Read photographer Drew Martin’s personal account of how he used a DMOS shovel to dig himself out of the mud and get his truck unstuck from a salt flat in Baja California.
Ahhh, the feeling of extra salty mud covering your feet, legs, and hands… and all your gear. This can only mean one thing. You’re stuck, hopefully not in Baja on one of the many salt flats that look so enticing to drive on. Wait… shit. Baja it is, and we’ve broken the crust.
This situation usually adds quite the feeling of adventure to any trip. In this one, we’re out in central Baja doing a photoshoot. We’re near the coast, just beating the crap out of 7 trucks on a 120-mile off-road route. We’re riding on a big washboard with softball to duffel bag-sized rocks everywhere in all shapes and sizes, blown-out corners with drainage holes in them going down to ravines, and silt pits knee-deep. The surroundings: a stunning desert landscape that keeps changing around every corner. Sometimes there are cactus forests as far as you can see. Other times it's so barren you wonder if anything could survive there. Simply put, it’s a proving ground of willpower for all things and beings.
At this moment we were considering shooting some high-speed roller-style shots of a couple of the trucks going across this salt flat. On this particular shoot and trip, I was a photographer and Baja trail guide. Even though I knew that playing on salt flats is rarely worth it unless you’re trying to get imagery like this, I was pushing to keep moving forward and play somewhere else. My good bud Kelly Lund was with us, and more than anyone I know, he pushes things further to see what’s around the next bend, or how far his truck will make it… and I love that about him. He’s the volunteer guinea pig.
As we’re all on radios chatting about how maybe we pass this salt flat up and keep moving forward, here comes Kelly doing 70mph across the middle of the salt flat just laughing. We’re all hoot and hollers, then we see mud start to fling and he starts to slow down at a rapid rate. This can only mean one thing, that he’s broken the crust on a wet spot. The fun has just started, that’s for sure. I think I’m the only person in that group who had been stuck on a salt flat before, and I instantly knew we were in for a good one.
Despite this, Kelly is all smiles as everyone starts taking their shoes off and walking out to his 4Runner. The shovel is always the first in order of operations. It is important to dig trenches in the direction that you’ll be trying to get out, for each wheel to follow the other and to not have to just climb vertically out of a hole. And if you're digging on a salt flat, the trenches you dig will often fill up with salty gooey mud and sometimes even full-on salt water. Once the trenches you've dug are good enough, fill them with as many MaxTrax as you. You’ll bury them and have to look for them once your first attempt is over with, whether it’s successful or not. Ah, not so stoked on the earth-toned Trax now are you?
It took about 2-3 attempts of backing out over Trax in trenches dug out by the Delta shovel before we brought in the land cruiser 80 on 40’s. Some bets were made that Kelly's 4Runner would pull out the first time without the 80 airing down or having to use Trax as well. Turns out, the 40’s dug their holes and then had to be aired down and use Trax to get going again. This took about 3 or 4 attempts pulling at different angles with a 50-foot tow strap and another 50-foot Bubba Rope used as a kinetic rope to yank Kelly out. After every failed attempt we had to change angles to have fresh ground with unbroken crust to get the 4Runner out. About 2 hours into it, the final pull got him out and we counted Trax, tools, and straps and got out of there and to camp before dark.
Lessons learned: stay on the most traveled path on any salt flat. Go off track if you feel like getting stuck and making a mess of all your shiny gear. If you’re going to a place like this, each vehicle should at the bare minimum have a quality shovel like the Delta, a tow strap, a kinetic rope, 2-4 soft shackles to connect them all, and 2 or 4 MaxTrax. And if you’re at it alone, you should have all of that plus a winch, and maybe a deadman anchor. Let’s get one more thing certain - make sure you know how to use all of this gear and where to attach it to your vehicle before you go. And don’t forget your shovel, the old STEP 1. The same tool you use to bury your shit.