A Guide to Using Ratchet Straps

Updated: May 26, 2023

Ratchet straps are popular because they're easy to use and secure cargo well. Here's a guide to ratchet strap setup, use and storage.

In North America, sales of light trucks — mainly pickups, SUVs and minivans — exceed those of traditional cars by three to one. Apart from their practicality and comfortability, light trucks are popular because they can accommodate passengers and cargo.

Transporting things — whether sports equipment, weekend camping gear or lumber from the home center — comes with responsibility. Cargo must be secured so it remains on the vehicle or in the truck bed. That’s where ratchet straps come in.

Ratchet straps, aka tie-down straps, are popular because they’re easy to attach and hold cargo in place. However, I’ve often seen them misused. Poorly-secured items can be damaged in transport or even fall off the vehicle, becoming a safety hazard. Here’s how to set up, use and store ratchet straps properly.

Parts of a Ratchet Strap

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Ratchet straps come in two pieces. One piece features a hook at one end and a ratchet at the other, attached via a short woven fabric strap. The ratchet has an axel with a slot in it, a release lever and the ratcheting handle.

The other piece is the loose or adjustable end. It’s simply a hook attached to one end of a long woven fabric strap.

How to Thread a Ratchet Strap

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To set up your ratchet strap, start with a closed ratchet handle. Slide the bare end of the adjustable woven fabric strap through the slot in the ratchet axle and back out on top of itself.

How to Use a Ratchet Strap

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Now that you’ve set up your ratchet strap, it’s time to secure some cargo. Here’s what to do:

  • Attach the hook on the adjustable end to a stable anchor point.
  • Attach the hook on the fixed end to another sturdy, stable anchor point. While you’re spanning your cargo, the long woven fabric of the adjustable end should move freely through the slot in the ratchet’s axle.
  • Pull the strap on the adjustable end taut to remove any slack. This is where many people struggle. If you don’t remove the slack from the strap before ratcheting, you’ll end up with a fully wound ratchet that isn’t tight.
  • Start ratcheting by opening and closing the handle. Ratchet until the cargo is secure.

Note: A properly-used ratchet strap offers lots of force. Be careful not to overly tighten; that can damage cargo.

How to Loosen a Ratchet Strap

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When you’ve reached your destination, loosen and remove the ratchet straps. Here’s how:

  • Pull the release lever toward the ratchet handle until it’s completely compressed.
  • While compressing the release lever, open the ratchet handle to a flat position. You’ll hear a thud and feel some tension in the strap release. Note: The ratchet handle will not fully open if the release lever is not completely compressed.
  • With the handle open, pull the entire ratchet mechanism away from your cargo. This allows the ratchet axle to rotate backwards, loosening the woven strap.
  • Detach both hooks from their anchor points. Now your cargo is free.

How to Store a Ratchet Strap

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If you look online, plenty of videos and hacks show how to store your ratchet straps. Some products come with a storage bag; others have a sewn-in velcro strap to wrap around for storage. Some people use rubber bands or old socks to keep their ratchet straps rolled up and tangle free.

Me? I coil up each strap individually and store them in the compartment beneath the back seat of my truck.

However you decide to do it, here’s some advice.

  • Avoid putting multiple loose straps in the same bag or vehicle compartment. If you do, you’ll discover the hooks catch on other ratchet straps, creating a massive tangle.
  • Don’t leave ratchet straps out in the elements, like in your pickup truck bed. Aside from the constant UV rays drying out and weakening the fabric, prolonged exposure to rain and snow can wreck the ratcheting and releasing mechanisms. They can also be stolen.
  • If you notice a knot forming, take the time to untie it. Besides preventing the fabric strap from sliding through that slot in the axel, securing cargo with a knot tightens the knot as well, potentially weakening or tearing the ratchet strap.

Things to Consider When Using Ratchet Straps

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Each ratchet strap is rated for a specific maximum weight capacity, known as the working load limit (WLL). These refer not to the breakage strength, but rather the amount of cargo they can securely hold.

But just because you’re moving cargo that weighs less than 500 pounds doesn’t mean one 500-lb. strap will suffice. Consider other factors, like wind and the G-forces exerted on your cargo during acceleration and braking.

Select a strap with a WLL exceeding the weight of the cargo you need to secure. And it’s always better to go with more straps than you think necessary, for your safety and that of your cargo.

Ratchet straps can also damage cargo. When hauling large items without packaging, remember the abrasive woven straps and heavy metal buckles can rub and bounce on your cargo, scratching and denting it. In these situations, cover the straps at the contact points with cardboard or packing blankets, and wrap blankets or shop towels around the ratchets.