How to Use a Winch

How to Use a Winch

Last Updated August 8, 2023 | C.J. Tragakis

Without a winch on its bumper, a vehicle won’t be ready for serious off-roading. While they do look cool, winches aren't just for decoration. They’re important tools that can help you and fellow drivers get out of sticky situations.

JL Wrangler Stuck in Mud

Cable winches give 4x4s the ability to both self-recover and recover other vehicles. If you’ll be taking your ride out into deep mud or other treacherous terrain, installing a winch on your SUV or truck is a must. But needing to use your winch and not knowing how is about as helpful as not having one. It’s important to learn how to safely and properly operate a winch in the different scenarios where vehicle recovery is necessary.

What Is a Winch and What Does It Do?

A winch is a pulling tool that’s usually attached to a vehicle’s front bumper. It’s used to recover the vehicle it’s mounted to or other vehicles when they get stuck in mud, snow, ditches, etc. There are several parts to a winch: The drum (the cylinder on which the cable is wound), the motor, and the gears.

Labeled diagram of off-road winch

You’ll commonly see winches on SUVs like Jeeps and 4Runners, as well as Tacomas, F-150 Raptors, and other pickups. Winches can't just be installed on any vehicle. A winch-capable bumper is a must if you’re planning on mounting one to your SUV or truck.

Self-Recovery with a Winch

Self-recovery is one of the most important skills an off-roader can learn. It involves attaching the winch cable to a solid anchor (like a tree) and using the power of the winch motor to pull the vehicle out.

Skip to "How to Self-Recover with a Winch"

Recovering Another Vehicle with a Winch

A winch is also commonly used to recover other vehicles besides the one it’s mounted to. In this case, the winch will attach directly to the stranded vehicle. It will then be reeled in until the stuck vehicle can move under its own power.

Skip to "How to Recover Another Vehicle with a Winch"

How Much Weight Can a Winch Pull?

One of the most surprising things about winches is how strong they are. A standard winch can pull anywhere from 9,000 lbs. to 17,500 lbs. That’s enough strength to pull the weight of pretty much any vehicle you could own.

Electric Winches vs Hydraulic Winches

There are two primary ways to power a winch. Electric winches are the most common type you’ll see on off-road vehicles. While hydraulic winches are more expensive, some prefer them because they don’t use the vehicle’s electrical system.

Electric Winches

Electric Winch Pros and Cons
Electric Winch Pros Electric Winch Cons
Most affordable Less reliable for extended periods of time
Easy to install Drains battery

An electric winch relies on the car's electrical system to power itself. Compared to hydraulic winch options, they’re significantly easier to install. Besides mounting, only a few wires need to be connected. This makes them the most popular choice for off-roaders.

While electric winches are cheap and simple to install, they have the potential to be unreliable for more than a short pull. Winching requires a lot of electricity. Unless you’ve upgraded your battery and alternator, you can run out of electricity mid-winch. In that case, the rescuer will need rescuing.

Diagram Showing Winch Self-Recovery with Tree

Some off-roaders recommend getting a second battery that’s dedicated to the winch. This can help, but it isn’t completely necessary. Plus, it adds cost and weight to the vehicle.

Using a deep cycle battery is another way that off-roaders try to conserve electricity if they have to use a winch. These batteries output less electricity at a time to make the power last longer.

Still, many enthusiasts already run lots of accessories on their 4x4, like off-road lights and camping gear. If that sounds like your rig, it might be worth investing in a dual battery set-up, a deep cycle battery, or both.

Hydraulic Winches

Hydraulic Winch Pros and Cons
Hydraulic Winch Pros Hydraulic Winch Cons
Most reliable Expensive
Drains battery less Difficult to install

Hydraulic winches are often regarded as more reliable than electric winches. They’re used on commercial vehicles like tow trucks, but they’re less common on off-roaders. While they’re more expensive and complicated, they have some serious benefits.

As the name implies, hydraulic winches rely on hydraulic power from the power steering pump. This is more useful for extended winching sessions. It won’t put nearly as much stress on the battery and the alternator as an electric winch does. This reliability does come with a drop in winching speed though.

