There are plenty of articles on winch safety, and equally there are plenty of reasons why: winches can be very dangerous. A typical winch can pull with a force that can demolish almost anything, especially human flesh. Instead of re-echoing what has already been written on winch safety (and below are key references on this), this crisp document describes how winching should be managed as a whole integral aspect of recreational off-roading.
This stems from my experience in ten-plus years of complex winching recoveries on several surfaces, and across a wide spectrum of situation. We learnt by reading (Warn’s manual is great), by doing, and by thinking…but with several mistakes, we were very lucky. Instead of leaving it to chance, what is described in this article is definitely not fully comprehensive, and we are sure you can add and enhance to it, but we wanted you to have access to it and minimize the risk of accidents.
The purpose is therefore to give you a starting point to safe winching, and in the sole interest of safety for our fellow wheelers, and nothing else.
I. Winch basics – which winch and mounting point:
To be able to use a winch, you must first have access to one (yours or your buddy’s), and it must be mounted to the vehicle in some shape or way:
- The winch itself may be dangerous in the way it is mounted, whether the bolts are torqued correctly or not and other issues may decrease the rating of the winch. Imagine having a 9,000lb winch where the 4 bolts that holds it are over-torqued, have stretched, and are about to break at any force load.
- Selecting the right winch for the job is key. More times than none we see lower rated winches on vehicles that demand more. Double or triple line pull will definitely help, but there should be a bare minimum for each weight class, and that is why that standard exists across the board.
- Winch brand has become less and less important as the manufacturing techniques have started to be copied by all factories worldwide. Before, you had to have a Warn, Ramsey or Superwinch to play; not today. Value winches manufactured in Asia serve just as well the core purpose of recovery, albeit lack in the area of innovation that the leading brands pursue. Just remember that your goal is to invest in something that will be used as a last resort; this should not be a piece of equipment that fails you in that hour of need.
- Where to mount the winch is probably the most overlooked aspect of having a winch. The usual thought is on a plate in using the OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) bumper mounting holes. This may not always be the right option. In fact more and more car manufacturers are dropping weight for better overall performance (efficiency, speed, braking, etc…) that reusing the bumper bolts may not be the best suited. Do not forget that the winch will exercise a lot of force on your mounting system, especially when double and triple lined with a snatch block. Welding is less reliable than bolting, contrary to popular belief. Scientific measurement trumps urban legends in my book, and several studies have shown how a good quality bolt can outperform most welds any day, every day, and for a long time. Consider this in your next winch mounting build.
- Finally, I’ll talk about rotation force when winching. You seldom find yourself in the ideal situation where everything is lined up straight for the winch pull. Instead, most of the time you are at an angle, and little to no luxury to better your situation prior to starting the winch recovery. This is where your mounting system will be most stressed: not when pulling in a direct line, but at an angle, whether left or right, or more so up or down. I trick I’ve always done was to use bolts that are spread out across the chassis to eliminate any rotation of the mount when winching. This ensure that the mount does not move, and hence, does not create cavities in the metal than may sheer and pull the winch out completely.
II. Winch equipment – essential items for safe winching & how to look after them:
Out of the box, the winch can do what it was designed to do: winch. However, there are core essentials that do not come along with the winch box, and these can be a matter of life and death when using your winch:
- Gloves: these are usually overlooked, but are essential given ho fragile our hands are versus the wire, or anything stuck in the rope. They allow you to handle anything with much more confidence and safety, so you do not cut corners.
- Snatch block: usually referred to as the “pulley”, these are great for not only multiplying the pulling power of your winch, but also for changing angles. Both necessary for safe winch recovery and for limiting any damage or strain on your winch and winch recovery mount system.
- Proper recovery hook: contrary to popular belief, a well-constructed unit that bolts onto your chassis/bumper is far better than a welded one. We have seen so many welded hoops fail that it becomes a liability. Purchase units used for the military, used for hoisting, have a strong rating level, and bolt them through using good quality bolts, nuts and washers. You will not regret it.
- Wire vs. rope: in the recent past it has become a necessity rather than a luxury to move to rope. This is mainly due to offroaders’ safety aspect, as rope does not store kinetic energy and should it be cut would not recoil with force to cause damage, but also to drop the weight of the whole unit at the very tip of your vehicle. Whether wire or rope, proper maintenance is a must, and proper care and attention will extend the life of the wire or rope. It is important to recognize that they have a finite life: at some point, it is unsafe to use a wire or a rope. This is not measured by the years, the coloring, or the number of frays on the wire rope, but is more likely measured in terms of abuse it has gotten, and the overall condition of the wire or rope. Take an honest assessment, and if you have any doubt of the complete safe operation of the wire or rope, replace it. It is a relative cheap replacement compared to a life or a limb of an individual.
