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Proper Vehicle Recovery Methods - Rigging a Winch

Overturned Vehicle
Posted April 30, 2013

Normally hard-baked clay trails with traction like slick rock had become slick and greasy. Using the brakes was the wrong action.

If you spend any significant amount of time in difficult terrain, you're bound to encounter a recovery situation at some point. It could be either your vehicle or someone else's. And a winch may be the proper tool at that time. This is a good time to review recovery techniques and rigging concepts. Keep in mind that these tips and the information provided here are not a substitute for proper training, sound judgment, and quality equipment.

Every winching operation should start with a plan in your mind as to how you'll rig it up. Winching is a risky procedure; proceed very slowly and methodically. You're dealing with material and parts that are subject to a tremendous amount of force. A mistake can be fatal!

Rigging a Straight Pull

The most common rigging is a straight pull. You hook up to an anchor (a tree or rock) directly in front of you and pull yourself out. Or you connect straight on to a stuck vehicle and pull it out.

When connecting to a tree, use a tree strap. A cable around a tree will crush, break, or cut the bark, leaving the tree susceptible to disease and disrupting the flow of nutrients, hurting or killing a tree like the one pictured above. A tree strap also gives a better point to connect the winch line. If you loop a winch line around a tree and hook it back on itself, the steel cable will be kinked, creating a weak point.

Use a 3/4-inch screw pin bow shackle (commonly called a D-ring) to connect the tree strap to the winch line. Pass the D-ring through both loops on the tree strap and tighten the screw pin finger tight. Then back it off 1/4 to 1/2 turn. This will prevent it from becoming super tight and difficult to remove later. A 3/4-inch D-ring has a working load limit (WLL) of 4.75 tons. It will be stamped on the bow. That translates to 9,500 pounds. Typically the safety margin is at least 5:1. This means that the D-ring will not break until in the neighborhood of 47,000 to 50,000 pounds. Comforting! Don't use anything smaller than the 3/4-inch D-ring. You need at least two D-rings, and this is one case where more is better (six is not too many).

Do not use a recovery strap as a substitute for a tree strap. Typical recovery straps are designed to stretch 10 to 15 percent. It is not a good idea to introduce additional recoil into the winch rigging. The sweet spot for tree strap length is about 15 feet. Many straps on the market are too short for a stout tree. And as an added bonus, a longer tree strap might just give you the extra foot needed to reach the tree.

Connect the winch hook to the D-ring on the tree so the open side faces up. This is an extra safety precaution. In the event the hook breaks, it will recoil toward the ground.


Never use any equipment you do not know the load rating of. This applies to straps, D-rings, pulleys, the winch line, and the winch. Unfortunately, not all of our equipment has the level of safety margin built into a D-ring. A 5/16-inch steel line is rated at an ultimate breaking strength of 9,800 pounds. On a 9,500-pound rated winch, the safety margin is minimal—almost one to one. Fortunately, we seldom need to pull max loads and there are ways to reduce the load on the line using pulleys. By the way, a 5/16-inch synthetic line is stronger (about 15,500 pounds). And a 3/8-inch synthetic rope can easily be substituted—at 19,600 pounds of ultimate breaking strength. Winch kits often come with a pulley. If the pulley rating is not stamped into the metal, do it yourself. Overtime, stick-on labels are destroyed.


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