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Steel Cable Or Synthetic Winch Rope?

Posted in Features on February 26, 2014
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Steel wire winch cable has been the mainstay of the winching, recovery, and hauling industry for many years. With the introduction of synthetic winch rope in the early ’90s and its subsequent growth in popularity, the debate continues about which is better. But just like the classic Ford versus Chevy argument, what is really better actually boils down to what is best for you and your situation.

Any crusty old-timer will probably swear by steel, while most newbies run synthetic because the racers use it or their winch came with it already. The attendees of the Ultimate Adventure were recently polled on their thoughts, which we have presented to you here. But since both lines have their pros and cons regardless of our personal opinions, we’ve done a quick comparo to give you the facts and dispel a few myths.

“You don’t need to wear gloves with synthetic rope.”

Gloves should be used for both. While a synthetic rope won’t develop barbs, it can trap debris which can cut you.

“Synthetic rope won’t whip back if it breaks.”

Both will whip back after breaking. The heavier steel stores more kinetic energy, so it can cause more damage, but synthetic does not just break and fall to the ground. A winch line weight should be used on both.

“Steel cable kinks too easily.”

Steel does not kink by itself -- that is operator error. The same goes for cable or rope pulling in between wraps. Properly wrapped and aligned, neither kind should be an issue.

“Aluminum fairlead is needed for synthetic, not a roller.”

False. A roller fairlead is fine as long as it is designed without sharp edges that can damage the synthetic line or allow the line to slip between the rollers.

Wire rope can get severe kinks and flat spots that weaken it. Loose cable also bird-nests when not under tension.

Cable vs. Rope

Steel cable
• More durable
• Longer lasting
• Dissipates heat from internal brake drum
• Less expensive than synthetic

• Heavy
• Stores more kinetic energy
• Difficult to handle
• Develops barbs
• Difficult to field fix
• No load wraps can unspool to a bird’s nest
• Can rust
• Can kink

Synthetic rope is generally made from an altered polypropylene material and has a stronger breaking strength in tension than a similar-sized steel cable.

• Lightweight
• Stronger than steel (when new)
• Floats
• Comes in pretty colors
• Easy to handle
• Simple to field fix
• Won’t rust

• Doesn’t dissipate heat, which can affect the winch brake
• Subject to abrasion
• Strength degrades at 150 degrees
• Can get heat aged by repeated overheating of brake drum
• UV degrades it
• Sand and dirt can cut internally
• Needs a sheath for protection from debris and sunlight
• More expensive than steel
• Needs to be cleaned of mud, sand, and debris
• Can retain water and freeze
• Lots of cheap imitations on the market

Bench Winchin’
Rick Péwé, Editor-in-Chief
Synthetic winch rope has its place in recreational 4-wheeling, that’s for sure. It is light, easy to handle, pretty, snag-free, cool, new, and sexy. But for me, I prefer 5⁄16 steel cable. In 60 years when they dig me out of my grave the steel cable will still be in good enough shape to do anything, unlike synthetic.

I often wonder why the industrial winches in mining and construction, not to mention cable cars and gondolas hanging thousands of feet in the air, haven’t switched to synthetic rope instead of steel cable. As it turns out, there is a movement in some industries because the lighter synthetic is quicker and easier to handle with less lifting, hence fewer workplace back injuries. I prefer real steel cable though; I’m still young enough to haul 150 feet of steel cable (the proper length), and I have real leather gloves to protect me from snags.

My questions would be for a synthetic line: Can you prevent UV degradation? Especially on the first 20 feet that is exposed to sunlight since 90 percent of winch owners will only use the winch once, if ever. Can you make it impervious to dirt and sand getting in between the strands so they aren’t cut, abraded, and compromised without showing any dangerous signs of wear? Do you have a compound that allows the rope to act like a heat sink since most winches have the brake inside the drum—which can’t cool off properly without the steel-to-steel heat transfer mechanism? Most synthetic ropes insulate the drum, rendering the brake far less efficient than what you may want when hanging off a cliff, for whatever reason.

If all of the cons of synthetic line can be addressed, such as some of the top-line manufacturers do, then it is a viable alternative, as opposed to buying a cheap Chinese imitation blue-colored rope off eBay and trusting your life to it, or someone else’s life. When you really need a winch, it’s because you really need a winch, not an easy-to-use fashion statement.

Finally, ask yourself if you want to pull a G. W. Hayduke with 10,000 pounds of Jeep and gear hanging off a cliff hovering 140 feet over certain death below. Do you want steel or synthetic? Well, do ya?

PhotosView Slideshow

Stephen Watson, President, Offroad Designs
For industrial use, cable wins all day. You can run it over the edge of the deck on your wrecker, drag it through mud and never have to wash it, don’t have to train anyone to use/maintain it other than watching for big obvious damage, it’s cheaper, and so on.