- Finger-saver: the immediate danger from operating a winch is the fairlead. The small opening leaves little to no room for error and will injure one’s finger should you serve your finger up and get caught between the wire/rope and the fairlead. The trick is to know how fast your winch rolls on after you stop the in/out switch. That roll-on will dictate how far out should you stop reeling in your winch prior to final packing (hooking the end to the recovery loop). A Finger-saver was invented to help with that and replace your fragile finger with a metal hook that can allow you to operate the winch safely. Few people use it, but it is a light/easy/cheap accessory that should be a must and can help not only in saving your finger from the fairlead, but also from frayed wire to cut through your palm.
- Safety thimble: these have developed a lot in the recent 3-5 years. The newest ones are large enough that they do not go past the fairlead, therefore acting not only in practicality, but also in safety. Again, this is an area not to skimp out on and if you can, put safety over price. The price difference is massive, where the normal thimble will go for 5-10$, while the better designed and manufactured ones hover around the 100$ mark. The adage of “you get what you pay for” works well here.
- Electrical system (battery & alternator): few recognize the taxing effort needed from your electrical system to operate the winch. It is true that when there is little effort on the winch, there is also little effort on the vehicle’s electrics. However, few of us have gone through the trouble and cost of purchasing a winch and bolting it securely to our vehicles for ideal/low-effort situations. You must therefore account for the most complex of situations and upgrade your electrical system accordingly. The easiest and most effective manner is to add a second battery, and better yet, a battery split system. By doing so the load is shared, and you protect the engine starting batter from being fully drained so that you can start you vehicle back up. Even wiser would be to update the batteries themselves to deep-cycle batteries that will withstand the rigors of offloading better. Finally, the alternator can be upgraded as well, whether by a complete replacement or by enhancing the current one (some folks install a second alternator altogether). Regardless of what route you take to upgrade your electrics, just remember that most winches at full pull capacity are operating at an electrical draw higher than 400Ah. That is probably going to be your highest rating draw on your vehicle, so cope accordingly.
III. Winch usage – key techniques you must consider when winching:
After selecting and installing the right winch in the right manner, and accompanying the winch with key essentials, it is time to use your winch for a recovery. As with any critical situation, the first 5 minutes are essential to diagnose the problem you need to solve. Take your time to fully assess the situation, and if you can, walk around both the recovery and the recovered vehicles so you can minimize any unforeseen risks you may encounter during winching:
- First and foremost, put the equipment you have to good use: never operate a winch without gloves. This stems from the wire ropes originally used in winches that fray and can have a single wire sticking out and slicing through fingers, palms and other body items. Even today where modern winches have rope rather than wire, gloves are essential to protecting your hands when the rope is carrying debris from the ground that may injure you.
- Assess the situation: look for the path of least resistance. Is it better to recover going forward or going back? Should the recovered vehicle be in neutral or help with some drive. Try to picture the recovery and what goes where and when before you actually do the recovery; it will help with several steps down the road.
- When using the winch, there is something called the “wire alley”; this is the line of sight where the wire/rope may break (the wire, rope, shackle, mount, etc…) and recoil back into either vehicle. The “alley” is usually 10-15 degrees to the angle of the tow-point. Safely said, it is a 2 meters from the wire/rope, and not standing at either end of it (“line of sight”). Always consider this. Should you need to be in the line of sight, always position yourself behind a solid object (door, A-pillar, dash, open the hood, etc…).
Ideally, there should be 3 people operating a winch recovery situation: the person in the vehicle being recovered (“A”), the person in the vehicle doing the recovery (“B”), and a third person who can see both vehicles clearly, can communicate to both A and B, and is outside of the line of sight (“C”). C is the master of the recovery, as C can see the whole situation and can communicate to both A and B. C’s role is to ensure a safe recovery; and to communicate via hand gestures as voices can be drowned out by noises from winches, engines, distance, etc…(example below):
- Once everything is hooked up, and that you have double checked the tightness of each of the components, start the vehicles and try to maintain the RPM levels north of 2,000 so that the alternator is generating the most electricity to replenish your batteries. Take precautionary measures by lifting engine hoods/bonnets, standing outside of the winch alley, putting a dead-rope around the winch wire/rope should it break, etc…
- Now is the time to winch. This is not a speed race. The adage “as slow as possible but as fast as necessary” is paramount here. I even like to winch for the first 3-5 seconds, and then relook at the whole recovery from another angle if possible to make sure everything and everyone are in the best possible position. Once you have done all your check-ups, go ahead with the recovery in a steady format.
- During the recovery do not forget to look at person “C”, the master of the recovery. Recall we stated that “C” can see everything and should direct both persons “A” and “B” as “C” sees is best for the situation. Choose and trust “C” well; this is the person that can avoid most all bad situations before they happen.
By: Nadim Samara