If there’s one thing that epitomises an adventurous 4WDer, it’s having an electric winch at the front of your 4WD. A winch is more than a recovery tool for pulling your 4WD out of a sticky situation. A winch can be used to recover your fellow 4WDer if their vehicle is not equipped with one. And even if the Navara belonging to your stranded buddy has a huge WARN sitting in the bullbar, he or she might still be trapped if they need to recover backwards. Provided they have a rear recovery point, that’s where you step in.
On top of this a winch can change where your 4WD is pointing by utilising various accessories. It can even move that errant log that may have fallen in the path of your travels.
Winches are one of the most convenient and safe recovery means available, especially if you travel solo. Of course, it’s not just a matter of rolling up to your local 4WD supplier and whacking the first shiny winch you see onto the front of your 4WD. There are a few things to consider before jumping in. With these tips and tricks onboard, you’ll be set to equip your 4WD with the right winch and use it to its full potential, all the while remaining safe.
CHOOSING THE RIGHT WINCH
Before you can install a winch, the 4WD will need a method for securing it to the vehicle. The most common is to have a winch-compatible front bar, also known as a winch-compatible bull bar.
These can be of steel, aluminium or even plastic design. My preference is steel for its sheer strength. Even though they are much heavier, they can take a knock, plus they look smart and many can be colour coded. Bull bars often come ready to fit a winch but not always, as was the case with my Jeep’s OEM steel front bar. They may need what’s called a winch cradle to house the winch. These are usually vehicle- and bar-specific. This goes especially for aluminium bars, if that’s your choice.
These days winch ratings range from about 8,000lb to a whopping 16,000lb or more. One I’m aware of has a 25,000lb rating — not sure why, perhaps for a tank... 9,000lb to 12,000lb ratings seem to be the most common. It’s accepted practice to ensure the winch you choose is rated about 1.5 to 2 times your 4WD’s gross weight, and don’t forget the trailer too if towing. If in doubt consult with your local 4WD specialist who deals with winches for your model 4WD. Don’t forget to ask if the winch will physically fit in your bull bar, as some have little tolerance when fitting larger winches.
In the last few years, the 4WD industry has been inundated with a flood of cheaper electric winches. I’ve heard some horrid stories as well as happy ones boasting of the virtues of cheap winches. It’s hard to verify them but what I do know is that you get reliability and peace-of-mind when you choose a well-established brand. I’ve been a WARN fan for many years due to their excellent robust products which have always, in my experience, pulled their weight (pun intended). I’ve found WARN’s aftersales support to be excellent too. Of course, there are many other well-respected winches on the market; you could successfully spend less than what I paid, but do you really want to risk it when the conditions turn to...
The last thing I’d mention in choosing your winch, is to go for synthetic rope rather than steel. I say this even though many of my mates still like their steel rope. My WARN XD9000 was originally fitted with steel which I replaced with synthetic rope several years ago. Compared to steel, I find that synthetic rope (usually Dyneema at around $70 for 26m of 9mm) is safe to handle, light weight, floats on water, won’t kink, doesn’t whiplash if broken and is stronger than steel. If changing from steel, you’d be best off changing the roller fairlead to an aluminium hawse as they work better with synthetic rope.
Finally, with many winch fittings, the vehicle’s licence plate may need to move, or you can purchase a flip-up license plate holder for around $35, like I did. Simply flip up the plate to access the winch rope and reset to ensure you’re all legal.
OTHER THINGS YOU NEED
So you’ve got your winch and the controller in your hand, what else do you need?
The number one priority when using your winch or undergoing any recovery is safety, followed by ease of use and maximising the winch’s capabilities. There are huge forces involved, even in a modest recovery, and this is multiplied a hundredfold when a heavy rig is involved or you’re sunk to your chassis in sticky mud or negotiating a steep gradient.
So in no particular order, these are the things I carry. While they’re bulky and heavy, it’s better to have them when you need them rather than needing something that you don’t have.
1. Winch extension strap
Most electric winches hold about 26 to 30 metres of rope and in most cases that would be sufficient to reach your desired anchor point (note: it’s recommended that the winch preserve at least eight wraps on the winch drum, to prevent the rope completely unravelling under load). But there may be times when your anchor point is beyond reach. An extension strap, which has no stretch, provides flexibility to reach that elusive point. It simply attaches temporarily to the end of your winch rope, further extending the versatility of your winch. I carry a 20 metre length but there are several lengths available. They’re also good as a tow rope when pulling along a disabled 4WD, if done safely.
