How to Use an Off-Road Winch: A Comprehensive Guide

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A winch is important to have if you will be off-roading, especially if you will be going far. Without a winch, you might not have a way to get your truck out of difficult situations. However, how do you use a winch properly? 

To use an off-road winch, first, you need to attach it to your truck and attach the other end to a tree. Then, use the remote and push on the gas to get your truck out of the ditch. Lastly, detach your winch and put it away. It is important to understand why you need a winch and get the right one.

In this article, we will explain what a winch is and why you need one. We will also explain how to use a winch properly in situations in which your truck gets stuck. Finally, we will explain the different types of winches you can get and point you to some winches you might consider buying. 

Understand Why You Need a Winch

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A winch is a device you can use to haul your vehicle. A winch will have a cable or a rope (sometimes, it will have a chain, but that is rare for off-road winches), and it will have a drum which the cable or rope wounds around. 

Winches can be electric, but they don’t have to be. You operate the winch by using the crank or by using a remote control. There are a few kinds of winches, and we will explain more about them later. 

A winch is super important to have for off-roading. When off-roading, your truck can get stuck in a ditch or the mud. You might not be able to drive it out of the ditch. In that case, you will need a winch to haul it out. The winch will need to be strong enough to haul your truck, along with everything inside the truck. 

Winches can make the difference between needing to wait in a remote area for help to arrive and getting out of a bad situation quickly. With a good winch, you will be able to quickly get on your way without abandoning your vehicle in the ditch. 

It can save your life, especially if you are in a remote area. If you are going on medium to difficult off-road trips and you do not have a winch, you are vastly unprepared for an emergency in which you get stuck. 

Sometimes, you might be able to drive your truck out of a sticky situation—if you have the right skills. It may be doable, but it might also be very difficult, and if you do something wrong, you might get yourself into an even worse situation. 

You may also injure yourself if you do not have the skills to avoid slipping further into a ditch or avoid obstacles that you need to get around to get out of the ditch. Having a winch will make your life much easier. 

Get the Right Kind of Winch for Your Needs

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It is important to get the right kind of winch. Otherwise, you might not be able to use it properly. In this section, we will go over the different types of winches you can get and explain what to look for in a winch. 

Hauling Power

Undoubtedly, the most important thing to look for when buying a winch is how much the winch can haul. You simply can not get a winch that does not have enough hauling power, as that would be worthless. Instead, you must make sure the hauling power is well above what your vehicle weighs. 

Why do we say that? Because every vehicle will have extra weight loaded on it. There might be cargo, extra wheels, and a full tank of gas. 

The fact that vehicles usually have extra weight loaded on them is especially true for off-road vehicles because off-road vehicles tend to have more modifications and aftermarket add-ons. For example, you might have installed a lift kit and heavier, larger tires, all of which put extra stress on the winch. 

So, if your vehicle weighs 6,000 pounds (2,722 kgs), look for a winch that can haul at least 8,000 or 9,000 pounds (3,629 or 4,082 kgs). Stronger winches usually cost more, but it is better to be safe rather than sorry. 

The winch might say it can haul up to 8,000 pounds (3,629 kgs), but it might get kind of difficult once you approach that limit. That is why you should always err on the side of caution. Get a winch with as much hauling power as possible within your budget limit. 

Also, even if a winch says it can haul X number of pounds, it is for when it is hauling a vehicle across flat ground, in a straight line. Theoretically, there is nothing wrong with manufacturers stating that their winches can haul a maximum amount when referring to such a situation. However, you will probably need to haul your vehicle uphill, out of the ditch, in which case the winch will need to be stronger. 

You might also need to haul your vehicle out of heavy, sticky mud, which will make it even harder. Finally, you might need to haul your vehicle over obstacles. All of these factors considered, it is important to add at least a few thousand pounds to your desired winch hauling capacity before making your purchase. 

