Winches are one of the most drooled-over accessories on the list of desired 4x4 components. They provide a sense of security and elevate you to the next level in the unofficial off-road caste system. But how do these motors and spools of rope do what they do? And how do you know which one you should be saving your Franklins for?
For this article, we focused on two winches that show common and popular technology in the industry. In addition to the Smittybilt and Warn products shown here, other key players in the industry include Mile Marker and Ramsey. We’re also going to examine winch technology. However, properly using a winch and the accessories that are available to work with them are just as important.
A winch is a pretty simple-looking piece of machinery. But there are a lot of parts that make it work, and understanding what each part does is very important to help you to choose the right one for your 4x4.
Nearly all winches have these seven key components:
Motor: Creates turning motion.
Transmission: Multiplies the torque of the motor to generate speed and pulling power.
Rope: Spools in and out and is made of either steel or synthetic; often referred to as cable.
Drum: What the rope is wrapped around.
Clutch: Allows you to switch between free-spooling to pull the line out, and engaged, which lets the motor spool the rope in and out.
Brake: Slows the drum when the motor is turned off and holds its position when the clutch is engaged.
Electronic controls: Switches the direction of the motor, controls activation, and manages the high amperage that an electric winch motor requires.
At this point, it’s appropriate to mention that there are also hydraulic winches and even some that use other power sources. For this article, though, we’ll focus on how an electric winch functions.
For winches, electric motors are rated in horsepower. If everything else about two winches were the same, more horsepower would mean more pulling power and more speed. However, you can almost never compare winches by horsepower alone because everything else will be different too. There is no third-party testing or industry standard by which winch manufactures rate electric winch motors (or line speed, for that matter).
Similar to the transmission in your 4x4, a winch transmission uses gearing to change the output speed relative to how fast the motor is spinning. Gear ratios range from about 150:1 to 300:1, giving the winch its pulling power. Just as with your axle gears, higher numeric ratios provide more power, but at the expense of speed. A good winch design matches the electric motor power and gear ratio to provide a desirable compromise between speed and pulling power.
There are two types of gearing typically found in winches. The less common type for off-road recovery is a worm-style. This is a pretty simple design, very similar to a mechanical speedometer drive in the tailshaft of a transfer case. A gear on a shaft meshes with gears cut into the outside of a ring gear. The advantage is simplicity in design. This is a very strong design and offers self-braking. They typically have lower line speed, and the shaft-mounted gear makes winch-mounting a bit of a challenge. This is also a less efficient design, meaning it takes more electric-motor power to provide the same line pull.
The more common type is the planetary variant. These use a planetary gearset, similar to what you will find in an automatic transmission. Planetary gears rotate around a sun gear, and the ring gear is pressed inside of a case and has the teeth facing inward. This is a much more efficient design than the worm-style; it fits better on the winch for easier mounting; and it engages easily. Planetary gearsets offer virtually zero self-braking and require a brake to slow and stop the drum when the motor is turned off.
A third style of gearing is the spur gear, which is the most efficient. These use a small and large gear with straight-cut teeth that mesh directly. They offer very fast line speed and the highest efficiency of the three types of transmissions. They also have very little self-braking. Packaging is a bit of a challenge, as the gears make the height of the winch pretty tall. The Warn M8274 is the only common off-road winch that uses this type of gearing.
Changes in technology have made it possible to have planetary gearsets with very high speed and strength, and their advantage in fitting compactly on the winch have made them very popular in the 4x4 market. Worm-style gearsets are often seen on flatbed tow trucks.
A winch can consume 400 amps of power or more during hard pulls. There are two basic types of electronic controls that manage the power and convert your push of the button into pulling action. The traditional setup of controls is a pack of solenoids. These usually resemble starter solenoids that you would find on an older Ford or Jeep. These work well in most situations, but they generate heat and can overheat in extreme conditions. Warn developed its solid-state M.O.S.F.E.T control pack as an improvement. This control pack uses solid-state electronics for a greater operating range and durability. Mile Marker also offers solid-state control for its electric winches, and it uses the technology to offer variable line speed.
One of the most lively debates in winching is over steel and synthetic rope. Steel is very durable in a harsh environment, while synthetic is very lightweight. Synthetic has become very popular with the explosion of rockcrawling competitions. In this application, being lightweight is a huge advantage in moving quickly and keeping overall vehicle weight down. Drag both types over an abrasive surface, though, and the wire will prove more durable; it’s also less prone to fail due to excessive heat. On the other hand, the synthetic line is safer in the event of failure because it stores less kinetic energy and will not recoil with as much force as a broken cable. Which one you choose is more about personal preference. Regardless of material, winch cables need to be inspected regularly and replaced whenever there is damage to maintain winching safety.
