How to Properly Use a Winch

Originally published on Mar 6, 2023 | Updated on Aug 29, 2023

Written by
 RealTruck Expert Team

While investing in recovery gear may not be as exciting as bumping up to beadlocks, 40s, or remote-reservoir dampers, a quality winch and the associated accessories are one of if not the most essential components of any wheeling rig. 

No matter a driver’s abilities or confidence, even the most experienced wheelers piloting well-built rigs can get stuck on the trail; it only takes one improper line, shifted rock, or misdirection from a spotter to end up utterly and hopelessly stuck. 

Though some drivers would rather snap an axle shaft or obliterate their transfer case than break out the winch line, we’re here to tell you–don’t be like them. No amount of pride is worth grenading your rig on the trail, ruining your day and potentially the day of the individuals stuck behind your immobilized ride. 

Now, before breaking out the winch, it’s essential to have a thorough grasp of how to use it, the necessary accessories, and how everything works in conjunction with one another. Luckily, our experts are here to review all of this essential information and more. 

From safely operating and maintaining your winch to packing shackles, snatch blocks, tree savers, tow and recovery straps, and winch line dampers, RealTruck has you covered.

Winch Safely

As with nearly all automotive activities–safety comes first. If performed incorrectly, winching can be incredibly dangerous to yourself and those around you. 

With thousands of pounds of steel being maneuvered by a nylon or steel strap, anything can go wrong—and occasionally, it does. Don’t be a statistic; instead, follow these basic rules and tips to safely operate your vehicle’s winch.

Glove Up!

Your hands are arguably the most valuable and versatile tool in your arsenal—so keep them safe and protected! The best means of doing so is investing in a durable pair of recovery gloves, keeping your hands safe from friction burns and tears from stray fibers.

 Don’t Rush

One of the most common mistakes we’ve seen on the trail is wheelers rushing to winch their ride out of a jam. Not only can this lead to compromised safety, but it can also damage your vehicle or the recovery vehicle/point you’re winching to. 

Before even beginning to unspool your winch line, make up a game plan. Map out your line, select a sturdy recovery point, and lay out all of the necessary recovery gear. And whether you’re an experienced veteran or a green newcomer, it never hurts to have a second opinion and set of hands.

Keep Your Distance

It doesn’t take much for a winch line to turn into a dangerous projectile. Whether resulting from a failed recovery point, improper maintenance, or operator error, a steel or synthetic cable shearing under thousands of pounds of pressure can easily wreak havoc on anything in its path, whether that be flesh or metal. 

For this reason, ensure that you and other bystanders are at a safe distance when operating a winch. Also, while this may seem obvious, we have to reinforce that you should NEVER, under any circumstances, climb across the winch line, especially when it’s under tension.

 What You Can Winch

Now that we’ve covered safety let’s take a closer look at the various uses of a winch. While a winch may seem like an extremely niche product, it’s surprisingly versatile; here are four of our preferred uses.  

Solo Recovery

Likely the most common practice involving a winch is the classic solo recovery. In this scenario, you’ll employ the winch affixed to your vehicle to pull yourself from a treacherous or immobilized position on the trail using another stationary object, whether that be a parked vehicle, a tree, a boulder, etc. 

Recovering Another Vehicle

Like a solo recovery, this method utilizes your vehicle-mounted winch; however, in this scenario, you're not the one that’s stuck. If your winch is rated for the weight of another stuck vehicle (and your ride is as heavy or heavier), you can navigate to an efficient location, unspool your winch line, safely affix it to the other vehicle’s recovery point, and reel in your winch to pull them to safety. 

Loading Vehicles onto Trailers

While not necessarily the same type of winch as the one affixed to your Jeep, winches have long been used to load non-operational vehicles onto tow trucks and trailers. 

Moving Large, Heavy Objects

Lastly, we have the most unconventional usage on the list. Winches can be used to move abnormally heavy objects, including felled trees, bounders, and more. However, it’s important to use extra caution whenever doing so. 

Types of Winches

Winches come in several styles and intended uses; here’s a selection of the most common winch types you’ll encounter in the wild.

While these may seem like extremely different applications, ATV/UTV and trailer winches are very similar physically. Traditionally, these winches utilize low-rated motors and small dimensions for versatile mounting. 

ATV/UTV winches are used similarly to standard recovery winches; however, their weight rating is ideal for use in lightweight power sports applications. 

Trailer winches are used to load inoperable vehicles onto flat-deck trailers. Due to the generally low demand for a trailer winch—ie, loading a freely-rolling vehicle up a smooth, minimal grade–trailer winches are rated lower than traditional recovery winches.

Need additional RPM to maximize line speed? Then consider a high-speed winch for maximum performance. 

Traditionally, high-speed winches are used in competitive spaces, such as off-road competitions. In these scenarios, a high-speed winch is used to rapidly overcome a challenging obstacle, lowering the overall time spent on the course. High-speed winches are also used in watersports, such as wakeboarding and waterskiing. 

Conventional high-speed winches utilize synthetic ropes for weight savings, as well as single or dual high-output motors capable of operating at higher RPMs than traditional winches.

