How to Install a Winch (2022 Guide with Tips and Tricks)
We may earn a commission for purchases using our links. Learn more
As an off-road enthusiast, getting a winch is by far one of the best and cheapest insurance you can have. Off-road adventures are fun but highly unpredictable. Even with a powerful 4×4, you’ll find yourself in sticky situations from time to time. In these situations, especially if you are alone, a winch will come in handy for self-recovery.
But for the tool to save the day, you’ll need to learn how to install a winch properly. Let’s see how you should do it, the factors you need to consider, and the items you need for the process.
What Exactly is a Winch?
A winch is a powerful recovery machine with one or multiple drums on which a cable, rope, or chain coils when hoisting or hauling. They have been in use for eons to raise hoist structural frames and raise heavy objects. And though they have gone through many design changes to accommodate personal use, the mechanics are the same.
The primary components that help a winch work include:
- Winch cable wire – a Warn winch comes with steel wires or chains wrapped around the drum. The length of the wire ranges between 9 and 36 meters.
- Drum – this is the horizontal cylinder that the wire winds up on neatly to prevent entanglement. The drum rotates backward or forward to wind the wire in or out.
- Motor – the motor powers the winch and can be electric or hydraulic, depending on the model. Some Warn winches to have manual motors, but they are slow.
- Gear Casing and Gear Train – this part transforms power into pulling movement that helps get your vehicle unstuck.
The power that works the winch motors can either be DC or AC. With AC power, you are limited to using a wall outlet to operate the winch. But when you are in the wilderness, this isn’t a luxury you can afford. That’s where DC-powered electric winches come in handy (they use vehicle batteries).
There’s also an option for PTO winches that use the vehicle engine to operate.
Getting the Right Winch for Your Needs
Before we get to winch installation, it’s important to ensure you purchase the right winch. Even if you follow manufacturer installation guidelines, it may not help with the wrong winch. Below are some factors to consider.
The first thing to consider when purchasing a winch is how much it can haul. Getting a winch that cannot pull the weight of your car is useless. Always ensure the hauling power is well above the vehicle’s weight.
When considering the weight, don’t use the vehicle’s stock weight. Why?
Well, in most cases, your vehicle will always have an extra load from its full gas tank, cargo, extra wheels, and aftermarket add-ons and modifications. For instance, you might have larger and heavier tires installed and a lift kit to help the vehicle navigate the wilderness better. While these make your off-road life easier, they add stress to the winch.
Generally, if your vehicle weighs 6,000 pounds, get a winch that can haul 8,000 or 9,000 pounds. While it’ll cost you more to get a stronger winch, the safety it affords you is more than worth it. A winch may say it can haul 6,000 pounds but experience difficulties as it approaches the limit. Because of this, you should always be cautious and get a winch with as much hauling power.
Moreover, when a manufacturer says their winch can haul 6,000 pounds, it’s when hauling on flat ground and in a straight line. And while there’s nothing wrong with this, you have to factor in the fact that most hauling situations will be uphill or get your car out of a ditch. This means that the winch will haul the vehicle’s weight and counteract forces of gravity to get you unstuck.
You might also have to haul the vehicle from thick and sticky mud or over obstacles making the process even harder. Because of these, the rule of thumb is to purchase a winch with at least 1.5X the weight of your vehicle.
Synthetic vs. Steel
A winch can either have a rope or a cable. Most cables are made from steel, while most ropes are made from synthetic material. Which is better for winching?
Unfortunately, there’s no true winner as they have pros and cons. Consider purchasing a cable if you are on a budget since synthetic winch ropes are a little pricier. Synthetic rope manufacturers justify the higher price tag with superior strength.
Pros of Synthetic Ropes
It’s less likely to hurt your hands during an operation
Synthetic ropes aren’t prone to as much abrasion as steel cables. Steel cables suffer abrasion when rubbed against rocks or the ground, and as a result, they break.
Synthetic ropes are a little easier to fix compared to cables. While cables can be fixed, it’s often not worth the trouble, especially if you don’t have the experience or necessary tools.
Synthetic ropes are way lighter than steel cables. If you need something lightweight without compromising on strength, synthetic ropes are it for you.
