Which winch?

By: Carlisle Rogers

Our guide to winches: which to choose? and how to use?

Which winch?
"You will need something that will easily pull 150 per cent of your vehicle's gross weight"

A winch can open up whole new areas to your and your 4WD, or just turn a gnarly rock scramble into a nice controlled ascent that leaves your eggs and ego intact.

To many, electric winches seem like a luxury. You and a mate should be able to work your way out of most situations with a snatch strap. Personally, I've been involved in recoveries that necessitated both a power winch and a drag chain tied to a second vehicle to free the stuck rig. This was after we broke two snatch straps. Without the winch, we would have had an extremely expensive bush recovery on our hands. So even if you never use it, think of a winch like a good insurance policy.


It pays to have a vehicle-powered winch, even if you only use it a few times a year, but which type is right for you?

There are three types of winches that make up the majority of winch sales in Australia: Electric, Hydraulic and PTO (Power Take Off).  PTO winches are primarily reserved for comp trucks, however, so I'm not going to go into them in detail here.

A starting point when selecting the right winch for your needs is that you will need something that will easily pull 150 per cent of your vehicle's gross weight in order to prevent the winch from malfunctioning.

The most common winch on the market is the electric winch and these are available in a myriad of sizes, designs and pulling capacities. When fitting an electric winch it is highly recommended that you also install a dual-battery system to the vehicle. This can add significantly to the cost but will also allow you to run most accessories you'll want to use when you're away. Electric winches are good for short winching operations, however, when the winch is used for an extended period of time it will heat up and drain the battery system, necessitating intermittent rest periods in order to continue to work effectively. The one downside of an electric winch is that if you become stuck in the middle of a body of water and the winch is submerged, the electrical system of the winch may not work.

Electric winch technology has been around for many years now and while most winches may look similar on the outside, they differ immensely in the quality and design of the components on the inside. It is best to purchase a well-known brand if you want your winch to be reliable and to last well into the future.

Your second option when purchasing a winch is to install a hydraulic winch. Many people tend to shy away from hydraulic winches, possibly because they are not as well known as their electric counterparts and are sometimes a little misunderstood.  Sealed hydraulic winches allow you to tap into your vehicles existing hydraulic system and harness the power of your steering pump system to drive your winch. Any competent mechanic will be able to fit and plumb up a hydraulic winch which, when fitted, will allow you to winch your vehicle for extended periods, even in moist conditions. The hydraulic winch system even has a solenoid valve mounted on the motor, to shut off fluid from driving the winch when you require the power steering pump to steer the vehicle and then re-engages the winch once you have corrected your direction during the winching process.


Rigging up either type of winch requires basically the same approach. The best anchor is a solid, live tree. Another 4WD with the handbrake on in park gear can work well, or even a purpose-made ground anchor if you're really in a fix.

For trees, a tree protector strap is necessary, and you'll always need a couple of load rated shackles, leather gloves (for cable handling), a snatch block and a winch extension strap. You'd be amazed how often that extra 30m comes in handy.

Never wrap the cable around a tree, as this damages the tree and can permanently kink your cable - always use a tree protector strap and shackle.

Before winching, you should always ensure the vehicle is in park and has the parking brake on. Also put on your gloves.

Your tree protector is rigged, you've put a shackle through both ends and remembered to loosen the shackle back off a bit to prevent it jamming shut under the load. From here, you can either winch 'straight' or with a snatch block. Straight winching is what it sounds like, running the winch cable straight from the winch to the shackle and pushing the button. (It's worth noting here that when hand winching, you should attach the winch to the tree protector so you don't have to chase the cable up a steep hill.)

Using a snatch block effectively halves the load on the winch. While it provides twice as much pulling power (there's already enough in most winches to stretch your vehicle's frame under the right circumstances), it also halves the amperage pulled by the winch motor, so you can winch longer without draining your battery. A dead battery halfway out of a muddy hole will have you inventing new curses. Especially if you aren't running an auxiliary battery.

To rig up a snatch block winch recovery, you just open the snatch block and run the cable through it. Attach the hook end up the cable back to your bullbar, and the snatch block to the shackle on the tree protector.

Once you have the cable rigged up and have removed the slack in the cable, then you can take the handbrake off in the 4WD and put it in neutral. If you have a long enough lead, you can steer yourself, but it's better to have someone else steering so you can watch the cable spooling in and look out for obstructions.

Always control the winch from the side of the vehicle, as far away as possible to avoid injury should something fail. It's a good idea not to drive while winching either, as slack in the cable can cause horrendous knots in the cable, or even burn out your winch if the vehicle slips back with slack in the cable. Saying that, I've never had any issues, and most advanced 4WDers will drive while winching to take some load off the winch, being careful not to introduce slack.

Once clear of whatever made you resort to the winch in the first place, re-secure the vehicle using parking brake and park gear. Slacken the cable off and rewind it back on the drum, maintaining a good distance from the fairlead to ensure your hand can't inadvertently get sucked in.

Source: Camper Trailer Australia #30