A winch is arguably the best addition you can make to your vehicle to get you out of trouble. Locking differentials will get you further down the trail, big tires provide a lot of traction, but when both of those fail you, a winch can keep you moving. Despite this power, many people on the trail seem to avoid winching at all costs. We have seen far too many people break their vehicles trying to get unstuck. A simple pull from their winch would have solved the issue. Maybe it is ego, perhaps they aren’t familiar with how to use their winch, but regardless of the reason, there is no excuse to avoid using your winch. After all, getting unstuck is why you added it to the front of your vehicle in the first place. Let’s take a look at how to properly and safely use a winch, so you have no excuses not to use one.
Assess The Situation
Safety is vital when using a winch. While winches are valuable tools, they can be dangerous due to the huge forces they generate. Something powerful enough to move your stuck vehicle won’t care if your arm or leg is in the way when spooling in. So, when you are stuck take a deep breath, put on your gloves, and start by assessing the situation. Start by determining what you are going to winch to, what other recovery items you will need, and who you want to help. Often on trail rides people, even strangers, are eager to help in any way possible. This eagerness can sometimes cause more issues than it resolves. You should only need a few people to perform a recovery with a winch. Preferably the people who help are ones you know and trust and have wheeled with in the past. Everyone else should stay back beyond the distance that the winch rope is spooled out. That way if the cable should break, it cannot harm them.
What Else You Need
Your winch is the most significant piece of recovery gear with regards to weight, packaging, and price. There are supplemental items you will want to carry with you to ensure that your winch is as effective as possible to get you unstuck. These include, but are not limited to gloves, shackles (also called clevis or d-rings), a snatch block, a tree saver, a tow strap, and a winch damper. If you are hooking onto the rear bumper of your buddy’s rig, you might not need any of these items. If you are trying to recover that same buddy from a rollover in a narrow canyon though, you might need to use every one of those accessories.
What To Winch To
You want to winch to something substantial and heavy enough to allow you to get unmired. If you are on the trail with another vehicle (you don’t wheel alone, right?), it makes sense to winch to that vehicle. That is assuming the rig is similar in size (or larger) to yours, in front of you where it can act as an anchor, and has strong recovery points. If that isn’t the case, you can winch to a tree or a large rock, using your tree saver strap. Ensure that the rock or tree is large enough to support the weight of your vehicle and rooted firmly enough that you will not pull it towards you. If not, you may end up with more problems than just being stuck. Hook the cable as low as possible to minimize the leverage on the anchor.
In the sand or mud, you may need a land anchor such as Smittybilt’s Winch Anchor Support Platform (WASP) when nothing else is available as an anchor point. Ideally, you’ll want an anchor point that will enable you to pull straight in the direction the vehicle will move. A straight pull allows the rope to wind tightly and evenly onto the drum as it is spooled in. An anchor point that is further away may seem like a hassle, but it will provide the winch with its greatest pulling power by taking more wraps of cable off the drum.
If you are recovering your vehicle, we recommend operating the winch and driving at the same time. While this makes for a busy driver, there are advantages to having one person perform the recovery. Ideally, you want the tires to be moving at the same rate of speed as the winch. This will minimize strain on the winch and also allow you to know when the vehicle is free. If you feel an extreme strain on the vehicle or winch, operating both will enable you to stop and reevaluate the situation. And, in practical terms, the winch controller cable on most winches isn’t long enough to allow someone to operate it safely from next to a moving vehicle. A second person outside of the vehicle is helpful though to spot and act as a second set of eyes from a safe distance.
Recovering Another Vehicle
If your vehicle is recovering another rig, we recommend that you operate the winch from outside of the 4×4 so you can evaluate the situation. If a third person is present, have them engage the brakes on your vehicle. They will be directly in the path of the winch pull, but also don’t necessarily need to see what is happening. Raising your hood will protect them from harm should the winch cable break. It is also worthwhile to have them increase the idle to approximately 2,000 RPM to maximize the alternator’s output back into the charging system. Winches draw an incredible amount of current and also generate a lot of heat. For these reasons, we recommend winching in short spurts if at all possible. Doing so will also allow you to reevaluate the situation and reposition if necessary.
What Not To Do
There are arguably more rules on what not to do when you are winching than what to do. Never yank on the winch hook as a recovery point from a dynamic pull with a strap. That is what tow hooks are for. The shock load to your winch could damage the drum and motor. You also never want to hook to suspension or steering components, or wrap the cable around something and attach the hook onto the cable. Doing this can damage the cable or the parts that you are trying to connect to. Again, that is what recovery points are for. And, keep people back away from the winch cable. Never have someone step over the cable, especially while it is under tension, as it risks injury to the person.
If You Only Remember One Thing
If you only remember one thing, it is to take your time when winching. Don’t be in a rush and don’t take any unnecessary risks. Winches are incredibly powerful tools, but that power is indiscriminate. While we did not cover every possible situation here, the goal is to provide you with the critical thinking skills necessary to evaluate the situation you are in and determine how to extract yourself safely. The more you use your winch, including just familiarizing yourself with its functions before actually needing it, the better off you will be when the chips are down.