Winches

All travellers should be capable and equipped for winching so in this article we will discuss the various winching methods and equipment on the market. Written in conjunction with one of Australia's most noted experts in winch gear, we will also discuss some important safety issues along with providing some practical tips to suit everyone from traveller to competitor.
Article By: Mick Muirhead, Michelle Martin, and Damian Baker
Created: June 2008
Revised: January 2007
Latest Feedback: June 2015

Which Winch?

One of the most obvious reasons that winching is part and parcel of 4WDing is the excessive weight of these vehicles - a standard Landcruiser for example comes in at around 2.5 tonne. Add fuel, water and camping gear and you are probably up to 3.5 tonne. Winching is not a fast recovery solution, but is effective for lifting (or shifting) excessive weights when other recovery methods have failed.

The type of winch you select should be based on the form of winching you expect to find yourself doing. Most winches spend the greatest portion of their life looking the goods on your bull bar, but it is when you need it you will be pleased you gave the selection of the type, capacity, quality and purpose of the winch serious consideration. The most important factor to consider when selecting a winch is whether it is capable of pulling your vehicle when required. A good starting point for most touring type vehicles is 1½ times the gross weight of your vehicle. This is the all up weight of your vehicle, fully loaded with all your gear, fuel, food, water, cheese and kisses and the billy lids. So load up all and don't hold back, head down to the tip or another public weigh bridge and find out what the real weight is. Then make your selection on the winch that will pull your vehicle. The first layer of cable on the winch is where most winch capacities are measured, and as the cable gains a layer on the drum you will drop in pulling power by about 12% so a 9500 lbs (4.3 tonne) winch will be capable of an 8400 lbs (3.8 tonne) pull on the second layer and down to a 6500 lbs (3 tonne) pull by the forth layer.

Electric Winches

The most common winch type is the Electric winch, powered by the battery/ies, which in turn are charged by the alternator. These are the most economical and easiest to fit of all the powered type winches. Usually mounted in the front of the vehicle the simple design allows for fitting to most common winch compatible bull bars and mountings. They are reliable and easily maintained.

A simple gearbox arrangement reduces the high speed of the electric motor (similar to a starter motor) to a low speed high torque rotation of the winch drum. A set of electrical solenoids supply power from the battery to the electric motor and the cable can generally be driven in or out of the winch. Clutch arrangements allow for free spooling the cable from the winch, reducing battery drain and rapid deployment of the cable.

Series Wound & Permanent Magnet Motors

An electric motor has two main parts, the stator and the armature. The stator produces a magnetic field, which will cause the armature to rotate when an electric current flows through it.

In a permanent magnet motor, the stator uses permanent magnets. This means the current drain on the battery is lower than series wound motors (which uses field coils in the stator). Permanent magnet motors are good for light and medium duty winches, but winching time and load has to be carefully monitored as they tend to overheat.

Series wound motors are used in heavier duty winches, but tend to cost more.

Most low mount winches have a brake assembly, which by design is engaged during the outward drive of the winch - in other words when driving the cable out the brake is on. The idea is that when you are driving the cable out you would be lowering yourself backward down a hill, so when you stop winching the vehicle will stop. The down side is that the break assembly will wear with continued use, so driving against the break should be limited to the times it is required.

The best set up for providing power to your electric winch is a dual battery set up, with the winch running off your main/cranking battery. The engine should be run during the winching operation in order to recharge the battery and if you have a fast idle switch or throttle then this should be used to increase the revs and in turn, your alternator power output. The alternator can go into a heavy cycle and push out 100A when the winch is under heavy load. This can cause the alternator to heat up. A good indication is the voltage meter on your dash. If this drops by a few volts it is a good time to give it a couple of minutes rest. The alternator will stabilise and drop back to supplying 70A or 80A back to the batteries ready for the next winch assault.

PTO Winches

The PTO winch, also known as a ‘power take off’ winch is driven by the vehicle engine through the gearbox and a power take-off unit. Since they are powered by the vehicle engine itself, it has plenty of torque and power because it’s powered by the vehicle engine and the gearbox and throttle can be used to give a wide range of winching speeds. These winches are ideal for long heavy duty winching operations and can sustain these loads due to the absence of solenoids or electric motors – which can potentially overheat.

The down side of the PTO winch is that the winch and drive train are linked, so driving the winch and the vehicle is difficult at the same time as the engine revs and gear selected, controls both your winch and forward motion through the drive train. Therefore lacking the control of an electric or a hydraulic winch, and it cannot be used if the motor is dead. Most modern four wheel drives do not have a PTO take off and as such PTO winches are becoming a rarity.

Hydraulic Winches

Hydraulic winches are powered by fluid pressure from a hydraulic pump that’s powered by the vehicle engine. These winches offer more reliability and endurance than an electric winch and the power of a PTO winch. The majority of these are of the drum type and are usually mounted at the front or the rear of the vehicle.

