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Gear: Winch Buyers Guide

When it comes to 4×4 driving, the winch is often a last resort. It’s something we rarely need, but, when it is necessary, often means the difference between staying stuck and moving on. There are many different aspects to winching, so in this article we outline a few key factors to consider before buying and using your equipment in the field. Our focus here is on electric winches, because of their simplicity and popularity. Powertake- off (PTO) winches and hydraulic winches are far less common.

Things to Consider

How much power?

You wouldn’t put the same 4500lb-rated winch on a Suzuki Jimny as you would on a fully-loaded Land Cruiser. A simple rule of thumb is to take the gross weight of your vehicle and multiply it by 1.5 – this should give you the approximate size of winch necessary for your vehicle. Winches are rated mostly in pounds, and 1 pound = 0.45kg, so you have to divide the winch rating by more than half. For example, if a Hilux weighs approximately 2000kg, you’ll need a winch rated for 3000kg, which calls for one of at least 6613lb. This figure will still be inadequate, as your vehicle is likely to be loaded and stuck in deep mud. Just to be safe, a winch rated between 8000lb and 10 000lb would be the sensible choice – so this is our ‘sweet spot’ in the buyer’s guide that you’ll find a few pages ahead. If you drive a bigger vehicle, or are likely to recover larger vehicles, obviously you would go for a higher rating.

Winch Motors

Permanent Magnet (PM) winch motors are synchronous motors that work by using magnets mounted on a rotor. Internal magnetic fields are generated by electrical input to the stator, which repels the magnets on the rotor, causing it to turn. PM motors are cheaper than Series Wound (SW) motors, making them popular for budget winches. PM motors suffer from heat build-up, and ‘cook’ their magnets, demagnetising them and rendering the winch useless. For this reason, extended hard labour is not the strong suit of PM winches. However, they work just fine in smaller winches which don’t need to work for extended periods.

Series Wound motors have stator field coils connected in series with the rotor windings through a device known as a commutator, which ensures the largest possible current flow. With a SW motor, an advantage is that as speed is reduced, torque increases, which help the winch maintain line speed despite high loads. SW motors are expensive to produce, but are resistant to overheating and so the choice for high workloads.


7Winch gear trains convert the high-speed, low-torque output of an electric motor into a high-torque, low-speed pulling machine. Electric winches use three different types of gearboxes to achieve this.

  1. Spur gears
  2. Worm gear
  3. Planetary gear

Weight & Size

Weight is always a factor in the decisionmaking process. Because the winch hangs in front of the front axle, its effect on your suspension is multiplied by the distance it hangs ahead of this pivot point, making the vehicle nose-heavy. The no-line weight of the 10 000lb winches listed in our guide ranges between 36 and 42kg – hefty, indeed. So, whether you drive a Jimny or a Land Cruiser, it’s recommended that beefier front springs are fitted to compensate for the extra weight. Size and shape also play a huge factor. If you want the winch hidden behind a stock bumper, a compact unit is vital, but if you’re fitting a winch to an old Land Rover or Jeep, a bulkier unit with the motor positioned above the cable spool is an option.

Further, when considering what type of winch line you want, bear in mind that a synthetic line will be between 10 and 15 kg lighter than a steel cable of the same length. Also, synthetic line can run in a Hawse fairlead (600 grams) as opposed to the 4-way roller fairlead for steel cable (5-7kg).

The Electrics

No matter how much money you spend, your winch is only as good as the power it’s supplied with. In most cases, the standard battery in your 4×4 will provide adequate power for your winch, provided your engine is running. As the stock battery is linked in direct parallel to your alternator, the alternator will keep the battery charged up as the winch draws power.

Link the winch to the battery with heavy-duty cables that are as short as possible. If you have a second battery installed, use it as a backup in case your starter battery (with the winch attached) goes flat, and to run your usual ancillaries such as fridges and radios. And, when winching, keep your engine running at a high idle to give your alternator the best chance of providing the power needed. Remember that discharging your battery completely, even just once, can cause permanent damage to it and reduce its performance.