Hydraulic winches are the less common of the two in the off-roading world. Their increased complexity doesn't always warrant their improved performance. However, a dedicated recovery vehicle at a 4X4 event or any sort of rescue/work vehicle should have a hydraulic winch.

Winch Safety Tips

Although winches are simple devices, they can be very dangerous if used improperly. It’s critical to know how to use them before you set off for the trail. Different scenarios require different winching techniques, but there are basic safety rules that apply to all cases.

  • Always wear gloves
  • Always use a damper
  • Never double the winch cable back or attach it to itself
  • Never stand close to the cable while in use
  • Never step over the winch cable
  • Don’t use a dead tree as an anchor
  • Don’t winch too quickly
  • Don’t drive the vehicle that’s doing the winching during recovery
  • Don’t connect to a non-structural point on a stuck vehicle

How to Self-Recover a Vehicle With a Winch

Imagine you’re driving your 4x4 solo in the woods. One thing leads to another and you find yourself stuck in some deep mud. There's no one else around to help, so you’ll have to winch yourself out of this mess. Here’s a step-by-step guide of how to do that.

Step 1: Find an Anchor to Attach Winch To

Find a sturdy object to attach your winch to. For most mudding or trail trips, this is going to be a strong, healthy tree.

Finding an anchor to attach winch to

Tech Tip: If there are no trees, a dedicated winch anchor or a buried spare tire could work as well.

Step 2: Connect Winch Controller and Disengage Its Clutch

Plug in your winch's controller and disengage the winch's clutch. This usually involves moving a lever to "Free Spool" or "Disengaged."

Connecting the winch controller and setting to free spool

Step 3: Unspool Winch By Hand

Begin unspooling the cable from the drum. Make sure you’re wearing gloves.

Unspooling the winch by hand

Tech Tip: Don’t unspool the winch cable too quickly or it could get "rat-nested." Rat nested cables are a pain to unravel and are potentially dangerous if left unsorted.

Step 4: Connect Winch Hook to Anchor

Connect the winch to the anchor. If you plan on using a tree as an anchor, you should use a tree-saver strap as pictured. These straps make it easier to anchor your winch to a tree and help keep the tree healthy and undamaged. Never attach the winch hook back to the winch cable itself.

Connecting the winch hook to the anchor

Step 5: Remove Slack from Winch Line

Use the winch controller to slowly take the slack out of the winch line. Don’t start reeling the cable in yet, just get it taut enough to hang the dampener.

Removing the slack from the winch line

Step 6: Hang Dampener Over the Winch Cable

Hang a dampener on the middle area of your taut winch line. Dampeners are sometimes referred to as winch blankets. This will deflect the cable towards the ground in case it snaps.

Hanging a damper on the winch cable

Tech Tip: It's important to add the appropriate amount of weight to the dampener. For most vehicles, put at least 5 lbs or so into the pockets of the dampener. Otherwise, it will fly off along with the cable.

Step 7: Slowly Reel In Winch While Inside Your Vehicle

With the winch cable held taut, enter the vehicle's cabin with the winch controller. Reel in nice and slowly with the vehicle’s transmission in neutral. Once you feel your vehicle move out of where it was stuck, put it in park.

Reeling in the winch from inside the vehicle cabin

Tech Tip: Keep an eye on your vehicle's power levels. You might notice a rise in RPM and some flickering lights as your car works to produce the electricity needed for the winch. If you happen to have a tuning device in your vehicle, then raising the idle RPM could be a good idea if you have a lot of winching to do.

Step 8: Spool Cable Back Up

Carefully detach the winch from the anchor and spool the cable up. Lock the winch back into the engaged position so it won’t come out. Secure the winch hook and you’re ready to drive away.

Spooling the winch cable up after use

How to Use a Winch to Recover Another Vehicle

The process of winching another vehicle is mostly the same as self-recovering. You just attach the winch hook right to the stuck rig instead of a tree or other anchor (as mentioned in step 3 above).

Be sure to use a structural point, otherwise you may end up pulling off their bumper. Always use the winch of the vehicle that isn’t stuck if you’re recovering someone else.