Most hydraulic winches available use the existing power steering pump in the vehicle. They are generally slower in their wind in speed but offer higher winching capabilities for prolonged periods. As most of the hydraulic winches utilize the power steering hydraulic pump of the vehicle a valve system is incorporated to provide the hydraulic fluid to either the winch or the steering, so steering and winching cannot be operated at the same time. Because of the steering system modification, it would be wise to confirm if the system would be acceptable to the vehicle manufacturer regarding warranty, your insurance company, and acceptability with vehicle licensing authorities.

Capstan Winches

The capstan winch is usually driven by the motor via the PTO shaft and fitted with a clutch. The winch is operated by winding the winch cable around the capstan a few times, and driving the capstan continuously. The speed at which the winch pulls is varied by the amount of tension on the tail of the rope, friction on the capstan can be controlled to provide the desired pull speed. A capstan winch can be used to hold the vehicle by tying off the tail to a substantial part of the vehicle. The capstan winds the rope tightly around its drum and is therefore generally used with a synthetic rope rather than steel cable as steel cable will tend to hold the coils after use. The rope is not spooled on the drum for storage.

The capstan winch can generally pull at a greater angle than a drum type winch. The capstan requires a person to operate (hold the tension on the rope) from outside the vehicle. This makes using the winch a two person job (one to drive and brake the vehicle and one to operate the capstan). As with PTO winches, most modern 4 wheel drives do not provide a PTO point on the transfer case and are therefore generally found only on older vehicles.

Hand Winches

Hand winches (colloquially called Tirfors after a common brand) are a versatile tool as they can be utilized to pull at any desired direction and can be used to move objects other than a vehicle, such as a trailer or caravan. They work via human power with a cable fed through a walking lock arrangement to pull the winch along the steel cable towards the anchor point. The operator moves a lever backward and forward to pull the cable so its a very slow process.

The down side is they are hard work, heavy, and need storing somewhere in the vehicle. They also require two people one to operate the winch and the other in the vehicle.

Winch Accessories

Synthetic Winch Ropes

In recent times synthetic winch ropes have become more popular and are extensively used in four wheel drive competition. They were originally employed for safety reasons, on the basis that when they broke their low mass and low elasticity caused them to drop to the ground dead, rather that recoil and cause injury and damage. They are easier to handle, possible to repair by splicing if they break, and the weight saving has less of an effect on the vehicle's handling, compared to the heavier wire rope.

There are some things to consider when choosing a synthetic rope and to determine, if in fact, synthetic rope is the way for you.
  • They are more expensive, costing about twice that of a low quality steel cable and slightly more than good steel cable.
  • They have less abrasion resistance than a steel cable.

  • They don't kink or birds nest and can be used around smaller diameter drums and snatch blocks.

  • Some kinds are sensitive to heat, with deterioration beginning at just 60C and can even melt with excessive drum heat or friction. If you are planning to use synthetic rope on a low mount electric winch, choose a type that can handle higher heats (above 100C)

  • Synthetic ropes are generally stronger than the same diameter in a steel cable, thus allowing you to spool more on for the same capacity or simply giving you the assurance of a safer allowance.

  • Change the roller fairlead to ensure the rollers are free of burrs or fit a hawse type fairlead, any sharp edges can cut the rope. Rope can be protected from sharp edges by using wear guards.

  • The first 3 windings on the drum should be fastened with a clove hitch. This will avoid strain on the lug or rope end fastening point, it is recommended to leave at least 3 turns of rope or cable on your drum, the clove hitch arrangement ensures they stay there.

  • To avoid jamming rope between previous windings on the drum avoid spooling the drum neatly and parallel, as for wire ropes. The rope should be would on under load to the drum; all subsequent layers should be fed on tightly at an angle of about 30 degrees to the layer below. This will prevent the upper layer from finding their way to the centre of the drum through the upper layers.

Snatch Blocks

Your capacity to pull a heaver load than the winch is capable of, can be achieved through the use of a snatch block and in-fact nearly doubled by simply attaching the snatch block to a fixed point - the point you will be winching to and doubling the cable back to the vehicle. This will require the winch to wind in twice the amount of cable to winch the same distance, Thus reducing the load on the winch and having the added advantage of lessening the layers on the winch drum so also increasing the pulling power. Can be helpful in off-centre and difficult recoveries.

Bow Shackles

Hooking all this up safely requires a set of rated shackles so you will need to work out the correct rating for your vehicle. Independent and Industry Tests have shown that these shackles have a good safety margin incorporated.

All rated bow shackles will conform to Australian Standards AS2741. The shackle shown below comes in 3.2 and 4.7 tonne ratings and will have the following information embossed on them.

