Winches can be dangerous when they are used improperly or without regard for the proper safety precautions. We’ve spent thousands of hours out on the trail, and as a result, we’ve seen our fair share of winching scenarios gone wrong. There are many important factors to take into consideration when winching. So many that chapters of books, if not entire books have been written on the subject. From where you stand when a winch is under load, to what not to do with your winch rope or cable there are many things you can do right or wrong and we’re here to show you some of the ways to use your winch properly. We reached out to our friend and colleague, Nena Barlow from Barlow Adventures, who teaches some winching basics as part of a comprehensive 4WD course offered in Sedona, Arizona; Table Mesa, Arizona; and Moab, as well as a standalone recovery class that delves into difficult extractions and winching. Her insight into teaching four wheelers how to use a winch is invaluable. Our hope is that with our experience, tips from Barlow, and as much homework as you want to add (on the trail, in books, or online), at the end of the day you can go home with all your fingers, hands, and arms still intact.
First off, allow us to add a small pseudo disclaimer to this article. Many of the images we are going to show you in this story are demonstrations on what not to do. Remember, we said they show what not to do. While we did do some real winching for the story, many of the images where we are demonstrating the wrong technique did not involve putting any load on the winch cable. We did this to avoid the damage to the environment and equipment that we are warning you against. Also, while this article covers some of the aspects of winching, it does not cover all of them. Experience, classes, and self-education are all a great addition to what you see here.
We used synthetic winch rope in most of the article. We like synthetic ropes for a number of safety reasons, but know that they sometimes don’t hold up to use in all environments and for frequent heavy use. For us, saving the weight when not in use, and the added safety of not having all that additional potential (or stored) energy around when winching, help make up for the occasional extra precaution we have to use with synthetic rope. Synthetic ropes also spool more easily and are less prone to damage when kinked or when improperly spooled. So far we’ve had good luck with synthetic ropes in the rocky deserts of the Southwest as long as the ropes are treated as they need to be; with a little more care and caution than the traditional steel wire ropes or cables.
Do: Some winching accidents are caused by ignorance. A new winch owner has little knowledge or experience using a winch. One thing that Barlow reminds all of us is that the cable or rope on that new winch needs to be respooled under a load before making any loaded pulls on the trail (it’s not ready to use out of the box). Forgetting (or ignoring) to do this will cause the outer layers of cable or rope (both steel and synthetic) to get pulled down in between the lower layers. This can damage the cable and the winch. The worst-case scenario is the winch is unusable because the rope or steel cable won’t come off the drum. Cable and rope should also be periodically respooled (under a load) to ensure they are tight and stacked properly.
Do: Use frame-mounted tow points rather than the winch hook for kinetic tugs, yanks, or pulls. Barlow also points out that many new winch users (and some more experienced winch users too) need to remember the difference between a static and a kinetic pull. A winch is intended to be used with the pulling vehicle or anchor stationary as part of a static pull. Unspooling winch line to a stuck vehicle, throwing the unstuck vehicle in reverse and giving a yank (kinetic pull) on the stuck rig is very hard on the winches brake and drivetrain.
Don’t: Do not ever wrap your winch cable around a tree. Whether synthetic or steel, the winch line will damage the tree, killing it in the process. Remember that one of the reasons you are on the trail is to spend time in nature and not destroy what’s there. Respect public and private land so we all can use some of it in the future.
Don’t: You can also use a tree saver incorrectly. It’s fine to loop a tree saver or tow strap through itself to and around a rollbar, non-sharp portion of frame rail or cross member, but never do this around a tree. Doing this has a cinching effect as you pull that can damage the tree and damage your tree saver. It could cinch so tight that you can’t remove it.
Do: The correct way to use a tree as an anchor is to select a large tree and use a wide strap or tree saver around the base of the tree like this. Heck, we could have dropped the strap down a few more inches and found a larger tree. Note how the D-ring shackle goes through both ends of the tree saver and is hooked to the winch line. The tree is strongest closest to the ground. You also don’t want the tree saver to slide on the tree, so if the tree is at a weird angle or has a tapered base, look for a different one.
Don’t: Winching several feet above the base of the tree creates a huge amount of leverage on the tree's roots. This is a great way to pull the tree down onto your vehicle, killing the tree and maybe even yourself since the tree is going to fall towards you and your rig. Don’t do it. There are times when you may want an elevated anchor, but this tree is not the one to use for that.
