How to Use a Winch (Winching Made Easy)

How To Use A Winch

If you’re like most vehicle owners, winches are unique accessories which do not come in handy very often. When you need to retrieve your ATV from the mud or prepare a friend’s car for a tow on the highway, however, you’ll need to know how to use a winch.

In this article, we’ll explain how to use a winch and which kind of winch you should be using for several of the most common winching tasks. While you won’t necessarily be ready to perform all the winching functions which you could use a winch for, you’ll be prepared to help a friend in need.

Why Use A Winch?

Winches are among the most misunderstood accessories for offroad and utility vehicles. Many people consider winches to be a substitute for the torque which a powerful vehicle can apply by pulling on a fixed cable.

Winches can:

  • Apply a level pulling force
  • Apply a vertical pulling force
  • Provide tension to a slack cable

Each of these features has a different purpose. Importantly, not all winches can be configured to fulfill each of these purposes. Winches typically excel at one of the above tasks.

You may be wondering why winches are preferable to using the torque of a vehicle. The answer to this question boils down to safety and efficacy. Your car may not necessarily be able to apply torque via a cable without endangering the integrity of the vehicle or other people.

Similarly, there is no situation in which your vehicle’s torque alone is sufficient to lift a towed object off of the ground. With a winch, it’s easy to gain verticality without a lift bed.

Furthermore, if your only need is to apply tension to a slackline, a winch will do it far more controllably than the torque from your vehicle’s engine.

Recovery Winching

Recovery winching is what most people think of when they think about winching. Recovery winches are designed to help people driving in steep terrain to rescue another vehicle which has become lodged in mud or otherwise stuck.

If the vehicle is broken down in an awkward spot that’s far from a road, a recovery winch will almost certainly be part of the solution.

Using a recovery winch is relatively easy. First, locate the vehicle or thing that needs to be recovered. Then, position the recovering vehicle so that it is in a position of maximum safety relative to the direction that the other car will be pulled by the winch.

To position the recovering vehicle safely, make sure that it is not directly in the way of the vector drawn by the wheels of the vehicle that is being recovered.

Attach one end of the winch cable to the vehicle. The other end of the cable should remain attached to the body of the winch at all times.

Next, activate the winch at its standard power, ensuring that the engine of the vehicle is running so that it has enough power. If you’re lucky, the vehicle being recovered will start to move and become unstuck.

You will probably need to provide some extra assistance with the torque of your vehicle’s engine in many cases where you’re using a recovery winch, however. Throw your vehicle into reverse and accelerate backwards slowly and evenly.

If the vehicle you’re recovering can still move under its power, it can contribute by applying engine torque in the same direction as it is being pulled by the recovery winch.

As a rule of thumb, you shouldn’t have anyone applying manual force as soon as more than two motors are running in the recovery effort.

This means that is you’re using torque from your vehicle and the power of the recovery winch at the same time. Nobody should be pushing or pulling on the car being recovered because the risk of getting hurt is high enough already.

Loading or Towing Winching

Loading or towing winching is far more mundane than recovery winching. The purpose of a cargo or towing winch is to drag loads or disabled vehicles safely through areas where road infrastructure is minimal.

To perform a loading or towing winch, you need to position your vehicle so that it is facing the same direction as the vehicle being towed. You will also need a friend to ride in the vehicle being towed to operate its steering wheel and brakes.

Once the vehicles are correctly positioned, attach one end of the winching cable to the strongest point on the other vehicle. For a sedan, the best idea is to connect the winching cable to the front bumper.

For an SUV or another more durable vehicle, the towing hitch or rear bumper may be a better bet than the front. Once everything is attached, set the car being towed into neutral and ensure that the driver is inside.

Then, activate the winch and configure it to maintain two or three cars’ worth of distance between itself and your vehicle. Maintaining tension in the line is the goal because that will allow the towing vehicle to be at the safest range.

Next, start to drive your vehicle slowly and carefully. Do not forget to take into account that the steering and braking ability of the car being towed will be impaired if it does not have the engine power to pressurize its hydraulic systems which assist steering and braking.

