4x4 recovery in SA: Choosing the right winch

The first recorded use of a winch was in 480 BCE when Herodotus of Halicarnassus describes how wooden winches were used to tighten the cables of a pontoon bridge over the Dardanelles (then known as Hellespont) in Turkey.

But when did vehicles receive winches? The Old English poem Beowulf written around 700 CE tells how King Hrothgar’s wagons got stuck in mud and had to be winched out using ropes and wagon wheels. Guys will be guys and it seems that not much has changed since then.

Manual winches

Manual winches are powered by you, the user. Common sub-types are drum winches with reduction gears similar to the sprocket cluster on a bicycle and hand cranked worm drive winches also known as a lever winch which is powered by moving a handle back and forth. The cable is held by ratchet cogs or self-gripping jaws between each movement of the lever. This allows one human to move objects several times his own weight.

The advantage of having a manual winch is that it requires no electricity and that it can be stored behind a seat until needed. It can also be attached to any side of the vehicle, not just the front or the back. The downside is the time and elbow-grease required to operate it.

In a pinch a high-lift jack can be used as a lever winch but these devices are very slow and potentially dangerous, particularly if the cable is under tremendous tension, like when you want to hoist your vehicle up a steep incline.

Automatic winches

Automatic winches include pneumatic, hydraulic, electric, or of the type that attaches directly to a drive shaft or axle hub of a vehicle. We’ll focus on the common electrical winch.

The essential 4x4 kit for SA – and what not to waste your money on

The basic rule of thumb is to fit an electrical winch that can move at least 1.5 times the gross vehicle mass (GVM) of the stricken vehicle. What is gross mass? It’s the maximum operating weight of a vehicle as specified by the manufacturer including the vehicle itself, fuel, accessories, driver, passengers and cargo but excluding towed trailers.

For instance: A Jeep Wrangler has a GVM of roughly 2500kg. Multiply this by 1.5 and you get 3750kg. Since electrical winches are rated in pounds (lb), you’ll have to convert this metric weight to 8267lb.

Winch manufacturers round off their winch pulling power figures and often use the rating in the names of their models. A Warn M8000 (rated at 8 000 lb) would therefore be the absolute smallest winch that’ll be able to recover a Jeep Wrangler – it may even be on the weak side.

You should always err on the side of caution and get a slightly stronger winch than what your calculations specify. What if your Wrangler gets stuck in sticky mud, or in the soaked sand of a beach? In the case of an 8 267lb Jeep a Warn M9000 or a M9500 would therefore be a wiser choice.

I use a T-Max ATW PRO-4500. Why so small? My Suzuki Jimny has a gross weight of 1400kg which means the winch’s pulling power of 2000kg is just about perfectly matched to the Jimny. Anything stronger is a bit of a waste since a Jimny can’t really recover anything other than itself (which rarely happens anyway, I must add). 

Once, while trying to extract a friend’s VW Amarok from a muddy hole, my Jimny was itself winched toward the mud – we can thank Newton’s third law of motion for that. Such are the drawbacks of light-weight vehicles. Don’t even get me started on my Jimny’s propensity to float away when fording deep rivers – but river crossings is a topic for another article.

A pre-2016 Toyota Fortuner has a GVM of 2500kg which requires at least a T-Max 8500, a LAS E9500, or a Warn Tabor 10K.

Heavy expedition vehicles such as a LandCruiser kitted for a transcontinental trip should not consider anything smaller than a 12 000lb winch.

Manual or automatic?

It’s totally up to you but an electric winch is just so much more convenient. When you are about to get yours fitted, consider a detachable system that can be attached to either the front or the rear of your vehicle. A winch permanently bolted to the front is of little use when you’d like to be winched backwards!
Plus, a detachable electric winch can be stored in a clean, dry place and only be hooked up when you go play.

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