Selecting a Winch

Selecting a Winch

Selecting a winch can be a daunting task.  The choices between competing brands, different load ratings, and winch lead material can all seem a bit overwhelming.  We have compiled a simple and effective step-by-step guide to help you select the best winch for your trail rig and to keep you exploring.

Step 1: Gross Vehicle Weight (GVW)

Open the driver's side door on your vehicle.  A small metal placard or sticker will be placed on the door sill area.  On this will be our GVW, or Gross Vehicle Weight.  GVW is defined as the vehicle manufacturers maximum operating weight including the weight of fuel, coolant, lubricants, passengers, and load.  For easy calculations our GVW will be 5,000lbs.

Step 2: Added weight

Estimate all of the added weight from aftermarket parts.  This includes roof racks/tents, larger tires, aftermarket bumpers, etc.  While this may seem trivial, it can easily add 500lbs. to your vehicles weight.  Add this number to your GVW, for a total weight that will be used to select a winch load rating.  This brings our total example weight to 5,500lbs.

Step 3. Calculate Winch Capacity

Winch manufacturers will often recommend a minimum rate of 1.5 times the GVW.  We like to recommend on the greater side and bump that figure up to 2.0 times the GVW.  Steep inclines and thick mud can quickly lead to a lower load-rated winch being bogged down and not have the ability to extract you from a difficult situation.  Loose sand and deep mud can easily add a drag coefficient to your vehicle from 0.40 to 1.00, even on a level surface.

GVW 5,500lbs. x 0.40 = 2,200lbs.   GVW 5,500lbs. + 2,200lbs. = 7,700lbs.

After adding the drag from the road surface to your GVW, it is easy to see how a lower rated winch can be inadequate.  The 8,000lbs. winch you purchased is now struggling to extract your vehicle from the sandy surface in which you find yourself.  This also does not factor in any incline into the equation.  Adding just a 4 degree incline will increase our vehicle load to 5,979lbs. 

5 degrees = +10% to GVW total

15 degrees = +25% to GVW total

30 degrees = +50% to GVW total

45 degrees = +100% to GVW total

Taking these totals, if our example vehicle was stuck in a muddy road washout and had to be extracted up a 30 degree incline it would require a winch pull of 10,450 lbs. 

Surface Drag

GVW 5,500lbs. x .40 = 2,200lbs.

Grade Resistance

GVW 5,500lbs. x .50 = 2,750lbs.

GVW 5,550lbs + 2,200 + 2,750 = 10,450lbs. load

After reviewing these numbers, it is clear as to why it is better to select a winch based on GVW x 2.0, rather than the manufacturer suggested 1.5.  It is always best to purchase a winch with the greatest load rating your wallet will allow.  No one ever complains about having a winch that is too powerful. 

Step 4: Winch Line Selection

There are two types of winch line available: steel cable and synthetic.

Steel cable has been the standard for winching. Steel winch cable is extremely durable for recovery and has great abrasion resistance, but this also results in the cable being heavier than synthetic.  Steel cable also does not have any issues with ultraviolet light like synthetic. Steel cable is typically less expensive than synthetic line. 

Steel cable can develop sharp burrs and rust over time if not properly maintained both during and after operation.  Due to the weight of steel cable, it does store more potential energy.  If for some reason a cable does fail, it has far more potential to do damage to surrounding objects such as vehicles and people. 

Synthetic winch line was introduced in the late 1990's.  Its advantages are being lightweight and extremely easy to handle.  Most winches can lose around 7-12lbs. just by switching to a synthetic winch line.  Synthetic line does not develop burrs or rust like steel cable, but it does have to potential to fray which could lead to failure.  Synthetic is also susceptible to damage from UV light and chemicals.  Synthetic line stores less potential energy than steel cable, making it safer if a line does fail. 

The type of terrain you encounter may very well dictate the type of winch line you choose.  If you travel in areas with a lot of rock and hard surfaces, steel cable may be a great choice.  Its higher abrasion resistance is well-suited for situations where the winch cable will be pulled across a rough surface.  On the other hand, if you follow proper winching technique and lay down abrasion sleeve over rough edges, synthetic line will work just as well. 

Regardless of line selection, proper care of winch line is mandatory.  Proper storage and routine inspections of winch line for burrs or frays before and after use is necessary to insure safe and proper function.  Synthetic line should also be shielded from direct sunlight during storage.  Steel cable should be unwound periodically and lubricated so it does not develop rust. 

Step 5: Controller

In recent years, winch manufacturers have been introducing wireless winch controllers.  Gone are the days of plugging a controller into your winch, running the wire across your hood, and in through your open window.  The main factors in deciding which type of controller to use is convenience and price.  Wireless controllers add to the price of the unit, but also add convenience.  They also require batteries to operate the remote, which would require replacing periodically.  Wired controllers lower the total price of the winch and do not require batteries to operate. 


We truly hope that this guide has given you a better understanding of winch selection and the demands that you will be placing on your winch.  With all offroad equipment, proper selection and maintenance are the keys to having a reliable and fun trail experience. 

Keep Exploring!

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