What Are The Best Winch Choices? (Guide) – 2020 Reviews
A winch allows you to harness the power of your truck, SUV, or ATV. It can pull your vehicle free when stuck or move large objects out of your path with ease.
Although winches have a relatively simple design, finding the best winch for your vehicle can feel confusing at first. But help is on the way! Here’s your round-up of the best winch options for 2020 plus a complete guide on their installation and use:
Quick Picks: Top 3 Best Winch Options on the Market
- Best Overall – Smittybilt XRC Winch
- Best Cheap Option – Champion ATV Winch Kit
- Best Value for the Money – X-Bull Synthetic Rope Winch
- Honorable Mention 1 – Lifting and Pulling Tool by Warn
- Honorable Mention 2 – Vortex Winch Bonus Package
- Honorable Mention 3 – Orcish IP67 Waterproof Winch
- Factors to Consider When Choosing the Best Automotive Winch
- Weight Rating
- Type of Rope
- Type of Motor
- Frequently Asked Questions about Winches
- What is an Automotive Winch?
- How Do Car Winches Work?
- Gear Train
- How is a Winch Installed (and Can I Do It Myself)?
- Front vs. Rear Winches
- Wire Pretension
- How Do I Use a Winch?
- 1. Connect the Remote Control
- 2. Find an Anchor Point
- 3. Attach the Cable
- 4. Activate the Winch
- Is Using a Winch Safe?
- Final Thoughts
Best Overall – Smittybilt XRC Winch
Smittybilt’s updated Gen2 series XRC winch includes a waterproof engine, heavy-duty construction, and a 9,500 load capacity.
- Line pull rating of 9,500 pounds
- Includes 94 feet of steel cable
- Includes installation instructions and wiring
- Trusted manufacturer offers two warranties
- Although waterproof, it shouldn’t be completely submerged in water
Combining strength with reliability, Smittybilt’s XRC winch is the all-around best option for four-wheelers and other travelers of treacherous terrain.
The 6.6 hp motor has a waterproof IP67 rating and a line pull rating of 9,500 pounds. It includes 94 feet of steel cable with a diameter of 5/16 inches. The total winch housing is 20.88 inches long by 6.3 inches wide by 7.4 inches high.
The winch includes setup instructions and all necessary electrical wiring. It’s a powerful upgrade to an already-reliable winch from a trusted manufacturer. Plus, it’s backed by a lifetime mechanical warranty and a five-year electrical warranty.
Best Cheap Option – Champion ATV Winch Kit
Small but packed with power, Champion’s winch kit is an excellent affordable option for ATVs and UTVs.
- Powerful ATV winch
- Load limit of 2,000 pounds
- Includes 49-foot cable
- Only suitable for ATVs
Powered by a one-horsepower DC motor, Champion’s winch pulls up to 2,000 pounds with ease. The 49-foot galvanized aircraft cable has a full-load line speed of 3.3 feet per minute. Plus, the roller fairlead keeps the cables in the perfect position to prevent tangles.
Champion Power Equipment is a well-regarded manufacturer of heavy-duty tools and automotive equipment. They offer both free lifetime technical support and a two-year limited warranty on parts.
Overall, it’s an affordable winch which helps keep your ATV from getting stuck even in the roughest conditions.
Best Value for the Money – X-Bull Synthetic Rope Winch
A heavy-duty winch with a unique synthetic rope which is both lightweight and ultra-strong.
- 13,000-pound load capacity
- Strong, lightweight synthetic cable
- Ideal for big jobs including commercial work
- Can overheat if pushed hard
X-Bull’s heavy-duty winch is the most cost-effective way to pull major loads. It has a 13,000 pound pulling capacity with a winch cover and overload protector.
The 26-meter Dyneema synthetic cable has a breaking strength of 23,809 pounds. But it’s not just strong; it’s lightweight, too. Unlike steel cable, this synthetic rope floats in water and has no sharp flays.
Honorable Mention 1 – Lifting and Pulling Tool by Warn
A powerful, portable pulling tool which is ideal for moving ATVs, farm equipment, and other large loads.
