Without a winch on its bumper, a Jeep Wrangler almost seems naked. That being said, winches aren't just for decoration, they are important tools that can help you, and fellow drivers, get out of sticky situations. So, if you want your off-roading rig dressed to the figurative nines, and if you want to be able to recover your, or anybody else's, stuck vehicle, installing a winch on your Wrangler or truck is a great idea.
How Do Winches Work?
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., enough strength to stand the weight of pretty much any vehicle you could own. There are several parts to a winch; there's the drum (the cylinder on which the cable is wound), the motor, and the gears. One thing to note is that winches can't just be installed on any vehicle. A winch-capable bumper is a must if you are planning on installing one on your Wrangler or truck. When deciding on which winch to install, don't go for the strongest possible winch, but rather a winch that will work for your needs. An overly top-heavy vehicle can seriously impede both off and on-road performance.
Electric winches are what you are more likely to see in an off-roading context. An electric winch relies on the car's electrical system to power itself. Compared to the other common winch options, they are significantly easier to install. Besides mounting, only a few wires need to be connected.
While electric winches are cheap and simple to install, they can potentially be unreliable. Winching requires a lot of electricity, and unless you have upgraded your battery and alternator, you can run out of electricity mid-winch. In that case, the rescuer will need rescuing.
Hydraulic winches are the more reliable of the two. While they are more expensive and complicated, they have some serious benefits. As per the name, hydraulic winches rely on hydraulic power from the power steering pump. This is a much more reliable system in the long run as it doesn'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, which is only really important if you are holding a winch race.
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 even any sort of rescue/work vehicle that needs a winch, should have a hydraulic winch.
Much like winches themselves, there are two main types of winch cables that you can use: steel and synthetic. After all, a winch without a cable would be pointless.
Steel cables are generally the standard option for winches. This doesn't mean that they are better than their synthetic counterparts, but rather, they are cheaper and more durable. Besides their durability though, steel winch cables are patently dangerous. Not only can they develop sharp burrs (which is why they need to be handled with gloves), but if they snap, they can seriously injure or potentially kill any bystanders.
The big benefit of synthetic rope is its relative strength and added safety. While synthetic ropes can still snap, they won't cause anywhere close to the damage of broken steel cable. If you ever go to any large off-roading event, then you will likely be required to use synthetic rope instead of steel.
Synthetic rope has plenty of other benefits, however. It is stronger than steel cables of equivalent size, it's lightweight and can be easily repaired on the trails. But, synthetic rope is more expensive than steel cable, and that cost compounds as synthetic ropes tend to wear out over time. That said, if you only periodically need to winch anything, then a steel cable would be a better investment.
How to Safely Use a Winch
Although winches are rather simple devices, they can be quite dangerous, so it's best to know the proper way to use them. There are plenty of scenarios that require different winching techniques, but there are basic safety rules that apply to all cases.
For the first scenario, let's imagine that you are driving your Wrangler solo in the woods. One thing leads to another and you find yourself stuck deep in some mud. There's no one else around to help, so you will have to winch yourself out of this mess.
First, you need some sort of anchor to attach the end of the winch to. If you are in the woods, a tree is a great candidate for this (given that it is large and healthy enough to support the weight of your vehicle). If there are no trees, a dedicated winch anchor or a buried spare tire could work as well.
When unspooling the winch, there are a few things to keep in mind. First off, gloves should always be used, especially with steel cables. Second, plug in your winch's controller and disengage the winch's clutch to begin unspooling cable from the drum. Be sure not to unspool the winch cable too quickly, because it can get "rat-nested." Rat nested cables are a pain to unravel and are potentially dangerous if left unsorted.
Now, if you plan on using a tree as an anchor, you should use a tree-saver strap as pictured above. These straps make it easier to anchor your winch to a tree, and they help keep the tree healthy and unscathed as well. While it's nearly inevitable that you will leave some trace when you are four-wheeling, it's best to try leave as few as possible.
Once the winch is hooked up to the anchor, then a dampener (sometimes referred to as a winch blanket) needs to be hung over the winch cable itself. In the event that the winch cable does snap, this will deflect the cable towards the ground and away from bystanders. It's important to remember to add the appropriate amount of weight to the dampener. Otherwise, it will fly off along with the cable.
Now that everything is situated properly, and the winch cable is held taut, feed the winch controller into the vehicle's cabin. Now, you can begin to winch. A few things are important to remember during this process. First off, there is no reason to go quickly. Second, 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.
Once you can feel your vehicle move out of where it was stuck, put it in park and spool the cable back up. It's that simple.
If you need to winch another vehicle, then the process is mostly the same. The only thing that you will want to watch out for is keeping the winching vehicle steady. You will want to keep your foot on the brake while you are using the winch on the other vehicle. If the winch seems to be struggling, you can throw your vehicle in reverse, but that isn't always advisable. If that's what is necessary to free the other vehicle, then a kinetic recovery rope will probably be a better option than a winch.
There are several other accessories that can help you perform winch recoveries. First off, using winch cable shackles is an improvement over using a winch hook. Since they use D-rings which are completely sealed around the winch cable and the winching target, they don't run the risk of falling off during the process. Additionally, a snatch block, which is a single pulley that has mounting points for hooks and or D-rings, is able to double the effective amount of weight your winch can handle. Not only can this make your winch more effective, but it can also allow for winching at odd angles, which on tight wooded trails is bound to be necessary at some point.
Sources: Fourwheeler.com | How Stuff Works
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