Pros of Steel Cables
Steel cable winches are cheaper than synthetic rope winches with a similar hauling capacity. You’ll often come across winches offered in two variations – synthetic rope and steel cable.
Cables aren’t susceptible to weather damage like synthetic ropes are. Although they are more prone to abrasion, they aren’t susceptible to UV rays or mud. Unfortunately, they are prone to rust.
Depending on the quality of synthetic rope, the cable might be stronger. But as we’ve pointed out, more and more manufacturers are putting more effort into designing synthetic ropes to make them durable and stronger than cables.
Hydraulic vs. Electric
Most winches you’ll come across are electric. However, if you are old-school, you’ll come like hydraulic winches better. Before settling your mind on any, it’s crucial to understand what each type has to offer.
All winches are designed for towing vehicles, usually from sticky situations. So while they are all-powerful, hydraulic winches are much stronger. With the extra power comes varied use cases and complex controls.
Generally, hydraulic winches are heavier compared to electric winches. They add extra load to the car, which is often unnecessary. Moreover, they are noisier than electric winches.
In most cases, an electric winch will get the job done, and you can find one with great hauling power for your off-roader. A hydraulic winch is a good option if you have an off-road RV and cannot find a suitable electric winch. Other than this, we suggest sticking to electric winches.
Some downsides of electric winches include the fact that they are dependent on your car’s electrical system. As such, you have to hook it to your vehicle’s battery. So if your battery dies, the winch is inoperable. While this is a possibility, in reality finding yourself in such situations is highly unlikely.
Install a Winch Mount/ Bumper
Before installing a winch, you’ll need some accessories, including a winch mount.
The easiest way to attach a winch to your offroader is through a winch mount plate. The winch mounts can be welded to the body so that it doesn’t fall off when you attach the winch.
There are several options to consider, but you should always get one that fits your car’s make and model. Also, some winches are thicker and hence stronger than others. Often, these types are the best as they are less likely to break when hauling the car.
Note that you can install the winch mounts on the back and front of your car to give yourself flexibility when hauling your car.
This is another item to consider, but it’s not mandatory. Consider getting an aftermarket bumper if your car’s bumper isn’t ideal for attaching the Warn winch mounting plate you choose. However, they are a crucial purchase if the existing bumper cannot hold the load when hauling.
These bumpers are designed specifically for use with Warn winches, and most come with mounting plates attached. If you get one that’s a 2-in-1, installing the aftermarket bumper is all you need before fixing your winch.
Winches are convenient hauling tools, but they can be dangerous when handled carelessly. When in use, the cable or rope is under the pressure of thousands of pounds, so anything can go wrong in the blink of an eye.
- Use synthetic winch ropes
We’ve seen that synthetic ropes are strong (sometimes stronger than steel cable). Aside from this, they’re a safer option compared to cable. Cable stretches and stores loads of energy that can be catastrophic if released suddenly, like when the D-ring snaps, the line snaps, or the strap tears. When this happens, the cable will bounce back with a lot of force.
On the flip side, synthetic cable stores little energy. So even if it breaks, there’s little chance of anyone getting hurt seriously.
- Don’t install a winch without reading the manufacturer’s manual
Read and understand what’s written in the manual regarding your winch. Often manufacturers provide important instructions on handling the winch.
- Don’t rush it
Patience during installation goes a long way in preventing accidents.
- Wear gloves
When handling cables with splinters, it’s advisable to wear protective gloves during installation.
How to Install a Winch
Now that you’ve learned the type of winch to get, what you need for a successful installation, and the safety precautions to take, it’s time to learn how to install a winch? Hiring someone can get a little expensive, while you can do it yourself. Let’s dive into the considerations to make and the installation process.
Note: when purchasing the winch mount plate or aftermarket bumper, ensure it accommodates how you’ll install your winch. There are four winch mounting categories possibilities:
- Foot down
- Foot forward
- Foot down or foot forward
- Foot down and foot forward
Manufacturers often specify how you should mount your winch. Some can only accommodate one mounting configuration. Understanding the configuration is crucial because mounting it the wrong way could:
- Crack the winch case or damage the winch as a whole
- Prevent water drainage, which causes winch damage if it’s not waterproof
- Prevent self-lubrication
Winch mounting possibilities
The biggest difference between these mounting configurations is where the holes are located. If the four holes are on the bottom, the winch is foot down, and if the holes are facing down, the winch is foot forward.
