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Winching Tips

May 14/09

Written by Glenlivet


Two main types of winch line are presently available: traditional wire rope and synthetic winch cable.

Each have their advantages and disadvantages, and each have their fans and defenders. Instead of listing the pros and cons of each, let's just dive into the care of winch line and let it develop.

When you buy a winch, generally it comes equipped with a spool of traditional wire rope and a pressed eye and hook.

The angle that the line takes when seen perpendicular to the axle of the winch spool, is called the 'lead' (lee'd). The winch line must have a guiding device attached near the winch spool to limit the angle of lead sideways in order to prevent the line's walking off the spool when in-hauling, and thus fouling (the line would then have 'jumped the drum'). This device is called the 'fairlead'. Two types of fairlead are seen, the plain (or Hawse) fairlead which is a smooth faced and slotted solid block, and the roller fairlead which guides the winch line by limiting its lead both sideways and vertically by way of paired cylindrical rollers.

It's still possible even with a fairlead, for the line to pile up on one side of the spool and jump the drum if you were to keep winching on a one-sided pull and don't watch what's going on, but it is less likely and much less immediate with the use of the fairlead.

The manner in which the line is spooled when the winch is new, nice and neat in even tiers, is the way in which the line takes up the least room on the spool and it is the way the line is least likely to become 'bit in' or pinched under a heavy pull, by what were the underlying wraps.

After using the winch, it's always a good idea to run the line back off the spool to the point it spools neatly, and re-spool the line under moderate tension, and in its neat tiers. That way it's ready for a heavy pull at any time.

*** If your winch line has become 'bit in' and you are not in a position to hook onto something with the winch hook and back the ATV up while powering the winch line off, then here's a trick that can get it out:

Pull the winch line off to the point it is bit in, then power the winch spool off a further 1/3 turn of the spool or so. The winch line is almost doubled back now.

Now stand about five feet or so in front of the ATV and then get sideways to the ATV and stand on the winch line with your outside foot and hold on to the free end of the line coming up from your foot. Pull the line tight and step on it as firmly as you can.

Now with your free foot, tramp hard on the line that is between your holding foot and the winch. It's just a couple of inches above the ground. When you stomp on it like this, the pulling force at the pinched part is pretty great owing to mechanical advantage. It should peel out from where it is pinched on the drum on your first few stomps, unless it is really bit deep in there. Then you might have to power a bit more off and do it again until it is all free.

You want to have the drum engaged to its drive because if you do this with the winch in free-spool mode and it comes loose right away, then the spool will just spin and make a rat's nest out of your entire winch line!

This might be uncomfortable to try when wearing running shoes.

The winch line has a natural tendency to want to spring out and loosen its wraps when not under any pull, so whenever the winch line is being used, if it's possible you should try to see that there is always at least some small tension on it. Some winches have a flat spring plate contacting the drum line pack so that it helps keep the winch line from making itself into a rats nest. This is helpful.


Anchors. This is what you are winching against, be it a tree, a stump, a big rock or a purposely buried 'deadman' IE: an 'X-Tractor' rescue anchor/shovel.

The tree strap is a flat usually nylon web strap with eyes or hook rings, and it's is always the responsible thing to use on live trees instead of a wire rope strap when you're using trees for an anchor. Whether a wire rope strap or tree strap, if the tree, pole, or high stump you are winching against is at such an angle that the strap will want to ride up the trunk when you apply the pressure, then you should put two wraps of the strap around instead of one. That way the strap will stay put and not slide up.

A snatch block will double your pulling power while halving the speed at which you are pulling the quad, but remember that with a snatch block you are also potentially doubling the amount of pull the anchor has to bear. The strap too is now handling potentially double the pull. You want to be sure it is strong enough to take it.

The lower you are able to attach your pulling strap to a tree or stump, the better it will bear the load. You are pulling against the roots, and the higher the hookup the greater that leverage is trying to pull it out of the ground.

