Everything you need to know about winch recoveries
There’s no substitute for a winch when it comes to pulling a stuck vehicle out of its predicament, especially when travelling solo, but whether you’re using a hand winch or a vehicle-mounted electric winch, there’s plenty of other gear you’ll need to perform a successful and safe extraction.
There are many recovery situations in which a winch is the best option for pulling a vehicle out of strife, particularly when you’re travelling without any other vehicles. Whether that winch is a hand-operated unit packed into your recovery box or an electric winch permanently affixed to the front of your vehicle, or mounted in a winch cradle, you’ll need several additional winching accessories to perform a successful recovery operation.
Before we go any further, it’s important to point out that using a winch to recover a vehicle can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing, so it’s important to seek out some proper vehicle-recovery training, either through an accredited private operator or a four-wheel drive club, the latter often running vehicle-recovery and general four-wheel drive training days.
Choosing the right winch to suit your needs will depend on your vehicle, how often you drive off-road and your budget.
If you’re only an occasional four-wheel driver, and you don’t want the expense or added weight of a permanently affixed vehicle-mounted winch, then a hand-winch is a good (albeit labour intensive) alternative. The obvious advantage of a hand winch is that you only need carry it in your vehicle when you intend to drive off-road, and when you do need to use it you can winch from either the front or the rear of your vehicle. The advantage of being able to winch from the rear cannot be understated, as quite often the easiest way out of a stuck predicament is going back out the way you came in.
Downsides to hand winches? As it’s not permanently affixed to your vehicle, you might not have it with you when you need it. Oh, and the most obvious one is the physical effort required to operate a hand winch; you need to be fit, able and patient, especially if you have to winch a heavy vehicle over a long distance up a steep incline.
If you’re a regular four-wheel driver, a vehicle-mounted electric winch is a far better alternative to a hand winch. It’ll always be there when you need it and your vehicle’s 12V electrical system will supply the power required to extract the vehicle, which is much easier, quicker and a hell of a lot less draining than toiling away with a hand winch.
Choosing the right electric winch to suit your vehicle will depend primarily on the weight of your rig. As a general guide, the winch needs to be rated to one and one-and-a-half to two-times the Gross Vehicle Mass (GVM) of the vehicle, which is its maximum loaded weight. If you drive a Ford Ranger, for example, which has a 3200kg (7000lb) GVM, you’ll need a winch that’s rated between 4800-6400kg (10,500-14,000lb) winch.
Once you’ve calculated the required winch capacity, then next thing to consider is how to mount the winch. The most common method is to mount a winch on to a bull bar, so if this is your preferred option then you’ll need to ensure the bull bar is a winch-compatible model.
Most winch compatible steel bull bars will have a built-in winch cradle, with standardised mounting holes to accept many winch brands of varying capacities. You might have to add some bracketry to mount the winch controller, but that’s about it. If your vehicle has an alloy bull bar, chances are (if a winch compatible model) you’ll have to equip it with an optional winch cradle, which will be made of steel so it’s capable of handling heavy winch loads. Again, you’ll have to consider the best place to mount the winch controller.
You’ll also need to decide on how you’d like to operate the winch. This can be done via a switch fitted inside the cabin of the vehicle or via a remote-control set-up, which might either need to be plugged into the winch controller box or could be a wireless set-up. Various winch manufacturers offer different solutions, and it’s important to consider what will best suit your needs.
If you’re not keen on permanently affixing an electric winch to your vehicle, another option is to have it mounted in a winch cradle that can be fitted to the vehicle’s hitch receiver when required. The downside is it’ll be quite heavy and cumbersome, and you’ll need to find somewhere safe to stow it in your vehicle when the winch is not in use. You’ll also need to run a 12V power supply down to the rear of the vehicle.
Steel Cable or Synthetic Rope?
If you’re using a hand winch, the steel cable or synthetic rope decision will not be one you have to make, as the method by which a hand winch operates (by clamping on to the cable) means steel cable will be your only option.
