Since the first synthetic rope spooled around a winch drum, people have been vigorously arguing both for and against the new-age recovery line. For many, steel is simply the classic cable that never lets them down. But in these modern times of lighter-is-better thinking, even seasoned wheeling veterans are drawn in by the seemingly more user-friendly rope. Both appear to have some pretty clear pros and cons, and while rope is trending better than steel these days, it hasn’t taken over the market. Editor Cappa is sold on synthetic, while Technical Editor Mansour is hanging tough with steel. Can either really be right or wrong? Read their arguments and make your call.
Steel: The Durable Classic
The two main arguments against steel have always been that it is more dangerous and heavier than rope. Let’s go ahead and attack the first one. When it comes to line strength, cable can be just as strong. The idea that steel can’t be as strong as rope is absurd. If rope was the end-all-be-all of safety and strength, we would all be driving hemp-wagons and singing Kumbaya on the trail. Yes, if a steel cable breaks while in use, it can kill you. Fortunately, most responsible wheelers now implement the practice of using a winch weight or blanket, which can make the difference between life and death.
We’ve seen and spoken with top winch manufacturers who have conducted tests and found that no matter if it was steel cable or synthetic rope, using a winch weight will cause the cable to draw in to the point of weight. Using a winch in general can be dangerous, and don’t be fooled—a rope can take you out just as fast as a cable. It is also said that cable flattens and frays. While true, some of this can be avoided by routine maintenance. It only takes a few minutes to spool out your cable and make sure that it is in good shape. If you are unwilling to do this every so often, do you really think you will be up for spraying out your synthetic rope after every wheeling trip? And if you do have trouble spooling your winch line in a tidy fashion on the drum, there are actually tools available to help you.
Steel continues to be the less expensive and more durable line of choice for wheelers around the globe.
Sure, steel can rust, but a little spray of WD-40 every so often will go a long way to prevent the cable from going to the bad. And steel cable isn’t afraid of a little sunlight, unlike the rope which can deteriorate from UV exposure. Wearing gloves when winching shouldn’t be a negative, but more common sense and safe practice. Can you get away with not wearing them with rope? Sure, the same way you can probably get away with not wearing sunscreen. Sooner or later though, you are going to get burned!
I will concede that rope is lighter than steel, but that still doesn’t make it better. Plastic is lighter than steel too, but I don’t see too many plastic bumpers on the trail these days. I grew up wheeling in rocky and muddy terrain. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had to drag my winch cable over a jagged rock or into the dirt, simply because I had no other choice. Steel cable is the workhorse of the winch drum—it doesn’t care what you drag it across. If I am hanging off of a cliff and relying solely on my winch as my literal lifeline, I don’t want to worry if a synthetic rope condom is still sitting in the right spot.
Steel continues to be the less expensive and more durable line of choice for wheelers around the globe. If you don’t use your winch often, then steel is the better choice, since it requires less maintenance. I have enough things to worry about on my 4x4—I don’t need sunscreen and a weekly bath for my synthetic rope to be another one.
Summary: When my hide is hanging in the balance, I’ll take steel cable. It’s simple, strong, and proven. There’s no need to fix what isn’t broken.
Synthetic Rope: Stronger and Safer
If you insist on using steel cable, you might as well embrace the 100-plus-year-old technology and replace your electric winch motor with a steam-driven unit. Steel cable is the high-maintenance, painfully bitchy girlfriend of the winch world. Before you use a steel-cabled winch, you have to un-spool the wire and then re-spool it under tension. And even if you get it back on the drum perfectly (which you won’t), it still bites into itself during hard pulls which causes it to fray. And when you are winching on the trail, there is no controlling where the cable lies on the drum. It gets crisscrossed, causing the cable to kink, which again leads to fraying.
Because of this fraying, you absolutely have to wear thick leather gloves when handling a steel cable or risk being mutilated by the broken wires. Imagine this: You reel in the cable after a job, one hand on the controller (or worse, a buddy manning the controller) and one of the frayed wires digs into your hand like a fish hook, pulling you into the fairlead. Yeah, not a pretty sight. No matter how badly you treat it, the frays of a synthetic winch rope will never dig into your hand. You really don’t even need gloves to handle it. Yeah, sure, steel cable is more durable, but it has a lower tensile strength than a comparable synthetic rope.
Steel cable is the high-maintenance, painfully bitchy girlfriend of the winch world.
Most quality winch ropes come with a chafe sleeve that you can lay over any sharp objects that could cause failure. And speaking of failure, what happens when your steel cable breaks? If it’s a hard pull there is a lot of energy stored in the steel cable, when it snaps it can become a dangerous whipping projectile that can break bones. Some people believe a synthetic rope simply falls to the ground when it snaps, well, that’s not exactly true. It still whips pretty good, but I’d much rather receive a painful red welt from being hit by a broken rope than have my shin bone busted in half by a wire cable. If you were lucky enough not to be killed by your broken cable, you’re still pretty much out of luck unless you have a saw, a swedge, and the knowledge of how to repair a cable safely. In a pinch, a broken winch rope can be repaired simply by tying a knot in it. Even weaving a synthetic rope is simple by comparison.
If you are worried about weight, a synthetic rope is by far the winner. A rope is typically 15-20 pounds lighter than its steel cable counterpart. It’s also more manageable than a cable so if you want to carry a spare winch rope inside your 4x4 you can do so very easily.
I’ll admit that synthetic rope does have a few disadvantages, but the benefits far outweigh them. It is more expensive than cable, but that’s typically the case with any higher quality product. If you get the winch rope muddy, the dirt inside the weaves can cause damage to the rope during pulls. To avoid this, simply hose it off after each outing to keep dirt and sand from working its way into the fibers. Sunlight is another issue. It can degrade the synthetic rope, although most quality synthetic ropes have a special coating that protects them from the damaging rays. We’ve actually seen more steel cables destroyed by rust than winch ropes damaged by mud and sun.
Summary: Synthetic winch rope is lighter, stronger, safer, easier to handle, and just altogether more modern than steel cable.