There are a few ratings that should be used to compare winches. Line pull is one of the most important ones—it is the maximum weight that the winch will pull. You don’t want a winch with a maximum line pull anywhere close to your vehicle’s actual weight. Here’s why: The maximum pulling power is only possible with one layer of cable on the drum. The line pull reduces significantly for each layer of cable left on the drum. A 9,000-pound winch, for example, has a line pull of 7,500 pounds with three layers of cable on the drum.
Another reason it’s important to choose the right line pull is amp draw. That same 9,000-pound winch will draw 460 amps with a 9,000-pound load, and 255 amps at 4,000 pounds. Unless you have two big batteries and two high-output alternators, you won’t be able to sustain 460 amps for long. And the winch will overheat even if you could provide that much juice.
So why doesn’t everyone just go with a 12,000 pound winch? The gearing, electric motor and everything else required for higher line pull ratings slows the line speed, which is the next key consideration in choosing a winch. Also, a 12,000-pound winch weighs a lot more: 135 pounds compared to 85 pounds for a 9,000-pound model. More isn’t always better.
The time-honored rule of thumb is to choose a winch with a line pull 1½ times that of your vehicle’s actual weight. An 8,000-pound winch is okay on most Jeeps, while nothing under a 10,000-pound winch should be on a Ford Super Duty pickup.
This has long been a measuring stick for people to brag about their winch. Like racing, a faster line speed is better, and I’d like mine to be faster than yours. Line speed is simply how fast (measured in feet per minute) that a winch can spool in cable. There are two measurements that winch manufacturers advertise: speed at zero line pull and speed at maximum rated line pull. Some winches are pretty good without any weight, which is nice for a quick spool-in when you’re done winching, but you could rebuild an axle while it’s spooling in under load.
We’ve used a lot of winches over the years. In addition to bragging rights, a quick winch makes off-roading more enjoyable for everyone—especially if you’re on a trail or with a buddy that requires a lot of winching. A 30 percent faster line speed means 30 percent more time wheeling.
There are more winch companies and models today than literally any other time in history. That means a lot of choices, a lot of competition driving prices down, and a lot of comparison shopping once you decide it’s time to take your off-road adventures to the level that requires a winch.
We’ve already talked about how to select an appropriate line pull for your vehicle. The rest is series of trade-offs. A fast line speed is generally desirable, but that has to be weighed against cost within the winches that meet your weight-rating requirement. Warn also upped the ante last year with the introduction of the PowerPlant Dual Force, which includes an air compressor in the winch package.
The bottom line is that you should always choose a winch that will deliver the performance you need. Once you decide what that need is, there are quite a range of choices to fit what you want.
Sweat the Technique: 12 Winching Tips for Safety
Proper use and maintenance of your winch is the subject of a whole separate story (we could write a book about it), but whenever you are out on the trail, always keep these minimum basics in mind:
Always wear leather gloves when handling cable, even synthetic winch line.
Keep hands well away from the fairlead and cable drum.
Double-check that the winch hook, shackles and clevis are fastened securely before applying power.
Keep spectators at least 50 feet away and to the side of the winching procedures.
Always place a winch weight over the cable midway point to act as a damper should the cable come loose under load; this is a good idea with synthetic line as well as steel cable.
Never stand beside the winch when it’s operating—you’re in the line of fire if the cable breaks.
Be sure the attachment points on the vehicle being winched are strong and will not be damaged during retrieval.
Never attach a winch cable to a tow ball.
Never start winching with less than three cable wraps on the drum. Fewer winds could let the cable pull loose from the drum.
For long recoveries, don’t try to get out in one continuous pull. Winch in short intervals to keep the winch motor cool.
Always inspect your cable prior to winching to ensure there are no frays or kinks.
Never stand or walk behind a vehicle being winched uphill.
The $400 Question
The question of the year regarding winches is whether or not to trust one of the many winches now entering the market at a price much lower than traditional winch prices. For less than $400, you can now buy an 8,000- or 8,500-pound winch. That’s half of what you would have expected to pay just a couple of years ago.
The Smittybilt XRC10 that we tested for this article sells for $400 (at time of print) from several retailers, and we were skeptical of what we would find. As you might expect, the winch is made in China. Also as you would expect, the touch and feel of materials is not the same quality as a more expensive winch. The other difference we noticed is that we got to do some of the wiring of the winch ourselves during the installation, while other winches come completely wired and simply need to be connected to the vehicle battery.
We used the XRC10 winch to extract a few vehicles, including ours. The first time we used it, we called for technical support because we weren’t getting any action when we pushed the switch. The Smittybilt winches require you to plug the controller in and twist it a quarter turn to lock it in place. Then it works fine. This is a design decision, not a factor in the cost of the winch, but we thought you’d like to know.
The line speed is much slower than a winch costing twice as much, but that’s the only complaint we can register from using the XRC10. The winch worked fine every time we called on it, and the controls are easy to use. These ultra-low priced winches are new, so only time can tell how durable they will prove to be. These low-priced winches completely remove the price barrier that traditionally has kept a large part of the 4x4 market from purchasing one.