable surface and increases the likelihood that the units will be bounced or rolled to the side. As a traction mat, the PillowTrack performs much better than standard flexible or rollable matting, but still scored last in our tests, with most attempts resulting in the PillowTrack becoming bunched-up or rotated out by the tire.
Bridging and ramping
One of the unique features of the PillowTrack is its potential use as a bridging or ramping ladder, filling in the space of a ditch or creating a ramp for a ledge. The maker’s website is full of compelling images of a Defender climbing various ledges with a full complement of inflated PillowTracks creating a “stairway” to the top. When we tried bridging by filling a small void or ditch with both units, the PillowTrack performed admirably, but an important factor became immediately clear. The bags must be somewhat contained to offer predictable and safe results. When placed in the bottom of a ditch, the bags cannot move, rotate or roll, but when used as a ramp, or to provide traction in a cross-axle sce- nario, the PillowTrack was unpredictable, often rolling or shifting under the weight of the vehicle. On the trail, the slope and material of an obstacle is unpredictable. With even the slightest camber, the bags would roll out from under the truck, shifting under the side load, weight of the vehicle, and tire rotation. We found the performance to be too marginal for safe use. pillowtrack.com
- Easy to store.
- High-quality construction.
- Lightest, most compact model tested.
- Limited performance in sand and mud.
- Limited performance as a bridging device.
- Rounded shape makes the units unstable for ramping and bridging.
- Rubber ribs tear away easily with even light wheel-spin.
- Slow to deflate for storage.
SandMats $146/pair (USA)
Constructed from the same material as the cutting board in your kitchen, these flexible, high-density polyethylene ladders are hand-built in the U.S. and cut into four-foot by one-foot boards, with a single handle on the radius end. To provide terrain and tire traction on the slick poly surface, 61 1⁄4-inch bolts are run through drilled holes and staggered in rows for the length of the ladder. The rows are closer and the bolts longer on one end of the board, to improve initial traction when the ladders are shoved under the tire.
In use the design has proven quite effective (and you have 122 spare 1⁄4-inch bolts available for various repairs). However, those sharp bolts present a storage and handling issue, so the ladder must be kept in a case. Any vehicle panels or other items that the SandMats contact will be scratched, gouged, and dented in short order. These units are inexpensive, but are limited in function to a traction mat, with no bridging or other uses.
I have found these mats to be very effective in sand, especially if the vehicle is only lightly stuck (i.e., the driver backs off the throttle before grounding the axle or chassis). Using a shovel, we cleared some sand from behind the rear tires and shoved the SandMats underneath, the long- side of the bolts contacting the lugs of the tire. Reversing out, the tires grabbed immediately and set the ladders into the surface, providing an easy extraction.
Bridging and ramping
The SandMats cannot be used for bridging or ramping. In our bridging test, the SandMats immediately bent under the load of the Discovery, continuing to bend until the mats rested on the bottom of the ditch. In their defense, the SandMats are clearly not intended for bridging, and with some leverage we were able to bend them back straight. sandmats.com, 623-474-3114
- Indestructible construction
- Works well in sand with a lightly stuck vehicle
- Bolt heads require careful handling and storage
- No structure for bridging, even when stacked
Track Pad $96/pair (USA)
The use of fiberglass-reinforced structural flooring for traction aids has become popular in the last decade. Units made from this material are inexpensive and relatively light, and capable of both bridging and ramping. We found out about the Track Pad when Norm Klapper handed Graham Jackson (of water filter testing fame) a set at the Land Rover National Rally. When queried on the price, Norm told us they would be $96 for the pair, plus shipping. Inexpensive and functional, and even more compelling, cut from recycled flooring. These units are cheap and light enough to justify using as flooring for your rack (photography platform?), and would be easy to mount.
However, handling quickly became a major consideration, as even on the first use, splinters of fiberglass stuck out from where the ladders were cut, and after the first test, larger chunks of fiberglass were peeled away from where the spinning tire made contact. Overall, I like these units, especially given the price. I think it would be easy to put them to imaginative use on a vehicle, much like Steve Schaefer, from Sonoran Steel, who replaced the tailgate on his 1994 Toyota pickup with a custom mount for the Track Pads.
