Power Winches - Do You Need One?

Selecting recovery equipment for your vehicle is a bit like selecting a four wheel drive. First, you need to examine where, when and what you are going to be doing - then select the most suitable equipment.

Why Fit a Winch?
power winch recovery

As a fast and effective method of extricating yourself from sticky situations, electric power or recovery winches are convenient labour saving devices. Many 4WD owners have ambitions of adding an electric power winch to their arsenal of off-road equipment. Why? Because they look the part mounted to the front of the vehicle? Possibly.

A winch should be looked upon as a last resort to recovery and if your 4x4 isn't equipped by nature of design, to handle arduous, uneven terrain in regions of poor traction then you should really be questioning the suitability of adding a winch.

Vehicles manufactured with low-range gearing, good ground clearance and capable tyres are candidates for a winch, while low ground clearance all-wheel drive cars aren't designed for terrain that may call for a winch recovery.

Where budget is the main priority, a suspension upgrade (incorporating a lift in ground clearance) and a set of decent all-terrain tyres - represent money better spent. These upgrades alone will see the need for a winch recovery dramatically reduced.

Before you fork over the substantial funds required to mount a quality power winch to your vehicle there are few other factors to consider - one being the anchor you need to winch yourself out against. When you do get stuck, invariably it will be at the most inconvenient time and in the most inconvenient place. If you are navigating an outback desert track it's possible there are no trees, stumps or large boulders within reach.

It's always possible to bury a spare tyre to act as an anchor but that sort of negates the convenience of having a winch.

So potentially, to augment your winch purchase you may consider adding a ground anchor, extension strap(s) and a winch kit. The additional weight is adding up and valuable space is beginning to disappear.

The Winch Kit

A winch kit is not normally supplied when you purchase your new power winch but having one enables you to use this expensive piece of equipment mounted on the front of the vehicle - with safety.

A winch kit normally contains:

  • A tree protection strap, so you don't kill the tree you use as an anchor or damage the winch wire.
  • A pulley block, to lessen the load you put on the winch or to increase its pulling power.
  • A pair of heavy duty gloves.
  • Some shackles to safely connect everything together.
  • And, last but not least a 'finger saver', a small piece of bent rod that allows you to feed the wire onto the spool without getting your fingers pulled through the fairlead (rollers).
The Wire Dampener

Next, you need a heavy coat or blanket to lie over the wire just in case it breaks. If the wire breaks while under extreme tension the heavy object dampens down the wire and stops it flying around - much the way a Snatch Strap is dampened. There are horrific stories of wires flaying around with such force that people have been decapitated or dismembered.

Quality Electrical Supply

Another consideration is the battery. Most 4x4 vehicles require a winch that can safely pull in the region of 3-4 tonnes. An electric motor that can pull this much (the most common type of power winch) draws huge reserves of power from the battery.

So there you are with your vehicle stuck up to the axles in mud and you've identified a strong tree that you can anchor from. You have surveyed the area and laid out your tackle. You've checked to see whether or not your winch is working before pulling out the wire (a mistake that is often made and results in a rats nest of wire wrapped around the bumper, etc).

You've connected everything up, taken up the strain slowly so as not to shock load the winch and double-checked all the shackles.

You increase the revs a little to ensure maximum charging to the battery and you begin the recovery. After a few minutes with a local battery, the winch stops working as the cutout has sensed the battery voltage has dropped.

You wait a few more minutes for the voltage to recover and then repeat the procedure, then repeat the procedure, then repeat the procedure, and so on. So along with your winch and winch kit you might find it necessary to add a second battery, the associated heavy duty wiring and possibly a dual battery switch.

Something to Mount it On

Winches require extremely strong mounting points and the most common method is to bolt it up to the bulbar.

All of this additional weight at the front of the vehicle can begin to tax suspension components like springs and shock absorbers. Old or worn springs will quickly show signs of rebellion by sagging and causing the vehicle to steer and handle badly. The additional weight combined with a new bullbar and sagging springs means front ground clearance may be reduced resulting in greater potential to belly out and become stuck. It can all get a bit self defeating.

On the other hand anyone equipping there 4WD for a cross-country tour or who regularly engages in arduous off-road activities may already have many of the associated accessories bolted up. Things like dual battery systems and bull bars are common place on many touring four wheel drives.

Is a Power Winch Necessary on your 4WD?

In my opinion, for the everyday four wheel driver who's not interested in regularly testing their 4WD to the extreme or who is not working in a harsh or insecure environment where fast recovery is vital - No.

For those working or living in an environment with the risk of getting stuck on a day to day basis or for people who regularly test their vehicle in the most extreme conditions then a power winch coupled with an effective ground anchor is a great advantage. However, they are expensive and need to be fitted to the vehicle correctly. Buying a new recovery winch involves more than just an electric motor and some wire or synthetic rope and the associated bit's and piece's can be worth as much as the initial outlay for the winch.

If you're planning on equipping your four wheel drive for outback touring you may be interested in checking out 4WD Accessories - What Do you Need? a comprehensive list of the equipment that we consider essential and what we think can be left out.


Original article by Mick Farmer of OnCourse Driver Training, Kampala, Uganda

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