Few accessories on a 4x4 provide as great a feeling of security as a winch. You can have a rig running the biggest engine, trickest suspension, and nastiest tires, but it's that winch on the front that you count on when those other components fail to keep your 4x4 moving.
Winches have been a mainstay of four-wheeling adventurers longer than many of us have been alive. During that time they have evolved to become a valued tool, often purchased once and then moved from rig to rig. Today there are numerous manufacturers of winches that are designed primarily for pickup and sport/utility use. Spread among those manufacturers are nearly three dozen winches, ranging in pulling capacity from 1,500 to 15,000 pounds and prices topping $1,800.
Four wheelers making that kind of investment must carefully consider all the factors when selecting a winch. To help make your choice a little easier, there's one important thought to keep in mind as you wade through the information that follows: Buying a winch is like buying a pair of boots-what looks and feels good to one person may not be right for another.
The perfect winch would be inexpensive, yet last forever. It would be very light and compact, yet able to move mountains with ease. It would always run cool and never strain the vehicle's electrical system. Unfortunately, no one has been able to design such a wonderful accessory. The closest today's manufacturers have come is at best a compromise; the newest models, a very good compromise.
So you have to use other criteria to choose the right winch for your particular application. The most important factor is to consider what the winch is going to be put on and in what type of situations winching comes into play. Start with the vehicle's "Gross Vehicle Weight" or GVW, which is noted on a metal tag riveted on the edge of the driver's door. Toss in the weight for any accessories you've added or modifications made and you have the "working GVW rating"-and the basis for deciding how much winch is sufficient.
To figure how much winch your vehicle needs, add at least 30 percent to the working GVW. Say, for example, your working GVW comes to 6,700 pounds. That means you should be looking for a winch that will provide at least 8,000 pounds of working load capacity. Safer yet, get a winch that has 50 percent more pulling power than the working weight of your rig.
Some winch manufacturers have an even easier method: Let your wallet decide. After all, they say, "How often have you heard of someone having too much winch?"
Trying to save a buck on that winch purchase by getting a smaller version? Bad mistake. When a vehicle becomes bogged down, it takes a lot more initial pulling power beyond the weight of the rig to get it moving again. Hence, buying a winch rated 30 to 50 percent more than your rig's weight is prudent.
So much for the easy part. Winch ratings can be stated in several ways, leading to some confusion on the buyer's part. A winch drum is actually another gear in the overall scheme of things. As more cable winds onto the drum, the larger the working diameter gets and the less the winch's ability to pull because the gearing is getting taller. That is why the pulling power of a winch is rated at the bottom layer of cable wrapped on the drum, not the top layers where a lot of short pulls originate.
As a general rule of thumb, the second layer of cable above the bottom cuts the winch's rated pulling power by nearly 20 percent. Succeeding layers reduce effective pulling power by about 10 percent per wrap. For example, an 8,000-pound-capacity winch might only pull 6,500 pounds on the second layer, 5,500 pounds on the third, and as little as 4,800 pounds on the outer wrap. A 700-pound difference in pulling power can mean being stuck or not. Keep this in mind when both purchasing and using a winch.
What most first-time winch buyers fail to recognize is that no matter the winch's rating, it will only pull as much as the vehicle's electrical system will allow; a weak battery means a weak winch. The larger the cold cranking and "reserve capacity" of a battery, the easier it can supply the juice the winch motor needs to perform at its optimum efficiency.
Batteries being equal, the rest depends upon the winch motor- and gear-case design. Worm-and-gear winches are a lot bulkier than the svelte, low-profile planetary-gear counterparts like Ramsey's REP-Series and Warn's ti- and XP-Series. The gear system makes all the difference when it comes to packaging; winches that utilize this are compact and very efficient for their size.
Yet the worm-and-gear and spur-gear winches have their own advantages and shouldn't be discounted just because they are "old" news. They are considered to be stronger and longer lasting because their sizable gears provide more metal surface in which to bear the tremendous internal loads applied when winching.
However, in the case of the worm-and-gear systems, the most important aspect is they automatically provide "load reversing protection"-an inherent characteristic of the gears not to let the drum reverse under load when power is cut to the motor. Some of the new designs also incorporate an internal brake system that allows the winch to hold a load or to safely power out the cable-like letting a heavy load down.
Some winches have two solenoids to control the winch motor. One solenoid is for power in, the other for power out. Other winches have four, a pair of solenoids for each operation; a redundant back-up system, if you will, for heavy-duty applications.
Mounting location also plays a role. Here it's important to carefully examine possible winching situations. If you rarely venture off the pavement or gravel roads and live where snow, water, or mud will not be of great concern, a low-mounted or behind-the-factory-bumper-mounted winch is perfectly acceptable. It keeps the front of the vehicle uncluttered and looking factory-stock. But if you live where snow or water or mud are the culprits that cause the winch cable to be brought out in the first place, you want a combination that keeps the winch and control cable/solenoids as far away from the ground as possible and a bumper mount that doesn't take away from the vehicle's approach angle.
The lower the winch's frontal profile, the less airflow it blocks too. That is something to consider if you live where summer temperatures reach into the 90s; radiators need all the unimpeded airflow they can get to keep the engine from overheating.
Receiver-style winches are ideal for those who want to be able to use a winch when needed, but don't want it hanging off the vehicle when it's not. These winches are also ideal for use among several vehicles as they are light enough and compact enough to be moved from one rig to another.
The rest of the decision-making is up to you. Whether or not you choose chrome or black bumpers, brushguards, hawse-type or roller fairleads and so on, is a purely subjective decision. Prices? Shop around. Look in the magazines and newspaper ads. Surf the Web. Make phone calls. Don't forget to figure in the freight; winches are heavy and freight can add dollars to the bottom line.
Buying a winch is a tough choice, so take your time when doing it. The payoff will come when least expected.