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Winching Basics

If you’ve got a winch, do you know its operating basics? When I first had my winch installed I read the instruction manual and then, months later, when I actually had to use it for real I got nervous and forgot everything I’d read. Then when I wrote about my front bumper setup, I reviewed the operating instructions for my winch again and thought, ‘Wow, I forgot that,’ and ‘Whoops, I didn’t do this.’ So, while I confess this article is mostly regurgitated info from my Warn Winch operator’s manual, I think it’s important to utilize the expert advice of the more experienced, especially since I’m still a newb myself. And, if you’ve got lots of winching experience maybe this will be a good review anyway.

Note: this article is specific to a Warn winch with synthetic rope. Refer to your own user’s manual if you have a different winch, or steel winch line (which requires additional safety and usage considerations).

Do’s and Don’ts:

Do understand your winch and basic winching operation by reviewing the “Basic Guide to Winching Techniques” handbook, or similar (included with your winch).

Don’t leave the remote plugged in to your winch when not in use. This is common sense!

Don’t engage or disengage the clutch (for freespooling) if the winch line is in tension or if the winch is under load.

Don’t operate your winch with less than five wraps of rope around the drum. The rope could come loose from the drum, as the rope attachment to the drum is not designed to hold a load.

Do watch your hands and keep them clear of the winch when operating. I hope this is common sense!

Do wear leather gloves to protect your hands during winch operation. Rope burns are no fun and it’s better to play it safe.

Do freespool your winch rope out. Freespooling is generally the quickest and easiest way to spool out winch rope. Before freespooling winch rope out from the winch, power out enough rope to remove any tension the winch rope might be under. Disengage the clutch. Then freespool by manually spooling out enough winch rope for the winching operation.

Don’t power out more than 30 feet without allowing the winch to cool for 20 minutes before powering rope back in. Instead, place the clutch in freespool and pull the rope out by hand. See previous tip.

Don’t exceed your winch’s rated line pull.

Do power-in the winch rope evenly and tightly on the drum. This prevents the outer winch wraps from sinking into the inner wraps, binding, and damaging the winch rope. Powering-in evenly means you should be lined up evenly from the anchor point. In real life sometimes this is difficult to accomplish (such as on the trail).

Do avoid shock loads when spooling, by pulsing the remote control switch to take up winch rope slack. Shock loads can momentarily far exceed the winch and rope ratings.

Do stop powering-in when the hook is within 6 feet of the fairlead (the guide through which the winch rope winds onto the drum). At this point, remove the hook, and then power in the remainder of the rope.

Don’t power the hook into the fairlead. This could cause damage to the fairlead. Whoops, I didn’t know this – I have my hook on the winch line, snug against the fairlead, though I was very careful not to power it in too far. The operator’s manual suggests attaching the hook to a suitable anchor point on your vehicle when not in use, instead of against the fairlead.

Don't use your winch for more than intermittent duty. Excessive use could cause rapid heat buildup and motor damage.

Do pre-stretch your synthetic rope and respool under load before use. Tightly wound rope reduces chances of “binding,” which can damage the rope. Here's how:

1. Park on a level surface.

2. Turn your clutch lever to the “freespool” position, and pull all of your winch rope out except for the last five wraps on the drum.

3. Once spooled out, turn the clutch lever to “engaged,” attach the hook to a suitable anchor point, and back your vehicle up until there is very little slack left in the winch rope. (Ensure you are straight back from your anchor point, not at an angle, so the rope winds evenly on the drum).

4. Connect your winch remote and power-in to take up the slack.

5. Check your winch at this point to ensure the winch rope is winding off the bottom of the drum, not the top, or the automatic load holding brake won’t function properly. If it's not winding off the bottom see your user's manual to fix.

6. Begin powering-in the winch rope with your vehicle in neutral.

7. Pause frequently to ensure the rope is winding evenly onto the drum and not sinking into the lower layer of rope.

8. Continue until you’re within the last six feet of rope, detach the hook and carefully wind in the rest of the winch rope.

These basic steps can be followed to use your winch on the trail, although if stuck you’ll have your vehicle in gear while powering-in your winch line, instead of in neutral.

Do practice, practice, practice. The more you practice the better you'll do on the trail!

My next article in this winch series will discuss various winch accessories you may want to consider storing in your rig. Having a winch won’t do any good if you can’t use it!

Do you have any winching do’s or don’ts to share? Comment below!

Happy Trails!

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