Off-Roading 101:

How to safely use a winch for first timers

A 4x4 vehicle with a built-in winch. A popular winch used by off-roaders.

A 4×4 vehicle with a built-in winch. A popular winch used by off-roaders.

Having a vehicle recovery winch is like gun ownership when it comes to home defense – it’s better to have one and not need it, than need it and not have one. I have heard arguments of some 4WD vehicle owners who say, “I don’t need a winch because I don’t go off road.” Well, they still need one because of the fact that they own a 4WD and they don’t know how to drive off road properly.

With the increased popularity of 4WD vehicles and off road driving as a means for recreation and sport, and also winches being offered as an accessory on vehicles, the proper and safe use of a vehicle recovery winch is absolutely necessary because of the potential dangers when using one. Besides, pulling out a vehicle weighing at least 2,000 pounds and fighting the forces of gravity in the process is no joke.

Below are the most important things to remember before using a winch for the first time:

• Know the limits of the winch’s capability as against the approximate weight of the vehicle and resistance offered by other factors (slope gradient, how deep is the vehicle stuck in sand or mud, and what have you);

• When winching, make sure that there is a full roll of cable on the winch drum to anchor the cable against the winch spool;

• The winch’s maximum pulling capability is on the last layer of cable wrapped around the spool. The more layers of cable you have on the spool, the lesser the pulling capability is;

• Always use and “Air brake” on the strung out cable when winching. This will redirect the whipping effect of the cable to the ground. A whipping cable can slice a man in half because of the energy built up on the cable when under tension while winching;

• When winching, stay away from the reach of the cable under tension. Remember that just because you are past the anchor point doesn’t mean the cable from the anchor point to the place where it could break won’t reach you;

• Always try to position your cable line on the straightest line possible because that is the most efficient method;

• Occasionally, place a wheel chuck on the tire and check to make sure that the cable does not build up on any side of the winch and jam the cable;

• Always use heavy duty working gloves when handling a winch cable;

• When rewinding the cable on the spool after using, never handle the cable nearest to the roller fairlead by just a few inches from it. It can snag the gloves and drag your hand into the cable and spool;

• You can double the winch’s pulling power by using a rated snatch pulley. Do not attempt this if you don’t know what you are doing;

• Never use a winch for other purposes such as lifting or using it as a “Flying Fox.” I have seen people use a winch for that purpose with disastrous results;

• If possible, assist the winch by running the vehicle in gear very slowly and stop when there is slack on the cable when the vehicle finds traction;

• Always use a tree trunk protector when anchoring the cable to a tree. Failure to do so will damage the cable and scar the bark of the tree;

• Make sure that your anchoring point for the cable is enough to hold up the vehicle’s weight. Some really huge boulders larger than a vehicle can roll back to the vehicle being recovered; and

• Read and understand the owner’s manual of the winch. If you bought it without one, get proper training in handling a winch.

This is not a full guide in proper winching. This is more of an emergency guide for those who are caught in a situation that requires them to use it. Always remember that you and your companions are stuck and in all probability cannot drive to the nearest hospital should anything untoward happens. So be safe when winching.


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