If all you have for anchors are small saplings that even a low hookup threatens to pull out of the ground then you can greatly enhance the strength two ways: Either tie your winch strap low to the front one and make a second rope tie high on the first sapling and low on the second one behind it or...

wrap your winch line once around the first sapling and secure the same winch line to a second sapling behind the first. They needn't even be in direct line, just fairly close. Careful! If your strap or line bights over itself, the first sapling with the wrap might come tight and not even start to pull on the second one before it's root system fails, so be sure to take all the slack out of the line between the trees when doing this so that you get the full strength of both saplings at once.


Around any suitable pole or trunk, a single wrap and another half of any reasonably flexible wire rope, synthetic, hemp, sisal or other line has a surprising property: It self energizes.

If you wrap a winch line around a telephone pole for instance, putting on a full wrap and a half and you hold the free end (so that you are standing on the same side as the winching vehicle) and have someone attempt to power the winch on or drive away as you hold the free end, you will find that you can easily hold however much power he applies and he can't take up an inch. If you release the pressure then you'll find you can give him as much line as you want but as soon as you start to pull a bit and hold it again he will get no more. You could for instance hold back the winch power of a 4X4 truck with one hand and drink a cup of coffee with the other (assuming the winch isn't strong enough to make the pole come crashing down!) because you control how much line he gets.

Try it and see (two full wraps will hold better yet but it's more difficult to give the slack, you actually have to push it a bit).

The principle is the same one used in some oil filter wrenches, double leading shoe brakes, and the winch itself! Self energizing. After a couple of wraps you aren't pulling on the end anchor of the line on the drum, you're pulling on the drum itself as the line self energizes and grips it.

You can use this trick to your advantage out in the trail. You could for instance set up a safety line for another rider coming through a tricky spot where he might lose it and tumble down, by putting a line from his machine a wrap and a half around an anchor, and taking the slack around it as he advances. Then if he slips and his quad begins to fall all you'd do is hold the far end of your wrap and a half and he stops immediately with little effort on your part.

Or if you have rope you can snub someone down as steep a hill as you wish using an anchor from the top with a wrap and a half, and control his descent completely and easily without even using a winch.

Take into account that if the line is very big and stiff or the anchor is a wet old birch tree with loose bark then things will be a bit different of course, but any reasonable winch line or rope and any pole or trunk such as we encounter in quadding will work as described.

Like say, try it and get familiar with it. Should give you a smile.


Wire rope can in some conditions fail (break) and in so doing release stored elastic energy that can be dangerous to people. The author has seen a 3/8" 'straw line' of about 1000 feet suspended, break at about 5000 Lbs. pull and contracted so suddenly and dramatically that the mere ripping of the last 100 feet of the broken end through a 70 Lb. block was violent enough to send that block flying around its stump on its 1" wire rope strap like a weed-eater wire!

The key though to how much kinetic energy is stored in a tensioned wire rope, is the length of line that is out. A short length will not have enough energy to do much at all even if it parts at the hook, while a much longer length parting in such a manner might snap back with enough force to hurt a person.

The simple cure (at least in the scale of winch stuff we use in ATVs) is that if one has a lot of single line out and expects a hard pull, to drape a jacket or towel over the winch line at around the mid point. This way if the line were to part at the winch then the line is going away from you anyway, and if it parts at the hook then the jacket or towel will absorb the energy (unless it is damaged, it's very unlikely that wire rope will part in the middle somewhere).

If you have say fourty feet of line out and you drape a jacket at mid point, then if you are still winching by the time you reach the jacket then simply pluck it off and carry on. The amount of line still to go won't have enough stored elastic energy to do anything, and besides if you are still winching you probably aren't pulling hard anymore.

All of the above is based on a person pulling very hard on a single winch line. There's little need to do that though if you are properly equipped. Just put a snatch block on that really hard pull, and take it easy on everything.

