If you travel alone and tend to push the capabilities of your vehicle, the time will come when the usual first-order recovery techniques – like clearing a path or using recovery tracks – are not working. Then you will be thankful you invested in a winch to pull yourself out of trouble. We review the important things to know when it comes to winching.
In this blog, we’re talking about the most popular which are mounted to the front of a vehicle and are powered by the vehicle’s cranking battery. As with all expensive purchases, do the research to ensure you are buying a quality winch, with enough capacity to handle your fully-loaded vehicle, and that your chosen supplier offers a decent warranty and back-up.
1. Power rating
Winches are for some reason still rated in pounds of pulling power, and your winch needs to be rated to pull your vehicle with all its extra kit and equipment up a slope or out of a bog. The rule of thumb is to build in an extra margin of 1.5 to two times that mass. For example if your vehicle weighs 3 tons all in, you need at least a 9 500lb winch (4 309kg). If you drive a bigger Land Cruiser, a 12 000lb (5 443kg) winch will be a safer choice.
Bear in mind, the capacity is measured with just one layer of line wrapped around the winch drum. With each subsequent layer, the actual pulling power is reduced by a factor of around 10%, so after five or six layers are wound in, your 4 500kg has been reduced to 2 250kg.
If you are an off-road competitor, then an expensive Series Wound motor found on the most expensive winches with high duty cycles and high capacities will be your choice. Most overlanders who use their winches only for the occasional emergency recovery, will get by with the less expensive Permanent Magnet type motor found on most commercially available winches. These have a decent line pull speed, but are more prone to getting hot when used hard, so bear this in mind in use.
Top tip: Winch motors should not be used for a long, continuous pull. Rather pulse the motor using the controller in short bursts of no longer than two minutes at a time, and let the motor cool down between recovery cycles.
Most 4×4 winches use a compact three-stage planetary gear arrangement to convert the high-speed and low torque output of a 12V electric motor into a high-torque, low-speed rotation of the linked cable drum. Hand winches (like those used to haul boats onto their trailers) use a simple spur gear, while industrial hoists often use a worm gear arrangement.
Planetary gears are compact, but need a drum brake integrated in the design of the winch, as they do not hold in place under tension.
4. Weight and mounting
A typical 9 500 to 12 000lb winch, with its associated controller, can weigh anything from 35 to 45kg before you have added cable or rope. It needs to be securely mounted to the front chassis members, most often inside a winch-ready bullbar. With all this weight pivoted over the front of your 4×4, it is vital to specify a heavy-duty suspension upgrade. Factor this into your build plan and budget.
5. Which cable?
On most winches, the standard cable length is 28 to 30 metres, enough to reach a solid anchor point and even to double back the cable for extra power. A farmer or logger working a winch all day in rough conditions might specify a steel cable. These are tough, but are hard on the hands and a typical 3/8-inch cable will weigh 12kg – too heavy for typical overland use. Synthetic (plasma) rope is two to three times more expensive, will weigh just 1.6kg for a 30-metre length, is easy to work with and will not kink or rust, and, most important, is far safer if it breaks during operation. It can be rejoined in a pinch if it breaks, but is also prone to abrasion damage if pulled over sharp rocks and the like.
Top tip: A steel cable must be used with a heavy (5-7kg) roller fairlead mounted to the front of the vehicle. A synthetic rope is used with a light (600g) Hawse fairlead, basically an alloy plate with a rounded slot to direct the rope into the winch drum.
6. Battery safe
Winching puts quite a strain on your cranking battery, which is the power source. It should be specified with at least 650 cold cranking amps (CCA) so you might consider an upgrade if your current battery is old or under-spec. The engine should be kept running at a fast idle throughout a winch recovery process to ensure the battery stays charged via the alternator. The winch installation should feature thick cables between controller and battery to minimise any voltage drop..
Front-mounted winches are used with a hand-held controller plugged into the solenoid module typically mounted above or near the winch body. This contains a switch to pulse the motor either forward or in reverse, spooling line in or out of the drum as required. Most are linked via a cable, typically 3.5 to 3.7 metres long, and passed into the vehicle cabin via an open window, so the operator can steer and winch at the same time. Wireless controllers are also available, and while these are convenient, they are subject to slight input delays. The vehicle bonnet is usually opened to provide a measure of protection if a cable or strap should fail.
