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winch buying guide

The Winch Buying Guide

Before buying a winch to help in recovery situations you should know the basics of what to look for to meet your specific needs. For example, the type of line, whether it should be steel cable or synthetic rope. The pulling capacity. Do you need 6000 lb or a 12,000 lb pull rating? Electrically powered or hydraulically powered? We will try to clear up any confusion.

If you’re looking for essential Overlanding gear, a recovery winch should be near the top of your list of Overland supplies. Especially if you are going to be on the trail alone. The last thing you want is to be stranded in the middle of nowhere stuck in the mud or snow with no method of escape.

Selecting which winch you’ll need can be a daunting task, full of terminology you’ve never heard of and words that might as well be in a foreign language. If you’re new to the Overlanding community, welcome. You’ve come to the right place for help in choosing the best winch for your rig.

Winching Terms 101

Pull Rating / Capacity / Size / Pound Rating / Strength

One thing you will look at when selecting a winch is its capacity or size. This is where you will hear the term “Pull Rating”. This is shown in pounds and basically states how much weight it can pull before it fails. The higher the number of pounds (abbreviated lb or lbs) the mechanically stronger the drum line (cable) and the winch parts are. This number should be in the 8,000 to 12,000 lb range for most recovery operations when Overlanding.

How do you figure out what kind of pulling power you need for your particular vehicle? The first number you need to find out is the GVW or Gross Vehicle Weight. You’ll want to use the weight of the vehicle with everything loaded. This includes all your gear, roof top tent, cargo boxes, etc.

Once you know what the weight (or GVW) of your vehicle is, add 30-50% on top of that to get the number for the pound rating or capacity. For example, if your fully loaded rig’s GVW is 6,000 pounds, you’ll want a pound rating of 8,000 lbs for your winch. Anything less than that will not be powerful enough to pull you out of trouble. Here is one from Warn that would be perfect for your needs.

Most off-roaders will tell you if you’re having trouble deciding, or you’re somewhere in the middle with your GVW plus 40%, go for the higher pull capacity. You can’t go wrong having too much power. In addition, the less stress you put on your winch, the longer the motor will last.

Image credit WARN Industries

Electric or Hydraulic?

The two most popular types of winches are hydraulic and electric. If you are going off-road and you need a recovery winch, you are looking for an electric one.

Electric winches are faster and more efficient to wind. It’s great to have one available for when you occasionally get stuck but they aren’t designed for heavy-duty, everyday, all day use. They are powered by your vehicle’s battery so you are limited to how much power it has. 

Your battery will have a few wires running from it which connect to the winch making it run. It’s not complicated to connect the two, the wires go under the hood, a DIYer can handle it without much trouble. Most Overlanders will use an electric winch as they are the most popular choice and have a wide variety to choose from at a cost that will fit a range of budgets.

Hydraulic winches do not have a connection to your battery, they connect to your steering pump instead. They are not fast but what they lack in speed they make up for in reliability. You’re more likely to see these on vehicles that are going to get a lot of use out of them and where very heavy loads need to be moved. 

Hydraulic winches last forever and can run all day without breaking a sweat. They are the workhorses of the winch universe.

However, they are not easy to install, most likely requiring professional installation. They are also quite honestly overkill for our particular needs. When we find trouble on the trail all we need is an electric winch and a few other Overlanding essentials from the recovery gear department. 

Steel Cable or Synthetic Rope?

A winch is only as strong as the connection that stands between it and safety. With this “lifeline” you can go with steel or synthetic.

Steel is the traditional cable used for winching and most off-roaders select this as their method of recovery. It’s very strong, durable and lasts a very long time. It’s ideal when rough, abrasive terrain is involved like rock or hard packed stony dirt. Because a steel cable can fray, you will always want to use protective gloves when working with steel cable.

Steel cable is more difficult to bend and work with as opposed to synthetic rope. It’s also more dangerous if it breaks. On the other hand, it has stood the test of time and is significantly less expensive than synthetic rope.

Over the past 20 years or so, synthetic rope has become more and more popular and there’s a good reason for that. The super-lightweight polyethylene composition makes it easy to handle, repair and is easy to spool. One thing you probably wouldn’t have guessed is that synthetic rope is actually stronger than steel. The downside is that it’s susceptible to fraying in harsh conditions.

For most recovery situations on the trail, synthetic rope will do the job. Keep in mind though you’ll want to keep your synthetic rope covered when it’s not being used. Heat, chemicals and UV rays can lessen the lifetime of its use.

What Else?

A few more points to consider:

  • Electric winches draw their power from your battery. You can upgrade to a deep-cycle battery or use a two battery setup. One battery to power the truck and one battery to power the accessories like the winch and a portable refrigerator freezer.
  • There are two types of gears that winches use, planetary and worm. The planetary is more common, is less costly, is more lightweight and has a higher speed. On the negative side, it has less pulling power and holding ability. Worm gear winches are better at pulling but are much slower.
  • Operating a winch is done via a remote control. It is either wired to the winch or wireless. Some newer models are controlled using an app on your phone.
  • Be sure to take all measurements of your intended mounting location before buying your winch to see if you have the correct dimensions to fit your vehicle.
  • If you’re planning on buying a heavy-duty winch, be sure your suspension is strong enough to handle the added weight.
  • It’s recommended to get rollers for steel cable and a Hawse fairlead for synythetic rope.

Let us know if you have any questions. We would be happy to help with the selection process. Stop by our contact page and send us an email with what you need help with.

Happy Trails!

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