Play with a truck off-road enough and you’re going to break it. And that means you’re probably going to have to tow it home. Doing so is much more complicated than you might think and risks causing major damage to your transfer case and transmission. Never rely on a tow truck driver to know this stuff.
When a tow truck picks up a normal vehicle, they lift it by either the front or rear in an effort to lift the driven axle off the ground. Even in neutral, if the driven wheels spin, they spin their driveshaft, which connects those wheels to the transmission. Because your transmission may not run its lubrication pump with the engine off or with wheels off the ground, this risks catastrophic damage.
I’m sure you can see the problem when we talk about four-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive vehicles. Lifting one end off the ground still leaves one driveshaft spinning.
In addition to the differences between full-time and part-time 4WD, manual and automatic transfer cases, and manual hubs, individual vehicles bring potential wild cards into the towing equation with unique differential mechanisms, clutches, viscous couplings, and lubrication systems. You can’t count on any vehicle to tow the same as another. Having said that, many 4WD and AWD systems may even drive themselves off a two-wheel tow dolly if you attempt to tow them that way without removing a driveshaft. So attempting to tow an AWD or 4WD car by lifting two wheels should also be considered extremely dangerous.
If that’s the only option available, then you must remove the rear driveshaft and tow by lifting the front wheels. Doing so really isn’t that difficult, but you shouldn’t rely on a tow truck driver to have the knowledge or tools to carry out that job satisfactorily. Learn how to do it yourself, and carry the tools necessary.
A much easier solution is simply to always tow your 4WD or AWD vehicle on a flatbed truck. Throw the transmission and transfer case (if possible) into neutral before winching your 4x4 onto the flatbed, and you’ll be just fine. If you own a 4WD or AWD vehicle, request a flatbed when you call for the tow.
What should you do if your truck breaks down on the trail and you need to get it to pavement to rendezvous with a flatbed? Shifting your transmission and transfer case into neutral, unlocking your diffs, and disengaging your manual hubs (if you have them) should be enough to prevent damage at low speeds for a short distance. Stay behind the wheel of your truck while it’s being towed in order to steer and use the brakes. Appropriate weight-rated shackles and straps should already be part of your recovery kit. Your elastic snatch strap can help reduce the shock of acceleration. And trust me, your buddies will jump at the opportunity to grab a photo of their truck pulling yours, but beers are still on you at the end of what’s going to be a very long day.