We're all familiar with the ubiquitous zip tie, or cable tie. These little plastic helpers can be a lifesaver in many off-road contexts. From repairing a flip-flop to securing a suspension component, they're nearly an indispensable part of every overlander's kit. They float around in the bottom of my spare parts bin, and I may go for a long time without using one.
But when you need a cable tie, you usually really need a cable tie.
The same could be said for another kind of overland tool - the winch. A significant investment for your adventure rig, a winch can completely change the game for your vehicle recovery capabilities. A good winch paired with the training to know how to use it correctly and safely will open the door to more challenging and technical trails.
It offers a particular peace of mind that few other recovery aids can. And, while you will find that you might rarely use it, when you do find yourself in a situation where you need that winch, you really need it.
Let's look at some common questions and concepts around winch use and installation, and think about how a winch can complement your recovery system.
What Does A Winch Do?
Winches are old technology, and their basic design and use haven't changed much over the years. However, newer winch advancements offer some convenience and performance benefits that their older counterparts can't match.
If you find yourself hopelessly stuck in mud, sand, or other sticky situations, the winch uses a long spool of high-strength steel or synthetic cable as a life line to pull you out. Anchored to a solid object such as a tree or a large boulder, and driven by your vehicle's electrical system, the winch slowly spools up, freeing you from your predicament.
Leveraging the weight of your rig itself, you can also use the winch to remove obstacles from the trail such as downed trees or rocks. And, importantly, you can recover other vehicles in your convoy, or even complete strangers out on the road. In fact, in my experience, I have found that I have used winches far more often to rescue stranded folks I've never met than for myself. It's a great way to make new friends.
The winch is a versatile tool, and today's winches have lightweight composite and alloy construction, are nearly waterproof, and feature wireless operation and high tech synthetic winch cables.
What Do I Need to Consider in a Winch?
The very first calculation you need to address is weight. Winches are rated by how much weight they can pull. A general rule of thumb is that your winch should be able to pull approximately 50% more than the weight of your vehicle. So, if your rig weighs 5000 pounds, your winch should be rated at least to 7500 pounds. Don't go with the manufacturer's published weight for your truck. Be sure to take into account all the extra mass of the gear you're carrying out there on your adventures - it makes a big difference.
Why is this? It's one thing to pull a freely rolling vehicle along a flat surface, it's another thing to yank a fully-loaded truck up a hill or out of a deep mud bog. The extra capacity ensures that your winch will perform with power to spare. It will also extend the life of your winch, since it will be less stressed when it's in operation.
There is a second weight calculation to make. "Over winching", or installing a winch with far more pulling power than your vehicle needs can be a problem. While on paper more capacity would seem to be better, higher power winches are much larger and considerably heavier than lower powered ones.
A winch rated to pull 18000 pounds will overwhelm the front of a small pickup like a Toyota Tacoma, adding strain to your suspension and drive train components. And, trying to winch out your buddy's Unimog with your Tacoma, even if you have an 18000 pound winch, will only result in pulling your own pickup straight into the mud anyway.
A final question once you've landed on a winch model is how to install it. Most modern pickups have complex front bumper assemblies, integrating sensors, airbag compatibility, and lots and lots of plastic. In general, installing a winch will also require mounting up a new aftermarket front bumper made of steel or aluminum alloy.
Most of these bumpers are designed specifically for mounting winches, with reinforcements made specifically to take on the huge forces generated by winching heavy objects. However, they are heavy - especially compared to most flimsy factory bumpers - and the weight of the bumper, plus the weight of the winch itself adds further considerations.
To handle that extra weight, you may need to consider a beefier suspension set-up as well, with large bore dampers and springs with higher weight ratings. However, if you're getting serious enough to add a winch to your rig, you may already be considering these upgrades anyway.
Lastly, electrical load is a big factor. Winches draw large amounts of current, and while most modern vehicles have alternators and electrical systems that can handle winch amperage, many older trucks may need an alternator and wiring upgrade to keep the juice flowing.
In either case, we definitely recommend having an expert install your bumper and your winch. The physical forces involved with winching are immense, and getting the installation perfect is very important.
Overlander stocks a wide variety of winches from trusted legacy brands like Warn, Ramsey, and Superwinch to fit pretty much any vehicle you can think of. In addition, we also have a wide range of winch accessories and winch bumpers to complete your install.
In a future article, we'll look over how to accessorize your winch tool kit to get the most out of its capabilities, and go over some basic winching techniques.
Questions about winches? Wild recovery stories from your life on the road? Share them down in the comments.