Which is best – the high-lift jack or the air jack? It really depends on what sort of situation you’re in, says Gary Swemmer. Both have their advantages and disadvantages.
With Gary Swemmer
Although some people may claim they have never been stuck before, the fact is, if you’re a keen off-road adventurer, at some point you’re going to push the limits and find yourself bogged down.
Come to think of it, many diehard off-roaders will tell you that their best 4×4 memories involve a long and arduous recovery. But for most people, the idea of getting stuck is taboo and something to be embarrassed about, which is why so many of us tend to rush the recovery process and inevitably make the situation worse.
This explains why so many recovery devices have a reputation for being overly dangerous. But the truth is, most things are dangerous when used incorrectly or in a rush. This is why it’s vitally important that the correct procedures are followed when one deals with a recovery device.
The high-lift jack has a particularly bad reputation in the fear-factor department, and as a result there’s a trend that favours air jacks as a safer alternative.
But air jacks have other benefits too. They are fast acting (when used with the exhaust-pipe attachment), require no recovery points and are very stable on soft ground. An air jack can also be used on rocks or uneven terrain, whereas a high-lift jack needs to be firmly placed on level ground.
Some time ago I was travelling through Moremi when one of our vehicles got stuck halfway through a river crossing. A large rock had jammed itself under the vehicle. It was a difficult recovery situation, made worse by the presence of crocodiles in the area. We needed to lift the vehicle as high as possible and as quickly as possible.
Unfortunately, due to the mud and soft ground, a high-lift jack wasn’t going to work, but in this instance the air jack was the perfect tool for the job. We rapidly inflated the bag, pushed the rock out of the way and were soon back on track.
However, it should be said that air jacks aren’t entirely free of danger. An air jack can be inflated using a portable air compressor (it would have to be a powerful one) or via an exhaust pipe attachment. If you use the exhaust gas method, you need to keep a close eye on the jack while it’s inflating. The vehicle can be raised surprisingly quickly, depending on its centre of gravity, so there’s a risk of it toppling over if you over inflate the bag. You may also be worried about the bag bursting under extreme pressure, but a more likely problem is that the exhaust pipe attachment will simply pop off the tail pipe.
Another disadvantage of an air jack is it’s bulky dimensions when packed away. Even when rolled up and fully deflated, it takes up a lot of boot space. On top of that, you’ve got a thick rubber hose to contend with.
The chances are that most people will pack their air jack where it’s least accessible, thinking that they probably won’t need it. Invariably, they’ll attempt countless recovery short cuts before finally resorting to unpacking the air jack.
In contrast, a high-lift jack is readily available, whether it is bolted to the side of a roof rack, in front of a bumper, or mounted on a spare wheel at the rear. What’s more, the greatest benefit of a high-lift jack is its versatility. It’s the Leatherman of recovery tools!
The high-lift jack was invented in the late 1800s and has remained largely unchanged in its mechanical operation and design. It can be used to lift, push, pull and topple a 4×4 from an obstacle. In some instances you can use it to move a rock or tree trunk off the road. We’ve even used a high-lift jack as a replacement leaf spring in an emergency with the suspension.
Regarding the high-lift jack’s reputation as being a dangerous tool, such claims are often related to the jack accidentally shifting, falling or crushing the user’s fingers. The most important tip when it comes to operating a high-lift jack is to be absolutely sure that the vehicle’s tyres are securely chocked and unable to roll backwards or forwards. The other thing to remember is that the jack’s footplate must be placed on level ground.
You should wear gloves when operating a high-lift jack, and most importantly, don’t hold the jack’s stem with your free hand! In the event of the vehicle shifting and the jack toppling forward, you don’t want your fingers caught between the jack stem and your vehicle’s bumper.
Whether you opt for an air jack or high-lift jack, both recovery tools have their merits, and if you’ve got the packing space and budget for both, you will find good reasons for owning both of them. However, given the high-lift jack’s simplicity, bullet-proof design, overall versatility, and ease of packing, I’d opt for the high-lift jack if I had to choose. After all, something has to be said for a recovery tool that’s been around for more than a 100 years.