Everything You Need to Know About 4WD Winches

Getting stuck in a bog or soft sand is part of the average 4WD enthusiast’s life. This is more apparent for beginners who may have forgotten to lower their tyre pressure but even more experienced drivers still get stuck sometimes. That’s why recovery tools like snatch straps, winches, and shovels are very important in every off-roading trip. You may not have to use them often but they are lifesavers during a recovery.

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So, what is a winch and why is it important? Winches are devices that are usually made of a rope, chain or wire cable that is wound around a winch drum. They are used for hauling, lifting, and adding more tension to the rope to release the vehicle from the bog. Winches are powered by an electric motor that is linked to either your vehicle’s battery or power steering pump. This allows the device to rotate the rope rapidly.

If you want to know more about winches and recovering your vehicle through them, read the entirety of this blog. Here are the things that you should know about winches…

What Are the Important Components of Electric Winches?

Powered or electric winches are the preferred means of vehicle recovery and that comes with a good reason. As mentioned earlier, it can be powered through the engine, battery or power steering system of your vehicle. But aren’t you curious about its parts? Here are the components of an electric winch:

  • Motor: this is typically powdered through hydraulics or electricity. This is the most important part of a 4WD winch as it is the main reason why it works. Without the motor, the winch requires manual operation and it can be a hassle. 
  • Solenoid: either integrated or remote. Contractors or integrated solenoids are typically installed at the top of the winch. On the other hand, a remote solenoid is not. Solenoids control the rotation of the winch drum.
  • Wire rope or cable: they can measure from 12-30 metres and it is wound neatly around the winch drum.
  • Winch drum: this is where the wire rope or cable is spooled to protect it from damage when not in use. The winch drum rotates in a circular fashion whenever it needs to wind the rope. 
  • Internal brake: this device is designed to maintain a stable load when you stop the winch. It prevents the load from slipping back into the mud. These are usually found internally in the winch drum.
  • Gear train: this converts the electrical energy from the power source to mechanical energy (through the motor) to pull the vehicle.
  • Free spool clutch: this part is designed to mount or dismount the winch drum from the gear train. When they are mounted, they also need to be powered to spool the cable properly. On the other hand, the dismounted spool clutch will allow you to wound the cable by hand, albeit at a faster speed.

What Are the Main Types of Power Winches?

Currently, there are three main categories of electric winches. These are:

  • Power Take-Off Winch
  • Hydraulic Winch
  • Electric Winch

What Is A Power Take-Off Winch?

This is the first incarnation of a power winch that was made available to the market. The PTO is connected to the transfer case through a device called a drive shaft which runs from the gearbox of the winch. The PTO gets its power from the engine which will require you to run your engine during recovery. It is very powerful because it is powered directly by the engine itself. However, this winch was discontinued years ago and is not available today.

The Pros of Power Take-Off Winches:

  • They are very powerful and will surely be a lifesaver when you get stuck in bogs or soft sand.
  • Reliable and will always have power provided that the engine is running.
  • They can run on multiple speeds because of the gearbox’s control.

The Cons of Power Take-Off Winches:

  • Since it is powered by the engine, it’s useless when the engine is dead.
  • If the PTO winch is engaged at the front, it will also only pull forward.
  • They are relatively more expensive than other types of winches.

What Is A Hydraulic Winch?

This winch is fully-enclosed and derives its power from the power steering pump in your vehicle. It got its name because the winch’s hydraulic motor is powered by hydraulic pressure when it is fitted inside. 

The Pros of Hydraulic Winches:

  • They are very powerful because they are directly connected to the power steering pump. The pump then derives its power from the engine. 
  • A secondary or backup battery is not required to operate it.
  • The winch’s motor will not be damaged if exposed to the elements (water).

The Cons of Hydraulic Winches:

  • Like PTO winches, it needs the engine for power.
  • It is available in only two speeds.
  • If it is mounted on the front, it will only pull forward.
  • The winch stops running when the steering is altered during recovery.