- Compact, portable winch
- Easy to set up and operate
- Only designed for towing
- Not suitable for freeing stuck vehicles
Although the style is a bit different, it’s still a powerful pulling tool perfect for taking deep into the woods. It has a pulling capacity of 1,000 pounds with an electronic load limiter complete with easy-to-read LED display.
The unit has an industrial-grade hook with 15 feet of wire rope. A rechargeable 24 volt NiMH battery powers it. No complicated installation is required.
Although it’s only designed for towing obstacles, it performs its job well. Overall, it’s a good choice if you need a compact, portable winch.
Honorable Mention 2 – Vortex Winch Bonus Package
With an 8,000-pound load capacity and two remote controls, this winch is ideal for four-wheel-drive vehicles and Jeeps.
- Long 79-foot cable
- Powerful motor with 5.5 hp
- 8,000-pound load capacity
- Unable to withstand excessive water exposure
Looking to pull heavy-duty trucks and commercial vehicles? Vortex’s winch has an 8,000-pound load limit with an included 79-foot cable. The motor has 5.5 horsepower to provide plenty of pulling power.
The winch is specifically designed for Jeeps, large trucks and four-wheelers. While it might attach to a smaller car, doing so isn’t recommended because the axel could become damaged.
It includes two remote controls, each with a 12-foot cable. You can sit in the vehicle or otherwise stay away from the winch while it’s in operation, which increases your safety.
Honorable Mention 3 – Orcish IP67 Waterproof Winch
The Orcish model is a moderately waterproof winch capable of operating in a meter of water or less.
- Waterproof up to a meter under normal circumstances
- Lots of pulling power with free spooling for fast payload
- Three-stage gear system
- May need to replace the cable
- No brake
The Orcish model features 13,000 pounds of pulling strength with plenty of torque. It offers an overload protector with a winch cove and offers automatic load-holding.
It’s a powerful winch with a lot of applications. It uses a high tensile synthetic rope with a free spooling clutch for fast loading and unloading. It uses a three-stage gear system for pulling power and control while offering power in and power out for motor control.
It comes with a remote control for smoother operation. You may need professional installation to ensure you have maximum pulling power and control while retaining your operational control. You may want to replace the rope eventually with something like stainless steel to ensure full pulling power. Also, be sure you understand the nature of free spooling, so you don’t accidentally cause a mess.
Factors to Consider When Choosing the Best Automotive Winch
Also referred to as the load capacity or load limit, the weight rating is the total weight the winch can pull. It should be one-and-a-half times the vehicle’s total weight. Ideally, the weight rating should be twice your vehicle’s weight.
Weight ratings are more than just getting the highest one. It would help if you also considered what your vehicle is physically able to haul. If you spend a lot of money getting an ultra-high weight rating, but your vehicle can pull that amount, it’s just wasted capability.
Instead, get the most weight your vehicle could pull and then consider other factors in your budget. You may be able to upgrade your cable or get other features with a better allocation of your funds.
To get the most out of your winch capacity, be sure your front bumper can handle the pulling power. You may need to upgrade your bumpers with reinforced materials and dedicated locations for the winch to mount. An electric winch, especially, will need more durability.
You do have a lot of customized options that can handle the pulling power of a heavier winch, but the best combination is a custom bumper and a lightweight winch with a lot of pulling power. If you have it in your budget, this is going to deliver the best performance and allow you to take full advantage of your winch.
Type of Rope
You have two options:
Steel is the strongest and most common. However, steel is pretty heavy. Also, the main drawback to steel is the potential damage which can result if the cable snaps or otherwise gets out of control.
Synthetic rope isn’t as strong as steel, but it is lightweight. Unfortunately, it’s also far less durable than steel. It also tangles easily.
Unless you only need to tow smaller objects, choose steel. Steel rope is the best choice for pulling stuck vehicles to safety.
Type of Motor
Automotive winches have two types of motors:
- Hand crank
Hand-powered winches are rather rare. They use good, old-fashioned elbow grease to turn the crank and reel in the cable. Of course, they’re tough on the elbows and shoulders. They also can’t handle loads as heavy as an electric motor.
