A winch is a very useful piece of equipment to have, if you know how to use it safely. Though manufacturers will tell you that winches available to the recreational user are intended for self-recovery only, we all use them for far more than that. However, a winch can be dangerous if not used correctly, even for it’s intended purpose of self-recovery.
First, a winch is a static piece of recovery equipment, not a recovery point for kinetic pull. The difference is that kinetic recovery equipment is intended to handle shock loads, like kinetic energy recovery ropes, while static recovery equipment, like chains and winches, are specifically designed for slow and steady loads only. If you use your winch hook as a recovery point for a kinetic pull, you are subjecting the brakes on your winch drum to severe shock load. This risks winch brake failure or even drum failure. Only use frame-mounted recovery points for a kinetic recovery.
Also, a static recovery means only the hook end of the winch line should be moving. I have seen many people hook up the winch to a disabled vehicle and drive their rig backwards while winching. This is not only introducing a shock load to your winch, but also working your vehicle under load in Reverse—something your vehicle’s gears are also not optimally designed to do. Drive forward when towing or yanking another vehicle.
Speaking of gears, if you are trying to pull yourself out of a pickle, you should be in Drive and using the power of the vehicle in conjunction with the winch, if possible. But, when you are winching someone else, not yourself, your automatic transmission should be in Neutral and your foot on the brake. Likewise, if you are winching another vehicle, that other vehicle should be in Drive to assist with the winch recovery, too. So, to summarize, the vehicle being recovered should be in Drive and assisting the winch pull if possible and safe.
Many mistakes are made while managing the winch rope itself. It is critical to both synthetic rope and steel cable users that you keep tension on the line whenever it’s being powered in or out of the winch drum. To allow slack in the line while the winch is running is going to allow the line to wrap back on itself and kink on the drum. Always power out or in under tension—just a hand or two on the rope with a little body weight on it is sufficient. Basic safety reminder: always wear gloves, stay more than an arm’s length from the fairlead, maintain verbal and non-verbal signals with the driver running the winch controller, and never let the rope slide through your hand—use a hand-over-hand motion to control the rope.
Lastly, a common mistake is using too little winch rope. Your winch actually operates more effectively when you are not concentrating all of the use on the same first twenty feet of rope. When you pull rope all the way out to the bottom layer on the drum, your winch motor doesn’t have to work as hard. This also allows you to pull in more rope on one side of the drum before you have to reset. Look at anchor points farther away or use your pulley block whenever the distance you are from the anchor point is 40 percent of the length of your winch line or less.
Understanding the forces involved is critical to safe and successful winching, but always put the safety of people first. A winching class from a certified trainer is invaluable, and many winch companies also provide free downloads of their operation manuals—well worth the read. The time invested to understand your gear and how to use it safely and effectively not only saves you money, but also possibly saves lives.