Industrial winches are engineered for use exclusively in industrial settings, such as manufacturing facilities, farms, and shops. These winches typically come with conventional electric or hydraulic motors and are used to pull and lift heavy loads that would otherwise require extensive manpower. 

Unlike recovery and trailer winches, industrial counterparts are not typically waterproof. They’re also designed to be mounted in solid, immobile locations.

Arguably the most versatile winch style on the list is the portable winch, engineered for use in practically any location with a power source. These winches are typically self-contained within a carrying case, making transport a breeze. Some units offer the convenience of hard-mounting with included plates, although doing so isn’t necessary for operation. 

While extremely versatile, portable winches are not typically rated for heavy loads, making them ideal for loading trailers, unsticking ATVs/UTVs, and moving objects around a workshop.

Hoist winches typically employ a similar form factor to traditional winches; however, instead of pulling loads horizontally, they're engineered to hoist vertically. From solo removal of a Jeep or Bronco top to moving heavy objects around a shop space, hoist winches are extremely versatile. However, they come with several drawbacks compared to conventional winches. 

A hoist winch cannot be used as a conventional winch; ie, you cannot affix it to a vehicle, ATV/UTV, or trailer as it isn’t designed to pull a horizontal load. Hoist winches are also limited on mounting provisions and are typically low-rated, making them almost exclusively useful in a shop or garage space.

Utility Winches

And finally, the product that most wheelers are familiar with–the utility winch. These winches are typically mounted to the front or rear bumpers of an off-road rig, providing much-needed assistance when a vehicle can’t conquer an obstacle under its own power. 

Offered in various configurations–including weight ratings, sizes, choice of steel or synthetic cable, and more–utility winches are an excellent tool for the off-road-going ride.

While extremely versatile, portable winches are not typically rated for heavy loads, making them ideal for loading trailers, unsticking ATVs/UTVs, and moving objects around a workshop.

Unlike recovery and trailer winches, industrial counterparts are not typically waterproof. They’re also designed to be mounted in solid, immobile locations.

Choosing the Right Winch

So which type of winch is right for you? The correct answer comes down to your particular needs and expectations of the product.

For industrial applications, consider an industrial winch—simple enough, right?  

If versatility is your biggest concern, portable winches are an excellent option.

For your Jeep, pickup, or SUV, there’s truly no other way to go than a utility winch; unless you’re concerned with time, of course. For competitive applications, check out RealTruck’s selection of high-speed winches.  

ATV/UTV winches are more than capable of lightweight power sports applications, while trailer winches are ideal for loading vehicles onto flat-deck trailers. 

Finally, invest in a hoist winch if you require an electric hoist to load and unload camper shells, Jeep tops, and more.

Step-by-Step Guide to Winching

With your winch selected and basic knowledge of safety practices and uses, it’s time to delve into using your winch. While operating a winch may seem daunting, this simple step-by-step guide will have you properly winching in no time!

Catalog Your Equipment

Before even hitting the trail, it’s essential to catalog your equipment. Double-check your gear bag to ensure that you’ve packed everything necessary, including:

If you’re missing any basic essentials, check out our wide assortment of Winches and Accessories

The only thing worse than not having the proper gear is not realizing an essential component is damaged or inoperable until you need it. Before embarking on an off-road adventure, verify that your winch and gear are in proper working order and show no significant signs of wear. 

Assess Your Situation

At this point, you or another driver are stuck on the trail; so what’s next? Before running to your winch, take the time to thoroughly assess the situation and make a game plan. During this step, it’s essential to pinpoint your desired recovery point, decide where you’re winching to, and select what gear you’ll employ for a successful recovery.

Set Up Your Winch Line 

To begin, slip on your recovery gloves, pull your winch line, and attach it to your desired recovery point using the appropriate equipment (keep your vehicle running to prevent strain on the charging system.) 

For a standard single pull, hook your winch to a suitable anchor point using a tree strap, shackle, or other appropriate connection.  

Install a Winch Line Damper

This is a safety precaution used to minimize the risk of the line or any connection points flying off during the winching process. These lines are under thousands of pounds of tension and a snapped line can cause significant injuries if it hits anyone. Winch line dampeners decrease the speed and range of snapped lines, preventing potential damage to you and your vehicle.

Make Sure the Area is Clear

No matter how remote your off-roading location is, it’s always a good idea to thoroughly check the area for other people before using your winch. As we mentioned earlier, a snapped line can cause devastating injuries, so always be mindful of your fellow outdoor enthusiasts.

Commence Winching

Once you’re sure everything is hooked up properly, begin winching in. Stand at a safe distance and operate the winch using the included remote (if applicable). Once you or the other driver have overcome the obstacle, go ahead and detach the line from the recovery point and let it spool in the remaining few feet without load.

Pat Yourself on the Back!

At this point, stash all of your gear neatly back in its original location and pat yourself on the back! With your new-found knowledge and newly-purchased winch, you’ll be able to conquer nearly any obstacle on the trail.  

And for all of your additional recovery needs, don’t forget to check out our extensive inventory at RealTruck.

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