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Basics of Tie-Down Straps

Collage of images of cargo tie-down straps in use

No matter what kind of cargo you haul, tie-down straps will probably be an indispensable part of your equipment. Tie-down straps are available for a wide range of applications. Light-duty straps secure lightweight items like kayaks, and beefier straps can handle heavy items like cars. The strongest straps are used in the trucking industry. Straps can come with several different kinds of hooks, so you're sure to find straps that will work with your anchor points. Typically, straps are tightened down with a built-in tensioning device - either a cam buckle or a ratchet.


Applications of Tie-Down Straps

Cargo straps can tie down lightweight items like canoes, kayaks, surfboards, and cargo bags on hitch-mounted carriers, roof racks, and rooftop baskets. They can also secure heavier items like boats, motorcycles, cars, and large equipment to trailers. They'll safely tie down snowblowers, snowmobiles, lawn tractors, furniture, appliances, recreational vehicles, and even lumber in pickup trucks. Some straps are made for special applications such as securing gear for watersports (including kayaks, canoes, boats, and surfboards), anchoring a vehicle to a trailer, and attaching items to a ladder rack. A strap is available to tie down almost anything.


Pros of Cargo Straps

  • Available in a range of weight capacities
  • Available with different kinds of hooks
  • Lighter than chain
  • Won't scratch finished items the way chain can

Cons of Cargo Straps

  • Could fray and wear if stretched over sharp edges
  • Could be damaged by heat from an exhaust
  • Could break down from long-term exposure to UV rays from the sun

Choosing Tie-down Straps

You'll need to consider the following when choosing tie-down straps:

  • Weight capacity (WLL - working load limit)
  • Length of straps
  • Tightening methods: cam buckles, ratchets, and winches
  • Type of hook: S-hooks, double J-hooks, flat hooks, and E-track systems
  • Whether you need extra security offered by tie-down straps that latch or lock
  • Whether you want extra protection for your cargo, vehicle, and straps




Weight Capacity of Straps

One of the most important things to consider when choosing tie-down straps is their weight capacity. To get the right straps, you need to know the weight of your cargo and the total number of straps you will use to tie it down.


The weight capacity of a tie-down strap is designated by its safe working load limit (WLL), which is a measure of the maximum weight the strap can safely handle. To safely secure a load, the combined WLL of the straps used must be greater than the weight of the secured cargo. For example, if your cargo weighs 1,000 lbs and you are using 2 straps to tie it down, each strap must have a WLL of 500 lbs or greater. It is recommended that you always use straps in pairs.


Straps are also rated by their maximum load (or break strength), which is the amount of weight that will cause the strap to fail. The break strength is usually 3 times the WLL. You should always use the WLL to determine what straps are best for your application.





Length of Strap

Two tie-down straps of different lengths

Straps need to be long enough to reach from tie-down point to tie-down point or from your cargo to a tie-down point on your trailer or truck. If straps are too short, they won't work at all. If they are a lot longer than you need, you will have long, loose ends that could get in your way. Even if you are using straps of the ideal length, there will still be a portion of strap that must be secured so that it doesn't flap in the wind. And because the same straps are often used for multiple applications, it's almost impossible not to have long ends of strap to deal with at some time. Manufacturers of tie-downs have developed several solutions to this problem.


Solutions for Loose Strap Ends

Strap wrapper on tie-down strap

Some straps include a built-in wrapper that is permanently attached to the strap. After you have tied down your gear, you can roll up any leftover strap and then secure it with the wrapper. Typically, the wrapper attaches to itself with an easy-to-use Velcro-like fastener.



Retractable ratchet of ratchet tie-down strap

Retractable ratchet straps include a housing that reels in the strap as it is tightened down. Because the strap is neatly wound up inside the housing, no free end is ever loose to get in the way. This also makes it easier to hook up the strap.





Tightening Methods

The buckle on a tie-down strap lets you tighten down the strap and keeps the strap tight while it's in use. You have a choice of either cam or ratcheting buckles. For really heavy applications, such as in over-the-road trucking, a winch is used to tighten down straps. In this case, a strap with a hook at one end feeds into a permanently mounted winch that is cranked with a handle.


Cam Buckle Straps

Cam buckle style tie-down strap

The most basic kind of buckle is the cam buckle. To use one of these, you simply feed the free end of strap through the buckle and then pull the strap tight. The buckle uses a cam mechanism with teeth to hold the strap tight. The teeth are angled so that you can pull the strap through to get it tighter, but the teeth prevent the strap from slipping back out. When you want to release the strap, you push down on part of the cam mechanism to open the cam and allow the strap to be pulled free. Unfortunately, the teeth of a cam buckle can cause the strap to wear.


A similar, patented buckle is toothless and avoids the potential wear that a standard, toothed buckle can cause. This buckle is used on a tie-down strap that is especially made for tying down motorcycles and ATVs.



