How to Use a Winch for Off-Road Recovery

For the uninitiated, winches used for off-roading and overlanding seem like exotic pieces of equipment applied only in extreme circumstances. But learning how to use a winch is a fundamental vehicle recovery skill that once mastered can make your adventures safer and more fun.

In this guide, we’ll cover the basics of off-roading winches, including how they work, how to use them safely, and various situations where they can come in handy.

This guide isn’t a substitute for hands-on training by an experienced instructor. Your local off-roading or overlanding club is a great place to get started.

What is a winch?

Parts of a winch

While the design of winches varies among manufacturers, most winches will have some version of the following parts:

Motor – Electric motor that powers the winch, typically wired into the vehicle’s battery.

Drum – Round cylinder rotated by the motor that serves as the connection point and spool for the winch line, winding the winch line in or out.

Line – Metal cable or synthetic line that wraps around the drum and extends to connect to an anchor or a stuck vehicle.

Hook – Attached to the end of the winch line, the hook connects the line to anchors or vehicles being rescued.

Clutch – A switch that engages and disengages the spool. When engaged, the spool only winds in our out when the motor is spinning the drum. When disengaged, it spins freely, allowing the line to be pulled out by hand during set up.

Break – Stops the winch drum from spinning when the motor is stopped and the winch line is under load.

Fairlead – Guides the winch line onto the drum when taking the line in.

Switch – A switch allows the user to control the winch, typically via a wired or wireless remote on modern winches to allow the user to stand a safe distance away.

How to Use a Winch: Basic Operation

The primary function of a winch in off-road recovery is to pull a stuck vehicle free from some predicament. Common situations include getting stuck in mud, sand, or snow, struggling to climb a steep incline, or a vehicle roll-over. You can use a wince to pull yourself free or use it to rescue someone else’s vehicle. In complex rescues, multiple winches can be used simultaneously.

Safety should always be top of mind while using winches, as they exert tremendous forces that have the capacity to damage vehicles and kill people. We’ll go into more detail on winch safety later in this article.

First, a few basics on how winches function. Winches use electrical power from a battery, typically the vehicle’s primary battery, to turn the winch drum, which winds and unwinds the winch line.

The less line wrapped around the drum, the more powerful the pulling force the winch exerts. As more line wraps onto the drum, the pulling power drops significantly with each layer. So a winch that is rated for, say 10,000 pounds, will only pull with that force when the first layer of the winch line is being reeled around the drum.

Typically, a winch is powered by the vehicle’s main battery, though some setups rely on a secondary battery. The winch motor puts a significant strain on the battery and keeping the winching vehicle running allows the alternator to backup the battery. If possible, someone can even rev the engine slightly (around 2000 rpm), as further backup.

Using the winch will cause the battery and the motor to heat up. To avoid overheating, don’t run the winch continuously for long periods of time. Give the system time to cool in a long recovery operation. Winches will have duty cycle ratings that vary by make and model that indicate how long you can use it before needing to stop for a period of time.

Winch line wrapped around drum
Make sure the winch line is wrapped neatly and snuggly on the drum. Photo: ak4marsx

It is important that the winch cable is wound tightly and in an orderly fashion around the drum before weighing it during recovery. If the line is wrapped around the drum loosely or in a tangle, the outer wrap of the line will squeeze the line underneath, potentially damaging the winch line or causing different layers to become jammed together. To avoid this, it’s important to rewind it appropriately onto the drum under tension after each use.

Steps to using a Winch

While different situations call for different winching configurations, the steps below are applicable to most winching scenarios.

1. Assess the situation and discuss your recovery plan with everyone involved. Take your time and think through possible dangers. Safety is the priority.

2. Assemble all of the equipment you’ll need for the recovery: gloves, shackles, tree saver straps, snatch blocks, line damper, etc.

Snatch Block Recovery
Snatch block anchored to a tree with line running through the block.

3. Set up necessary anchors such as tree saver rigs around trees and rocks and shackles for connecting to a stuck vehicle’s recovery points.

4. Disengage the winch clutch and (wearing gloves) pull the winch hook to anchor (for self-rescue) or the stuck vehicle (if you are the rescuer). Keep the line under tension as much as possible to keep the cable wrapped neatly on the drum as it unwinds. Don’t use the motor to unwind the winch here.

5. Secure the winch hook to the anchor point using necessary equipment such as a shackle and tree strap. Never wrap the winch line itself around an anchor as this can damage the line.

6. Engage the winch’s clutch so the drum is locked.

7. Connect the remote control switch to the winch, keeping the remote control’s cord away from the drum and winch line area.

8. Using the switch, wind in the winch line just enough to put it under tension. Before continuing, check your anchor connections to make sure everything is secure and that the winch line is still neatly wrapped on the drum. If it isn’t neatly and snuggling wrapped, unwinded and rewind it.

9. As an important safety measure, place a winch damper over the middle of each length of line that passes between the winch and anchor points.

This will absorb the kinetic energy should the line break or come loose from the anchor or winch while under tension, preventing them from flying through the air and damaging vehicles or people.

Winch dampers prevent the line from flying through the air if it breaks or snaps loose from an anchor.

