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Aircraft-grade steel cable

On Track: Vehicle recovery tools and techniques


When it comes to winch recovery, there is a sharp divide amongst enthusiasts about whether steel cable is superior to synthetic rope. No matter where you go, people seem to argue the merits of both types, making it hard for someone not in the know to get a definitive answer. In the past few years, the popularity of synthetic rope has escalated and it is now widely available; but is it the right choice for you?

Steel cable

For as long as winching has been around, the industry standard has been aircraft-grade steel cable, which is more durable than synthetic rope, but the durability comes at the expense of weight, strength and safety.

Steel is the perfect type of line to use in highly abrasive terrains, such as when winching in and over rocks and muddy terrain, as it is less prone to fraying and wear. Steel is also more affordable than synthetic and requires less maintenance.

However, steel cable can rust, as well as develop sharp burrs as it wears, requiring gloves to operate. Steel is also prone to kinks, and once a steel wire cable kinks, its breaking strength is seriously compromised and it should be replaced.

Synthetic rope

Synthetic rope came on the scene locally around 2014, when it was introduced as an alternative to steel cable by Wild Dog 4×4. Made from hi-tech polyethylene, synthetic rope is considerably safer than steel cable.

It is significantly lighter too, and doesn’t store as much energy as a steel cable, meaning that it won’t become as much of a projectile if it breaks. High flexibility and low weight make synthetics much easier to handle than steel, with the added benefit that they do not kink or develop the burrs that can occur on steel cable.

While synthetic rope has a higher breaking strength than comparable steel cable, that doesn’t make it unbreakable. However, unlike steel, if a synthetic line does break, it can be repaired in the field. Synthetic line also floats, which can mean an easier recovery in a mud hole or body of water.

Synthetic rope

Synthetic rope

If synthetic rope is so great, why would you run anything else? Well, synthetic does have its share of disadvantages. These include susceptibility to some chemicals, as well as to heat and abrasion – all of which can substantially weaken the rope. Because of this, quality synthetic ropes come with a protective anti-abrasion sleeve that slides the length of the rope, as well as a special protective coating.


Synthetic rope steel cable Stainless steel cable
Weight 1.8kg for 30m 11kg for 28m 10.5kg for 28m
Breaking force 8000kg 6500kg 5600kg
Safe working load 2000kg 1625kg 1400kg


To protect against heat build-up from the drum brake, a heat sleeve on the portion of the line that wraps around the drum should also be present. It is important to note that not all synthetic lines are made equal and not all synthetic ropes will have these features.

Synthetic lines should also be properly maintained. Grains of mud and dirt can work their way into the rope’s core, cutting from the inside out, so it is important to spool out the line and wash it from time to time. This is especially important after using the rope in muddy conditions.

The verdict

As long as it is in good condition, either style of rope will do the job and recover your vehicle. It really comes down to personal preference and the terrain you travel over, as well as the level of maintenance that you dedicate to your winch rope.

Keep in mind that whatever rope you ultimately choose, practising safe winching techniques is just as important with synthetic rope as it is with wire cable.

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

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