When mounting a foot forward winch, the winch presses up against the mounting plate. Essentially, the force from the winch is transferred to the mounting plate. With a foot forward winch, the hawse bolts or fairlead line up with the lower winch mounting holes.
It is a little trickier to install than a foot-down winch because you need to hold the winch in place to start the bolts. Most winch installation experts advise installing the winch on the bumper first and then installing the bumper to your car.
In this winch configuration, the winch bolts to a horizontal mount. The crucial element in this configuration is the bolts. Mounting bolts need to be properly torqued to provide ample clamping pressure to keep the winch from moving.
The winch bolts used in this configuration receive shear forces, so if they’re loose, they’ll:
- Let the winch case twist and crack
- Break off
In a foot-down mounting option, there are no holes to bolt the fairlead to the winch. Instead, this security is taken care of by the winch bumper or mounting plate. When installing the winch bumper, ensure the fairlead is installed first to ensure you can access the mounting hardware.
Generally, they are a little easier to mount compared to foot-forward winch configurations.
Foot Down/ Foot Forward
A winch like the Warn M8000 has options for both configurations. The provision makes it easier to mount a winch.
Remember, whatever position you choose, there will be pros and cons.
Foot Forward and Foot Down
Technically, the foot forward and foot down configuration is a foot-forward configuration but with extra mounting. Usually, a large foot forward and foot down winch comes with six mounting bolts. 4 bolts are for foot forward mounting while two are for the foot down position.
Note: you cannot operate such a winch with foot-down mounts alone. The casing and the bolts aren’t strong enough to support the force exerted by heavy-duty hauling.
We’ll not get into the mounting details as it’s simply securing bolts onto the holes on the winch plate and four more from the winch plate to the bumper or frame of your car.
Most winches or winch plates come equipped with mounting hardware. However, if you get one that doesn’t, play it safe and get some at your local hardware store. Grade 8 hardware is the best. They are the ones with six radial lines on the head and often have a gold color from zinc plating.
Most winches you’ll come across today are electric. Some are hydraulic, but they rarely have recreational applications.
Before we proceed, remember, that electric winches are power-hungry. So if you’ll be using your car’s battery as the power source, keep the car running to keep the battery from draining. Also, experts recommend putting your car in neutral and raising the RPMs to boost the alternator and compensate for the power the winch uses.
As you wire your winch, ensure you have a 440 cranking battery and a 60 amp alternator.
- Connect the positive wire (often red) to the positive post on the winch.
- Connect the negative wire (either brown or black) to the ground post on the winch
- After you connect the wires, run them to the engine compartment
- Ensure the wires are safely away from heating sources or spots they can get pinched or rubbed
- Connect the positive wire from the winch to the positive post on the car’s battery. If your winch doesn’t have an in-line fuse, consider installing one.
- Connect the negative wire to the negative post on your car’s battery
At this stage, you’ll be done. But if you only want to carry the mount when going off-road, consider installing a quick disconnect. If you choose to have this option, use the same gauge wires on the battery as those the manufacturer supplied.
Before you use the new winch, you should pretension the winch line. This ensures the winch line is even and tightly wound on the winch drum. This prevents damage to the winch line. Don’t assume the factory did it under tension if the winch came with the rope already wound on the drum.
To do this, take your car to an open and flat area to re-spool under a load. Disengage the winch clutch lever and unwind the line leaving only seven or ten wraps on the drum. Pull the line ahead of the car and hook it to an anchor.
Lock the winch clutch and with the vehicle running, start winching while slightly braking to increase resistance. Alternatively, you could winch up a gentle hill. The goal is to have between 500 and 1,000 pounds of force on the winch line. A
As the drum is winding, guide the line making sure to remain a safe distance away from the drum. You can stop winching when you have about 6 feet of rope left. Disconnect the winch from the anchor, grab your hook strap and slowly spool the remaining line.
As you do this, have your gloves on, spool slowly, and keep your hands away from the fairlead (we cannot stress this enough).
I’m Ruiru Kibet, an avid writer and techie that has taken a keen interest in offroading. As I explore nature and troubleshoot with different offroad products and techniques, I’ll share them with you. The goal is dumb it down and help you experience the best of nature.