Rope is lighter, safer for bystanders, easier to handle, trail repairable, works better on recreational-size winches that often have drums too small for their cable size (creating massive cable snarls), and given that you should never use a winch for overhead lifting (Hayduke style is a big no-no) if the rope does break there’s no loss other than some time and hassle, which in the recreational world is “free.”

On a mountain mommy car that will see one or two total uses to pull out of a ditch, cable is probably better, as cheap and durable is key. For my trail rigs, rope wins. It’s worth the price (both in dollars and maintenance) to be safer, lighter, easier to use, and easy to fix when it breaks. I’ve never seen an effective cable repair, especially in the field. And it floats, so when I’m trying to rescue your sinking Jeep I don’t have extra pounds of cable trying to drown me while I hook my rope up to your tow hook.

No rope will be as cheap as cable, so we just have to give up on that idea now. I have no idea how to deal with drum heat other than just not making it (by working the winch brake), which has worked pretty well for me so far but is not possible for everyone. I kind of feel like ropes are going to break in the field whether they’re steel or plastic, and I like to be able to fix them. And I like to take old ropes or rope material and make slings and extension lines and stuff with them when they’re done being winch ropes. That’s hard to do around the campfire with cable.

Harry Wagner, Feature Editor
My experience has been the opposite of Rick’s. I haven’t hung off the side of any cliffs by my winch line and I don’t use my truck for mining; 99 percent of the time I am using my winch for short pulls to get my vehicle up an obstacle or recover another vehicle. In these situations I prefer synthetic cable because it is lighter and easier to handle. The fact that it is lighter means that it does store less potential energy should it break (that is basic physics).

I have had steel cable kink and break strands, and I find it hard to keep even on the drum, particularly when a load is removed from the cable. It often unravels and becomes a bird’s nest. I have not had this issue with synthetic cable, nor have I had my winch drum overheat (although I typically only do short pulls).

I have been running the same cheap Amsteel blue on the front of my truck for eight years, and it has been consistently exposed to sunlight here in the desert but is still working fine. It is faded, so perhaps it has degraded but not to the point of failure.

PhotosView Slideshow

Trent McGee, Freelance Writer
I’ve run both a lot; each has advantages and drawbacks. I’ve used a variety of ropes but unfortunately am not familiar with all the brands, so I cannot attest to each brand individually. The best rope I have used thus far is Warn’s. Others have been surprisingly good and surprisingly crappy. I remember I had one for a while that would separate the strands and bunch up like a caterpillar when alternately loaded and unloaded—that brought the suck. It didn’t last long because it was a nightmare to straighten out.

I lean slightly towards cable because it can take more abuse than rope without question. When people ask my opinion on winches I always tell them to go with reputable brands for one primary reason: When you need a winch you need a winch. The only thing more worthless than not having a winch when you need one is having one that doesn’t work. It’s kind of the same thing with the cable versus rope argument, and quality more than anything is what I would stick with for recovery gear.

Reality dictates that most recoveries are going to be in less-than-ideal circumstances: angled pulls, unavoidably rubbing against trees or rocks, and so on. Cable tends to take that more in stride than rope. Sure, it might separate the strands and fray, but it’s generally going to give you plenty of warning before it breaks. With rope, not so much. I side with Rick on the cable snap issue. I’ve seen lots of them snap and more often than not, they don’t go far. I wouldn’t want to get hit by a broken cable and know it would draw blood in addition to being most unpleasant, but not lethal. After all, we’re talking about 90 feet or so of 5⁄16-inch cable, not a thousand feet of 2-inch logging line strung up a mountain.

Finally, cleanliness and whether or not the rope is wet or dry can have a significant impact on its strength. Not so with cable.

Still, it’s really nice to be able to splice a rope back together or redo an eye for the hook if needed, even in the field if you have the know-how (I know you can do the same with cable but it’s a helluva lot harder and I’ve never been successful at it), and the fact that it’s light and maneuverable is a big plus.

Here in sunny Arizona, UV protection is really important. If I had a Jeep that I knew was going to spend most of its time outside, I wouldn’t run rope on it.

So yeah, the advantages and drawbacks kind of cancel each other out in my eyes, but for me the general durability of cable gives it a slight advantage

Sam Gillis, UA Old Crony
I never use a winch on myself, so I’m at a loss. But I would agree with Harry on the protecting the first wrap on the winch spool. You also need to look at how the rope is fastened to the drum. I’m not sure on all the Warn products, but the new Warn Zeon style of winches come with a slot in the drum to run an eyelet through versus the older M series, VR, XP, or XD that fasten by a set screw on the side of the drum.

I run the Warn synthetic rope and never had a problem, but ropes are like anything else: They require maintenance. Therefore I spool mine out every ride to help people out that I ride with.

Mel Wade, UA Regular
I agree with Rick. I tell all my customers that if you are replacing your winch rope every year or so, then the rope is nice. However, for pure durability over the years, steel cable is the way to go. So they still buy the rope. I love America.

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