How to Use a Winch

a white Amarok being winched out of a salt lake

“Never let someone else define your adventure, or tell you how to do it. Not even us.”

This is the message we put at the beginning of each post. 

The Rough As Guts mandate is that we must always tell it like it is, regardless of popular opinion. Sometimes it may seem like we’re trying to gate keep the word “adventure” when we say things like “real four wheel driving” or “real camping”. That’s not our intent, but what we damn-sure are hell-bent on, is to make sure people are never putting their limitations on others, advising against reasonable risk and lowering the bar for people who just might have gone and done something incredible if they hadn’t been talked out of it.

Your life is your adventure. Live it however the hell you want.

Table of Contents

How to Use a Winch on a 4WD

Having a winch opens up so many possibilities for a 4WD. 

Even if you’re not interested in hard wheeling and playing silly buggers like us young punks, they add a lot of options for touring as well. They add options for solo travelling where you might otherwise have to rule out some tracks for fear of being stuck until another vehicle passes and they are generally just cheap insurance for a lot of unexpected situations. 

Choosing the Right Winch for Your Needs

Choosing the right winch for touring or basic weekending essentially just comes down to choosing something that will fit your vehicle/bullbar and choosing the right capacity. 

Capacity

Although many online calculators will use your vehicle’s gross mass to calculate calculate the pulling power required for your four wheel drive, it’s somewhat irrelevant for most cases. Sometimes the sheer suction of something like a salt lake will have much more of an affect than the weight of your car, but more relevant is the fact that most winches offered for the type of use we’re talking about (non-competition) are only offered in 9,000lb or 12,000lb capacities. Most manufacturers in this range, particularly the budget friendly options, utilise the same motors in their 12,000 and 9,000lb offerings. Often the 12,000 is just geared down to achieve a higher strength at the cost of a slower pull. As we’re using winches to get us out of the shit and not as a time saving device, it seems prudent to choose the stronger option. A 12,000lb or greater capacity winch is required if you’re going to be relying upon it. 

I have found that having a winch, does tend to lead you to taking a few more risks, so it is likely that it will become relied upon soon enough. 

Foot-Forward or Foot-Down

Foot-forward or foot-down just refers to how the winch bolts on to a cradle or bullbar. Foot-down winches sit on top of a horizontal surface and the bolts go through the bottom of the winch through that surface. Foot-forward butts up against/behind a vertical surface and the bolts go through the front of the winch. A lot of winches will have gearboxes that only lubricate when the winch is sitting upright, so it is important to choose a winch that matches the bullbar or winch cradle you have on your vehicle. 

Most popular winch compatible bullbars in Australia will suit a foot-down winch and they are also the more common style of winch available here. 

 

Fairlead and Winch Rope Type

Do yourself a favour and avoid metal winch cables. They’re stupidly heavy, they always fray and will give you a series of small cuts from handling them. Most importantly, if they snap they hold a huge amount of energy and can badly lacerate anyone in the vicinity. 

toyota fortuner in front of lake
Roller fairlead with steel cable.

Modern synthetic winch ropes are cheap, lightweight, non-abrasive and don’t stretch which means they don’t store energy. Most snapped ropes simply fall to the ground. 

A fairlead is simply the part of the winch that guides the the rope in and out of the winch. Synthetic ropes require what’s called a Hawse fairlead. It’s simply just a smooth aluminium plate that the rope slides over as it passes through. Metal winch cables use roller fairleads which are bulky and don’t look anywhere as sleek as a Hawse fairlead. 

mitsubishi triton in desert
Hawse fairlead.

 

Important Winch Components to Remember

There’s a couple of parts you’ll want to remember before using your winch for the first time. 

Clutch/Free-Spool

Some cheaper winches don’t have clutches that allow the rope to free spool. If possible, get yourself a winch that allows free spooling. This is where you can pull the winch rope freely to where you can connect it to a mounting point. Without the ability to free spool, you have to “motor-out” the rope by using the back button on the winch remote. This will take so long that you may end up wishing for a winch with a steel cable that snaps and kills you quickly. 

Some winches will have an electromagnetically activated clutch that you can engage/disengage with the remote, though these are usually found on expensive models only. There are budget friendly winches that will have a manually activated free spool, requiring a knob to be turned. 

Wired or Wireless Remote

Some cheaper winches, such as the Domin8r Extreme by Adventure Kings, offer a wireless remote which were previously only seen on more expensive options. They usually only last a very short time and you’ll be back to using the cabled remote. If wireless is important to you, you’d be better off going for something a bit more expensive like a Runva. 