Click on the bow shackle images below to see a detailed view of the technical markings.

TIP

Remember a D Shackle (common galvanized hardware store variety) - as opposed to a Bow Shackle will not be rated for safety and will fail at considerably less stress levels.

Tree Protectors

Tree protectors are designed to minimize damage to trees and allow a safe anchor point for shackles and winch rope. A winch cable tightening on the bark of a tree can effectively "ring bark" the tree and kill it.

Not only is this illegal, it ruins the appearance of the tree and makes it look ugly. Also, dead trees close to the track, increases the risk of falling debris.

The size of the strap distributes the pressure evenly over the surface of the bark eliminating or minimizing damage to the bark.

Most Tree Protectors are rated at 10,000 kg and over and are made of non stretch Nylon with stitched eyelets to accept a winch block or a rated Shackle.

Gloves

Wearing gloves will help protect your fingers - Need we say more?

Bystanders should stand well clear of the cable, winch and vehicle operators can minimize risks by working as far out of line of the tension of the winch rope, and on the uphill side of the recovery, common sense will reduce many risks -eg use doors, bonnets, and mudguards to shield your person from any potential mishap. Walk around the vehicles on the high side - don't step over taught cables and ropes.

Practical Tips

Winching, snatching, pulling and jacking all involve a substantial weight with phenomenal forces. If and when this weight moves intentionally or unintentionally, things can happen very quickly. The maintenance and correct usage of your winching gear will reduce the possibility of injury or damage to the vehicle. Above all, never under estimate the carnage that can be caused by equipment failure or improper operation. Shown and used with the proper respect winch gear can be one of your greatest allies.

Gear Inspection

Every day you intend to use the winch, a visual observation of the rope or cable should be made. These visual observations should be focussed on discovering damage that may be an immediate hazard, such as the following:

  • Distortion such as crushing, kinking, un-stranding, main strand displacement, bird caging or core protrusion (cable only)

  • Corrosion (cable only)

  • Broken or cut strands
Monthly, during use you should inspect the wire cable or rope for:
  • Reduction of rope diameter below nominal diameter as a result of loss of core support, internal or external corrosion, or wear of outside stands

  • A number of broken outside strands and the degree of distribution or concentration of such broken strands

  • Worn outside strands

  • Corroded or broken strands at end connections and splices

  • Corroded, cracked, bent, worn, or improperly applied end connections

  • Severe kinking, crushing, cutting, or un-stranding

  • Heat damage to the cable or rope and fittings

  • Any other damage which may cause failure
Most four wheel drive clubs offer driver training, which includes the use of winches in vehicle recovery. Club training is recommended as an essential starting point.

Time

All good things take time and a safe successful recovery should be no different. Assess the situation, make the vehicle safe, keep onlookers at a safe distance, use the correct gear, and inspect it all before putting it into service, discuss the recovery with all who will be involved and reassess as required during the recovery. Remember your recovery will only be as good as the weakest link.

Of all the winch types available most are front mounted on the four wheel drive, the reason being that it is an aide to get you where you want to be and that is mostly going forward. Of course unplanned predicaments can mean that a winch on the back or side of the vehicle would be handy but usually not practical. With the right winch set up and gear you will be able to recover your vehicle and others as necessary from most situations.

Driving while Winching

This is for the experienced and competition drivers. In most cases winching out of trouble and then driving is the better option as doing both together causes a no load / load shock to the winch and winch cable. This can cause damage to both rendering them unserviceable. Not only your gear can be damaged but also the track. If you have fitted a suitable winch let the winch do the work.

Training & Competition

Many four wheel drive competitions are held in all states of Australia and winching is common, in the more extreme events they are a major part. These events put all aspects of the vehicle, driver and navigator to the test along with their gear. Heavily modified winches with twin drive motors, 24 volt motors and synthetic winch ropes are the norm, the gear vehicles and participants are tested to the extreme and equipment performance and endurance a major factor. The competitions are timed events through obstacles or stages with points given for the completion of each stage.

Try throwing a steel cable up a hill (as pictured below) and you will understand one of the very good reasons that competitive winch challenge participants use synthetic ropes! After attaching the rope, the vehicle is winched to the top of the climb, this section involved no run-up to the climb - winching being the only way this vehicle would climb the steep, loose slope.


If you would like to get involved in these exciting competitions as a competitor or as a spectator, following are some of the more popular winch events, there are several levels of difficulty from mild to wild.

Australian 4WD Monthly Cliffhanger - White Cliffs, NSW
Mud Bulls & Music - Jimna, QLD
Superior All Terrain Challenge - Jimna, QLD
Nissan Trials - Colo Heights, NSW
NavRun - Gippsland, VIC
Windorah Car Rally - Windorah, QLD

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