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Using a winch: Basic winching pro tips [Part 1]


If you just bought a vehicle winch but you’re not sure how to use it, there are several things to learn before operating it. Using a winch correctly will help keep people safe and lengthen the life of the product. 

Our two-part overview will help you understand the basics of how to use and care for an electric winch. 

Stretching a winch line

Once properly installed, a new winch owner should stretch the winch’s rope before using it. No matter if it’s synthetic or wire material, stretching a winch line involves putting it under light tension to get the rope wound tight and evenly on the drum. By doing this, the line won’t get bunched up and crushed during a vehicle recovery while winching, thus extending the rope’s service life.

Safety first 

The old adage rings true: Practice makes perfect (especially when using an electric vehicle winch). Not only will owners become confident during vehicle recoveries, but they’ll also help create positive situations instead of stressful ones.

Pre-winching pro tips:

  1. Think through all recovery options and if winching is the best solution, assess the situation thoroughly before the vehicle recovery can begin. 
  2. Determine who will be responsible for the winching recovery equipment rigging and who will manage the vehicle being recovered before recovery begins.
  3. Identify nearby “danger areas” before use. Also, do not have others stand closer than the amount of line that’s pulled out from the winch drum. For example, if 75 feet of line is pulled out, people should be 76 feet away (or further) from the recovery area. This will help prevent injury should a line break and swing back in any given direction.
  4. Use a set of heavy-duty winching gloves during recovery—they’ll protect hands from rope burn, metal burrs or other sharp things the rope may pick up during the process.
  5. The winch operator should be in a safe place while winching. We usually recommend inside the vehicle for added protection. Let the vehicle protect you. Its body panels are much stronger than your own in case a line breaks or other recovery issues happens.

using a winch

5 basic winching tips:

  1. Do not step over or on the winch line once it’s connected to the vehicle being recovered or under tension in case a vehicle shifts. If a vehicle happens to move, the rope could come under immediate tension and injure someone crossing over the line.
  2. Put a heavy bag, floor mats or a winch line damper on the winch line before executing a vehicle recovery. Putting weight on a winch line will help it fall to the ground in the unlikely event of a winch line failure.
  3. If using winch hook or open-looped system to connect the winch line, always remember to “hook up” the hook’s opening pointing towards the sky. If the winch line goes into a slack situation, the rigging will go into the hook’s throat, versus onto the safety clast. In the unlikely event of a hook failure, this will also help the winch line fall to the ground versus through the air should the winch line break.
  4. Once everything is rigged and recovery can begin, start the vehicle’s engine that will be doing the winching and rev it to 1,500 RPM when actively winching. This gives the engine’s alternator an extra boost during the process. 
  5. Before beginning, place the winching vehicle’s transmission in neutral, put the emergency brake on, and put your foot on the brake. Pro tip: Do not have your vehicle in park (if it’s an automatic) while winching. You could potentially break the transmission’s parking pawl, causing a costly transmission repair bill. 

In part two, we’ll expand on the use of a vehicle-mounted electric winch. And if you haven’t bought your winch yet, be sure to check out our article on winch-buying tips.

All photos on this page by Mercedes Lilienthal.

Editor’s note: We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. Links in this post are part of the affiliate advertising program, and we earn a commission on each sale.

Mercedes Lilienthal

Mercedes Lilienthal is a contributor for The New York Times, Car and Driver, Forbes, Autoblog, TREAD Magazine and other automotive outlets. She creates award-winning content involving the automotive industry, global travel and inspiring people changing the world for the better. Not only does she write, but she appears on podcasts and radio shows and competes in automotive rallies as competitor/media (partnering with automakers like Jeep, Subaru, and VW). Along with her husband, Mercedes owns three right-hand-drive turbo-diesel 4x4 Mitsubishis: a Delica Space Gear and two Gen 2 Pajeros. They also own a modified daily driver. Her freelance work includes writing, photography and PR/marketing services.

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