What Is an Electric Winch?

The electric winch is the most commonly used winch by 4WD enthusiasts. They get their power from the battery of your vehicle and the alternator. The main differentiator between it and the other two types is they don’t need an engine to work (for short periods only). However, it is wise to bring a backup battery when you plan on going on an extended trip.

The Pros of Electric Winches:

  • They are lightweight and easy to use.
  • They are widely available in most 4WD shops.
  • Works even when its engine is off as long as the vehicle’s battery has a charge.

The Cons of Electric Winches:

  • May not be very powerful and efficient.
  • Uses a lot of energy from the battery so a secondary battery is recommended.
  • Single-speed of operation only.
  • The electric motor can be affected when immersed in water.
  • Only pulls forward when mounted on the front.

Should I Get A Manual/Hand Winch?

The hand winch is one that will need your effort to work. So, it doesn’t need a battery or an engine to work. All it needs is the energy and the time that you will exert on it.

The Pros of Hand Winch:

  • As mentioned earlier, it doesn’t need anything to operate.
  • It can be used to recover the vehicle in all directions. So, you can move the vehicle forward, back, to the left and/or right

The Cons of Hand Winches:

  • Operating it can take some time.
  • It needs a lot of effort from the person who is doing the recovery.

How Will I Know If A Winch Is Compatible with My Vehicle?

You should factor in your vehicle’s Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVRW) or Gross Vehicle Mass (GVM). This includes all the load that the vehicle will carry like the passengers, camping gear, fuel, other tools, and the mods that you have installed. The stock GVRW is stated in the Owner’s Manual that came with your vehicle. If you’ve installed modifications, determine its weight to calculate the additional weight. You can also use GVRW calculators found online if you’re not really in the mood for solving maths problems.

After you determine the GVRW, choose a winch that is rated 1.5 or 2 times more. This is the industry standard and doing so will ensure that you will easily recover your vehicle. However, you can always purchase one that has a considerably higher rating or buy a smaller one if you often travel light.

How Are Winches Mounted?

Once you’ve chosen the right winch rating for your vehicle, the next thing that you should look at is how to mount it. Most people attach it on the bull bar, so if you want to do this, make sure that your desired winch is compatible with your bull bar.

A number of winch-compatible bull bars already has a built-in cradle to accommodate the winch. The cradle also has standardised mounting holes which means that you will not be limited to one brand of a winch. You can also add a bracket to mount the winch controller.

Another thing that you’ll need to figure out is how to operate the winch. It can either be done by a switch that is placed inside the cabin or via a remotely controlled set up. The latter option will also give you the choice to plug into the winch’s controller box or a wireless set up. However, other brands also use other solutions and you should consider if their products are right for you.

You can also opt to not permanently install a winch to your vehicle. One option is to mount it on a winch cradle that can be placed on your vehicle’s hitch receiver only when required. However, the drawback is that it will be very heavy and will be quite a hassle. You also need to find a place to store it inside your vehicle, so your storage space might be reduced. A 12V power supply must also be connected to the rear if you are using it.  

Is A Steel Cable Better Than A Synthetic Rope?

For manual/hand winches, the choice between a steel cable or synthetic rope should not concern you. The only choice you’ll only have is the steel cable.

There was also a time that steel cable was the only option for powered winches. However, with the development of stronger synthetic ropes, they have become a viable choice. Today, there are even synthetic ropes that are even stronger than a steel cable while being lighter. In fact, you can potentially save 10 to 15 kg when you go for a synthetic rope compared to a similar steel cable. This greatly eases the load that the recovering vehicle will have to bear to pull a vehicle stuck in the mud. 

Another benefit of synthetic ropes is their cost. They may be priced a bit more than steel cables but the gap is closing. They are also prone to abrasion but steel cables require more tedious steps to maintain. For example, you will need to treat them with chemical products or protect them from the elements to prevent them from rust.