Crane Winching

For recovering vehicles and transporting them across long distances of a highway, you’ll need a crane winch. Crane winches are the most complicated winches, but they are not the most powerful.

The only thing that a crane winch can do is to pull its load upward. It can’t tell you when it has drawn the load too far up or when the load is also close to the rear of your vehicle, so you will need to use your judgment and be very careful.

To use the crane winch, connect the end of the winch to the front of the vehicle that you’re towing. Now comes the hard part.

Based on the dimensions of the vehicle’s chassis and wheels, you will need to figure out how far off the ground, you should winch the car to prepare it for a tow.

Higher is not necessarily better because vehicles like sedans can scrape the rear part of their chassis against the ground when the nose of the vehicle is too high.

Similarly, if you don’t winch the vehicle high enough, its rear wheels can cause deadly vertical fishtailing when you slow down.

Vehicles with higher wheel wells and taller wheels are generally easier to tow with a crane winch because there is significantly more leeway with the position of the nose of the vehicle.

Short and stubby vehicles with low centers of mass are also easier to tow with a crane winch than long or lightweight cars.

Winch Safety 101

It’s easy to use winches safely, but you need to follow a few best practices. These winch safety tips include:

  • Winching with a friend
  • Using a winch that is rated for the load
  • Using a longer winching cable than the bare minimum
  • Taking care to disconnect the winch line only when there is no tension in the line
  • Using a winch that is well-maintained
  • Staying parallel to any loads being winched

While we mentioned the two-motor rule earlier, it’s time to expand on working with winches safely.

You should always winch with a friend or someone who can help you to perform the other parts of the necessary action. In other words, if you lodge your ATV in a gulley, do not try to remove it with a winch alone.

One person needs to man the winch. Another person needs to be in the vehicle being recovered to keep its wheels aligned. If you plan on using your vehicle’s torque to supplement the winch’s power, one person needs to be in the driver’s seat.

Adding more people is a great way to ensure that all of the necessary jobs get done. The caveat with adding more people to help you when you’re winching is that everyone needs to obey the golden rule of staying parallel to the direction of the winch force.

In essence, staying parallel to the winch force prevents anyone from being run over by the vehicle being winched. It also prevents anyone from getting squished by something falling from a towing winch.

Similarly, winches are only safe to use when you’re using a winch and a winching cable which is rated for the load that you are trying to winch. Heavy loads require more formidable winches. Be sure to check the weight rating before starting.

If the winch cable snaps because of excessive force, it may hurt someone when it flies back. Be aware that there is seldom any warning that a winching cable is approaching its maximum rated load.

If you aren’t entirely sure how much the load you are trying to winch weighs, it is probably a good idea to err on the side of using a stronger winch. Try not to put yourself in the situation of winching loads which are borderline within the safety rating for the winch cable.

You should also make sure that your winch rig is well-maintained. Avoid exposing your winch to water or salt if it isn’t rated for amphibious usage. If your winch cable is entirely metal, understand that it may perform differently in freezing temperatures.

If your winch motor is finicky, get it repaired before you need it to work hard to recover a lost vehicle or something similar. If the winch motor is pushed beyond its limit during a winch job, it could catch fire or break down rapidly.

Finally, don’t forget to run your vehicle’s motor when you are using the winch regardless of whether you will use your vehicle’s torque to assist in the recovery. Winch engines can drain your vehicle’s battery promptly if you aren’t careful.

Winching Up

Now that you understand how and why you might perform the three main winching tasks, it’s time to pick a winch for your truck and get ready for winching in the wild.

Whether you’re recovering ATVs or towing cars on the highway, your winch will serve you well so long as you treat it right.

Always remember to obey the safety guidelines which we’ve outlined here as well as any additional safety guidelines specified by the winch manufacturer’s instructions.

Don’t winch alone if you can recruit help, and keep your winch in good working order by using it in the conditions it was designed for.

Brett Gordon

The engine behind editing at DigMyRide and the brains behind its build. During the day, Brett is a thirty-something dude from SoCal climbing the corporate ladder, but by night, he spends his time contributing to the online world of automotive tech & trends.