Novices sometimes think that a winch makes them invincible. The fact is that the winch tends to be an overrated piece of off-road recovery equipment. This is because a winch relies on anchor points, which in so many cases just aren’t available when you need them. And even if an anchor can be found, additional equipment such as a high-lift jack and a spade are needed to work in conjunction with a winch to extricate a vehicle. In a situation where there is no anchor, one can be constructed, but in most cases it is easier to use a jack and spade and dig the vehicle free than to create an anchor and use a winch. In severe cases, both may be needed. So, consider the winch only after you have acquired the other equipment needed to back it up. Once this has been acquired a winch becomes the backup, and not the other way round.
Winches are, however, indispensable for some tasks such as aiding in the recovery of other vehicles and dual vehicle operations where one vehicle can assist another to traverse difficult terrain. Other jobs where a winch is essential are hauling boats up the shores of muddy rivers and for removing obstacles such as fallen trees from the vehicle’s path.
Five types of winches are available: electric, hydraulic, engine driven, hub capstan and hand. Hydraulic and electric are either drum (horizontal) or capstan (upright).
Electric drum winches
The most common type of winch is the electric drum winch, manufactured by companies such as Warn, T-Max and Pro-Winch.
Drum winches with sufficient capacity for vehicle recovery are supplied with steel cable of between 25 and 40 meters which is neatly stored on the drum. They are heavy and require high capacity batteries to drive them (preferably deep-cycle). They overheat quickly in extended use and must frequently be left to cool. They are supplied with a hand held switch with a long extension lead enabling the operator to stand at a safe distance or sit inside the vehicle while winching. The switch allows the winch to wind forward and in reverse.
These are normally engine driven and often perform superbly when all else fails. Their biggest disadvantage is that they are best operated by two people. This is because a second pair of hands is required to tail off the winch, a procedure like that used for operating the sail winches on large yachts. Only a seasoned expert will operate a capstan winch alone and if this is the case, an emergency engine ignition cut-off switch must be fitted so as to enable the operator, who will not be seated in the cab, to shut down the engine if required. I saw a Series One Land Rover fitted with an original Fairey 3000lb-capacity capstan winch haul 14 vehicles across a stretch of axle-deep liquid sand that no vehicle could traverse. The last and fifteenth vehicle proved too much for the small winch and the worm drive stripped. In the same situation, an 8000lb electric drum type would have overheated by the third or fourth vehicle. The rope for the capstan must be stored elsewhere as there is no provision for storing it on the winch.
When selecting a drum winch, its rated pulling power represents its pulling strength when the cable is being wound onto the drum itself, not onto layers of cable wound around it. In effect, the smaller the diameter of the drum, the more its pulling power. So, when cable is wound onto a drum and cable is winched in on top of it, the diameter of the drum increases with each layer. For example, a winch rated at 8000 lbs is (theoretically) able to pull 8000lbs on the drum, about 6750lbs with a single layer of cable down, about 5800lbs with two layers of cable down and only about 5150lbs with four layers. For a winch to be useful to extricate a fully laden medium-sized 4×4 from deep mud, a winch of no less than 8000lbs rated pull is required. From this point, a heavier vehicle will require a stronger winch and a lighter vehicle, a lighter-duty winch. (See use of snatch block to increase pulling power).
Hub capstan winches
Designed specifically for self recovery, hub capstans bolt directly onto the wheel rims and with a cable attached, the capstan winds up the line and hauls the vehicle out as the wheels spin. To overcome the effect of the axle differential, two capstans must be used simultaneously. Hub capstans can pull a vehicle free in both directions, are lightweight, easy to operate, very effective and are inexpensive. Because only a portion of the wheel nuts secure the capstan, it is not necessary to jack up the vehicle to remove them and therefore a single set can be used by a number of common vehicles.
Mounting a winch
There are a few choices when it comes to mounting a winch. The first and easiest option is to purchase a bull bar with integral winch plate and have the entire thing assembled and attached by the supplier. The second option is to make your own. A third option is to buy a winch plate and do the installation yourself. This is most cost effective.
Relatively light and inexpensive and very versatile, hand operated winches are effective for situations where winching in odd directions is required as the winch can be made to pull in any direction required. They can also double as a hoist. Hand winches need physical strength to operate and the pulling power can be sufficient for quite difficult pulling jobs. Some hand winches, such as the Turfor, are a favorite with hardened off-roaders as they are light and although not inexpensive are cheaper than drum winches. The steel cable on Turfor type winches needs to be stowed somewhere on the vehicle but because steel cable does not flex as easily as rope, it must not be kinked or crushed. This can be a problem if stowing it inside a vehicle and cable clamps mounted on a bush-bar or roof-rack are a better alternative. Turfors work by two sets of jaws biting the cable and pulling it through the winch. The cable must be well cared for as damage can cause the cable to slip. Should the cable need replacing, the diameter required by the winch is critical for it to work properly. The snatch block, described below, increases the pulling power of the hand winch and is an essential accessory to all hand winches.