Choosing a Winch For Your Truck

A winch is a mechanical device used to hoist or pull extremely heavy loads. They are the simplest form of recovery part, consisting of a crank that winds a cable through a series of gears and around a horizontally mounted spool or drum. Centuries ago, winches were man-powered and were commonly used to lower and raise bridges, as well as lift large blocks in building city architecture. Today’s winches are far more elaborate, with gear assemblies powered by electric, hydraulic, pneumatic, or internal combustion drives, and may include a solenoid or mechanical spring brake that stops it from unwinding. Winches are used in a wide variety of applications from towing vehicles, lifting elevators and raising flags to pulling up anchors on ships.

When deciding on a winch for your truck, ATV or SUV, three basic considerations must be made:

  • What is the estimated maximum amount of weight you will need to pull?
  • What weather conditions will your vehicle and winch be exposed to?
  • How often and how for long will the winch be operated during each use?

Minimum Force Required

Being in the market for a winch, you probably already know the minimum weight you will need to pull. While this is certainly valuable information, choosing a winch based on this figure will eventually result in either costly repairs or replacing the winch altogether. The correct figure to use is therefore the estimated maximum weight. The easiest way to calculate this figure is to take the gross weight of your vehicle (the sum of vehicle weight, accessories, load and passengers) and multiply that number by 1.5. This is referred to as the line pull rating, or maximum line pull, and is the measure of the mechanical capacity of the winch and tensile strength of the first layer of wire rope on the drum.

This brings us to the second consideration of winch physics – with each layer of wire around the drum, the capacity of the winch is reduced by 10%. Thus, a winch starting with a line pull of 3,000 lbs. will have a line pull of 2,700 lbs. on the second layer, 2,430 on the third layer, and so on. If the length and weight you need to pull exceeds these stipulations, adding a snatch block can compensate for this loss by nearly doubling the pulling power of your winch. Making considerations for pull capacity in this way will account for the added resistance of pulling your vehicle over a steep incline or through obstacles such as mud, snow, water or sand, as well as make certain that any object moved with your winch will be done safely and effectively.


Electric vs. Hydraulic Truck Winches

While both electric and hydraulic winches are quite useful, there are some considerations to make that separate them based on the environmental conditions they will subjected to, how they install and their capabilities. In this section, we address some of these issues, as well as ways to make certain the winch is used safely and properly.

As with all things mechanics there are pros and cons to using each, so here’s the lowdown: Electric-powered truck winches are available in a wide variety of styles and options ranging from 12 to 110 volts, are more environmentally friendly and are usually far easier to install in your truck than the hydraulic-powered winches. This is because hydraulic powered winches require either the presence of a separate hydraulic system or to be connected to the vehicles power-steering hydraulic system.  However, due to the simplicity of their design, problems with hydraulic winches are much easier to identify and repair than electric powered winches, and can be as simple as changing a hose or swapping a valve. In addition, since hydraulic winches operate independently of the battery, they can be used even if your engine is turned off. In contrast, electric winches require power from your vehicles’ battery to operate; therefore, checking and maintaining your vehicle battery regularly as well as making sure it can handle the additional draw of current are the keys to its proper operation.

Taking into account the weather and environmental conditions in which you plan on using your winch will also help determine which of the two basic choices, electric or hydraulic, will work best for your needs. If the winch will be exposed to extreme or cold weather, a hydraulic winch will be the better choice, as the conductors in electric winches are sensitive to temperature and can crack if exposed to chilling conditions for an extended time. Another advantage of hydraulic winches is their ability to operate in water – something you would never do with an electric winch. However, if you are going to use the winch outdoors in dry conditions only, either a hydraulic or a low-voltage electric winch will do.


Winch Cables – Durability and Performance

The last factor we’re going to discuss is the winch cable.  There are a variety of material types used, from the steel wire cables those that utilize synthetic fibers. These come in a range of diameters, lengths and Minimum Break Strengths (MBS). The most common cables are those made up of many steel wires intertwined to provide strength and flexibility.  However, steel cable can be dangerous to use, as sharp strands develop over time and extended usage. For this reason, wearing gloves when using a steel winch cable use is a must. Moreover, if the steel cable is stretched too tightly it can snap, causing an enormous backlash, and if you are in the way, extreme injury as well. As a best practice, it is recommended that a heavy cloth covering be placed over the cable, as this will act as a shock absorber and prevent a whipping action should the cable break.

Aside from being safer to use than steel cable, synthetic winch cables are becoming increasing popular for a variety of reasons. The most notable of these are their lighter weight, resistance to rust and corrosion, higher tensile strength, and lower level of maintenance to keep up their performance.  For these reasons, the use of synthetic cables is mandatory in all events sponsored by major off-road racing endorsed. On the other side of the coin however, synthetic cables are most prone to damage than steel, and are easily cut or frayed as well. Overall, using the right cable will be determined by the conditions, frequency, and weight demand for which it will be used.


Safely Operating the Truck Winch

The most important consideration is to always take time to assess your situation and to use the right equipment, including the proper safety gear such as gloves before setting up a pull. 

Since there are an insurmountable amount of situations where a winch can be used, the issue of safety cannot be stressed enough. Fortunately, the makers of truck winches have made it a point to make the winches controllable via remote control. You can stand up to a hundred meters away if you want to, depending on the specifications of the truck winch. Regardless, you should always take certain precautions when using the winch, such as wearing leather gloves when handling the wire rope, and to take the time to plan your pull carefully, taking into account the weights of the object and your vehicle, as well as the line pull rating of the winch.

4 Wheel Online offers a large selection of winches from top manufacturers like Warn, Westin, Recon, and Smittybuilt.  To find out more, visit the 4 Wheel Online blog or Facebook page.


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