A winch may not be the most glamorous of car accessories, but this simple piece of kit is a handy and versatile addition to any off-roading adventure. A winch is a relatively simple mechanism that winds the wire around a drum while maintaining a consistent tension on the wire. They can be used for everything from recovering a vehicle on a muddy trail to uprooting tree stumps for landscaping purposes.
In our ultimate guide, we walk through how these devices work, what they are typically for, and how to use one safely. We’ve also briefly explored the buying options you’re likely to have if you decide to acquire one of these versatile devices.
How Winches Work
Humans have been using winches to tackle heavy lifting jobs for literally millennia. The ancient Greeks used them to construct their bridges, lift heavy objects, and undertake large building tasks. Although most of today’s winches now depend on a motor rather than human elbow grease for their operation, the basic technology has changed very little.
A winch consists of the following components:
- A Cable – originally made from rope, most winching cables are now made from steel, which offers the excellent tensile strength required to maneuver heavy objects. These cables, which tend to vary in length from 40 to 100 feet, connect the object to be winched to the next component; the drum.
- A Drum – The drum is a horizontally positioned cylinder, which the winch cable is wound around. Inside, a spool allows it to rotate, so the cable is drawn in and neatly wrapped around its outside.
- A Motor – Usually an electric motor connected to the vehicle’s battery, this provides the power required to rotate the drum. Some winches depend on hand power for this rotation, but most of the devices you’ll see today are indeed powered by a motor.
- A Gear Train – A system of gears that converts the power put out by the motor into pulling power.
- A Hook – A basic but effective part of the winching system is the hook. This is the means by which the cable is attached to whatever object requires pulling.
These components come together to drag whatever item is attached to the end of the cable towards the drum. Since winches are often attached to the back of towing vehicles or the front of ATVs, this usually means that the heavy items are dragged towards the vehicle itself.
How to Use a Winch Safely
Clearly, winches have a huge variety of uses – and they can be a real life-saver! However, as with any tool, it’s vital that winches are used correctly to avoid injury or damage, and to ensure whatever job you’re undertaking is carried out as efficiently as possible.
Our handy guide will take you through the essential steps to winching safely.
When you want to use a winch, the first challenge you’ll encounter is installing it. Improper installation can result in damage to both the winch and the vehicle it’s mounted on. Unless you’re an expert yourself, it’s best to have your dealer or mechanic install the winch for you, which will typically cost between $100 and $200. A professional mechanic will also be able to ensure that the proper bumper is installed to handle the winch. Most stock bumpers will not be able to cope with the strain put on them by towing with a winch.
- Pretensioning the Wire
Once the winch is installed, you will need to pretension the wire before its first proper use. This process is pretty straightforward – simply attach the cable to the drum at one end, and a heavy object (such as another car) as the other. Ensure your vehicle is in the park, with the emergency brake on and the wheels stabilized, before starting the winch. The tension provided by the heavy object you’re winching wraps the cable around the drum correctly.
- Front-Mounted Winches
Winches mounted on the front of the vehicle are there for self-rescue. If your AVT gets stuck in the mud, or on a rock, you can attach the winch to a nearby anchoring point to tow yourself back to safety – with the following steps:
- Plug in the winch’s remote control, and run the cable through to the driver’s seat, so you can operate it while inside your vehicle.
- Find an anchoring point such as a large tree, boulder, or other vehicles. Ideally, this should be straight in front of your vehicle.
- Release the winch cable by deploying the ‘Disengage’ lever. Next, pull out the cable towards your chosen anchoring point, being careful not to pull out so much that it becomes slack.
- Wrap a tree-trunk protector around the anchoring point – this is a thick nylon strap with a loop on each end. Position the loops so that you can hold them both in your hand, before connecting them together with a ‘D’ shackle. (Most winches come with these tools, but if not they are inexpensive to purchase online.)
- Hook the winch cable to the ‘D’ shackle, with the hook’s tip facing upwards.
- Re-engage the winch by turning the cable back from ‘Disengage’ to ‘Engage’. This prevents the extra cable from coming off the drum.
- Slowly pull the cable taut using the remote control.
- Clear any people from the area around your vehicle, before getting into the driver’s seat.
- Winch the vehicle towards the anchor point, slowly, using the remote control. Release the button every few seconds to make sure you aren’t going too fast.
- Gently press the gas pedal to help move the vehicle forwards. This will also help you work out when you’re back on stable ground, as the pedal will behave normally again.
- Stop winching when you reach the stable ground.
- Unrig the winch: unhook the cable from the ‘D’ shackle, use the remote control to slowly wind in the remaining cable, unplug the remote, and retrieve the tree-trunk protector and ‘D shackle’.
- Winches on the Back of Towing Vehicles
Follow the same steps, using the towing vehicle as your anchoring point. Ensure that the towing vehicle is in the park, on stable ground, with the emergency brake and wheel stabilization engaged. The hook at the end of the cable should be attached to the towing point on the stuck vehicle. For other objects, the same tree-trunk protector and ‘D’ shackle technique should be used to ensure adequate grip for pulling them towards the towing vehicle.
Using a winch can be hazardous, so make sure you follow these tips to minimize the risk of injury or damaged equipment.
- Always don a thick pair of work gloves when operating a winch, as the cable can easily damage your hands
- When rewinding the cable, don’t let it run through your hands
- If you’re using a tree as an anchoring point, always wrap the tree-trunk protector around the base, close to the ground; wrap it too high, and there’s a lot of leverage that could uproot the tree
- For extreme winching scenarios, weigh down the tense cable with a heavy blanket, tow strap, or winch weight. This helps absorb the energy released if it suddenly snaps, and makes it more likely to fall to the ground
- When using a winch alongside someone else, having a set of agreed-upon hand signals will prevent miscommunication
- Never stand too close to a tense winch line – do not straddle it, and avoid standing between the object being towed and its anchor point. You could easily trip, and run the risk of severe injury should the line snap and hit you
- Regularly check the condition of your winch; inspect the cable for any damage, such as rust, kinks, or fraying, and check the drum surface before every off-roading expedition
- Clean your winch regularly – if it’s dirty, the damage is harder to spot, and dirty metal will rust more quickly
- Never hook the cable to itself, as this can result in damage and increase the risk of snapping – always use a tree-trunk protector instead
- Always make sure the opening of your hook is facing upwards – these forces is to the ground rather than into the air should it fail
Choosing a Winch
If you’re a keen off-roader who wants to give winching a go, there are a few key factors you should bear in mind when choosing your winch:
- Weight Rating
Be sure to choose a winch that can tow at least 1.5 times your vehicle’s total weight, and ideally 2 times. This helps ensure it’s strong enough to pull you out of sticky situations!
- Steel or Synthetic Rope
Steel cables are typically stronger, but they’re also heavier to carry around and cause more damage if they snap. Synthetic rope, on the other hand, is lightweight but is less durable and more difficult to maintain.
Your life could really depend on a winch, so it’s important to select one that has been manufactured by a reputable brand. We recommend Warn or Smittybilt.