How Winches Work

electric winch
Electric winch on a four-wheel drive truck
Photo courtesy kelah2001/istockphoto

If you saw "Die Hard with a Vengeance," you know that the movie's hero wasn't Bruce Willis or Samuel L. Jackson. It wasn't even the Dodge Ram they used in the final car chase. Nope, the movie's hero was a winch on the front of that Ram. Thanks to it, Willis and Jackson were able to get to the bad guys for a final showing.

Most people don't go around thinking about towing winches, or winches at all, but if you ever need one, you'll be glad one is around. A winch is a mechanism that winds wire around a drum while keeping a steady tension on it. Towing winches are a type of towing equipment that are powerful enough to pull cars and trucks. On tow trucks, a towing winch pulls cars onto either the towing platform, if it's a platform tow truck, or up into the towing sling if it's a drag-style tow truck. Serious off-roaders use winches to pull themselves out of deep mud. The winch on the front of the truck in "Die Hard" used its motor, as well as the trucks weight, to slowly and surely release wire for Willis and Jackson to climb on.


Choosing Winches

front end
The front end of an off-road vehicle, including the winch, which can help pull the vehicle out of the mud.
Photo courtesy Creatista/istockphoto

The most important thing to keep in mind while choosing a winch is how you'll be using it. You also need to keep in mind the weight and frame strength of the vehicle you want to mount the winch on. Buying a heavy-duty winch doesn't make a lot of sense if your vehicle isn't strong enough to use all of the winch's power. You also need to consider if you want an automatic or manual winch, and what kind of cable, wire or chain you want to use with the winch.

Unless you're a tow truck driver, you'll probably be using a winch for off-roading. A winch mounted on the front or rear bumper of an off-road vehicle can be used to pull that vehicle out of the mud (by attaching the cable or chain to a rock or tree) or it can pull other vehicles out of the mud. When buying a winch for off-roading, you need to buy one with an appropriate amount of power. This is the winch's line pull weighting -- the maximum load the winch can exert on the cable. If this number is too low, you won't be getting anything out of the mud. Also consider the winches weight. If a winch is too light, it won't be strong enough to pull heavy loads, but if it is too heavy, it could cause the front end of your off-road rig to be off balance. Finally, you'll need to decide between an electric or hydraulic winch; each type has its own benefits and setbacks.



To find the right winch for you, check out off-roading and four-wheel drive magazines. Most run articles comparing winches and many publish winches, hitches and towing accessories buying guides. If there's a four-wheel drive or off-roading club in your area, talk to their members about winches they've used and get their input. Finally, many companies make accessories like winches for specific types of off-road vehicles. You might be able to find a winch made just for your rig.


Installing Winches

off-road vehicle
If you’re going to install a winch to the front of your off-road vehicle, you must attach it to a specialty bumper.
Photo courtesy of TACrafts/istockphoto

Once you've found the right winch for you, you need to install it. It's very important that you do this right -- otherwise, not only will your winch not work, you could seriously damage you car. Most winches will not work with a stock bumper. The loads the winch will be pulling need to be evenly distributed across the bumper, and most stock bumpers simply aren't made for that. Most stock bumpers also don't have the space for a winch. Check out the parts catalogue you've ordered your winch from to find a bumper that will work with your vehicle -- most will also come with front hitches as well as other towing accessories.

Once the winch and the bumper are mounted, the winch will need a power source. That usually means connecting it to the car's battery and installing a power switch. Some people will even install an extra battery just for the winch if they have a particularly powerful model.


The final step in installing a winch is pretensioning the wire. That means making sure the wire is tightly spooled on the winch's drum. Some winches come with the cable already wrapped around the winch drum, and others don't. If the wire is already on the drum, you should unspool most of it. Attach the cable to a heavy object, make sure your vehicle is in park with the emergency brake set and the wheels stabilized, and start the winch. The cable or wire will start to spool up, but whatever object you're towing will make sure it wraps around the winch drum correctly. If your winch came without the cable on the drum already, you simply need to attach the cable to the drum and follow the same steps. You should do this process a couple of times to make sure you've gotten the cable adequately stretched out.


For more information on winches, towing and all things auto, drive your rig over to the links on the next page.


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More Great Links


  • Installing a Vehicle Mounted Electrical Winch.
  • All About Winches. December 1, 2005.