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How to Choose and Use a Winch

Tips to Help You Choose the Best Winch and Use it Safely

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What is a winch? A winch is made up of a crank and a drum. Add a cable and it becomes a device that lets you hook onto an object to either pull it to another location or to apply tension. Think of a tow truck -- a winch is used to drag a stalled vehicle onto the bed of the truck. Take a look at the winch installed on the DeWALT concept truck, and the winch used on the front of the Jeep JT concept truck.

Pickup truck winches aren't always used for pulling -- a winch can lift heavy items in and out of a truck's bed. If you go off-roading, use your truck on a farm or just like to be prepared to hook onto something and give it a pull, you might want to equip your pickup truck with a winch, but deciding which type of winch will work best for you needs takes a little thought.

Winch Pull Ratings

Warn Winch on DeWALT Concept Truck
Warn Winch on DeWALT Concept Truck
A winch's pull rating tells you how much force it will take to stall it out. Go shopping and you'll find winches with pull ratings that range from about 6,000 to 15,000 pounds.

  • Trying to move a heavy vehicle with four flat tires through deep mud will likely bring you to the 15,000 pound mark.
  • Moving the same vehicle, but with inflated tires and away from a spot where it can roll, would probably only require 3,000-4,000 pounds of pull strength (or less).
  • Moving a vehicle that runs and is able to try to move itself requires very little pulling power from the winch.

Consider the ways you plan to use the winch before you decide which pull rating will best suit your needs.

Winch Cable Variations

Winch on the front of a 2005 Jeep Willys Edition
Winch on the front of a 2005 Jeep Willys Edition - © k9fire
The most common winch cable is made from braided steel, but some cables are made from braided synthetic rope. The primary advantage to using a rope (rather than a rigid steel cable) is its stretchability -- it will pull back like a rubber band, and that motion can come in handy if you need to jerk something out of a tough spot.

Keep in mind that, while a winch's rope or cable is very important, it is only as good as the hook on one end and attachment to the drum on the other.

Winch Mounting Variations

Winch on the front of the Jeep JT concept truck.
Winch on the front of the Jeep JT concept truck.
Most winches are mounted to the frame and positioned on the front of a pickup truck or other vehicle, but some winches have mounts that slide into a rear receiver hitch, and front mount receivers are available, too. With a receiver setup, a large connector is used to plug in the winch to its wiring, making it easy to unplug the unit for storage, or to move it from the front to back of your truck.

Winch Accessories & Helpers

Winch used in the bed of a truck.
Put together a small bag of winch accessories and carry the bag in your truck.

  • The winch's remote control, if it has one.
  • Gloves (I prefer sturdy leather, which is more protective) and straps that you can wrap around a tree or a vehicle's axle.
  • A couple of hefty D-rings so that you can quickly and securely attach the winch cable to the object you're pulling.
  • A few old blankets or heavy moving pads (look for cheap versions at a local thrift store). Lay on one when you need to reach up under the vehicle, and drape another over the winch's cable or rope before you pull (see safety tips below).
  • A pulley that's made to use with a winch (other types will break). When it isn't possible to move something on a straight path, a pulley lets you pull "around a corner," or from a side angle.

Winch Safety Tips

  • Always make sure the winch's hook is securely fastened to the object you intend to pull.
  • Know exactly where the vehicle or other object will go when it starts to move.
  • If the winch has a remote control, use it, and put yourself in a safe position away from a possible snap of the cable or path of a vehicle.
  • Never step over a tensioned winch cable or rope.
  • Drape a blanket over a winch's cable or rope when it's extended more than 10 feet. A cable that comes loose or breaks can turn into a whip, injuring anyone who's nearby or damaging vehicles. The blanket will help slow down the cable. Don't underestimate this danger.
  • Inspect the cable or rope for damage, and replace it if necessary.
  • Always rewind the cable or rope correctly, into tight and even rows. A loose cable can jerk and slips into the gaps as it is pulling.
  • Read your owner's manual to make sure you know exactly how the winch should be operated.
If you cannot winch safely -- for any reason -- don't winch.

Popular Winch Manufacturers

Shop for winches and you'll find many brands. Some of the most popular winch manufacturers are Warn, Superwinch and Ramsey. Visit their Web sites -- each manufacturer offers tips and advice to help you choose a winch and use it safely.

Compare Prices of Winches
Warn Winches
Superwinch Winches
Ramsey Winches

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