Regardless of brand and model, always keep the cable with you. Winches are often going through mud and water, even when they’re not being used. The wireless receiver is often the first thing to fail on a winch and you don’t want to be bogged in shit creek without a working winch. 

Isolator

The final thing you’ll want to familiarise yourself with is the isolator on the battery cable. If you’re buying a cheap winch online, make sure it has an isolator. 

I’ve had this problem many times personally and have heard from plenty of others who have had the same. Where the cable from the remote connects to the winch controller, water often gets into the plug and can bridge two of the electrical contacts. This often leads to the battery draining overnight from the winch being on standby instead of being off. Isolating it after use eliminates this completely. 

 

How to Use a Winch Safely

A lot of energy passes through a winch rope. Enough to injure or even kill. 

There’s a couple of things to keep in mind, to mitigate these risks. This is assuming you’re using a synthetic rope. 

  1. Don’t put yourself between the winch and anything it’s connected to. Even though synthetic ropes often don’t store a lot of energy in the rope itself, there is a lot of energy stored across the whole system and this usually acts through the heaviest part, such as a metal hook or shackle. If the mounting point fails and you have a metal hook on the end of the rope, this can be a serious problem. 
  1. Use lightweight components if possible. Synthetic soft shackles make a brilliant alternative to metal hooks and shackles. If you can afford some, please use them instead of metal components. 
  1. Assume the winch rope will break. Don’t put yourself behind something that’s only being held in place by the winch, such as pushing a car being winched uphill. 
  1. Use a dampener. Most recovery kits will come with a dampening bag that you can place over the winch rope. Use these just behind the heaviest point such as a shackle. 

 

 

Connecting to Your Winch Point

With your winch at the ready and the car stuck in a bog, it’s time to connect it to something sturdy. 

jeep in forest

Winching Off Another Car 

Don’t use the tow ball. We’ve previously discussed in detail why and how tow balls snap and form a lethal projectile. 

Ideally you’ll use a recovery hitch to replace the tow ball in a Hayman Reese style tow hitch. 

If not, you can use a winch extension strap or tree trunk protector around the tow bar itself (not the ball) or a similarly strong and suitable cross member somewhere on the chassis. If there is an existing mount on the car, just be wary as a lot of models have factory fitted tie-down points that are only designed to tie the car down for transport on a truck and aren’t a recovery point. 

Regardless of whether you’re winching off another vehicle or from a tree, you shouldn’t wrap the winch rope around and hook it back on itself. The strength of a synthetic winch rope comes from the braid design and how it evenly distributes the force across all fibres when used in a straight line. At the point where the rope goes around something, it is no longer being distributed evenly. This is also happening at the point where the hook comes back on to the rope. 

Winching From a Tree

Aside from choosing a tree that looks strong enough, there’s a couple of basics to consider. 

You’ll need a tree-trunk protector strap or winch extension, so you can wrap it around the tree to avoid doubling the winch rope back on to itself. It’s better to put the strap around evenly so that you can put the winch hook through both ends of the strap, instead of passing one end through the eye of the other end and strangling the tree. This is partly to protect the tree, but also ensure you get the full rated strength of the strap. 

When using shackles to connect straps and ropes etc. It’s best to use soft shackles, if possible, to avoid creating any projectiles. It’s still best practice to use a dampener regardless of whether you’re using soft or hard shackles. 

The most important thing to remember when using a winch is to never connect it to a snatch strap. A snatch strap (or kinetic rope) will stretch and store shit loads of energy. Enough to kill you if it snaps in the wrong place and launches a steel shackle or hook at your head. 

 

Operating the Winch

Leave the Car Running

Leave the car running while you’re using your winch and for a good 5 or 10 minutes afterwards. Winches draw a huge amount of power, particularly when they’re working hard. The alternator can’t supply enough current to match the demand, so the battery drains even when the car is running, so it’s important to leave it running for a while even when you’ve finished winching. 

Assist the Winch by Driving (and When Not To)

Most times it’s best to drive the car while winching, so that the winch doesn’t have to do all the work. The exception is when you’re stuck deep in real soft stuff such as a salt lake. In such conditions, spinning the wheels often results in digging in deeper and not allowing the car to lift out on to the top of the surface. If this is the case, it’s often good to let tension build up in the winch rope and then add a bit of drive until the rope goes slack and then back off until some tension has built up again. In an automatic car, you can leave it in Drive and idling so the car assists the winch a little without spinning the wheels. 

Using a Double Line Pull

Sometimes you’re so stuck that the winch doesn’t have the power to pull you out, or is going to snap the rope. 

In these cases you’ll need to use a double line pull which halves the speed and doubles the pulling power. All it is, is running the rope through a pulley and back on to the winching vehicle. 

