Updated: Mar 7
They say you have to be a good grinder before you become a good welder. The same might be said about winching. You have to become good at winching before you become good at driving. There are a lot of rigs running around with winches on them these days… and frankly, they look too damn shiny! This worries me. So, for my own self preservation on the trail I am going to tell you what I have learned over the years of RCAA and UROC with respect to winching.
Selecting the right winch
When it comes to the winch capacity people tend to follow a simple rule of thumb…that is 1.5X the GVWR of your vehicle. We could simply follow everyone else and give that canned answer. But there is a lot more to consider.
The winch cable or rope wraps around the winch drum. As this happens the drum fills up with a first layer (first wrap) it then begins a second wrap, then a third. It is important to understand that every wrap changes the final drive ratio of a winch. What does that mean? It means that your winches total capacity is reduced with each additional layer of cable. Here’s what it looks like on an 8000-pound winch:
- 1st wrap - 8000 Pounds
- 2nd wrap- 6700 Pounds
- 3rd wrap- 5700 Pounds
- 4th wrap- 5000 Pounds
- 5th wrap- 4500 Pounds
Of course, each successive wrap holds a longer section of cable/rope. That creates a whole new problem because most people don't pull the cable/rope out more than the final wrap to maybe one in (in the example the 5th or 4th wrap) on the majority of winch pulls. The bottom line… Your 8000 pound winch just turned into a 4500 pound winch. At BestOff-Road.com we recommend that you go with the highest winch capacity you can safely mount onto your vehicle. Your winch will last longer if it is not pulling near capacity all of the time and you will have reserve force for the really tough jobs… should that ever arise.
Electric vs Hydraulic
Electric winches use electric motors to power the winch. Hydraulic winches do this with a hydraulic motor. There are distinct advantages and disadvantages to both. Plop that question down on social media and watch out… the opinions will roll down like a damn break at a sewage plant. Here are some facts that may help you wade through it.
Electric- These winches are easy to install because the motor controller and solenoids are typically housed in the winch assembly. Therefore, the user has only to connect two battery connections once the winch is mounted. They can be mounted easily on trailers or even swapped around.
On the down side they run DC motors. That means high torque and high heat. Worse, the heat comes from the center, so cooling is challenging. The bottom line is that the effective duty cycle is super short. If the engine isn’t running, the winch will still work… but don't plan on going anywhere far on your battery, the amp draw of the winch under load will dust your batteries in a few minutes.
Hydraulic - These winches are a pain to hook up compared to electric. They tie in to the vehicles power steering pump and therefore there are hydraulic lines to consider and tighten (and leak). There are effects to steering while winching, and because the power steering pump is a relatively low volume pump, the loaded winch is slow. The upside is that the duty cycle is much greater. One other obvious down side is that the winch doesn't work at all if the engine isn’t running.
I conducted a duty cycle test on 3 winches. Two were electric 9000 pound winches and the third was a 9000 pound hydraulic. All winches were lined out to the first wrap. The total weight pulled, on flat, was 6700 pounds. The results were as follows:
Electric Winch 1 4.2 feet Motor winding meltdown (destroyed winch)
Electric Winch 2 5.1 feet Motor winding meltdown (destroyed winch)
Hydraulic Winch 1 21.2 Feet PS pump overheat-bypass valve engaged. No permanent damage.
Motor Selection (electric)
Winches use two types of DC motors, Permanent Magnet Motors and Series-Wound Motors. All electric DC winch motors consist of one set of coils, called an armature, inside another set of coils or a set of permanent magnets, called the stator. It is the job of the stator to produce a magnetic field which will cause the rotor (or armature) to rotate when an electric current flows through it. Applying a voltage to the coils produces a torque in the armature, resulting in motion. With all types of motors, the higher the horsepower rating, the more toque and power the motor will have. The winch rating is a combination of motor torque and gear train gear ratio reduction. Motor horsepower has a direct effect on both line speed & pulling power.
Permanent Magnet motors have no field coils. They typically use less amperage (battery lasts longer) but the design is less durably.
Series Wound motors use field coils connected in series with the armature coil. They are typically powerful and more efficient at high speed and generate more torque (given the same current). Series wound motors are a more robust design and are recommended for heavy duty applications. However, the cost is higher.
For selection, decide how often you are likely to use the winch. Is it simply for the “Just in case” application where the actual use may never happen or happen only on rare occasion? If so, consider Permanent Magnet. If you plan on being in the field a lot, the series wound is a better way to go.