In sand, the Track Pad performed in the middle of the pack, providing good tire traction, but losing some flotation due to the open grating, where sand pushed through with the weight of the truck. These units were buried deep in each test, but of more concern would lift up once a tire hit the leading edge, and even hit the chassis of the Jeep on one run. Bridging and ramping
Bridging and ramping
The Track Pad works as a bridging ladder, but makes disconcerting cereal sounds in the process: snap, crackle, and pop. The unit did hold the weight of the Discovery on a corner, but gave audible protest and flexed nearly three inches. With continued use, I strongly suspect the unit would fail, and probably when least expected. eBay vendor: infopec
- Functions as rack flooring
- Performs as both a traction mat and bridging ladder
- Vehicle weight for bridging should be limited to 6,000 pounds
- Somewhat fragile in use, exhibiting splintering and cracking
- Limited surface area results in ladder sinking in soft sand, reducing traction
This test was not simply an exercise in which product is best suited to the job; it was also an evaluation to determine if the products are worth the bulk, weight, and cost. The testing proved two things regarding function, primary of which is that the sand ladder must have structure to be effective. For example, the PillowTrack has essentially the same surface area as the SandMats, yet delivered 70 percent less distance in the climbing test. In preliminary testing this applied to carpet and rollable mats as well. The rotational force of the tires results in the PillowTrack being wadded up and shot out behind the tire, with very little forward progress being made.
The second attribute that contributed to distance climbed was, not surprisingly, ladder length, as this allows for the most likely transition between the first axle to the next, maintaining momentum. Interestingly, the surface texture and tread pattern of the ladder made little contribution to distance climbed, at least in sand.
To justify the bulk, weight and expense of a little-used tool, we recommend that ladders be suitable for multiple functions, even something as simple as flooring for your rack. Ideally, the ladders could also be used as a table, or the flooring for a field shower. Versatility becomes even more important when the ladders are anticipated to be used infrequently. Other than my trip through the western Sahara, I have never carried sand ladders, and despite the results of this test, I have no intention of doing so in the future. I think the vehicle selected should have reserve capability for the terrain anticipated, the driver must have experience/training in that terrain type, and he must select the proper tire size/construction, and appropriate pressure. With the right vehicle, the need for sand ladders rarely, if ever arises, and they can be replaced by much more functional tools I already carry on the vehicle: a shovel, winch, and Pull-Pal. For the sand tests featured here, we used a 2009 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited with 35-inch tires. At 12 PSI, the vehicle not only (easily) climbed all the hills used in the testing, but also was able to ascend 100-foot tall dunes, chasing 400-horsepower dune buggies through the Imperial Sand Dunes.
For the Editor’s Choice, I selected the Mantec Sand Tracks, primarily because they do everything well, including a second-place finish in the sand climbs and a surprisingly effective result in the bridging test. The units are also in the middle of the pack on weight, yet have the greatest surface area and can be easily mounted to the flooring of a roof rack. The Mantec Bridging Ladder was clearly the best overall performer, but not by a wide margin, and comes at considerable expense in both cost and weight/bulk.
The MaxTrax got the nod for the Value Award. It performed exactly as advertised, and is relatively compact and easy to handle. It performed toward the top of the pack in each test, and yielded good results in bridging and ramping. At $290 a pair, it is a real value. We also considered the TrackPad, but have concerns with long-term durability. Even just a few controlled sand tests resulted in broken edges and splintering. It’s a great value at $96 for the pair, and has proven a popular choice in recent years.
Off-Road Trail Tools Wheel Chock and Emergency Sand Ladder $99 each
As a unique alternative to the single-purpose sand ladder, we tested the ORTT wheel chocks in each of our sand tests. Designed primarily as a robust wheel chock, this device looks at home holding back a 16,000 lb. EarthRoamer and works perfectly as a stabilizing chock for winching operations. It is also designed to be used in emergencies as a sand ladder, and is effective in snow, with dozens of star-shaped perforations. On the gravel climb, they did well, besting the PillowTracks for distance climbed. In the soft sand of the dunes, they were buried quickly and provided the shortest distance climbed. I can see these units working well to complement a standard sand ladder pair used on another axle, or to assist with a properly prepared recovery, by placing the units under two tires once the vehicle has been dug out. Overall, the units exceeded my expectations, and will work as advertised in emergency situations. offroadtrailtools.com, 520-579-2079
Sand Ladder Comparison Click here for a larger version