Ratchet Straps

Ratchet strap type tie-down

Cam buckles work fine for many applications. However, in some cases a ratchet strap would be a better choice. A ratchet strap is easier to tighten, holds better, and allows you to get the strap tighter.


To tighten this type of strap, you open the ratchet all the way and pull the loose end of strap through it until the strap is tight. Then you close the ratchet and work the lever, opening and closing it repeatedly. Each time you crank the lever, the strap gets tighter. This makes it easier to tighten a ratchet strap than a cam buckle strap.


Ratchet-type buckles can put greater tension on a strap than non-ratcheting buckles because the ratchet mechanism gives you leverage. For this reason, ratchet buckles usually come standard on high-capacity tie-down straps. These kinds of buckles are also sometimes used on lower-capacity straps just to make them easier to tighten.


Retractable Ratchet Straps

Retractable ratchet strap

Standard ratchet and cam buckle straps can leave a loose end of strap free. This loose section of strap can get in your way, drag on the ground, or slap against your cargo as you drive down the highway. But the strap on a retractable ratchet tie-down is wound up in a housing on the ratcheting mechanism. You pull out only as much strap as you need to secure your cargo, and then as you operate the ratchet, any extra strap is wound back into the housing.



Winch for tightening heavy-duty straps

Winch Straps and Winches

A winch that is specially made for heavy-duty tie-down applications is typically used in the trucking industry. A strap that is made for this type of heavy-duty use has no built-in tightening buckle. Instead, one end of the strap has a hook that secures to an anchor point. The other end of the strap doesn't have a hook, and this end feeds into a winch that is permanently mounted on the opposite side of the trailer. To tighten down the strap, you crank the winch with a removable handle.





Hook Types

A tie-down strap is usually constructed with one of several kinds of hooks that are used for attaching the strap to an anchor point. You should make sure that the types of hooks on the straps you want to use will work with your tie-down anchors.


S-Hooks and Double J-Hooks

Double-J hook on a tie-down strap S-hook on a tie-down strap

These hooks can be attached over thin areas of steel on trailers and car bumpers, or they can be secured to truck bed tie-down points and most kinds of anchors, including D-rings. Both hooks will work with most anchors.


An S-hook lies in the same plane as the strap, whereas a double J-hook lies at a 90-degree angle to the plane of the strap. This means that, depending on your application, one kind of hook might cause the strap to have a twist when it is attached, but the other would not.



Flat Hooks

Closeup of flat hook style of tie-down strap

This type of hook consists of a flat piece of metal that is bent double. It fits over a thin, flat anchor point, like the edge of a bumper, the end of square stock, or the edge of angle iron. Straps with flat hooks are often used to tie down cargo on over-the-road flatbed trailers.



Customizable E-Track Systems

Closeup of E-track connector attached to Snap-Loc anchor

Straps with E-track connectors are also available. They attach to E-track or Snap-Loc anchors. These types of straps and anchors let you create a versatile, customizable tie-down system. See etrailer.com's article about tie-down anchors for a detailed description of these systems.





Other Things to Consider

Secure Tie-Down Hooks

Tie-down strap with snap hooks Tie-down strap with carabiners

Some tie-down straps have carabiners or hooks with safety latches. Unlike standard hooks, these hooks can't easily come off an anchor point by accident. Each of these hooks has a spring-loaded device that allows the hook to close completely around an anchor point (like a D-ring), ensuring that the strap stays securely attached. This is important because if your straps don't have safety latches or carabiners and your cargo shifts, the strap could become slack and come off.


In addition to keeping your cargo in place while you're driving down the road, these hooks can also help make make securing your gear easier. When you use a strap with regular hooks, you have to keep tension on the strap to prevent one of the hooks from falling off of the anchor point as you secure the other side of the strap. This can make tying down cargo awkward and difficult. However, if one end of the strap remains securely attached with a carabiner or safety latch hook, you can easily attach the other end to a tie-down point.



Locking Straps

Tie-down strap with locking carabiner Tie-down strap with keyed lock

For added security, some straps feature built-in locks or locking clips (carabiners). You can deter theft of gear such as kayaks and surfboards with these straps. Some locking straps have carabiners with built-in combination locks. Others have a keyed lock permanently attached to the end. All of these tie-downs have steel cable built into the strap to prevent thieves from simply cutting the strap to steal your gear.


Protection for Your Gear, Your Vehicle, and Your Straps

Image of pads for tie-down straps Image of sleeves for tie-down straps

Sometimes when you're securing your cargo with tie-down straps, it seems impossible to keep buckles from pressing against your gear or your vehicle. To help keep tie-downs from scratching your stuff, buckles are often made of plastic, covered with padding, or located at the end of a strap to keep them away from cargo and vehicles. Also, sleeves and pads are available to protect your cargo and the straps where they make contact. Some tie-downs include an extra portion of strap with a built-in loop that wraps around the main strap to protect sensitive cargo.


Updated by: Raymond P.

Last updated: 7/11/18







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