Steel vs. Synthetic

As mentioned, a winch can have either a cable or a rope. If it has a cable, the cable is probably made of steel. On the other hand, if it says synthetic, it has a rope made of synthetic material. 

Which option is better? There is no true answer here, as both options have their pros and cons. You might consider getting a steel cable if you are on a budget, as synthetic ropes tend to cost more. However, synthetic ropes can be as strong or even stronger than steel cables. Manufacturers these days can make synthetic ropes quite strong. 

Pros of Synthetic Ropes

Here are some of the pros of synthetic ropes:

  • It is less likely to hurt your hands when operating the winch. 
  • Synthetic ropes are less prone to abrasion when compared to steel cables. Steel cables can suffer abrasion when they rub against the ground or rocks. Steel cables can eventually wear down and break due to all of this abrasion. 
  • Synthetic ropes are generally easier to fix than steel cables. While you can fix both of them, it often is not worth the effort trying to fix a steel cable, especially if you do not have the proper tools and experience. 
  • Synthetic ropes are a lot lighter than steel cables. If you are looking for something as lightweight as possible to not weigh down your truck while off-roading, choosing a synthetic winch will help you avoid some extra weight. However, the difference is not massive. 

Pros of Steel Cables

Here are some of the pros of steel cables: 

  • Winches with steel cables tend to be quite cheaper than winches with synthetic ropes, given the same hauling capacity. You will often see the same winch offered in two versions: steel cable and synthetic rope. Usually, the steel cable version is cheaper. As such, it might be a better option if you are on a strict budget. 
  • Steel cables are not as prone to weather damage as synthetic ropes. Although they are more prone to abrasion, they are not as susceptible to damage from mud and UV rays. Nevertheless, this pro is tempered because steel cables are prone to rust, while synthetic ropes are not. 
  • Steel cables can be stronger than synthetic ropes. That steel cables are stronger than synthetic ropes is not a given, however. It depends on the quality of the synthetic rope and how the manufacturer made it. As we said before, manufacturers can make synthetic ropes to be just as strong and durable as steel cables. 

Electric vs. Hydraulic

Most of the winches you will see on the market are electric winches. However, some winches are hydraulic. If you like to be old-style, you might prefer a hydraulic winch. However, it is important to understand each type of winch’s pros and cons before deciding which to buy. 

Almost all winches meant for towing vehicles are electric winches. Hydraulic winches are a lot stronger. Since they are so much more powerful, they are used for more complicated applications. They are also more complicated to operate, as they often have many controls. 

Hydraulic winches are also a lot heavier than electric winches. You will be adding a lot more weight to your vehicle—and this extra weight might be unnecessary. Also, hydraulic winches tend to make a lot of noise. Electric winches, on the other hand, are a lot quieter. 

For most vehicles, you can get an electric winch. Electric winches can haul a lot of weight—just search on Amazon for your desired weight range. If you really have a heavy off-road RV/overland rig and you can not find an electric winch that will be able to haul it, go ahead and get a hydraulic winch. Otherwise, we would recommend sticking with an electric winch. 

There are some downsides of an electric winch, nevertheless. The biggest downside is that it is dependent on your vehicle’s electrical system. You will need to hook it up to your truck’s battery. 

Since it is an electric winch, it can not operate without a power source. Yes, this means that if your truck’s battery dies, your winch will be inoperable as well. It is something to consider, but the reality is that such a situation is unlikely. 

Install Your Winch Mount/Bumper

When you buy a winch, there are some accessories you should be buying as well. In this section, you will read about two options for mounting your winch. 

Winch Mount

You need a way to attach your winch to your vehicle if you will be towing it out of a ditch. The best way to attach your winch to your vehicle is to install a winch mount plate. A winch mounting plate can be welded to your vehicle so that when you attach the winch, it remains on your vehicle and does not fall off. 

There are various winch mounting plates available, but it is important to choose one that fits your vehicle’s make and model. Also, some winch mounting plates will be thicker and stronger. These types of winches are better, as they are less likely to break when hauling your vehicle. 

