The Art of Winching

This article was originally published in Overland Journal’s Fall 2021 Issue.

Editor’s Note: We noted several practices shown in Johan’s images that vary from how we would demonstrate winching in the field. This includes ensuring that each winch line is dampened with a sail. However, none of the images demonstrate improper use or practices, just a slightly different (and genuinely practical) way of rigging a winch recovery.

Owing to the potential risk to human life or damage to property when winching a vehicle, this list of safety guidelines and techniques is intended to serve as a reference. Be mindful that there are many schools of thought on the subject, and this is but one. A proper 4WD recovery course is always recommended before attempting to use a winch yourself.

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  • There can only be one person in charge of a winching operation—this is not a democracy. The person with the most experience becomes the leader.
  • Always wear heavy-duty protective gloves in a recovery operation.
  • All spectators or passengers should remain well away from the entire procedure. A cable that breaks under strain can lash back and sever a leg or be propelled through a vehicle’s windscreen.
  • Never step over a connected cable, even when slack. Once a cable is connected to a tree or another vehicle, it is viewed as live under all circumstances. When using a tree as an anchor, a proper tree-trunk protector should be used to avoid damage.
  • Keep the cable as low as possible when connecting it to prevent the anchor (tree) from being pulled down.
  • Never wrap a winching cable around any anchor and onto itself, as this will permanently damage the cable.
  • If the remote control of the winch is plugged in, stay well clear of the drum, cable, and fairlead area.
  • Look for the drum rotation decal. This is the only way the cable must spool off the drum. Failing which, the winch’s automatic brake will not function in the opposite direction.
  • Never use a winch as a tow rope. The cable is not made to handle sudden jerks and may damage itself or the winch’s drum.
  • When winching, try to unspool as much of the cable as possible. Leaving too many cable winds on the drum before winching can cause the top layers of the cable to damage the bottom layers. If the distance between the vehicle and the anchor point (or the stuck vehicle and the recovery vehicle) is too short, use a snatch block to halve the distance.
  • Snatch blocks will allow you to double the effective pulling power of the winch. If need be, connect a snatch block with a screw pin C shackle to a tree-trunk protector and loop back the cable to the vehicle itself.
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  • The winch’s effective pulling power decreases with each successive layer on the drum. Thus, the first layer of cable on the drum will also be the most powerful pulling strength. However, never winch with less than five wraps of steel cable (10-wrap minimum for synthetic line) around the drum. Cable failure may result otherwise.
  • Always ensure the cable is reeling in as straight as possible. If necessary, stop the operation, unwind some cable, and re-engage the winch so that the cable is spooling around the drum evenly and tightly. Remember, the top cable layers will otherwise be drawn into the bottom layers and create a bind.
  • Put a blanket, jacket, or heavy sack on the middle of the cable so that if it should snap, it would act as a “parachute” to slow down the recoiling cable. Some 4WD drivers raise the bonnet as well to protect the windscreen in the event of cable failure.
  • Know the maximum load rating of your winch and never exceed this rating. Once again, use a snatch block to reduce the load on the winch, if necessary, by almost 50 percent.
  • Never allow the cable to slide through your hands, and use the switch to take up cable slack intermittently to avoid shock loads on the drum and cable.
  • When a recovery vehicle is used to extract a stuck vehicle, the hand brake should be up and the wheels properly blocked with rocks or winch-compatible wheel chocks. The gearbox should be in neutral, and the normal foot brake may be used to assist in anchoring the vehicle.
  • When winching, the stuck vehicle may assist itself by selecting an appropriate gear (low range with a light, smooth throttle). Ensure that the vehicle does not overtake the winch cable, as this would allow slack cable to be reeled in onto the drum or the vehicle’s wheels to pass over the cable.
  • When the winch hook is within 5 feet/1.5 meters of the drum/fairlead, release the remote-control switch and stop the winch. At this point, intermittent, small uptakes may be used to get the hook in all the way. Do not over-tighten the cable, and always keep your hands clear.
  • Always remember to inspect the cable after use. If any fraying or damage has occurred, do not hesitate to replace the entire cable.
  • Ideally, cables should always be spooled with around 500 pounds of load to avoid damage to the cable or drum. While spooling in the field, maintain constant tension on the line; for example, by utilizing the hand-over-hand technique. Start the winch with the remote and walk the cable in toward the drum for a meter or two. Now stop the remote and repeat the entire procedure. Stop the process when you are within 5 feet/1.5 meters from the fairlead.

Dead Man’s Log Anchor Point

During a winch recovery, a handy tree or rock might not always be available. Under these circumstances, a constructed anchor might be necessary and could range from a spare tire, a log, or a boat anchor.

The drawing below illustrates how to make a “dead man’s log” and use it as an anchor point.

Stick to well-known brand names, such as Ramsey or Warn. Ensure that the load rating is sufficient for your vehicle (1.5 times the GVWR), familiarize yourself with your equipment before setting out on the trail, and treat the environment with respect. Happy recoveries.

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Want to learn more about winching? Read The Do’s and Don’ts of Winching below.

The Do’s and Don’ts of Winching

Johan has adventure biked extensively through several South, Central, and East African countries on either one of his KTMs or Triumph Tigers. In addition to that, Johan enjoys travelling in Southeast Asia, including hiking Nepal and staying with the remote Cambodian jungle tribes on the border of Laos. When not overlanding through Africa, he is also a seasoned off-road and rally racer on two wheels. In his spare time, Johan is a qualified helicopter pilot, high altitude mountaineer, and a regular contributor to various overland and aviation publications.