A couple of decades ago steel cable was the only option for electric winches, too, because synthetic ropes strong enough to safely winch a vehicle had not yet been invented. These days, however, synthetic ropes are a good alternative to steel cable, equalling or sometimes bettering cable for strength and, of course, weighing a lot less. In fact, using synthetic rope can save 10-15kg compared with steel cable, which is a lot less weight to have hanging over the front of your vehicle if the winch is mounted to a bull bar, and a noticeable amount when manoeuvring a winch fitted to a portable cradle.
Synthetic rope might be more expensive than steel cable, but the price disparity has lessened in recent years. As for wear, synthetic rope is more susceptible to abrasion, but steel cable can fray over time, and will rust if not properly maintained and treated.
Put simply, if you can afford it, synthetic rope is the go. Bear in mind that when swapping a winch over from steel cable to synthetic rope it’s also advisable to swap your roller fairlead for a hawse fairlead; this will prevent the rope from getting pinched and damaged between rollers.
In addition to a winch itself, you’ll need several accessories to perform a successful and safe winch recovery operation, including rated shackles, winch extension strap, tree trunk protector, snatch blocks, cable damper and gloves. Most 4×4 accessory manufacturers and suppliers (such as ARB, Ironman 4×4, TJM, Opposite Lock and more) have packaged winch recovery kits that include all the gear you’ll need.
A winch extension strap is used when the winch cable isn’t long enough to attached to an anchor point, while a tree trunk protector is a wide strap that spreads a winching load over a tree trunk’s surface to prevent a smaller strap or cable from digging in to the tree and causing damage (ring-barking).
When connecting winch cables/ropes and other components such as winch extension straps, tree trunk protectors and snatch blocks, only rated shackles should be used. Again, these will be included in a quality winch recovery kit and will be clearly marked with a load rating.
Snatch blocks can be used to lessen the effort on the winch during recovery procedures. One snatch block will essentially halve the load on the winch, and it will also halve the speed of the winching operation. Snatch blocks can also be used when a straight-line recovery is not possible by adding additional anchor points to the recovery operation.
Your vehicle must also be fitted with rated recovery points, particularly when running a cable/rope through a snatch block and back to the vehicle.
A dedicated ground anchor is another handy piece of equipment, especially when travelling in areas where there aren’t likely to be many natural anchor points, such as in the desert. A ground anchor is designed to dig into the ground as a load is placed on it by the winch cable/rope. Of course, if you don’t have a ground anchor, you could always bury your spare wheel and use that as an anchor point, but this will require a lot more effort than using a device specifically designed for the task.
No matter how much money you spend on quality gear, equipment can sometimes fail, and when it does you’ll be glad you fitted a cable damper over the winch cable/rope to mimimise the chance of vehicle damage or of someone getting hurt. The cable damper is designed to lessen the chance of a cable or rope (and any attached accessories) from flying through the air when there’s an equipment failure and should always be used.
Finally, the importance of wearing quality recovery gloves cannot be understated. When handling steel cable, a pair of gloves will lessen the chance of hurting hands on frayed wire, or from burning them when using synthetic rope. Gloves also lessen the chance of hurting hands when handling other accessories such as snatch blocks and even shackles.
A winch can often be the last option when it comes to extricating a stuck vehicle, so it’s important that you maintain it to ensure it’s going to work when you need it.
You should also look after all of your other winch accessories. Regularly examine your winch cable for damage and ensure that it doesn’t kink when winding it back on to the winch drum. Likewise, regularly examine synthetic rope for abrasion or heat damage and replace it if necessary. You can also clean synthetic rope by running it through a bucket of soapy water to remove dirt and grit that can work its way between the fibres.
Winch extension straps and tree trunk protectors can also be cleaned in mild soapy water, but remember, these items have a finite lifespan. Examine them regularly for abrasion damage and check the stitching and eyes at each end for signs of wear and damage.
Finally, consider carrying some key spare parts, such as shear pins for hand winches and back-up remote controllers for electric winches.