Don’t buy a hand-powered motor unless you have a specific purpose for doing so. The initial savings don’t make up for the lack of features.
Most automotive winches use an electric motor. It attaches to your vehicle’s battery. The best electric motors operate by remote control. A remote lets you stand or sit away from the winch during operation, which reduces the risk of accidental injury.
Both wired and wireless remote options are available. Generally, wired remotes are a better option than a wireless remote. Stray radio signals can interfere with the operation of a wireless remote, making wired remotes more reliable. Look for wired remotes with a range of about 12 feet, which is long enough to let you sit in the vehicle or stand off to the side.
Most sets include a tree-trunk protector. It’s a thick nylon strap with a loop on each end. You position the loops over the wire. A D-shackle then connects the loops to hold the winch in place around an object.
Generally, an electric winch comes with remote controls, which can give you more flexibility during operations. While a remote isn’t necessary, it does provide you with more space for operating the winch from a safe distance. If there’s a chance the winch could snap, or you aren’t sure if you can operate with full power, a remote can give you more distance.
Other options could be upgrading to more stainless steel to provide longevity and better performance. If you’ve got a high powered vehicle that can tow quite a bit, improving your materials in addition to your accessories could help increase your power.
Frequently Asked Questions about Winches
What is an Automotive Winch?
An automotive winch is a mechanical device with a strong cable which allows you to connect your vehicle to other objects. The winch allows the cable to both extend and retract. While some vehicle winches operate via hand crank, but most have an electric motor.
Automotive winches can be used in two ways:
- To move objects
- To move the vehicle
Winches can pull tree stumps, vehicles and a wide range of other objects. They’re a useful way to clear an area without requiring heavy equipment.
Additionally, a winch can also tow your car out of trouble. They’re useful when four-wheeling or driving through hazardous conditions. Connect the winch to a tree or other sturdy natural object to pull your vehicle from mud, snow, and more. Winches can also be used to help your vehicle navigate steep inclines.
How Do Car Winches Work?
Winches are one of humanity’s earliest inventions. The Ancient Greeks and others used winches for a variety of construction projects including building bridges, lifting heavy objects, and more.
Although modern winches use an electric motor, the basic design of an auto winch isn’t substantially different than the ancient type.
Winches use a rod connected to a crank. Turning the crank turns the rod, which is connected to a cable. As the crank turns, the cable winds around the rod.
A modern vehicle winch consists of the following parts:
Winches can be operated either by hand or motor. While hand winches do exist for vehicles, they’re not very popular or common. Most vehicle winches use an electric motor.
Electric motors attach to the vehicle’s battery. The car doesn’t need to be running in order to use the winch.
An electric winch is the most common type of winch and allows you to leverage the power of both your vehicle and your winch to pull quite a load.
Back in Ancient times, winch cables were made from rope. Today, they’re quite a bit stronger. Vehicle winch cables are made from steel or a strong synthetic. Steel has the most tensile strength, making it the preferred material for heavy-duty jobs.
Cables vary in length from about 40 to 100 feet. Longer cables do increase the size of the winch, which might be an issue if you’re mounting it to a smaller vehicle.
The drum is the cylinder which the cord wraps around. It has a rotating spool inside which pulls the cable in evenly.
The gear train is a system of gears inside the motor. This gear system converts electrical power into mechanized pulling power. If your winch stops working, and you can’t find an obvious external cause, the gear train might be having problems.
The hook should be made of sturdy steel with a D-shackle. Although the hook is an important part of using a winch, it’s not necessarily the most important part when buying a winch. It’s better to buy a winch with a motor and rope you like even if you’re not thrilled about the hook quality. Upgrading the hook and tree-protector later is relatively simple.
How is a Winch Installed (and Can I Do It Myself)?
Can you install a winch yourself at home? Maybe, but professional installation is usually the safest option.
If the winch isn’t installed properly, serious damage to your vehicle can occur. The front bumper, or even the entire vehicle frame, can become loose.
