Recovery Series: Winching

Offroad winches
Offroad winches

This is the eighth in a series on 4×4 vehicle recovery techniques and equipment, brought to you by 4×4 Mega World and SA4x4 Magazine and written by 4×4 guide, 4×4 instructor and Overlanding specialist Bernie Williams. Each month’s content will be accompanied by a short video which you can view at the end of this blog.

It seems that a ‘must-have’ piece of equipment, which is often mounted on peoples’ 4x4s, is a winch. It most certainly has that ‘wow’ factor and makes you look like the ultimate adventurer. This piece of equipment has been available for decades, yet many owners have no idea how to operate it safely.

Winches are used for lifting in industrial applications, as well as for pulling; think of overhead cranes lifting containers in the harbour, and the tow truck or flatbed that comes to pick your vehicle up after an accident or breakdown.

In this series we keep on stressing that you should attend a recovery course for a reason; the last thing you want is for a mishap to happen in the middle of the wilderness that results in serious damage or even worse.

Offroad winches
Offroad winches

An offroad winch is one of those items that can cause serious damage. Once again, in order to be able to fit a winch to your 4×4, you will have to do certain modifications to your standard vehicle.

The first option is to have a winch plate mounted behind the original equipment bumper. The second option is to invest in a replacement bumper or bull bar that will serve as a winch mount. It is vital that you ensure your replacement bumper is certified to carry a winch and is also tested and certified as ‘airbag compatible’.

When choosing a winch, make sure that you have the right weight capability for your application and your vehicle. Remember to convert pounds to metric as winches are, for some antiquated reason, rated in pounds. In other words, you cannot use a 9 500lb (4 300kg) winch on a 200 Series Land Cruiser!

You will need a lot stronger winch than that, closer to the 12 000lb (5 400kg) mark. The reason being that your winch must be able to pull at least one-and-a-half times the mass of your vehicle.

Offroad winches
Offroad winches

Winch Basics

First and foremost, you must learn how to use your winch safely. Rule #1, always wear GLOVES when using your winch. Keep them in the recovery bag. It’s a good idea to practice in an open field or in your back yard before you get out into a recovery situation. Make sure you know how your specific model works and what its limitations are.

Before you set off on your adventure, make sure that the cable or rope has been wound back onto the spool under stress. Check with your installer that in fact it has been done. Do it yourself if necessary, creating tension by pulling the weight of the vehicle up a very slight incline while spooling in.

Failure to do this will damage the loose inner winding of the cable or rope when they are subject to the higher forces encountered in a recovery. Before each trip, make sure that the winch is working. Plug in the remote controller and physically check that it winches both in and out.

The last time you might have checked this was when it was installed. All too often people unwind the cable only to find that the winch does not work. As you unwind the cable or rope, check for any damage, kinks in the cable or places where there are flat spots, or if it is starting to fray.

All of these are potential weak spots during use and can cause the cable or rope to break. Another point to bear in mind is that winches, in general, don’t like to be submerged in water. Though it is a sealed unit, it is also both a mechanical and electrical unit, so if you have used it in water it is a good idea to have it serviced properly once you get back from your trip.

Winch Safety & Procedures

Whoever is in control of the winch recovery needs to be experienced and trained in the safe use of this equipment. Be sure to use a tree protector when winching from an anchor, which could be a tree or a large boulder. Extreme caution should be taken when winching. Keep the area well clear of bystanders. The vehicle doing the actual winching needs to have an open bonnet for added protection and the person in charge of the winch controller should stand behind the open driver’s door for extra protection.

Having said that, a cable breaking and snapping back won’t be stopped by the open bonnet or door but these will at least offer some level of protection. Only one person handles the winch remote and that is the person in charge of the operation. Never step over a winch cable that is under load. You MUST walk around the vehicle. Always make sure that you hang a weighted blanket and, in a pinch, a recovery strap or wet towel over the cable to act as a damper. Cables snap back violently if they do break, and the blanket acts to force the cable or rope to the ground, dissipating some of its energy and thus limiting the potential for damage or injuries.

Of course, one should also keep hands well clear of the winch drum when spooling up cable or rope. As a matter of procedure, always try and let the engine idle so that the battery is not drained because a winch uses a huge amount of battery power. When spooling back the cable, inspect and check the cable or synthetic rope for any damage. If there is, you need to replace it as soon as possible. This is for your own safety as well as your occupants. Regular maintenance is extremely important, especially if you are using synthetic rope.
Once you are back, unwind the rope, clean it properly (water only, no detergents), and then re-spool under stress again.

Each winch has its pulling limits. Make sure you know what that is. You can double that pulling strength by making use of a snatch block, but remember that by doing this you also halve the pulling speed of the winch. A winch’s strongest pull is the last layer of cable on the spool (think of using the smallest front gear on a bicycle), so ideally you would want to unwind as much cable as possible to get the optimal pulling power, but without unspooling beyond the last layers of the cable. While winching, stay focused at all times. Accidents can and will happen.

Don’t overwork the winch by doing long extended pulls. Rather do short pulls of roughly 30 seconds at a time to give the motor time to cool down a bit. Once you are done with the winching operation, make sure you spool the cable or rope back properly in layers so that it does not pull in on itself and, at the same time, inspect the cable or rope for any damage that might have occurred.

Recovery Series – Part 8

Want to see more recovery series videos?

For more videos on this multi-part recovery series, please go to the SA4x4 YouTube Channel here.