How to Use a Winch (in Baby Steps)

Off road trips are amazing adventures, unless when they aren’t. They are exhilarating, exciting, gratifying, thrilling, heart-thumping, and freeing – until something goes wrong, which happens all the time. Although off roading is a satisfying activity, there are a lot of unknown variables at play out in the wilderness. There are rough terrains, wild environments, unforgiving conditions, and cruel situations in which you may find yourself.

One of the most useful tools an avid off roader should have is a winch. It helps you overcome lots of challenges on an off road trip. It is specially useful if your vehicle gets stuck on mud or other sticky terrain. If you are an aspiring adventurer with dreams of taking on the wild, wild wilderness, you should know how to use a winch.

What is a Winch?

A winch is a powerful piece of machinery used for pulling, towing or hoisting. There are many various types of winches. There are hydraulic winches, thermal winches, chainsaw winches, drill winches, and many more. But our focus in this article is on the type of winch used by off roaders: the electric winch.

The electric winch is already a broad term used to denote many types of winches. Capstan, portable or handheld winches may be electric. What we are looking at in this article, however, is the electric winch that is mounted on off road vehicles such as ATVs, UTVs or trucks.

Safety First

Before we dive into how to use an electric winch to pull your vehicle out of a sticky situation, we must first emphasize how important safety is. A winch is a powerful tool. It must be treated and respected as such. Disregard for safety measures while operating a winch may cause serious injury or even death. So before you operate your winch, follow these important reminders.

  • Wear gloves especially if you are using a steel wire cable. There may be kinks and frays in the cable that can pierce your hands. For more details on the differences between a synthetic cable and a steel wire cable, click here. Strong gloves also offer a layer of protection for your hands should your hands get sucked into the winch.
  • Operate the winch from a safe distance. If the strength of your cable is compromised, or if it is not secured to a strong anchor, the cable may snap or flick. This is dangerous, especially if the cable is made of steel. The tension on winch cables reach thousands of pounds. If suddenly released, such tension unleashes a force capable of tearing through flesh and bones.
  • Inspect winch closely before use. Make sure that your winch is in good working condition before using it. Any damage on it may lead to detrimental consequences if overlooked

For more detailed instructions on maintaining a safe environment when winching, see this guide.

How to Use a Winch: Rigging the Winch

After taking all of the necessary safety measures, you can begin rigging your winch.

Plug the remote control into the winch. As a rule, your remote control shoukd not be plugged into the winch if not in use. Once it is plugged in, run the cord away from the winch. You don’t want it dangling around the front of the winch, it will be an annoying hindrance. If you have a wireless remote control, activate it.

Find an anchor point in front of your vehicle. The anchor point must be sturdy enough to handle the weight of your car. It must be practically immovable. It could be a tree or a huge boulder. If there are no natural anchor points, you can use a ground anchor, which you can buy from Amazon or other stores.

The anchor should be directly in front of your vehicle, as much as possible. Winching at an angle puts extra strain on your winch and can damage your cable even if you have a very good fairlead.

Initiate free spooling. Your winch should have a free spooling clutch on either one side of the drum. Initiating the free spooling lever releases the winch drum, allowing it to rotate freely.

Pull winch cable out. Once the free spooling clutch is activated, you can pull out the winch cable easily towards the anchor point. Remember, use gloves when handling the winch cable.

Set up snatch block (if necessary). A snatch block is a pulley that can increase the pulling power of your winch. It can also be used to make an angular pull easier.

Wrap a tree trunk protector around the anchor. Most winches have a tree trunk protector included upon purchase. If yours does not, you can easily buy one. They don’t cost much. A tree trunk protector, in my opinion, actually protects your cable. Instead of wrapping your cable on the rough surfaces of trees or boulders and damaging it, the tree trunk protector owns that responsibility.

Secure your tree trunk protector with a D ring shackle. Hook the shackle through the loops on the tree trunk protector.

Attach the winch hook to the D ring shackle. At the end of your winch cable is a hook. Use that to attach the cable to the D shackle.

Lock the free spooling clutch. This will prevent the rope from spooling out. Important point: never use the winch to pull while the free spooling clutch is engaged.

Slowly pull the winch cable taut. Make sure that the cable is taut before trying to pull your vehicle out. Make sure that there is enough tension on the cable before attempting to pull. Sudden tension may damage your winch.

How to Use a Winch: Pulling the Winch

Clear the area. Make sure that no one is near the vehicle and the winch before starting the pull.

Slowly pull the vehicle out. Using the remote control, slowly pull your vehicle out from a safe distance. Don’t try to hurry the process. The winch is a powerful beast, take all of the actions you can to control it.

Take breaks. One of the downsides of an electric winch is that it overheats. To prevent that from happening, do not attempt to to finish the pull in one go. Take breaks every few minutes. Overheating the winch will just cause you tons of money, time, effort and a whole lot of headache.

Stop winching on stable ground. If you think the vehicle is on stable ground and can move forward on its own, turn off the winch and unplug the remote control. Test the stability of the ground by checking if you can drive on it.

How to Use a Winch: Wrapping Things Up

Re-spool the cable. Unhook the winch cable from the D ring shackle attached to the tree trunk protector. Then plug your remote control into the winch again and slowly pull the cable back into the winch. Guide the cable with your gloved hand to make sure that it spools back cleanly and evenly on the winch drum.

Pack all of the equipment and accessories. Unplug the remote control and store it in a dry, safe place. Retrieve the tree trunk protector and the D ring shackle and store them in an easily accessible place in your vehicle. Do the same for other accessories you may have used (ground anchors or snatch blocks).

So there you have it! A clear, baby step by baby step guide on how to use a winch to get your vehicle out of sticky situations. By following these steps, you can easily get your vehicle back on (or is it off?) the road!