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On track: Step-by-step guide to safe winching


Imagine this: You’re out driving by yourself, checking out the new campsite that you plan to stay at in a couple of weeks. There is a dry river bed and you are driving through it, and the next moment you are stuck.


1. Always use as few connections as possible – avoid steel shackle connectors, and use soft shackles instead.
2. Always winch off a live tree – dead trees can be hollow and have rotten roots.

3. Never wrap winch rope back onto itself. Use a tree-trunk protector on the anchor.
4. Keep the strap low to the ground – the less leverage on the tree, the less likely you’ll be to rip it out.
5. Never use a snatch strap as a winch extension strap – it’s not designed for this application.

6. Winch lines can become tensioned or snap without warning – stay clear.
7. Always agree on clear signals between spotter and driver before you begin.
8. Only the spotter talks directly to the driver – everyone else speaks via the spotter.
9. Keep the area clear – snapped cables can be deadly.
10. Poorly-maintained gear is more dangerous than cheap gear.

With no-one around, it can be a daunting experience, unless you have the most useful tool in the off-roaders’ arsenal: a winch. With a recovery kit sitting on the back seat, and a tree 30m away, a winch turns something that could be a disaster into a five-minute delay.

The downside is that winching places enormous loads not only on your recovery gear, but also on your four-wheel drive. It’s a simple enough process, but one that can have destructive consequences.


    Electronics have a funny way of malfunctioning at exactly the wrong time. So, now is the time to grab the winch controller, turn on the vehicle and give your winch a quick spool-out under power to test that it is working. There’s nothing worse than setting up for a recovery only to find that the winch motor has seized.
    From here, you will need to select a suitable anchor point. Ideally, choose the largest and healthiest tree you can find. Keeping the tree-trunk protector as low as possible will also help minimise the stresses on the tree. Side-loading a winch can lead to a disastrous breakdown of the winch or the rope, so keep your pull as straight as possible.
    With your anchor-point secure, engage your winch’s free spool and run out your cable or rope.  Free-spooling conserves battery power.

There are many ways that you can use hooks and soft shackles to attach your rope to the tree-trunk protector, but (as a rule) the fewer metal connectors there are, the safer.

    Before tensioning the rope, attach at least one damper to the line. There are two possible hazards: either the cable snaps and acts like a giant whip, or a hook or bow shackle fails. With that in mind, best practice is to throw a damper over the middle of the line and a second damper as close as possible to any metal components.
    Things do go wrong, so ensure that the immediate area is safe. Clear a safe zone at least the length of the rope, and then run through your winching plan. Double-check your connections and straps, and plan out exactly what’s going to happen, what can go wrong, how to deal with it, where you need to steer, and when you’ll reach a safe point to stop.
    Disengage your winch’s free spool and take up the slack in the line. Put your 4×4 into low range first gear, and begin winching in.

Slowly turning the wheels can help break suction in mud and take some load off the winch. You’ll want to match wheel speed with the winch, to share the load − paying attention not to overrun it and tangle the line. Avoid overheating the winch motor.  For extended winching, stop at reasonable intervals to allow the winch motor to cool down.

    When you’re back on solid ground and your 4×4 is stable, release any tension on the winch line and begin disconnecting your recovery equipment. When running the winch line back onto your winch, keep some tension on it and guide it onto the drum as neatly and tightly as possible. A loose winch line allows outer layers to pull through the lower layers of line, tangling them and complicating your next recovery.
    With the winch line in and secure, pack any controllers up in an easy-to-access location.

We recommend leaving them within reach of the driver to save digging through drawers if you’re stuck in mud. When you pack your straps and soft shackles away, put them in a separate storage bag to isolate them until you can wash them. Mud and dirt are abrasive, and friction can make thousands of microscopic cuts in a strap, so clean gear is vital.

This series of articles is written by vehicle recovery specialist Jacques Coetzee, co-owner of Wild Dog 4×4, manufacturer of a variety of recovery equipment.