If you can afford it, synthetic rope is the best choice. You must also remember that if you plan on swapping the lines on your winch from steel cable to synthetic, the roller fairlead must be replaced for a hawse fairlead. Doing so will prevent the rope from getting damaged and pinched between the rollers.

How Are Winches Maintained?

Winches are sometimes the last option when it comes to recovering a vehicle. So, it is important that it is maintained properly to ensure that it will work in case of emergencies.

Other things like the accessories for your winches must also be taken care of. You should also do regular checks on your winch to see if the cables are damaged or kinks appear when winding it back to the winch drum. The same is true for synthetic ropes, you should check for abrasion or heat damage. If it is damaged, replace it immediately or before you go on a trip. You can also clean them by soaking them in a bucket of water and soap. This will remove the dirt and grit that has attached between the fibres.

The same can also be done on winch extension straps and tree trunk protectors. However, these devices have a limited lifespan. You should also check them for abrasion damage and signs of wear and tear at the stitching and eyes found on each end.

Most importantly, carry spare parts like shear pins (for hand winches) and remote controllers (for electric winches). These can be vital when the ones you use accidentally gets broken and needs replacing.

Which Among Them Is the Best?

The best one for you is entirely dependent on your use case and situation. PTO and hydraulic winches are ideal if you need the most power during the recovery. On the other hand, electric winches are enough for those times when the engine can still run. In addition, it’s important to remember that electric winches will only work with dry cell batteries.

Power winches, regardless of type, will only pull forward when you mount them there. They are very helpful when another vehicle needs recovery or towing. However, if your vehicle gets bogged, a forward pull may not be enough to recover it. This is where the manual winch is most helpful because they can pull from any direction.

If you are still undecided, you can consult with your local 4WD parts & accessories shop to ask for their opinion. With the new knowledge about winches that you have just learned, you will be able to follow their suggestions. You can also scour online forums and articles that discuss winches to gain a new perspective. Ultimately, the choice will still be yours and we know that you will make the right one (we hope).

Related Questions

How Much Is A Winch?

Electric winches are the cheapest choice, with 900 kg winches starting at the unbelievably low $150 mark and topping out around the $600 mark for 3700 kg to 5500 kg winches. Make sure the used winch you are looking for includes all important components.

How Much Are WARN Winches?

Warn Winches are designed to provide optimum performance anytime that it is needed. Warn Winches comes in various strengths from entry-level to heavyweight series. Warn Winches range from 2700 kg to 7500 kg which will virtually assist any outside project.

How Are Winches Rated?

Rated Line Pull or RLP is the weight the winch could pull perpendicular to the ground with a single line on the first layer of wire rope on the drum. To use the chart, first, find the column that matches your percentage of slope or grade. This can be determined by dividing the amount of the ramps rise by its length.

What Does Winch Capacity Mean?

Manufacturers use a static load with only one layer of wire rope around the drum. In other words, the more rope on the drum, the less pulling power needed.

Can I Use A Winch as A Hoist?

Lifting heavy objects, like an engine or construction stuff may seem like a great job for a winch, but that’s not always the case. A hoist is what should be used for jobs that require you to lift or lower a load. Hoists are mostly made with a chain or wire rope and can be used manually or by powered motors.

What Is Roller Fairlead?

A fairlead is a device to guide a line, rope or cable around an object, out of the way or to stop it from moving laterally. In off-roading, a fairlead is used to guide the winch cable and remove lateral strain from the winch. A roller fairlead is used with steel cable and a hawse fairlead is used with the synthetic cable.

Is the GVWR The Towing Capacity?

Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR): The Gross Vehicle Weight Rating is a weight listed by the manufacturer that can be simplified to the maximum amount a vehicle can weigh. If a truck’s GVWR is listed at 4600 kg and the truck weighs 2700 kg empty, then its payload capacity is 1800 kg.

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