A quality recovery kit is required for winching. You will need to have a set of good leather gloves and use them at all times. The rope or cable will have a hook and safety spring clip at the business end. You will also need heavy duty bow shackles, which will attach to a so-called tree trunk protector strap which will go around the strongest part of an anchor point. It is a good idea to also invest in a snatch block to ensure straight-line pulls and to double up the cable for more power. An extra tow strap will be useful if the anchor points are far away. Do not use a snatch strap for winching as these are too elastic and impart shock loads. Lastly, you should use a winch blanket to drape over the middle of the extended winch line to prevent the winch line and shackles turning into projectiles should the line snap mid-operation. Coats, blankets and even an unwound recovery strap can also be placed over the winching line to prevent potential fatalities.
No surprise that winches require maintenance too. When new, the line must be free-spooled out to the last windings, then spooled in under load. Every month or two, and definitely before (and after) a trip, this process should be repeated, checking the line for damage and ensuring the winch works smoothly in both forward and reverse. The line must be evenly spooled in across the drum, avoiding a line build-up on either side which can damage the drum and the cable or rope itself. If the winch is submerged under water, have the agent check it out, replace the oil, and strip if necessary. When your winch needs to work, you don’t want to discover it has seized.
10. Safety first
A few basic rules will ensure a winch recovery is safe and mishap-free. First, assess the situation. Plan exactly who will be in control of which aspect of the process, and what you are going to do. Have a spotter watch the line and straps, while directing the person using the controller inside the vehicle. Agree on the signals you will use. Keep everyone else as far away as possible, up to 10 metres from the vehicle or vehicles involved. While winching, never step over a live cable, do not exceed the maximum line pull, and do not operate the controller if someone is checking or adjusting the straps. Never use a towball hitch as a mounting point as these can break off. Only use rated recovery points or the chassis. Chock the wheels if another vehicle is being used as an anchor, and always use a winch blanket over the line.
The Winching process
- Put on gloves.
- Connect the remote control to the winch solenoid.
- Free the winch hook by reversing the motor just a bit.
- Disengage the clutch and free-spool the line towards the chosen anchor point. Further out will ensure a stronger pull. Try and make the pull direction as straight as possible.
- Wrap the tree protector strap around the chosen anchor and attach a bow shackle such that the strap ends are doubled over the pin, which must be wound in and backed off a half turn.
- Attach the winch hook, check it is secure, and place a winch blanket over the line.
- Lock the clutch, tension the line and again check everything
- Get inside the vehicle with the controller, ensuring it is running at a high idle, and pulse the winch for short pulling intervals. Most advice is to let the winch do the work, and not to drive the vehicle forwards. Stop and periodically check the cable is spooling evenly onto the drum to prevent damage to the cable.
- When the vehicle reaches solid ground and can drive safely, stop and chock the wheels, then take tension off the winch cable, disengage the clutch on the winch, and disconnect the winch hook from the shackle.
- Stow all the recovery gear and wind the winch cable back onto the drum as evenly as possible, under light tension, using the motor. Disconnect the remote.
MOTOR: Typically a 12V or 24V electric motor arranged to the side of the winch body. On most winches it powers a threestage planetary reduction gear which turns a drum which carries the cable or rope.
WINCH DRUM: Centrally located storage for the cable, held in place by an automatic brake when the cable is under tension.
CABLE/ROPE: Up to 30m of steel cable or synthetic (plasma) rope, attached to the drum at one point and looped at the other end to carry a hook with a spring-loaded safety clip.
FAIRLEAD: Sits directly in front of the winch and is mounted to the vehicle body to direct the cable evenly onto the winch drum. Four-roller fairlead for steel cable, Hawse fairlead for synthetic rope.
GEARBOX: As above, a compact three-stage planetary gearset to translate the relatively low torque output from the electric motor to a high torque, low-speed pulling force.
CLUTCH: Allows the drum to be disconnected from the geartrain when free-spooling the line, and re-connected when winching.
CONTROL BOX: A solenoid that relays the signal from the hand-held controller to the electric motor, enabling the winch to be operated in forward and reverse modes.
REMOTE CONTROL: Sends the required signal to the winch, and allows the operator to keep a safe distance from the winch itself.
Source: Adventure Afrika