Soft Shackles vs Hard Shackles: Which Should I Use?


This oft-debated and discussed question is probably a little less ambiguous than customarily answered. Most of the time, people respond, “get whatever shackle you want to run.” While that is generally an excellent neutral approach, it is helpful to learn a little about the strengths and weaknesses of both types.

Good day everyone and welcome to a new installment of AllOutdoor’s Off-Road and Overlanding series brought to you by onX Offroad–mapping software for all your adventures.

We are big proponents of teaching “a” way to do something, recognizing that there are many ways to perform a task. However, I’ll caveat that the concept is more a continuum than ways with equal footing—not all methods are as safe or efficient as others.

Like everything in the backcountry/wilderness/”not at home encased in bubblewrap” environments, there will always be a “risk versus benefit” assessment along with understanding “ideal to real.” These are two concepts we use in medicine, and both apply equally well in off-road recovery.

Why do I need a shackle anyway?

Shackles are the components you use to connect things to things when rigging off-road recovery gear. We don’t generally use climbing gear or carabiners (with some exceptions) because they are not rated for the loads that we are managing, especially when we have the potential to shock load our system.

In a couple of our other posts, shackles are an important component. We use them to anchor the tree savers when towing. Shackles are also an important tool when setting up a double-line pull.

You can use either a screw pin bow shackle or a soft shackle with a pulley block.

What is a hard shackle?

The most appropriate version for off-road is a “screw pin bow shackle.” Not to be confused with a “D” ring (though such a thing exists). The hard shackle is a metal loop with eyelets on the open end (called “ears”), one of which is threaded and which accepts a “pin.” The pin has a shoulder that stops it at the correct depth, and it also has a hole. This hole can be used with wire to prevent the pin from coming unthreaded–but this is more of an industrial application. Instead, we use the hole as an insertion point for a screwdriver to give leverage for unthreading.

Screw pin bow shackles have been around for some time, and still have an important place in recovery.

Hard shackles come in various sizes and materials, so it is essential to pay attention to what you are getting–not all versions are equal. The most crucial factor to pay attention to is the Working Load Limit. This is true of nearly all off-road gear. The Working Load Limit lets you know what you can safely pull with the piece of equipment.

We can link two hard shackles together if needed. So long as we don’t exceed the Working Load Limit.

As an example, the 3/4-inch screw pin bow shackles from van Beest boast a 4.75 ton Working Load Limit and weighs about a pound.

The greatest strength in a screw pin bow shackle comes from pulling in line with the body (not against the sides).

We want to use hard shackles when connecting to any metal recovery point with sharp edges, or that is not radiused. The downside is that these unforgiving devices can damage softer surfaces they might encounter.

The author’s truck has recovery points unsuitable for soft shackles because of the non-radiused recovery points.

Screw pin bow shackles are most often used when we need abrasion resistance. But they are heavy and can become lethal objects if we have a failure in our system. They also tend to have a much lower working load limit than an equivalently sized soft shackle.

Pro tip: Do not leave your hard shackles attached to your recovery points. They can work loose on the road and will not be there when you need them. I have a box full that I have found on the trail over the years…

What is a soft shackle?

A soft shackle is a chunk of synthetic line that is woven to include a thick ball end (called the “head”) and a loop on the opposing end (called the “noose”). The noose end allows you to open it up when the line is slack and becomes tight under tension.

The soft shackle is threaded between other components in your recovery system. It is connected by slipping the “head” through the “noose.” The tensioned pull areas on the shackle are the neck (just below the head) and the mid-point of the shackle. This configuration keeps the head from pulling back through the noose.

The Safe-Xtract soft shackles have contrasting paint so you can see at a glance they are rigged correctly. Green is where the pulling should occur.

Soft shackles are generally stronger than their hard/metal counterparts. Materiel science has come a long way; synthetic materials can be created with enormous strengths. Compared to the van Beest mentioned above, a 3/4-inch soft shackle from Safe-Xrtract has a Working Load Limit of about 13.7 tons (though it weighs a bit more–1.9 pounds). To get comparable strength to the van Beest, we could use a 7/16-inch soft shackle that weighs a half p0und.

A soft shackle is used to attach the large runner on the hi lift to the rest of the recovery gear.
Rather than using a wheel kit, a soft shackle allows you to more safely lift a vehicle’s wheel with a hi lift jack.

The biggest drawback to synthetics is they are affected by UV light and, if not cleaned regularly, can pick up sand and other abrasives that can wear them down. Hard shackles laugh at dirt and sunshine. Soft shackles also generally cost more.

Even old retired soft shackles have a purpose in life–in this case it is to anchor my winch line when not in use.

Soft shackles should be used when you are not concerned with abrasion and have them (since it can be pricey to have a bunch in your kits). Soft shackles are my go-to for everything but the recovery points on my vehicle.

End

I think you should carry a mix of both in your kits. Not everyone is going to have smooth recovery points on their vehicle. There are some cases in which you may want to bridge synthetic material to metal to synthetic–using the hard shackle alternated will reduce the friction between the materials preventing your synthetic line from cutting through another part of your rigging.

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Doc Rader

Tom is a former Navy Corpsman that spent some time bumbling around the deserts of Iraq with a Marine Recon unit, kicking in tent flaps and harassing sheep. Prior to that he was a paramedic somewhere in DFW, also doing some Executive Protection work between shifts. Now that those exciting days are behind him, he has embraced his inner “Warrior Hippie” and assaults 14er in his sandals and clean shaven face (bye, beard), or engages in rucking adventure challenges while consuming copious water. To fund these adventures, he writes medical software, teaches wilderness medicine and builds websites and mobile apps. He hopes that his posts will help you find solid gear that will survive whatever you can throw at it (and the training to use it). Learn from his mistakes–he is known (in certain circles) for his curse…ahem, ability…to find the breaking point of anything.



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