It is important to note that you might be able to install winch mounting plates on both the front and the back of your vehicle, which will give you more flexibility when it comes to pulling your vehicle out of the ditch. 

Aftermarket Bumper

An aftermarket bumper is another thing to consider getting, but it is not a must. If your bumper is not suitable for attaching a winch mounting plate, you can consider getting an aftermarket bumper. 

Aftermarket bumpers that are meant specifically for winches often already have a mounting plate attached to them. If that is the case, you won’t even need to buy a winch mounting plate—just get the aftermarket bumper installed, and you are good to go. 

For example, if you have a Toyota Tacoma (2005-2011), you can get this Body Armor 4×4 Black Steel Front Winch Bumper. It allows for an easy bolt-on installation, though you might find it heavy, so you might want a friend to help you install it. When you buy an aftermarket winch bumper, make sure you check on Amazon to see if it works with your make and model. 

Buy Any Additional Equipment You Need

Here are some other things you should buy before using your winch: 

  • Leather gloves: Leather gloves will allow you to operate the winch safely. It is possible to operate a winch without gloves. However, a pair of good leather gloves will keep your hands from getting abrasions. You can get something simple and cheap, like this pair of Mechanix Wear Gloves from Amazon.
  • Aftermarket line: Almost all winches will come with a stock line for towing your truck. However, in the rare case that you get a winch that does not have a stock line, you can buy a steel cable or nylon rope and use that to haul your truck.
  • Heavy gauge cable: If the winch does not come with a heavy gauge cable or you do not own a heavy gauge cable, consider buying one when you buy your winch. You will need a heavy gauge cable to attach your winch to your truck’s battery. You can get this BNTECHGO 12 Gauge Silicone Wire from Amazon if you do not have such a wire.
  • Tree trunk strap and shackle: It is important to get a tree trunk protector shackle if you need to attach your winch to a tree. This Driver Recovery Tree Trunk Protector Snap is a good choice. Get this Gear American D shackle to go with it.

Keep Relevant Safety Tips in Mind

Before actually using your winch, it is important to know that a winch can be dangerous. A lot of people have been injured due to not operating their winches properly. Fortunately, if used correctly, winches are generally safe, and you don’t have to worry too much about getting hurt. 

In this section, you will learn about some basic safety tips to keep in mind before operating your winch. We put this section here because we don’t want you to skip over it—it is important!

  • Make sure you know what you are doing. We will explain how to operate a winch correctly—don’t try to operate it without knowing how to do it properly. 
  • Read the owner’s manual before you operate the winch. Keep it with you so you can refer to it later. 
  • Don’t wrap your winch around a thin tree, as it will likely damage the tree. 
  • Wear leather gloves to protect your hands, especially if you have a steel cable. 
  • Consider getting a synthetic rope for an added layer of safety. 
  • Make sure it is anchored securely to the vehicle. 
  • Don’t exceed the load capacity. 
  • Use remote control, if applicable. If you are just buying a winch now, consider getting one with a remote control, which will allow you to operate the winch from a distance. 
  • If you don’t have a remote control, see if the wired control can be extended, allowing you to operate the winch from a distance. 
  • Make sure people are not standing in the way or in a place they can get harmed. 
  • Don’t let your winch be drowned in water, even if it says it is waterproof. 
  • Keep the vehicle’s battery maintained regularly. 
  • Don’t think that the winch can be used as a hoist. A winch is NOT a hoist! They use separate mechanisms and can not be exchanged as simply as that. 
  • Make sure you keep the winch clean and well maintained. 

Attach Your Winch

Now, we get to the fun part. This section will explain how to attach your winch when you get stuck and need to haul your vehicle out of a ditch or muddy area. We assume you have already installed a winch mounting plate or a bumper that comes with a mounting plate installed already. 

