ECOA Recovery Guide – Phase 2: Introduction to Winching

There are a few iconic accessories that come to mind when envisioning a vehicle outfitted for overland adventures:  snorkels, lights, and of course a winch.  I’ve already discussed my thoughts on snorkels and lights.  Now it’s time to discuss winches.

A winch is a mainstay for most 4×4 vehicles.
Despite their ubiquity, are they really needed?

In this installment of the ECOA Recovery Guide I’m not going to focus on the techniques of winching itself.  That’s where a hands-on class from a qualified, experienced, and certified instructor is way better than a blog article (even I know my limits).  That said, there is still a lot you’ll need to know to get started in the winch selection process and what gear you’ll need to go along with the winch.  So read on for an introductory look at winching…

Take a Class

I sound like a broken record, I know.  I just can’t stress enough how important learning something as complex as winch based recovery from a qualified and experience professional is.  I believe this so much that I’m not willing to teach a formal class on winching.  So please do not take anything you read in this article as gospel when it comes to winching.  This is merely an introductory look at winching.  So, load up your 4wd and head to a qualified instructor and let them show you the ins-and-outs of winching.  Till then, here are a few things to get your started and hopefully emphasis why such a class is so important.

Kyle from Offroad Consulting and Driving Instruction getting ready to teach a recovery class.
This is truly the best way to learn this kind of thing.
(And you thought I had a lot of recovery gear)

Choosing a Winch

I have seen a great number of people run out and buy a winch just to say they have a winch.  Cheap  discount off-brands at local 4wd stores, or the latest and greatest deal online push so many shitty winches on unsuspecting enthusiasts.  It actually annoys me.  However, if someone wants to look cool I guess they don’t care.  If you’re a serious overland adventurer and that winch might mean the difference between you dying in the desert or making it home, the last thing you want to see is “made in China” on the side of your winch.

Everything you need to get started.
A quality winch: Warn 9.5xp
Winch accessories: Warn Epic Recovery Kit

For the longest time my mantra has been “Go Warn or go home.”  It’s usually followed by the quip, “No winch is better than a shitty winch.”  The implication is that having no winch is a far better idea than wasting money on a crappy winch just to say you have one.  That money can be spent elsewhere.  You can buy a lot of great recovery gear for $300.  Why waste it on a shitty winch that may not work when you need it?

On the flip side if you’re going to buy a winch then buy the best winch you can get.  Although this sounds like a sales pitch, for that I’m sorry, you get what you pay for.  I’ve never been let down by a Warn winch that was well maintained (more on that in a future article).  Is that to say you need to go by the top-of-the-line heaviest load-rated winch Warn offers?  Not at all.

This is my “I just dropped a bolt on my face for the third time” look.
The winch really isn’t hard to install.

Wrangler owners will know why this particular part is frustrating.

When you choose a load rating for your winch you want it to be roughly 1.5x the GVW rating of your rig.  In my case with a roughly 5,000 Jeep (when fully loaded) I should consider at minimum an 8,000 pound winch.  Since I pull a trailer, which is an additional load, I should probably bump that up to at least 9,000 or 10,000 pounds.   That’s why I opted for a 9,500 pound rated winch.  More precisely, the Warn 9.5xp. Before getting the trailer I briefly ran a Warn M8000 during the 2015 season. This increase from an 8,000 to a 9,5000 capacity reflects the added force needed to get unstuck from mud, snow, or sand.  It also reflects the added weight of winching a vehicle up hill, as well as the addition of the trailer.

Truth be told, a winch isn’t all that hard to install.
On a winch-ready bumper like this one from AtoZ Fabrication it’s as simple as four bolts up from the bottom.
Then all you have to do is route the power wire up through the engine bay to the battery.
In this picture you can see how the fairlead mount and hawse fairlead, a long with the winch hoop of the bumper, do a good job of keeping the winch protected.

Another thing to consider is the design of the winch.  Winches usually come in one of two configuration: those with integrated solenoid packs (like the Warn Zeon series) and those with a remote mount solenoid pack (like the Warn 9.5xp or M8000).  The reason this is important is a winch with integrated solenoids is large and bulky.  If mounted on a bumper it can be tall enough to block airflow into the radiator.  On something like a Jeep where every bit of airflow helps, it’s something to consider.  If you have something like a truck where the winch is going in, behind, or under the bumper then the integrated solenoids may not work.  Often those bumpers require the winch to be mounted sideways which won’t work if the winch is bulky.  Another advantage of the remote mount solenoid pack is the ability to mount it up under the hood away from the bumper.  This can help protect the solenoids, keep them dry if you frequently ford your vehicle through deep water. Beyond that, the winch motors and drums are usually the exact same with only minor differences in the body housing.

Choosing a Winch Rope

I’ll be straight with you.  I’m not going to take sides on the steel vs. synthetic debate when it comes to winch ropes.  Steel wire winch rope has its advantages as does synthetic.  They also both have their disadvantages.  The majority of the debates between the two are keyboard warriors arguing via pissing contests on forums.  There are a lot of different variables such as frequency of us, intensity of use, type of recoveries, and the environment.  These are the kinds of things you can, and should, learn from a qualified instructor (see above) not something to be beaten like a dead horse online.

Custom Splice synthetic winch rope (top) and winch rope extension (middle).
If you switch to synthetic rope, make sure to get a hawse style fairlead (bottom of the picture)

Now, personally, I am running a synthetic line.  I got mine from Custom Splice.  There were a few things that factored into my decision.  First, I don’t anticipate using my winch that often.  Second, I don’t anticipate using my winch to it’s maximum rating.  As such, with a lack of frequency or intensity I don’t need the durability of a steel wire rope.  Third, I have a history working with synthetic ropes when I was a rock climber.  While not exactly the same, I’m use to inspecting synthetic ropes, I’m use to handling them safely, and I’m use to factoring in things like abrasion and pinch points.   I also have a history working with synthetic when I was building ropes courses, but if I’m honest I’m just more comfortable working with synthetic line than I am steel wire rope.  The other attractive thing to me with the synthetic winch rope is that it’s lighter.  My Jeep is already a bit on the heavy side so if I can find a way to save weight I will.