It's hard to beat the wealth of winch information on this page, and it's links at the bottom!
• BillaVista's Recovery Bible


"Hey, my ATV is only about 650 pounds and the winch is rated at like 3000 pounds, and yet when I hooked it up to pull me out, it just stalled out trying to pull me out of the mud!" " Three grand, man shouldn't it have been able to pull the frame right out from under the seat?"

On paper... yes. But winch manufacturers like to make the best numbers they can and after all, they're all in the same marketplace. Can't look worse than your competition. Better advertise numbers arrived at the same way as the other guy. And yes, it CAN pull 3000 pounds. Under ideal and specific conditions:

For instance the winch is rated when the line is on the bottom tier of the winch spool. Each tier of line adds to the diameter of the spool and this both increases line length pulled (hence it's 'speed') per revolution, while each additional tier also decreases the potential pulling power of the winch.

So the maker naturally measures the power when the winch spool is nearly bare of line. First tier. If you need maximum power from your winch you can use this knowledge to your advantage by rigging your rescue line so that it begins to pull while you are on the last tier, or at least when you have a lot of line off the spool.

Another factor is that when you activate your winch on your ATV and apply a significant load to it, you will be seeing significant voltage drop at the power source, your battery (more on voltage drop in the next section). The more amperage you draw from a finite source (and sources are all finite eventually if you measure carefully enough), the more the voltage drops in consequence.

An ATV battery has only so much capacity, and a winch, being a big current load, taps very heavily into this. The greater the load the more the amperage draw, up to the point at which the winch stalls, and an electric motor has its greatest torque at virtual stalling speed. As you approach this stall point, even a healthy and fully charged ATV battery even in a running ATV will see voltage drop big time, and at this reduced voltage the winch will not be operating at anywhere near its rating.

When they bench-test the winch in order to rate it, they use a power source of sufficient overhead that its voltage will not drop much, if at all. Sure it pulls 3000 pounds... on the bench when hooked to a massive current-capable 12 volt power supply! And on the bottom tier.

So (gasp) unless you are connected to the battery out of a D10 Caterpillar mounted on your back rack, you are never going to get 3000 pounds (for instance) pull out of your 3000 pound ATV winch when it's mounted on your ATV and out on the trail.

Rotten trick, telling you you have a 3000 pound winch when it won't pull nearly that number? Maybe, but they (winch makers) all measure output that way.

It's still the same winch and it pulls just as hard, just the numbers for what it is doing aren't as impressive as you were led to believe.

So you don't need to lose much sleep fearing you are going to break your 1/4" wire rope winch line (rated at 7000 lbs. breaking strength), by complete surprize as you pull on your stuck ATV with its winch. The rating? You aren't even getting close to what it said on the box.

Pull away, and have a nice day.


A quick metaphor for electricity: Compare it to water in a garden hose (this one is an oldie but goodie). Current (amperage) is analogous to the amount of water flowing from the hose, and voltage is like the pressure of the water. The pressure inside the hose is highest when there is no flow at all, high when there is very little flow (every kid learns this by putting his thumb over the end of the hose and squirting his friends). The more water (current) you make flow, the lower the pressure of that water until you reach the flow limits of the circuit (hose) or source.

The amount the voltage will drop when current is made to flow is dependent on the size and capacity of the supply. A huge well-charged battery = very little, nearly immeasurable voltage drop when you turn on a relatively small load.

(Your town water supply pressure drops when you turn on your tap too, but the amount it drops is nearly immeasurable because the source is so large. When many people use water at the same time however, you bet they notice it in the municipal water service control center! They know exactly when there are commercials during Super Bowl because so many toilets flush at one time and water pressure dives.) The analogy works!

The winch is a large load and draws current from the battery more quickly than the charging system can replenish it. The bigger the winch, the more current it takes to run it.

Also the more load on the winch, the greater the amperage draw. This means that short-duration light loading of the winch such as raising and lowering a plow (which hardly makes the winch slow down at all) draws only a small amount of reserve from the battery and that small amount is quickly replaced. Winching out a stuck ATV, however, makes that winch slow down as it leans into the load, and this takes a much higher current and does so for a much longer time, and this current debt in the battery takes a good while of motor operation for the charging system to replace after you have stopped winching.

