Fo­cus on tech

Which winch?

Leisure Wheels (South Africa) - - CONTENTS -

Most hard­core 4×4 driv­ers will tell you you’re not a hard­core 4×4 driver if your ve­hi­cle doesn’t have a winch (or winches) fit­ted. This month, we take a closer look at winches and the dif­fer­ences be­tween a power take off (PTO) winch, a hy­draulic winch and an elec­tric winch.

There you are, stuck be­tween a rock and a hard place, on an ex­treme off-road trail.

Your 4×4 is cling­ing pre­car­i­ously to the rocks, at a rather acute an­gle. Your bet­ter half has long since de­parted the cabin, watch­ing the ac­tion from a safe dis­tance, hand cupped over mouth and eyes semi-open in an­tic­i­pa­tion of the in­evitable dis­as­ter.

That’s when your ex­pe­ri­enced 4×4 spot­ter in­di­cates for you to stop dead, and yells: “Un­less you want to walk home to­day, best we use the winch to get you out in one piece.”

San­ity pre­vails. The winch cable is at­tached to a large tree (with a tree trunk pro­tec­tor), at the top of the seem­ingly im­pos­si­ble, dan­ger­ous climb, the 4×4’s bon­net is opened, and the spec­ta­tors are asked to re­treat to a safe dis­tance. With the spot­ter also main­tain­ing a safe dis­tance, out of reach of a pos­si­ble snapped cable, the driver slowly winches his 4×4 up and over the rocks, out of harm’s way.

A winch can be an ex­tremely use­ful 4×4 tool, and can drag a ve­hi­cle out of po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tion. Or it can re­cover a ve­hi­cle that has be­come stuck at an ob­sta­cle.

But how does a winch ac­tu­ally work?

Pulling it off

All types of winches op­er­ate on the same prin­ci­ple: a suitable cable is wound around a drum, at a con­stant ten­sion. When the cable is un­wound and con­nected to an ob­ject, a reg­u­lated force will slowly turn the drum with a suitable amount of torque, pulling in the winch cable, wind­ing it around the drum.

This re­sults in a ve­hi­cle be­ing (slowly) towed out of predica­ment or up an ob­sta­cle.

Of course, there are many dif­fer­ent sizes and types of winches, cater­ing for a va­ri­ety of needs and re­quire­ments.

The power take off (PTO) winch

These heavy-duty winches are not com­mon and are used ex­clu­sively on spe­cial­ist 4×4 ma­chines such as Mercedes-Benz’s Un­i­mog and Land Rover’s older Se­ries ve­hi­cles. The winch es­sen­tially uses a driven shaft (from the ve­hi­cle’s gear­box) to ro­tate a drum (of­ten via a sep­a­rate gear­box), and it is de­lib­er­ately en­gaged via a gear lever in the cabin.

When the shaft is en­gaged, it ro­tates the drum which winds the cable up, ei­ther drag­ging the ve­hi­cle for­ward or reel­ing in an­other ob­ject.

Some of these winches are re­mov­able. So when you want to power a dif­fer­ent farm im­pli­ment with your Un­i­mog’s PTO, you can re­move the winch and power some­thing else with the shaft, like a wa­ter pump, for in­stance.

The heavy-duty PTO winches are of­ten used in farm­ing and mil­i­tary ap­pli­ca­tions. Although noth­ing is im­pos­si­ble if your wal­let is thick enough, retrofitting a PTO winch to your mod­ern 4×4 is no small task. In fact, it would re­quire ma­jor mod­i­fi­ca­tions. If you’ve got your heart set on a PTO winch, rather skip all the trou­ble and buy a clas­sic old Land Rover or Mercedes Un­i­mog with such a sys­tem al­ready fit­ted.

The hy­draulic winch

This winch uses fluid power to work hy­draulic sys­tems that turn the drum that reels in the cable. In some 4×4s, the winch can be con­nected to the ve­hi­cle’s power steer­ing pump, but you’ll be more likely find a heavy duty hy­draulic winch on an ar­moured mil­i­tary ve­hi­cle, and some ex­treme 4×4 com­pe­ti­tion ve­hi­cles, with ded­i­cated pump sys­tems.

Hy­draulic winches are also com­monly used for ve­hi­cles work­ing in con­struc­tion, min­ing, rail­road, ma­rine and sim­i­lar ap­pli­ca­tions.