A classic pulley can be used in which case you’ll need a steel shackle to secure it to the recovery vehicle or tree trunk protector. A newer and safer solution has been developed and is known as a winch ring. A winch ring is an aluminium ring with a groove that allows a winch rope to pass around it and a hole in the centre which allows a soft shackle to pass through. Because they’re small and lightweight, plus they use a soft shackle instead of steel, they’re a safer alternative because there’s less of a projectile risk. 

 

Using Maxtrax While Winching

A lot of the time a winch saves the hassle of getting out maxtrax, but sometimes they’re best used in conjunction. Maxtrax can be used to allow the vehicle to ramp up and out of a bog hole, instead of being dragged through, as well as stopping wheel spin from digging the car in further. 

When filming Desert to Dune, we had to do this several times in salt lakes to allow the very, very bogged Amarok to get back on top of the crust as it was just being skull dragged through the bottomless slop. 

 

Winch Maintenance

Contrary to popular belief, a lot of frequently used winches outlast those that are only used occasionally. Winch gearboxes, and other parts of the unit don’t hold a lot of grease, causing internal components to corrode and seize if not occasionally moved and re-exposed to grease. 

Every 6 Weeks

Free spool the winch rope out until you’re almost at the last layer. Make sure there’s still at least one whole layer wrapped around the drum. Winch ropes have an inner and an outer layer and they need to maintain an even level of tension so that force is distributed evenly when under heavy load. To ensure this happens as you re-wind the winch, make sure there’s at least 150kg tension on the rope. The easiest way to do this is to winch your car up a very slight incline. 

Every 24 Months

You could probably skip this if you’ve only used your winch a few times, but make sure you’re giving it the 6 weekly treatments to ensure all components are lubricated. 

If you’ve been giving it a fair bit of use, then every 24 months its time to take the winch off your car and pull it apart. Check brushes on the motor and replace the worn ones. Clean any dirt out and also change the grease in the gearbox. 

Winch Rope Cleaning and Maintenance

As we’ve mentioned a few times, the strength of a winch rope relies on it spreading out evenly. A dirty winch rope can cause internal abrasion as well as uneven force distribution. 

If you can see that the rope is dirty or it’s had a few uses in mud and muddy water, then it’s time to give it a clean. 

Remove the winch rope and lay it down on concrete or a similar hard surface and then give it a rinse with a garden hose but never a pressure cleaner. Now chuck it in a bucket of warm, mildly soapy water and let it sit for a few minutes before massaging the dirt out section by section. When reinstalling the rope, let it wrap around the drum twice with no load and then winch your car up a slight incline so the remainder of the rope is spooled under load. 

 

Battery Capacity Required for Winching

You’ll need a battery that’s at least 650 CCA for most 12,000lb winches, but we’d recommend something that’s 750 CCA or bigger. It might be worth adding a second starting battery to your setup. 

If you’ve got an undersized battery you might get away with a few uses, but you’ll be draining the battery to a level that causes damage and it will eventually stop working properly. Depending on the size, you might even cause undervoltage that damages the winch and other accessories. 

Freedom does not come automatically, it is achieved. And it is not gained in a single bound; it must be achieved each day”

– Rollo May, Man’s Search for Himself

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on LinkedIn
Share on Pinterest

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

4WD Tours in Western Australia

Rough As Guts offers guided tag-along tours through WA’s rugged Outback.

two four wheel drives driving on the holland track

The Outback for Beginners

Challenge yourself just enough, as we take you through the Golden Outback and on the Holland Track.

Adventure starts here.

5 DAYS

$1,380

landscape shot of a rust coloured hill with spinifex in the east pilbara

Pilbara outback adventure

Rugged, pre-historic desert landscapes that look like they’re from another world.

8 DAYS

$2,700

Gunbarrel highway during the rain

Three Desert & Canning stock route

Three deserts, Gunbarrel Highway, Great Central Road, Canning Stock Route & more.

12 DAYS

$4,970

4WD Tours in Western Australia

Rough As Guts offers guided tag-along tours through WA’s rugged Outback.

two four wheel drives driving on the holland track

The Outback for Beginners

Challenge yourself just enough, as we take you through the Golden Outback and on the Holland Track.

Adventure starts here.

5 DAYS

$1,380

landscape shot of a rust coloured hill with spinifex in the east pilbara

Pilbara outback adventure

Rugged, pre-historic desert landscapes that look like they’re from another world.

8 DAYS

$2,700

Gunbarrel highway during the rain

Three Desert & Canning stock route

Three deserts, Gunbarrel Highway, Great Central Road, Canning Stock Route & more.

12 DAYS

$4,970