You’ve got a 4WD, sorted it out with the basics, like a winch bumper and armor, and are now ready to choose a winch. There are many factors and features to consider before buying an electric winch for your 4×4. This winch basics guide should show you how to choose a winch for your 4×4.
From wired or wireless controllers and different rope types to waterproof ratings and line speed—the options are limitless. So how do you pick which winch is right for you? Knowing winch basics before you buy is key, and will help you explore your options with confidence.
Types of Winches
A winch is a simple tool if you think about it. It’s a drum with a spool of rope powered by a motor. These days, the most common versions are electric. They simply get wired up to a vehicle’s battery.
There are also hydraulic winches. These winches utilize fluid power to turn a winch’s drum. They require either tapping into a vehicle’s hydraulic system (such as the power steering pump), or require designated hydraulic tanks.
There are also hand winches, such as a come-along. While labor-intensive, a come-along can be utilized for vehicle recovery. Electric and hydraulic winches are, however, much faster.
Speaking of speed, electric winches are generally the fastest of the three mentioned here. Hydraulic winches offer the ability to work continuously without stopping, however. They are usually the choice of tow truck operators. Most recreational 4WD vehicles utilize electric winches these days.
How to Choose a Winch: Correct Capacity
No matter the size of your truck, SUV, or adventure vehicle, making sure you get a winch with the right capacity is important.
To figure out the correct capacity you should be running on your adventure rig, an industry rule of thumb is to take your vehicle’s gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) and multiply it by 1.5. This will give you the minimum pulling capacity you need for your rig.
For example, a 2020 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited has a GVWR of 5,400 lbs. Take that number, multiply it by 1.5 and you get 8,100 lbs. Again, this is the minimum pulling capacity, so it might be a good idea to bump up to a 9,000 lb capacity winch. Don’t overdo it; just round up. Got a Toyota Tacoma? Its GVWR is similar. A bigger truck, such as a Ford F-250, may have a GVWR of 10,000 lbs. Using our formula, the minimum pulling capacity of your winch should be 15,000 lbs. You could bump it up to a 16,500 lb. winch without issues, too.
Some people believe in installing the biggest winch humanly possible on their vehicle. Not only is that not a great idea, but it can also damage your rig. If you try to put a 16,500 lb. capacity winch on a tiny Suzuki Samurai (with a 2,932 lb. GVWR), you’ll likely damage the vehicle’s frame. It is not up to such pull duties. Again, don’t overdo it; just round up.
Tip: The GVWR can oftentimes be found printed on your vehicle’s door jamb. Keep in mind the GVWR is not what the vehicle actually weighs sitting on the street, which is generally called curb weight. GVWR is the maximum weight a vehicle can be and safely operate. The GVWR includes the vehicle weight and the weight of all things in the vehicle, like fuel, gear, people, and cargo. Think of this rating as the vehicle’s max weight limit.
Rope Readiness: Synthetic or Wire?
There are benefits to both types of winch rope. Donning traditional wire cabling, like this 10,000 pound-capacity WARN VR EVO 10 winch, offers users a heavy-duty, robust rope that can be pulled over large boulders or other trail hazards with no issue. When cared for properly, wire rope can last many years.
Wire rope, however, can develop burrs over time (for this reason, make sure to always use sturdy gloves when winching). Wire rope can also rust if not maintained correctly. Wire rope also retains a good deal of potential energy, which could be an issue in the case of rope failure.
Synthetic rope, like on this Wild Bear 10,000 pound winch, stores less potential energy and is lighter weight than steel cable. It is easy to handle during recovery. On the other hand, synthetic rope needs more TLC than its steel counterpart. Synthetic line will need to be cleaned after a dusty day on the trails or a trudge through mud bogs.
Routinely cleaning synthetic rope will help it last longer. If you neglect your rope, it could potentially rot from the inside out, making it a weak point. You definitely don’t want your winch rope to be a potential point of failure during vehicle recoveries.
Tip: If you’re running a winch hook, always “hook up” into a shackle no matter if you are running wire or synthetic line. In the event a hook breaks, it’ll be forced down onto the ground versus up towards you or your vehicle. Also, putting additional weight on the line such as a recovery damper, heavy jacket, or even your recovery kit bag can help keep the line down if the hook or rope fails.
Wireless or Wired Winch Control
There are a variety of ways you can control your winch. A traditional wired remote is most common, a proprietary wireless remote is gaining popularity, and the latest tech is wireless smartphone winch control. Let’s look at your options.
Warn Industries, a leader in winch technology and production, just released its new HUB Receiver and App. The WARN HUB Receiver and App allow users to control their WARN truck (or select Smittybilt) winches as well as powersports winches using Bluetooth connectivity and their smartphone. This system can be used to control your winch from up to 100 feet away wirelessly.
Various winch manufacturers, including Warn Industries, also make a wireless remote winch control system for select winches. Wireless winch controllers can offer a significantly better range of winch control over wired controllers (WARN’s wireless system boasts up to 50 feet), which helps you stay out of danger and always have a good perspective on the overall recovery.
However, wireless winch remotes are smaller in size and not attached to your vehicle via a cord, so can easily get lost if not carefully stored and used. Wireless winch remotes can also run out of battery, which would not be good when in the middle of nowhere and your winch is needed.
Wired controllers, like on the Superwinch 1595200 Tiger Shark 9.5 winch, have been around since the invention of the winch. They’re easy to use, but unlike wireless winch remotes or WARN’s HUB Receiver and App system, wired controllers do limit your range due to their cord length (which can be around 12 feet or so, depending on the manufacturer). Wired remotes also require you to plug them in each time you need to winch, versus a wireless remote that is always ready to with the press of a button.
Winch Fairlead Options
Winches come with a part called a fairlead. A fairlead simply helps to guide the rope back onto the winch’s drum. Most often, winches with steel rope come with a roller fairlead, and winches with synthetic rope use a hawse fairlead. A roller fairlead uses four rollers to guide cable back to the drum. A hawse is simply a radiused piece to guide the rope back to the winch. Should you want to change up the look of your fairlead, multiple aftermarket options exist from a variety of manufacturers in different materials, styles, and colors.
Electric winches are offered with many different features at an array of price points. Niceties like an IP68 waterproof rating, wireless control, or even the length of the warranty can factor into a user’s purchasing decision. However, adding a winch will improve your off-road vehicle’s capability when traversing through remote or tricky terrain.
While most winches come with a hook for rigging purposes, there are a host of other options available that replace a winch’s hook. This includes special thimbles and hook replacements that provide a host of potential benefits to the user. One of the best-known options is from Factor 55. They offer many options, such as their popular Pro Link thimble. Factor 55’s closed-system winching technique can help to up the safety factory during the winching process.
Choosing A Winch
If you’re interested in buying a winch, make sure that whatever electric winch you purchase is the best you can afford—you want a high-quality winch that is reliable, durable, and easy to use. Having a winch could well mean the difference between talking about trail adventures on the ride home versus being stuck overnight on one. We hope this guide has shown you how to choose a winch for your specific off-road adventure machine.