Pulling Power: All About Winches and Hoists

For navigating muddy gravel roads or just having fun off the beaten path, a vehicle-mounted winch is a necessity. The device’s tremendous pulling power can get you out of tight situations and even help rescue others. But beyond automotive applications, a winch may be one of the most indispensable home improvement tools you can own.

Winches can pull, tug, drag, reposition and (in some cases) lift just about anything just about anywhere. A winch can enable one person to do the work of many and can even save money by helping you to accomplish tasks you might have otherwise contracted out. In short, owning a winch is like having an entire work crew at your disposal.

How a winch works
Whether it’s powered by an AC outlet or a vehicle’s battery, a winch is a fairly simple device. An electric motor engages a reduction gear that in turn rotates a drum that holds wire rope. A braking system prevents the rope from accidentally playing out, a clutch lever allows you to temporarily disengage the clutch so that you can manually pull the rope off of the drum, and a remote control serves as the power and direction switch.

Winches are rated by maximum pulling load (line pull), a measure of strength that is determined while only one layer of wire rope is around the drum – as layers of wire rope increase, the line pull decreases by roughly 10 percent per layer. For example, a winch with a maximum line pull of 6,000 pounds will have a line pull of only 5,400 pounds once a second layer of rope is wound onto the drum, 4,860 pounds after a third layer, 4,374 pounds after a fourth layer and so on.

So how big of a winch do you need? The answer depends on many factors, including the weight of the item you plan to pull, whether the item is on wheels and whether you’ll be pulling it across a flat surface or on a slope. To determine the minimum size of winch you’ll need for the job, multiply the gross weight of the heaviest object you plan to pull by 1.5. For example, if you plan to pull a 1,500-pound object, you’ll need a winch with a minimum of 2,250 pounds of line pull.

Although automotive applications may be the first thing you think of, winches can be also used for a myriad of DIY jobs.

However, keep in mind that operating a winch always involves a level of risk, and because of the number of variables involved, it’s impossible to provide a blanket formula that will keep you safe in all situations. Be sure to consult the winch’s manufacturer to verify what’s best for your specific application.

Beyond off-road applications
Besides the stereotypical use of a winch to extricate a vehicle from a sticky situation, there are a myriad of other tasks where a winch can be indispensable such as:

  • Pulling firewood to an area where it’s more convenient to cut it up.
  • Clearing roads of fallen trees.
  • Pulling out shrubs or stumps.
  • Moving landscape boulders.
  • Directing the fall of large trees as you cut them down.
  • Applying tension to a chain-link fence during installation.
  • Moving broken-down equipment such as a stalled farm tractor.
  • Pulling a car or all-terrain vehicle onto a trailer for transporting.
  • Moving pallets of building supplies closer to a job site.
  • Transporting a work shed to a different location – just attach a chain and pull the shed to its new spot.

Some winches (such as the PullzAll from Warn) can double as a hoist, making light work of such tasks as pulling an engine.

A remote control enables the operator to stand clear while the winch extricates a vehicle.

Pulling versus lifting
Lifting (also known as hoisting) heavy objects such as engine blocks and construction materials may seem like a job perfectly suited to a winch, but it’s not. Instead, you need a powered hoist rather than a winch for such tasks – otherwise, you may find yourself in trouble very quickly.

An electric hoist can safely lift construction materials or assembled components to an upper floor.

A winch is specifically designed to pull an object, and it is rated based on its maximum pulling capacity. A hoist, however, is designed to lift, and it is rated on its safe working load. In addition, a hoist will not have a freewheeling clutch because that would be extremely dangerous in lifting situations. A hoist will have a superior brake design that enables it to withstand higher shock loads, and it will be equipped with a load-limiting switch to prevent it from attempting to lift more than its designed capacity.

General maintenance
Because of the potential for injury, winches and hoists need to be properly cared for. Closely follow maintenance instructions from the manufacturer as well as these general guidelines:

  • Inspect the wire rope before and after each winching operation. If the wire rope has become kinked or frayed, replace it.
  • Keep the winch, wire rope and remote control free from contaminants. Use a clean rag to remove any dirt and debris. If necessary, unwind the winch completely (leaving a minimum of five wraps of rope on the drum), wipe clean and rewind properly.
  • If the winch has become submerged in water, take it to a qualified service center to be examined.
  • Be sure to check and maintain your vehicle battery and its cables, operating the winch for extended periods of time puts an extra strain on the battery.
  • Inspect the remote control for damage. Be sure to cap the control box fitting to prevent dirt and debris from entering the connections. Store the remote in a clean, dry, protected area.

Using a winch or an electric hoist can make light work of heavy tasks, but be mindful that every job needs to be carefully analyzed before you begin. Think through each situation carefully, understand the risks and make sure to use the right equipment for the job. By always being aware of safety, you’ll get the work done quickly and have fun in the process.

Winch Accessories
Owning a winch is just the beginning; you need proper accessories to safely pull objects. Here are the basics:

  • Gloves — Because wire rope can easily slice skin, you must wear protective gloves at all times.
  • A hook strap — Winches develop tremendous pulling power, and the last place you want a finger is anywhere near the hook while the wire rope is being spooled in. A hook strap enables you to direct the wire rope while keeping your fingers clear.
  • A snatch block — Used properly, the multipurpose snatch block allows you to increase the winch’s pulling power. By fastening the snatch block to a stationery point and then running the wire rope through the snatch block’s pulley and back to the winch mount, you effectively double the pulling power.
  • A clevis/D-shackle — The D-shackle is a safe means for connecting the looped ends of cables, straps and snatch blocks.
  • A tree trunk protector — Typically made of tough, high-quality nylon, this wrap lets you attach the winch rope to a wide variety of anchor points such as living trees and large boulders.
  • A heavy blanket — When thrown over the wire rope, a blanket can help to absorb energy should the rope fail.

Installing a Winch
Adding a winch to a vehicle is a simple project that usually requires nothing more than a couple of wrenches and socket or two. For my full-size Ford Bronco, I used a removable receiver-hitch cradle mount from Superwinch (see photo) as the mounting platform for the model EP9.0 winch because of its ease of installation and its versatility: The cradle allows me to unplug the winch and move it to the back of the vehicle if the application demands it.

To install a similar setup, start by bolting a front-end receiver to the vehicle frame (photo 1). After assembling the cradle, slide it into position (photo 2), bolt the winch to the cradle and attach the fairlead (photo 3). Finally, attach the power leads to the vehicle, plug in the remote control and test the unit. In less than an hour, your vehicle will be ready for some serious off-road action.