Your winch mounting plate’s owner’s manual should come with instructions on how to install your winch. You must follow these instructions to the letter. If you install it wrong, it can end up causing problems. The owner’s manual might say, for example, that you need to have the feet facing forward. 

One important thing to pay attention to is how well the winch is bolted onto the mounting plate. If you do not bolt it on tight enough, it can come loose. You will not be able to haul your vehicle out of the mud that way. Make sure the winch is securely fastened and bolted on. 

If you want to see a short but informative video showing you the general process for mounting a winch, click on the following link: 

You will then need to connect the winch to your vehicle’s battery. Connecting the winch to your vehicle’s battery is a fairly easy process that should not take too much time. You will need to attach the positive lead from the winch to your car battery’s positive post. If the winch comes with an in-line circuit breaker, make sure to use that. You can ground the negative lead to the battery or your truck’s chassis. 

Inspect Your Winch

It is extremely important to inspect your winch before you use it. Otherwise, you might miss some obvious danger signs. Some things to look out for include kinks and breaks in the cable or the rope. If you use your winch while it has kinks or cracks, it can snap on you, which can be very dangerous. 

Attach Your Winch to an Object

The next step is attaching your winch to an object. To do that, you will first have to disengage the cable from the winch. You will be able to shift the lever into the disengaged position. Alternatively, it might say something such as free spool. Refer to your winch’s owner’s manual for help. 

Then, pull the cable out until it reaches the object you will wrap it around. You have to make sure that the object is strong enough. It can be a thick, heavy tree, but it can not be a small, thin tree that might break under the weight of your truck. You can also use a large boulder if you think that it will not move from its place. 

If you are attaching the winch to a tree, make sure you use a tree trunk protector. A tree trunk protector goes around the trunk of the tree and has buckles. You can attach your winch to these buckles. 

First, however, you will need to use the D shackle we mentioned above. Remove the pin from the D shackle and hook the shackle in the tree trunk protector’s hooks. Then, put the pin back in place, securing the shackle to the tree trunk protector. 

Finally, take the hook at the end of the cable of your winch and hook it onto the D shackle. 

Engage Your Winch

Remember, your winch is in a disengaged mode. At least, it should be, considering you should have pushed the lever to the disengaged position. Now, it is time to engage the winch again. Just pull the lever back into the right position from the disengaged position.

Then, start using the remote. If you need to wire the remote into the winch, make sure to properly connect the remote before using it. Using the remote, you will be able to pull the cable back into the winch. You want to do this very slowly and carefully. Keep on pulling the cable or rope back into the winch until it is taut. 

Get in Your Vehicle and Start Using the Winch

Now, you get to the actual part. Get inside your driver’s seat so you can push on the gas pedal to help your vehicle move forward. If you are pushing your truck backward, you can put the car in reverse mode and use the gas pedal to push your truck backward. 

Use the remote to operate the winch while slowly and carefully using the gas to push your vehicle forward. Keep going until you feel that you are out of the ditch. If you push on the gas pedal, and that is not enough to get your vehicle going, you will need to continue using the winch. 

Take Off Your Winch

After you have gotten your vehicle out of the ditch, it is important to take off your winch properly. First, remove the winch from the object it is attached to. If it is attached to a tree, you will need to remove it from the D shackle while removing the D shackle from the tree trunk protector and the tree trunk protector from the tree. 

Then, use the remote or wired control to roll the cable back into the winch. Once you have done that, detach the wired control from the winch. Detach the winch from your vehicle. Follow the reverse of what you did to attach it to your vehicle, or refer to the owner’s manual for help. 

Finally, clean your winch. Don’t let it sit there if it is covered in dirt and mud. Cleaning it will ensure that it remains operable for next time. 


Operating a winch is not as difficult as it sounds. You can practice a bit before you go on an off-road trip to ensure you know how to operate it. After you do it once or twice, you will get the hang of it pretty quickly. 


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