Few of us have the luxury of being choosy when it comes to the type of tow truck that arrives on the scene when we need it most, but for towing companies, knowing what type of vehicle needs to be towed is important.

In many cases, a flatbed or wheel-lift tow truck will get the job done for most cars and SUVs, but if you need a bus, large delivery truck, semi trailer, or a heavy-duty vehicle towed away, these often can’t get the job done and a boom tow truck will be required.

What is a boom truck, how do they work, and what should you know if you’re waiting for a boom to arrive?

What is a boom tow truck?

A boom tow truck, sometimes simply called a boom or a boom wrecker, is a tow truck equipped with a winch for extricating vehicles from ditches, over embankments, or in any other hard-to-reach place. If we were to rank the various types of tow trucks commonly used today, like flatbeds and wheel-lifts, boom wreckers would certainly rank on top for heavy-duty towing performance.

Booms range from fixed booms affixed to wheel-lift tow trucks for light-duty all the way up to super heavy-duty booms called rotators, which for all practical purposes are essentially mobile cranes for specialized jobs.

Technically, the oldest tow trucks, hook & chain wreckers, would be classified as boom wreckers, but hook & chain tended to stick around as the preferred term.

When most of us think of booms and rotators, we think of the big rigs like those popularized on TV with “Highway Through Hell,” which can rotate a full 360 degrees while carrying 70 tons (and in some cases, even more).

Some booms are incapable of towing and instead are only useful for extricating large vehicles from hazardous areas.

How do boom tow trucks work?

Boom wreckers work by using an adjustable boom and winch system which extends out from the truck and over the vehicle to be rescued. The boom may be fixed in place to the truck chassis, or it may use a pivoting A-frame or hydraulic-powered tube. Some can rotate like a crane, but these rotators are normally only used for large, heavy vehicles.

Most booms have a rubber sling or cradle which then wraps around the disabled or wrecked vehicle. The boom then lifts the vehicle up and relocates it to the desired location, which could be behind the truck for towing, onto a flatbed, or away from the road so that cars may pass, for example.

Boom tow truck

Boom tow truck licensing

Boom wreckers may be big or small in size, so exact licensing requirements and permits needed to operate your vehicle will depend on many factors. Visit the website of your state Department of Transportation (DOT) for more information.

Safety tips for boom tow trucks

Normally, tow trucks with large booms are reserved for heavy-duty jobs that a simple flatbed or wheel-lift cannot handle alone. If you need to have a bus, construction vehicle, or semi trailer towed, chances are pretty good that a boom truck will be dispatched.

Keep in mind the following safety tips if awaiting a boom wrecker:

  • Exit the vehicle and wait in a safe location, such as by the side of the road, if safe to do so.
  • When the towing operator arrives, take their direction regarding safety and stand a safe distance from the boom when in operation.

Are boom tow trucks commonly used in the US?

Yes, but not as common as flatbeds or wheel-lifts. Boom tow trucks are the only choice when large, heavy vehicles need to be towed since no other type of tow truck has the capacity that these big boys have. This means that they are mostly used for buses, semi trailers, or construction equipment like excavators or dump trucks.

What is the difference between a boom tow truck and a rotator?

Boom tow trucks encompass all heavy-duty tow trucks and wreckers, but often those not labelled as rotators or cranes are fitted to a semi truck chassis and can tow 25-50 tons.

Rotators generally denote much higher capacities ranging from 50-75 tons, with a few going up to 100 tons. The Challenger Rotator 9909, for example, can lift 70 tons with ease, but it comes with a hefty $400,000 price tag.

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