2. A pair of gloves
A good set of leather riggers gloves or ones specifically designed for winching are recommended, as you may be dealing with a hot winch when under load or steel cable that has shards that could cause a world of hurt. Good news is, these are also handy for other tasks around the camp or for working on your 4WD.
3. Snatch block
A 4WD snatch block is rated around 9,000kgs and is a simple piece of recovery equipment. This basic design allows you to add the snatch block anywhere along the cable without the need to thread the rope through. It can handle either steel or synthetic rope. A snatch block has two major benefits. Firstly, using a snatch block increases the power of your winch. It increases the power of your winch to almost double if used in a straight line, though it doubles the time to winch due to physical dynamics. The snatch block’s second advantage is it can change the angle or direction of the pull. With the right strategy and set anchor points or even the use of multiple snatch blocks, you can pull a 4WD in any direction. The snatch block is best used in situations where the vehicle is really stuck. Interestingly, it has a recent competitor in the form of a snatch ring. While I’ve yet to use one, I read that it does have the advantage of size, being lightweight and having no moving parts. Time will tell if this fad takes off.
4. Tree trunk protector
We need to protect our environment, so a tree trunk protector, usually about three metres long and with no stretch, wrapped around a solid object as your anchor point, won’t only spread the load while winching but won’t damage the tree either, which otherwise could be ring-barked. Tree trunk protectors can also double up as a bridle attached to two recovery points on a 4WD. That’s why it’s a good idea to have two rated recovery points at both ends of a 4WD if possible. This helps spread the load on a vehicle when under a heavy recovery situation, and is highly recommended for vehicles with monocoque construction as they’re a little weaker than their separate chassis-based cousins. For example, most SUVs and even 4WDs like the Pajero are monocoque. Some manufacturers are now adopting this form of assembly.
To connect all the above, you’ll need a method that provides easy connection and disconnection while ensuring safety. The most commonly used styles are metal bow shackles which are rated 3.25 or 4.75 tonne; they’re pretty cheap at around $10. Don’t use anything that hasn’t the WLL (working load limit) markings. Shackles should only be used at the end of a strap or cable when necessary and never to join two straps together. I carry two of each size. Of late, there has been the emergence of a competitor to the humble metal shackle — that is, soft shackles. Having gotten my methods down pat with bow shackles, I’ve yet to use them, but they’ll certainly be one of my next accessory purchases, because they weigh next to nothing, have little impact if something breaks and are easy to use while offering extreme strength. They are also rated and some come with a sheath to protect against sharp edges. They are more expensive, ranging around $40 to $70 for name brands, but what’s a person’s well-being worth?
6. Recovery hitch/block
This accessory is an inexpensive device for around $40, that inserts into the tow hitch and allows the tow bar to be used as a strong and handy recovery point. They’re especially advantageous when attaching a 4WD’s winch hook/clevis, which can be at times hard to secure otherwise. Like all recovery components, choose one that’s rated and which has a rated bow shackle. There are even ones specifically designed for use with soft shackles.
7. Winch dampener or blanket
As mentioned, recoveries can be hazardous and this is where a dampener helps out. Its job is to minimise any components flying indiscriminately in case of a recovery failure (such as a snapped winch cable). A dampener doesn’t need to be anything fancy. An old heavy towel or jacket could do. That said, there’s commercially available ones for about $30 to $40 which offer the ability to weigh cables and recovery elements down even further by putting sand or dirt in their in-built pockets. An individual dampener should be placed on each length of line.
ONE LITTLE EXTRA
While most winches come with a clevis, I’ve come to like the advantage and look of a new line of products from a company called Factor 55 (see factor55.com). They offer a variety of winch line shackle mounts, but I particularly like their flatlink model, which, among other things, improves strength and tucks neatly against the hawse.
While a 4WD winch is a great tool, it needs to be treated with respect. Always use properly rated equipment in good condition that is suited for your 4WD and the situation at the time. Follow proper recovery techniques and take your time by setting in place a plan to extract your 4WD with minimal impact on the environment and the vehicle(s) involved.