The current drawdown of operating the winch under load causes voltage drop, and if the headlights were to be turned on while winching then this is the reason your headlights would dim (the LCD dash display wouldn't dim because it's not a filament type light and isn't voltage-variable; it works or it doesn't work). The headlights are filament lights, and they vary in brightness according to the voltage available.

In fact, those headlights would be acting like a voltmeter. When you'd see them dim that means the voltage has gone down, and when they are dimmer than they would be with the lights on and ATV motor shut off, that's a direct visual indication that current is flowing out of the battery, and flowing out pretty quickly!

That said, It doesn't make any sense to run your headlights while you are winching unless you really need the light. The headlights draw about 6 amps themselves and the charging system is already in the red; why add to the burden? The above is mentioned just as a visual demonstration of what is going on.

While operating the winch, bear in mind that regardless if the ATV is running you are drawing down the battery. Running the motor helps the battery to draw down more slowly, and that's a good thing, but it's drawing down never the less.

Don't shut the ATV off immediately after a session of winching, because the battery will be in a lower state of charge and it may have enough current to keep things running but not enough to crank the motor and start it again if you were to shut it off.

Remember that voltage drop? The starter motor creates that just as much as the winch and with a depleted battery you might have just enough current to crank the motor slowly, but the voltage drop from the starter could result in there not being enough to run the electronic ignition, and the ATV might not start even though it turns over.

Then you'd have to use the rope start (recoil starter), if you have one.

The winch motor is not designed for continuous operation, unlike for instance a fan motor. Like a starter motor, the winch motor's output versus its mass and cooling capacity is far too great for that. The winch is getting hotter the longer it runs.

The winch manufacturers warn that a cooling off period must be allowed during extended winching sessions, to avoid overheating and burning the winch motor out. You'll want to give it a few minutes cool-down for every thirty seconds continuous operation or so. Better yet, find out what that particular winch's maker says by way of cool-down and follow their direction.

As a bonus, giving the winch a cool-down rest helps the charging system do a bit of catch-up on the battery's state of charge.


Sometimes you see people rescuing a stuck ATV and you might see an ATV hooked to another ATV in front, and that one's winch hooked to the stuck machine. Sometimes there are three ATV's hooked to each other in a row! This is a bad idea.

The winch line of the forward ATV will be seeing compounded line pull, perhaps reaching and exceeding the limits of the equipment. There's a very good chance that something is going to break and people can get hurt.
Far better to have each rescue ATV run its own winch line out to the stuck machine and each ATV winch pull independently of the others.


The author worked in the logging industry for more than 25 years, mostly in the yarding of logs and most of that spent tending the running lines, and running and setting up the yarders, which are large logging machines that pull the logs out of the bush to a relatively flat (though often quite small) 'landing'.

This is yarding logs up steep hills, down equally steep hills and in every conceivable terrain you can imagine, and many that you just cannot without having been there!

It was a very interesting time and it involved operating what are in reality, high speed and very large winches, holding up to 3800' of line apiece.

The stall torque pad pressure of the mainline drum on a Madill 090 yarder on the bottom tier of the drum is 600,000 pounds.

When you have that kind of pulling power being expressed along a metal pipe and through large roller fairleads that stand 90 feet directly above your head, as you sit there operating it all while housed in a relatively fragile metal operators cage below, you attain an appreciation of mechanical force and its application that is hard to achieve by any other means.

And you learn a lot about the real and practical properties of wire rope, its leading, spooling, and of winches.

And a great deal of rigging lore at the same time. A lot of this can be applied to great advantage to problems and situations on the scale that we use when we deal with line and winches on our ATV's.

Whether it's 1 3/8" wire rope mainline or a 3/16" ATV winch line, it's doing much the same thing and it behaves in much the same way.

Tricks with the big stuff work with the little stuff just fine.

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