Winches come with three distinct types of gears. Of course they do… we certainly can’t have cut and dry here. They are as follows
Planetary gears. Plantetary gears get their name just as you would expect… the planets. There is a center gear, called the sun gear (surprise) that spins outer gears (the planet gear) between the sun gear and outer ring. Often used in transfer cases, the planetary gears are efficient and relatively quiet. They do free spool under load however, so an additional brake is required.
Worm gears change rotation similar in some ways to a differential. They are very simple and extremely reliable. Plus, they are self-braking, making the reliability and safety factor greater than Planetary gears. They tend to be slower with no load speeds than a planetary set. Worm gears are excellent in high load, high duty cycle winches and should be considered in winches at or over 10,000 pounds.
The only winch that uses a spur gear which is similar to what people typically think of when they are talking about gears, is the Warn 8274. This winch is iconic in the look, feel and sound. Spur gears free spool when loaded like the planet gears, so a rake is needed. They tend to be more efficient than a planetary gearset though.
Ridden a bike? Lower gear slow, easy. High gear fast, difficult. Fire good.
The beauty of gears is they are based on pure numbers. But here are a few simple physics principals that come into play with winching.
1- It takes a finite amount of energy to pull a certain weight item through a certain medium or resistance. That never changes! It NEVER changes! When you’re driving up a hill, it takes the same amount of energy to get your vehicle up the hill in 5th gear as it does in 1st gear. The only difference is how we expend the energy. Let that one sink in long enough to understand it. It will help you down the road with your driving skills and winching.
2- Gear ratios break down like this. The first number of the ratio is how many times the input shaft or gear turns in relation to the output shaft or gears turning once (second number)
a. Example .3.75:1 means the input shaft or gear turns 3.75 times for every 1 rotation of the output gear or shaft.
b. The higher the number, the lower the ratio. 4.0:1 is a lower gear than 3.75:1.
c. The higher the number, the slower you go but the lighter the load is on the power supply. The lower the number is the faster you go but the load is heavier on the power supply. Example. Imagine riding a bike uphill. First gear on the bike is a higher number (lower ratio) and so it is easier to pedal but slower. 2nd Gear is a lower number (higher ratio) than 1st gear so it is harder to pedal but you move faster. At the top of the hill you have expended the exact same amount of energy
Why does that matter? Because winch manufacturers use different gear ratios to build winches. They base it off of what they feel the customer wants and what is best for the winch… often in that order. They matter because it affects the duty cycle of the winch, how long it will last, and how long it takes to complete a winching job.
You need to consider what is important to you. Does how fast the winch pulls with a full load or no-load matter to you? If the answer is yes, then you want a winch with a higher (lower numerically) ratio. That means you can pull the load faster, but you’re working the motor harder. Do you want things slow and controlled even though it takes longer? Then choose a lower ratio winch. My opinion? Slow, controlled, and longer lasting… but that is just me.
To choose the right winch for your application take these items into consideration, narrow your choice down to what physically will fit on your rig and what you will be using it for. Price is all too often the number one consideration. It is for good reason… the damn things are not cheap! But then again, having a tool you can depend on when the !@#$% gets real is truly priceless.
Oh? I need tools for my tools!? Ugh… yes. The following is a list of other crap you have to carry to safely and effectively get you and your buddies back home.
Tree Strap: Used for wrapping around a tree and anchoring your winch to, the tree strap spreads the load on the tree so you don't kill it. It also saves your cable or rope. You must have this simple strap. They are typically 6 feel long… don't buy junk.
D- Rings: I always carry three to four. They have become a fad lately for people to leave on their rig and paint. This way even a new ride sounds like a POS. The real purpose is to connect straps or use as an anchor point. Keep several with you.
Snatch Block: A snatch block is a safe pully for winching. It effectively doubles the capacity of your winch when used. They are simple and allow you to pull from indirect angles. See more on these, how they are used and how they work under Pulleys.
Tow Strap: Get a 30-footer. Use it as a tree strap, throw it over a cage and protect your cable or rope from damage. Besides, you may have to get back to camp by pushing the guy in front of you with the strap (wait… what?)
Gloves: You already are dealing with one problem. Why make it two?
Winches are a tool. When the !@#$ hits the fan, you won't care about how it looks. Get a high quality product with sufficient power to handle your vehicle. Look for the quality in the drum movement and components. A crappy winch, or one that is too small or mounted wrong will make your already rough situation far far worse. Spend the money, select quality Rest assured you picked the right product and read the next installment to learn how to use it like a Pro.