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Synthetic Winch Rope vs Cable: Which is Best?

Here’s our take on what to pull with.

Wire cable versus synthetic winch rope? It's a question for the ages—but not really. The answer is pretty simple and boils down to what you want from your winch. Are you a recreational user or someone who winches for a living? Truth is, there are pros and cons to both steel winch cable and synthetic winch ropes. We have experience with both and will boil down the issues to help you be better informed about what to use. Winching is something that no one really wants to do, but when you need to winch, you really need to winch. It's typically not optional. Sometimes you can lend a tug from your buddy's vehicle on the trail and get back on track, but when you are really stuck, winching is much more precise, controllable, and safer.

Winches have been around about as long as off-roaders have needed them. Power take-off (PTO) winches were on Jeeps in WWII with Bellview—a company who made parts for Warn and was later acquired by Warn—which revolutionized the winch industry in 1959 with an electrically driven winch. Since then, winches on recreational 4x4s have been everywhere. Winches can pull 4x4s that are stuck in mud, water, rocks, and more. Winches—what they do—are flat out irreplaceable, and not much had changed in the world of winching until synthetic rope was borrowed from the maritime industry and used on 4x4 based Jeeps.

Why Synthetic Rope Is an Option

Winches don't do much without a rope or cable. The problem is that using a winch to move a vehicle with a steel cable loads a very small and flexible structure with a huge amount of weight. That weight turns into kinetic energy, a type of energy that can be very dangerous to humans if it is released suddenly. The idea behind using synthetic rope in a winch is that the synthetic rope under load has much less weight, and thus much less kinetic energy. So, when a rope breaks—as opposed to a steel cable—the rope, when the kinetic energy is released, wreaks much less damage to nearby things (including people) than steel cable does.

So synthetic rope is safer, but what other characteristics does it have that we have to take into account. There are several pros and cons to both steel cable and synthetic winch rope.

Pros and cons of Wire and Synthetic winch

Here are the pros and cons for each, as well as the answers to some common questions you might have after reading this.

Steel cable

Pros

More durable

Longer lasting

Dissipates heat from internal brake drum

Less expensive than synthetic

Cons

Heavy

Stores more kinetic energy

Difficult to handle

Develops frays

Difficult to repair if the cable breaks

No load wraps can unspool to a bird's nest

Can rust

Can kink when not spooled correctly

Synthetic

Pros

Lightweight

Stronger than steel (when new)

Floats in water

Easier to handle

Simple to field fix

Won't rust

Cons

Doesn't dissipate heat well, A winches brake cools through the drum and cable

Subject to abrasion on rocks

Strength degrades at 150 degrees

Can get heat aged by repeated overheating of winch brake

UV light damages it

Sand and dirt can cut internally

Needs a sheath for protection from debris and sunlight

More expensive than steel

Needs to be cleaned of mud, sand, and debris

Can retain water and freeze

Not all synthetic winch ropes on the market are the same quality

Common questions about synthetic rope

Is synthetic winch rope worth the price? We'd say yes if you: don't use your winch often; have a weight-conscious build; or if you value safety and don't mind spending the cash. If you have a $250 low-quality winch, there is probably no reason to run expensive rope on it.

Can you put synthetic rope on a cable winch? Yes, you can put synthetic rope on a winch designed for steel cable. However, the brake drum in the winch might not be able to cool as well because steel cable acts like a heat sink, while synthetic rope may act more like an insulator trapping heat. Heat can damage synthetic rope—not to mention the winch. Some ropes like Warn's Spydura Synthetic rope has a few features that help it deal with heat better than conventional winch ropes.

Can you use a roller fairlead with a synthetic rope? You should use an aluminum or high density plastic fairlead with synthetic rope. Steel rollers can damage synthetic rope. However, Daystar makes some polyurethane rollers that can be used with synthetic rope.

How long will synthetic winch rope last? The short answer is synthetic ropes can last 10 years, but with heavy use, getting a year or two out of a rope is pretty good. The beauty of synthetic rope is that if it fails, it's relatively safe and can be tied back together. Still that could leave you stranded on the trail.

Which weighs more? Steel cable is much heavier than synthetic winch rope.

The take home message

At the end of the day, if you use your winch a lot and have lots of experience, rigging, and using a winch, you should probably use steel cable. It just lasts longer and is without doubt more durable to use. If your winch sees seldom use and is mostly there for insurance purposes in case you get stuck—or if you don't know much about how to use a winch—synthetic rope is what you should use. We prefer synthetic rope on almost all our rigs, even those where we winch a fair amount, for one reason. That reason is that if our rope breaks, it is less likely to injure the people around us, people we care about. The thought is that synthetic winch rope, even though it's expensive, if it saves one person from injury or death the rope has paid for itself hundreds of times over.

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