The elec­tric winch

These winches are the most com­monly used by 4×4 driv­ers and they come in a va­ri­ety of shapes, sizes and ca­pac­ity.

As the name sug­gests, this type of winch uses an elec­tric mo­tor to power the drum that spools up the cable. Rat­ings range from 0.5 tons to as much as 50 tons (but you’re ob­vi­ously not go­ing to be able to mount the lat­ter winch on the nose of your Suzuki Jimny).

A pop­u­lar rat­ing for Av­er­age Joe 4×4 en­thu­si­asts is the 9 500lb (4 300kg) winch, and you can choose from a va­ri­ety of brands.

If you are one of those driv­ers who reg­u­larly end up in a pre­car­i­ous po­si­tion with your 4×4 on a Grade 5 ob­sta­cle course, you can al­ways go the com­pe­ti­tion winch route, too. Take the War­rior Preda­tor com­pe­ti­tion winch, for ex­am­ple. It has two pow­er­ful 7.2HP sealed mo­tors, a 108:1 ra­tio and three-stage plan­e­tary gear­box and can drag the full weight of a small 4×4 into clean air.

The other bits

There’s more to a typ­i­cal winch than just a drum, a cable and a mo­tor of sorts. There are pul­leys, rollers, a hook, mount­ing plates, bat­tery leads, re­mote con­trol and so on. Talk­ing about re­mote con­trols... some are con­nected to a cable that plugs into the winch unit. You also get some fancy wire­less con­trols that have no cable.

An­other ma­jor con­sid­er­a­tion is to choose be­tween tra­di­tional steel cable, or syn­thetic rope. A steel cable is more durable than syn­thetic rope but can han­dle less weight and is also a lot heav­ier, adding plenty of kilo­grams. The steel cable though, is the pre­ferred choice if you will be us­ing your winch in abra­sive con­di­tions, such as mud and among rocks.

The steel can rust though, and in time, with plenty of use, small strands of metal stick­ing out can cause an in­jury to a hand, if you don’t use suitable gloves.

The syn­thetic rope is more ex­pen­sive but stronger. It is much lighter than the steel cable so if keep­ing your ve­hi­cle’s weight down is crit­i­cal, this prod­uct is bet­ter. If a steel cable snaps in the mid­dle of that ex­treme 4×4 trail, there is no way to re­pair it; you have to re­place it in its en­tirety.

With a syn­thetic rope, and with some skills and know-how, the rope can be re­paired. Made from high-tech poly­eth­yl­ene, the syn­thetic rope is also safer... it doesn’t store as much en­ergy as the steel ver­sion, so if it does snap it may still cause plenty of dam­age, but it’s im­pact won’t be as se­vere as the steel cable.

Steel cables have been known to se­ri­ously maim obervers who have not fol­lowed the cor­rect safety pro­ce­dures, stand­ing well clear of the re­cov­ery process.


As is the case with all things in life, you get winches – and you get winches. If you drive a Toy­ota Land Cruiser over­lan­der which tips the scale at four tons, that cheap im­port winch with a rat­ing of 4 300kg and fell off the back of a truck may not be up to the task of drag­ging your heavy rig out.

Rather make sure you have the right tool for the job, even if it costs ex­tra. If you have in­stalled a new winch, it’s wise to test it out be­fore you head off to the Kgalak­gadi. You will not only fig­ure out the in­tri­cate work­ings of the winch, but if there is an is­sue, you can have it sorted be­fore you land in a dodgy sit­u­a­tion with a brand new winch that doesn’t work prop­erly.

Op­po­site page: Some 4×4 driv­ers swear by a winch, as fit­ted to the af­ter­mar­ket bull bar on this Ford. Oth­ers say it’s a waste of time, and if the nut that holds the steer­ing wheel knows his or her busi­ness, a winch will never be needed.Be­low: A typ­i­cal 12 500lb winch, as fit­ted to most av­er­age 4×4s. This one has syn­thetic rope in­stead of a steel cable.

Above: You get all kinds of spe­cial kit for winches, like this alu­minium Fac­tor 55 flat link. Above, right: Some­times, as in this case, a strap and a tow from an­other ve­hi­cle will do the trick. But there are times when a winch is in­valu­able.

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