Don’t: If you have to winch to a rock, you’d better make sure it’s the biggest one around. Similar rules apply to winching to a rock as with a tree. You should use a tow strap or tree saver around the rock rather than wrapping your winch line around it. Sharp bends on a rock can damage a steel cable and cut a synthetic rope. A stuck vehicle can require a huge amount of force to get unstuck, and you don’t want to spend time moving small boulders around on the trail. Also making sure the tree saver or tow strap will stay in place takes some forethought.
Don’t: Running a winch rope and, to a lesser extent, a steel cable over a jagged rock is never a good idea. When rope and cable are under tension, they can fray or cut very easily. Most synthetic ropes have a protective sheath that can be used to protect them if you must make a pull over a rock.
Do: Weighing a steel winch cable down with a heavy blanket, tow strap, polyurethane winch weight, heavy coat, winch accessory bag, or specially designed winch weight is a great way to reduce the danger of a snapped steel cable. For one, the weight of the item pulls the cable down where, if it breaks, will hopefully hit the ground rather than any people. Winch weights also help by absorbing some of the potential energy stored in the cable.
Don’t: Sideloading a D-ring shackle as shown in this image is a no-no. D-ring shackles are designed to hold a load 90 degrees to this position, and they are weak when loaded as shown. Here, only the threads are resisting the load, rather than the cross-sectional thickness of the shackle and pin resisting the load in shear as designed. This is bad.
Don’t: Rush to get things done. Take a deep breath and slow down. See what’s wrong in this image. The shackle is in the correct orientation, but only a few threads of the cross pin are engaged. This has disaster written all over it. A D-ring shackle is a great tool, but it’s heavy and thus stores lots of potential energy when under load. If it fails (generally through misuse or overloading it), it will travel fast with plenty of force to kill you.
Don’t: Go barehanded. We see this way too often. You should never grab a winch rope or steel cable with your bare hands. Also, in this image, our hand is way too close to the winches fairlead. Thorns, wire, and cactus can become embedded in synthetic rope, steel cables can fray, and your hand (and arm) can get pulled into the fairlead and around the drum of the winch. The results are painful and can be devastating. You could lose a finger or even your hand if it gets sucked into the winch. Even just a sharp fray on a steel cable can open up your hand like a razor, requiring stitches and forcing you off the trail and your hand onto the injured reserve list for weeks.
Do: Wear gloves. Almost any winch manufacturer will sell you heavy-duty leather gloves that will help protect your hands when winching. Warn has these thick and strong, yet tight fitting, gloves that we love. Barlow also recommends keeping more than an arm’s length of the distance between your hands and the winch while it is spooling or un-spooling. Then, even if you are tempted to touch any part of the winch, you can’t. She also reminds us that allowing a winch line to slide through even a gloved hand is asking for injury. Instead, have someone hold the hook or nylon grab strap when respooling your winch.
Do: Hand signals are indispensable when two people are using a winch: one person behind the wheel and one person at the winch. There doesn’t seem to be a truly universal set of hand signals for winch usage, but there are a few conventions. Some signals that are consistent and borrowed from the mining industry include raising a closed fist to indicate “stop” and tapping the index finger and thumb together to mean “bump the winch.” Two fists raised with thumbs pointing inward means “Winch in” (shown), while two fists raised with thumbs pointing out means “Winch out.” Two hands elevated and twisting back and forth (like working a Rubik’s Cube) means, “I’m going to work on the winch, so do nothing.” (The correct response to this is for the driver to set the winch control down on the dash and hold his or her hands up so the person at the winch can make an adjustment to the cable, clutch, or deal with some other issue.)
Don’t: Winching at angles is hard on cable, the winch, and more. The geometry associated with vehicle recoveries can get very complicated, but usually, you want to pull straight. That means moving an anchor vehicle, or maybe selecting a winch point that is farther away from the vehicle being pulled. When righting a rolled-over vehicle you want to winch to a point on the close side of the vehicle that is currently high that should be low, like a frame rail, body mount, or stout rocker guard.
Don’t: Standing close to any loaded winch line is dangerous. Never straddle a winch line (we hope it’s obvious why), and when winching, avoid standing between the vehicle and its anchor point. Anyone not involved with the actual winching (spotters, drivers, and magazine photographers) should get behind a vehicle, rock, or tree and stay a safe distance away from the cable.