Focus on tech
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.