Warn recommends a fully charged conventional automotive battery with a minimum of 650 cold cranking amps. If you’re going to be winching in competitions, then you’ll probably need to install an aftermarket alternator which has a 100% duty cycle (so that it can run continuously for long periods of time) and which puts out between 100 and 150 amps. But, depending on the winch you purchase and the output of your standard alternator, you may not need to change anything.


The traditional set-up is a hand-held control connected by a wire to the winch. The in-cab option offers the benefit of operating the winch from inside the vehicle. Wireless is relatively new technology, offering a safety advantage over other methods by allowing the operator to stand away from the winch. However, the downside may be that some fine control is lost due to input delays. Most systems have a plug-in override.

Cable Length

Winch load ratings are measured at their strongest with the line almost fully extended (less than a full first layer on the drum). As line is winched in, the effective gearing is progressively reduced. If you have the option, release the line to the first layer on the drum for maximum power. Winch line length varies between 24m and 32m in our winch buyer’s guide.

Steel vs Synthetic Cable

Synthetic rope is the more expensive option but it offers clear advantages. It is up to 80% lighter and 30-90% stronger than steel cable of the same diameter, doesn’t kink, is easier to handle, and safer in the event of breakage. The downside is that synthetic line can perish over time and become weaker, and also tends to fray if it comes into contact with rocks or rough ground. When winching with an almost full spool, synthetic line can be trapped beneath the rest of the wound line, and become jammed.

Steel cable is cheaper, lasts longer, and offers both greater durability and less maintenance. On the downside, it’s difficult to handle and needs regular lubrication to fend off corrosion. Also, barbs and kinks are near-impossible to fix, as is a snapped cable, while synthetic rope can usually be tied back together in an emergency.

With regard to weight, a standard 30-metre 3/8 steel winch cable will weigh close to 12kg, whereas the synthetic equivalent rated for the same pull will be thicker, but weigh just 1.6kg.

Mounting Systems

Winches must be mounted directly to the vehicle chassis, whether you have a bull bar fitted or not. This ensures that the mounting system is capable of supporting the full pulling capacity of your winch. Most modern bull bars have a space for a winch and fairlead, and a number of appealing close-fitting options are available. The alternative is to choose a compact winch and modify the standard bumper.

Basic Winch Safety

1. Keep everyone but the operator far away from the winch, and standing to the side − not in line with the winch line.2. Do not step over a live cable.

3. Always use the hook strap when handling the hook for spooling, in order to prevent hand injuries.

4. Always use leather gloves when handling steel cable.

5. Apply chocks to anchor vehicles if performing a recovery.

6. Disengage the winch clutch when it is not in use.

7. Do not pull at, or near, the rated load capabilities of the winch for more than one minute, and for no more than two minutes at a time in normal circumstances. Let the winch cool if it becomes hot to touch.

8. Never exceed the maximum rated line pull.

9. Always keep tension on the winch when respooling, and layer the winch line evenly.

10. Never hook a winch line to another vehicle’s tow ball (gooseneck), as this is not designed to cope with the forces of recovery and could shear off.

11. When spooling in the winch line under heavy load or during recovery, try to keep the cable layered as evenly as possible. If it does overlap at some point, continue the recovery and re-spool evenly afterwards.

12. Never connect the hook back to the cable – this kinks the cable and will weaken it.

13. If you’re driving your vehicle and winching at the same time, get out every couple of metres and check the winch to make sure that the line is not piling up on one side of the drum. Jamming of the winch line can damage the winch.

14. Do not attach tow hooks to winch-mounting apparatus – tow hooks should be mounted directly to the chassis.

15. When double/triple lining, the winch hook must connect to the chassis of the winch vehicle.

To read more articles from this issue please click here. To buy a copy of our magazine, please click here.

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