When going off road probably the most important piece of recovery gear to have is a winch. It may be the one accessory you may need more than all others. The problem is that none of us are professional “winchers” or crane operators, so when trying to pick one with the best specs, the numbers end up looking like a bunch of soup!
It’s not easy to find the right winch for your truck. You need one that is strong enough to pull you out of any situation, but light enough so it doesn’t weigh down your vehicle. Here are some factors to consider when looking at off-road winches.
Weight: Some winches are heavy and will add weight to your truck which may cause problems in certain situations. If you’re looking for a lightweight option, consider aluminum or magnesium models.
Pulling Power: How much pulling power do you need? This depends on what type of terrain you’ll be driving over. Do note that more powerful models can often cost more.
Winch Rope: You need a winch that can deliver enough power to pull your vehicle out of any situation, and the winch rope may determine how much you’re able to work it. Some ropes are better than others depending on their strength and durability.
Auto-Turn: Not all winches are set up with the auto-turn feature, but they can make it easier to turn your winch.
Remote Control: A remote control allows you to use your winch without getting out of your vehicle. You can achieve greater control when using a remote instead of trying to handle it yourself.
There are a few simple ground rules you can follow when picking a winch for your 4×4 project.
Table of Contents
Where To Start With Picking The Right Winch
Gross Vehicle Weight
Take your Gross Vehicle Weight (tagged inside the driver’s side door panel) and multiply it by 1.5. That ensures you’ve got enough reserve capacity to overcome hang-ups and the odd angles you’ll be pulling from. Odd angles are a big issue as the force of the winch decreases as the pull angles get more extreme (aka every pull you’ll ever do).
The next number to decide on is the line speed. For the most part, this is simply a gauge of your patience; it has real effects regarding the electrical needs of the winch and the strain it will put on your rig. Line speed is a relation of the motor’s power gross power and gear ratio.
This means that for the most part, you can have powerful and slow with low draw, or powerful and fast with a high draw. The sweet spot lay in-between these poles, so average (median) speed, standard power, and average draw are what you most likely won’t.
For a first-time buyer, this translates into the average offering being normally the ideal offering. Most manufacturers recognize this and are darn near imperceptibility close on the entry models.
Next, is line length. Lines over 100 ft. are just going to be annoying in most cases, and besides, the weight rating of the winch and lines max safe-pull decreases about 1,500 lbs per layer of cable spooled out. A 10,000 lbs winch drops to 6000 lbs on the fourth layer.
That’s one of the reasons why along with snatch blocks and tree straps many recommend a 50 ft extension wire as a 4×4 winch accessory. That extension doesn’t drop the power delivery like further unwinding the spool would and gives you that extra few feet when needed.
There is some discussion of winch types; however, most odd ones are all but dead. Only one brand still offers a spur gear (the high speed with the low draw but needing huge brakes), and only three or four can get you a worm gear winch (low and slow and strong).
Hydraulic Vs. Electric Winch
Another “type” discussion is hydraulic versus electric. I must say in all seriousness and no insult; anyone reading a “which winch” sure as heck shouldn’t consider the hydraulic type unless they are getting it free! I’ve also heard people talk about “military winches” but I would treat such terms as more sales pitch than a “type.”
Most all of the winches you’ll afford and find for sale are run by planetary gears like an automatic transmission. The thing to know about them is they get very hot… and thus they are limited regarding duty cycle.
Duty cycles are either listed correctly as numbers that show how many minutes out of 60 that a machine can run without melting so 35 (35 minutes per 60) is better than 25, or as easier to understand in plain English “can run x numbers.”
Instead of focusing on the type of mechanics, most manufacturers on the market focus on motor construction. I would follow their lead! Winches can come as permanent magnet (less expensive) setups that draw less power but hate heat.
These have lower duty cycles, break “easier,” and can have trouble in colder climates. The other option is a series wound (expensive) winch. These are thirstier for Zap-Zap juice but feature longer duty cycles, handle cold better, and are a tougher design.
The main factors at the beginner’s price point really are not even the winches though!
No matter how good your winch is, other recovery gear like tree straps and other kits is going to seriously limit what you can get out of a winch. I always suggest that a tad less winch and a tad more snatch block, shovel, and high-jack is a wise choice.
The last “in-the-box” variable is the type of line on the winch as it is a safety and maintenance issue. Synthetic lines are far safer if they snap when compared to steel wires that can slice through the air like an ax-man’s blade (yikes!).
Yet, being for all purposes a rope, they will wear out just bleaching in the sun, have some thermal issues for snow wheelers, and less length can be spooled onto the winch. The secondary benefits are ex-boy-scouts have an option to spice the rope if it breaks and these lines float. I think safety is the major selling point here.
Wire, however, is cheaper and much more durable to daily abuse. Still, it isn’t 100% trouble-free either so you can’t set it and forget it and expect it to work 15 years later, and it needs a rolling fairlead on the mounting point so you are stuck with that “look.”
Finally, before any purchase, you need to take stock of your 4×4 vehicle’s electronics. Batteries tend to be the limiting factor if you’re going gun-hoe on winch power (old stuff (95-ish down) also faces horribly weak amplifier issues because they weren’t running ECM’s, etc.).
That said I am not in any way a fan of the oft-repeated mantra that you should just buy a bigger or more expensive battery. Most times the amperage ratings on many deep cells are similar to their lead-acid counterparts.
The real benefit of a deep cell battery is its ability to become fully discharged without being damaged, not that they have more Zaps per volume. If you were running a winch against an isolated battery you’d want one, but you’re keeping your engine running… right?
The truth is, if you’re really going to demand serious electric power from an automotive system with a big winch, lights, GPS, a radio, etc. it’s best to just add a second battery ( I think it’s good to have one in the middle of nowhere as a switched backup anyways).
Most vehicles have kits available because this is a very popular upgrade among Audio-Visual modifiers because driving the large 18” subs tends to demand “peaks” that are large harsh draws pounded in series really fast. If you’ve ever seen a low-rider at night with the headlights and taillights flickering to the rhythm.
Too Many Off Road Winches To Choose
My honest advice is to not get fixated on the numbers unless you have some experience or special need behind your reason for weighing them seriously. Like if you live in a place where nothing but black flag trails exist and you’re going to use the thing 30x’s per trail ride.
A super special mega-duty winch still cannot free the unlimited amount of stupid we humans are capable of. It’s like even the most built-up rock monster jeeps will still get stuck if the driver messes up.
Most brands are also within 50 dollars of each other. I would take reviews with some salt, and I would brand names as well. The market is under flood and there is cost-cutting and add-on up-selling rampant everywhere. I would make sure to stop by the model, not the company. But it’s allowable to buy a cool-looking one too.
Still, a well vouched for “beginner’s winch” will have a lot going for that an “advanced winch” isn’t going to do any better. Nowadays even the bargain-basement offerings are pretty capable in careful hands.
Main Takeaways – How To Pick An Off-Road Winch
There are plenty of different types and brands on the market, so it might seem like a daunting task to pick one. But we’ve got your back! We’ve compiled all our favorite winches below in order from fastest to slowest (according to capacity).
Before you make your selection, make sure to take a look at the detailed specs along with our mini-reviews.
You should be able to find the best off-road winch for your vehicle. We’ve covered everything from how a winch works and what they are used for to some of the features that make certain models more desirable than others. The next step is choosing which model will work best with your needs!
So, there you have it. We’ve discussed the importance of choosing a winch for your off-road vehicle and the different types available to meet those needs.
Thanks for reading and stay dirty