Winch Accessories

Winching is not just about the winch.  In order to use a winch safely and effectively you need a number of things.  First, gloves.  Working with winch ropes (whether they are steel wire or synthetic) is murder on your hands.  Gloves are essential to prevent metal splinters (which suck – ask me how I know) or ropes burns (which also suck – again, ask me how I know).  Next is the hook.  I’m a firm believer in what’s referred to as “close system winching” which means there are no open points.  This is accomplished by things like the Factor55 end links.  I’m a fan of the Flatlink-Expert because it allows a shackle body to pass through it.  Which, speaking of, every good winch kit will have multiple shackles in it.  Lastly is a good tree saver.  The cardinal sin of winching is to go around something like a rock or a tree and connect the winch line back to itself.  DON’T DO IT!  Seriously.  Very bad.  It’s bad for the tree and bad for the winch rope.  Steel wire ropes will kink and synthetic line fibers can break.  Luckily Warn makes a kit that has all of these things in it.

That “yellow thing” is a Flatlink-E by Factor55.
End-links such as this help make a more secure “closed system” when you’re winching.
This is the kind of thing you learn about in a formal winch and recovery class.

Is a winch really necessary?

I know what you’re thinking.  “That’s all well and good, but do I really need a winch to go on an overland adventure?”  The short answer is, “Do you need one? No.”  Sadly the longer answer goes along the lines of, “You don’t need a winch until you NEED a winch.  Then you really need it.”  I rank this up there with a fire extinguisher.  I’ve never needed a fire extinguisher on one of my overland adventures <knock on wood; no jinx>.  That said, I’ll never leave home without one.  I’ve also never needed my seatbelt but I still put it on every single time I get behind the wheel.  The same goes for a winch.  I’d rather have it and not need it than need it and not have it.  Especially given a few factors.

For those that follow my adventures you know the vast majority of the time I’m traveling solo.  Both as a single vehicle as well as a single person.  As such, a normal vehicle-to-vehicle recovery via a strap is impossible.  Also, relatively simple self-recovery with multiple people doing different tasks and spotting is complicated by the face that I’m only one person.  Case in point, the time I had to winch myself downhill coming down the Top of the World trail in Moab, Utah during the 2016 No Highways Tour.  It was much easier and safer for me to pull winch rope and tug myself forward to get myself un-high-centered than any other self-recovery method I could think of.

Downhill self-recovery using the winch to un-high-center myself.
Top of the World trail Moab, Utah 2016

Another time a winch comes in handy is clearing trail obstacles.  Part of the fun with the overland adventure lifestyle is exploring off-the-beaten-path areas.  These seldom traveled backroads are fun because they don’t see a lot of traffic.  However, because of that decrease in traffic, there is also a decrease in maintenance.  Over the years I’ve encountered wash-outs and bounders like I did earlier this year on the AZBDR portion of the 2017 NHT trip.  I’ve also encountered fallen trees like I did in 2015 down in Ocala National Forest.  Clearing these obstacles is a lot easier with a winch.

“Work smarter, not harder”
“Not lazy, resourceful”
Whatever your mantra, a winch is another tool in your inventory to help you get the job done
Ocala National Forest, Florida, 2015

The last advantage of a winch (which I’ll write more on in a future article) is using it pro-actively to prevent getting stuck.  There have been times I’ve looked at a hill climb and thought I could make it but still had a bit of lingering doubt.  Sometimes I’ve turned back.  Others I’ve muscled through and by a mix of luck and skill I made it through.  With a winch there is always an option to run cable before getting stuck.  While frowned upon by the machismo of the rock-crawler, this pro-active method can not only prevent you from getting stuck, it can prevent you from breaking something as well as mitigate damage to the the trail.  All of this will be covered in more detail in the next article.

Conclusion

In conclusion I’ll repeat myself one last time.  Take a class.  Both a basic off-road 101 and a winching and recovery class will teach a lot more about this kind of stuff in a more engaging hands-on way.  My hope is this article will serve as a primer to get you started on the winch selection process as well as some of the other things you’ll need in addition to your winch.

As mentioned, in the next article I’ll cover a few scenarios and situations where using a winch pro-actively can help more than using the winch after you get stuck.  While the goal of rock crawlers and trail rider is to “conquer” obstacles unaided, overland adventure enthusiasts need to be mindful of the trip as a whole and prevent anything that will interfere with that.  If you’re going to invest in a winch and a solid recovery kit you should use them whenever the situation calls for it.  After all, the best recovery is the one you never have to make.

A huge thank you to Corporate Partners AtoZ FabricationWarn, Custom Splice, and Factor55 for their help and support of the ECOA mission to educate, encourage, and inspire.  They represent the best this industry has to offer in not only the quality of their products and their high level of customer service, but also their passion for us, the off-road enthusiast, is unmatched.  Please visit their websites for a wealth of information on winching and recovery.  Also, if you ever see them at a show make sure to stop by their booth and tell them Dean from ECOA says hi!

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If you enjoyed this educational article, and would like to be a part of helping ECOA fulfill our mission to educate, encourage, and inspire by doing more educational articles like this, please considering joining the ECOA Patron Support Team. Not only will you help take ECOA to the next level but you’ll get access to patron exclusive items like hardcover copies of the 2017 No Highways Tour books as well as a 10% discount at the ECOA/NHT online store on cool swag like patches and stickers.