10. Let everyone nearby know that you are about to begin the recovery and to stand clear (a minimum of 1.5 times the distance of the extended cable is a good rule of thumb).

11. Make sure the stuck vehicle is in neutral and the parking brake is off before you begin winching. Someone can steer the stuck vehicle, but ideally, they shouldn’t power the wheels as this can cause slack in the winch line and tangling as it winds onto the winch drum. That said, in some situations, such as being stuck in mud or sand, the stuck vehicle might want to drive slowly to help with the recovery.

12. Begin winding in the line to pull the stuck vehicle free, making sure the winch line is wrapping evenly and snuggly around the drum. Take a break after a minute or so to let the battery recover and the winch cool down. Continue to pull the vehicle slowly and carefully until it is extricated from its situation and in a stable location.

13. Put the rescued vehicle in park and the emergency brake on. Reverse the winch drum enough to relieve the tension on the line.

14. Disconnect the winch line from the anchor or vehicle recovery points on the vehicle (if recovering another vehicle or using a snatch block in self-recovery – see scenarios below).

15. Rewind the winch line neatly onto the drum under tension. Disconnect the control switch and stow for future use.

Winch Safety

Winches are powerful machines that exert forces that can be extremely dangerous if not managed with appropriate safety measures. The following safety tips will help mitigate that risk, but as we said before, we recommend getting hands-on training from an expert on vehicle recovery and winch use.

Use Appropriately Rated and Well-maintained Gear

Make sure you are using gear that is rated for the job. Purchase a winch that is appropriate for your vehicle (rated for pulling at least 1.5 times to gross weight) and if your are winching another vehicle, make sure your winch is up to the task.

Shackles, snatch blocks, and recovery straps should all be rated for the load they will experience during the recovery. One weak link can cause the entire system to fail.

Take Your Time, Communicate Clearly

Recovering a stuck vehicle is a serious task that requires patients and careful planning. Don’t rush. Make sure every in your party understands the recovery plan and knows their role. Communicated clearly during the recovery and stop if anybody seems confused or isn’t following the plan.

Clear the Area of Bystanders

Anyone who isn’t operating the winch or one of the vehicles should remove themselves from the recovery site to a distance at least twice the length of the longest stretch of winch line under tension. So if you have 50 feet of line extended between a recovery vehicle and a stuck vehicle, bystanders should be at least 100 feet away from the winch and the recovery point on the stuck vehicle.

Protect Your Hands

Wear gloves when working with the winch and winch line to prevent injuries. If possible, don’t hold the line in your hands when it is being wound on or off the drum. The lines (especially metal ones) can develop burrs that can cut into the skin and cause nasty injuries. When freespooling the line out, pull from the hook, not the line. When wrapping the line back onto the winch drum, hold it from the hook and walk it back in, instead of letting the line slip through your hand.

Use a Winch Line Damper

When a winch line snaps, it can travel with tremendous speed and force that can be deadly. A winch damper is draped over the winch line to bring it to the ground were it to snap. In cases where a snatch block is being used and there are multiple stretches of line in the system, a damper should be placed over each section of line.

Use Sturdy Anchors

The forces exerted on your anchor when winching, whether it’s a tree, rock or other vehicle, are substantial, and anchor failure can be extremely dangerous. Makes sure to use healthy, thick trees. Place tree saver straps as low on the tree truck as possible to avoid pulling the tree over or breaking it. Only anchor rocks that you are sure won’t move. Never wrap your winch line around a tree or rock.

Other Things to Avoid

Don’t attach your winch line to a ball hitch or vehicle axle

Don’t tow another vehicle or trailer from a winch

Don’t use the winch for kinetic recoveries

Don’t use your winch line as a tie down for cargo

Don’t use a winch to hoist loads vertically

Don’t use a dead tree or unstable rock as a recovery anchor

Don’t run a winch line over a jagged rock

How big of a winch do I need?

When choosing a winch, one of the first things people ask is what size winch do I need? The typical rule of thumb is to get a winch rated to pull at least 1.5 times the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) of your vehicle. This is a rating from the manufacture of how much the unloaded vehicle weighs (its curb weight), plus how much payload it can carry.

For instance, our a 4-door Jeep Wrangler has a curb weight of 4,522 pounds and a maximum payload of 1178 pounds, giving it a GVWR of 5,700 pounds. Going by the 1.5x rule of thumb above, this Jeep would need a winch rated to pull at least 8,550 pounds.

In the United States, on many off-road and overlanding rigs of this size, you’ll find winches rated in the 9,000-pound to 12,000-pound range, as these sizes are common winches recommended by manufacturers and are readily available.

If you are planning to do a lot of overlanding and beefing up your rig to carry more payload, it’s worth taking that into account when choosing a winch. Additional gear such as rooftop tents, heavy bumpers, extra fuel and water, and other equipment can add significant extra weight to a vehicle.

Let’s Wind it Up

This article should have given you a basic understanding of how winches work, how to use a winch, and how to stay safe in the process. As we mentioned above, we recommend you get proper hands-on training through your local off-road or overlanding club or an off-road recovery training course.

For more information on snatch blocks, check out our guides on how to use a snatch block with a winch and the best snatch blocks for off-roading and overlanding.



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