Front vs. Rear Winches
Winches can connect to either the front or back of the vehicle. Placing the winch in the front is often preferred for four-wheeling. A front winch allows you to pull your vehicle free if it becomes stuck in the terrain.
Back winches are the better option if you need to tow another vehicle. Rear winches are also ideal for pulling objects because your vehicle produces a lot more power when moving forward than when in reverse.
Regardless of whether the winch is mounted on the front or back, it’ll need to be positioned in the middle of the vehicle. Centering the winch along the vehicle’s main movement axis maximizes the total pulling power.
Before using the winch, you’ll need to adjust the wire in a process called “pretensioning.” Here’s how to pretension the cable:
Park the vehicle and apply the emergency brake. Attach the cable to the winch’s drum. Then attach the other end of the cable to a heavy object such as another parked car or a tree. Now start the winch. The tension stretches the cable into the correct shape, so it’ll roll back around the drum evenly.
How Do I Use a Winch?
Using a winch is fairly simple. We’ll cover the difference between using front and rear-mounted winches we go:
1. Connect the Remote Control
Most remote control units must be plugged in before they can be used. Make sure you’re in a safe area when using a winch.
If you’re using a front-mounted winch to pull your vehicle, use the remote while sitting in the front seat. That allows you to operate the winch and the vehicle at the same time. (We’ll discuss how to do this safely below.)
2. Find an Anchor Point
Finding an anchor point isn’t always easy. Your options might be limited depending on where and how you’re stuck. Look for large natural objects such as trees and boulders. Other vehicles are also reliable anchor points.
However, always keep in mind the weight of the car versus the anchor. For example, a large four-wheeler can uproot a small tree. Estimate the strength of the anchor as best as you can, using the weight of your car as a general guide.
Choose an anchor point directly in front of the winch. The cord loses power if it’s not in a straight line. Of course, you can’t always choose where your vehicle gets stuck, but find the best anchor you can.
3. Attach the Cable
To release the cable, pull the Disengage lever on the winch. Pull the cable towards the anchor. Walk slowly and keep the cable tight. You want to avoid slack as much as possible.
Attach the tree-protector around the anchor point. It’s a thick nylon strap with two loops. Wrap the protector around the tree, rock, etc. so the two loops are together in front. Connect them with the D shackle.
Next, hook the cable to the D shackle. Make sure the hook’s tip faces upward.
After the cable is hooked to the anchor, you’re ready to re-engage the winch. Turn the lever back to Engage. Once engaged, any extra cable is prevented from unspooling off of the drum.
4. Activate the Winch
Everybody except the driver should stand far away from the vehicle and anchor point. If the anchor point is a tree, consider the potential fall zone.
Next, get into the driver’s seat with the remote control. You’ll want to buckle your seatbelt, as your car may lurch forward suddenly while pulled.
Using the remote control, activate the winch. You want it to pull slowly. Release the button every few seconds to help keep the speed under control.
At the same time, move the vehicle forward. Gently press the gas. Avoid revving the engine. Try to get a feel for the vehicle’s traction and manipulate both the gas and winch accordingly.
Stop the winch when all four tires reach flat ground. Once the car is free, unhook the cable from the D shackle. Then rewind the cable using the remote. Go slowly. The cable should remain under control as it retracts. Finally, gather up the tree protector and D shackle. You’re now ready to roll!
Is Using a Winch Safe?
Always be careful when using a winch. Accidents can severely damage your car and even cause fatal injuries.
The key to using a winch safely is control. Always apply gas slowly when attempting to free your vehicle. Pay attention to any signs or sounds of strain from both your vehicle, the winch, and the anchor object.
Also, be careful when handling the rope. Metal ropes can fray and become sharp to the touch. Always wear gloves when setting up and operating the winch.
Whether you need to move an obstacle or pull your vehicle out of a jam, a winch is the perfect tool for the job. If you regularly traverse unstable terrain in your vehicle, equip a motorized winch before undertaking your next outdoor adventure. Winches not only increase safety – they let you go further and have more fun behind the wheel.