You’ll also want to make sure the winching vehicle is steady. Keep the brake engaged while you’re using the winch on the other vehicle.

Try to use the winch’s own power if at all possible. It’s not a good idea to use your vehicle as a pulling force. If a hard jolt is what’s necessary to free the other vehicle, then a kinetic recovery rope is a better option.

Winch Accessories

Having the right accessories will allow you to safely operate your winch. Others will give you a leg up when it comes to certain tasks. Most winch kits will come with accessories like the cable, hook, and stop.

Best Winch Accessories
Winch Accessory Purpose
Fairlead The opening that guides the cable as it spools or unspools from the winch. It also prevents excess lateral force on the cable.
Hooks The attaching unit of a winch kit.
D-Ring Shackles The mounting point for winch shackles or hooks that form a sealed circuit, preventing it from falling off.
Damper A safety device designed to let the cable fall to the ground should it snap.
Tree Saver Straps Straps that can attach to a winch’s hook for mounting around an anchor, especially a tree. They are different from recovery straps/kinetic straps, which should never be used with a winch.
Snatch Block A single pulley with mounting points for hooks or D-rings. It doubles the amount of weight the winch can handle and allows for winching at tight angles.
Stop A small piece that attaches to the end of the winch cable to prevent it from being spooled in too far.

Winch Cable Materials

There are two main types of winch cables that you can use: steel and synthetic. Modern synthetic winch cables offer just as much or more strength than steel. They’re also lighter and can be safer. However, they’ll typically wear more quickly than steel cables, which are also the cheaper option.

Steel Winch Cables

Steel Winch Cable Pros and Cons
Steel Winch Cable Pros Steel Winch Cable Cons
Less expensive Tends to fray over time
Durable More dangerous if it snaps

Steel cables are the standard option for winches. They’re popular for their low price and durability. Many winch kits come with a steel cable. They work just fine in most circumstances, but do have some downsides.

Steel Winch Line

If proper care isn’t taken, steel winch cables can be more dangerous than synthetic rope. They’ll often develop sharp burrs over time, which is why they need to be handled with gloves. Moreover, a steel cable that snaps can seriously injure, or even kill, bystanders. If you keep an eye on your winch cable’s integrity and use it properly, steel is still a great option.

Synthetic Winch Ropes

Synthetic Winch Cable Pros and Cons
Synthetic Winch Cable Pros Synthetic Winch Cable Cons
Lightweight More expensive
Safer if cable snaps Wears out more easily over time
Easier to repair on the trail

The primary benefits of a synthetic winch rope are its relative strength and added safety. While synthetic ropes can still be dangerous if they snap, they won't cause as much damage as a broken steel cable. That’s because they carry less potential energy. If you ever go to a large off-roading event, you’ll likely be required to use synthetic rope instead of steel.

Synthetic Winch Rope

Synthetic ropes are also stronger than steel cables of equivalent size. They’re much lighter and can be easily repaired on the trails. A negative is that synthetic rope is more expensive than steel cable. That cost will compound over time as synthetic ropes tend to wear out more quickly than steel. It’s also more susceptible to degradation by UV rays and general wear.

The most important thing to know about picking the right winch is your vehicle’s weight. Your vehicle’s GVW (gross vehicle weight) will be the primary factor in determining what size winch you need. The typical rule of thumb is to get a winch with 1.5x the pulling power of your GVW.

However, you’ll also want to consider the possibility of assisting others with larger, heavier vehicles. Just be sure to keep the winch’s weight in mind. An unnecessarily heavy-duty winch can seriously impede both off and on-road performance.

You can find affordable winch kits from well-known brands for $300-400. That’s a small price to pay to be prepared for a dangerous situation on the trail.

Sources: Winching Do's and Don'ts: Tips and Tricks for Safe 4x4 Recovery, MotorTrend | Four Tips to Maintain Your Winch, Warn | How Winches Work, How Stuff Works | Maximizing Winch Pull, Hard Working Trucks

This article was researched, written, edited, and reviewed following the steps outlined in our editorial process. Learn more about CJ's editorial standards and guidelines.