Best Winches: Get Your Vehicle Unstuck

A winch can get your vehicle out of tricky situations and over challenging terrain.

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Best Winches: Get Your Vehicle Unstuck © Best Winches: Get Your Vehicle Unstuck

Winches are everything to avid off-roaders, allowing you to get unstuck from muddy terrain, haul cargo, and clear trail hazards quickly. Winches run the gamut in terms of type, load capacity, construction, and design. And there are those that are built for specific vehicles and situations. But they all have one thing in common: they're great at reducing the likelihood of you needing your local Search and Rescue team.

Because of the boom in off-roading recently, there are a host of great winches available. But which is right for you and your application? Let's talk about that.

Here at The Drive, the avid off-roader has kindred spirits as we're routinely out on the trails and getting muddy or climbing up rock faces. As such, we've used our fair share of winches in our time. That's not to say we couldn't learn more, so in order to put together this buying guide, we used our inherent knowledge, as well as scoured opinions on forums and retail sites for other's opinions on the products within. We also consulted who OEMs used for accessory parts, as those would need to pass longevity tests that most suppliers don't usually run. In the end, we've come up with top products here.

The “right winch” is going to vary depending on your needs and your comfort level with installing a winch onto your vehicle. But given that reality, we liked the Rugged Ridge Trekker Winch as our Best Overall selection. Along with a relatively reasonable price point, it featured a 12,500-pound pull line capacity which should be more than enough power for most people’s needs. 

Meanwhile, UTV owners will like the Champion Power Equipment 3,000-lb Winch Kit. Along with being a complete solution with everything you need to install it on your off-road vehicle, the 3,000-pound pull line rating is more than sufficient, and the wallet-friendly price makes it accessible for a wider range of consumers. 

You’ve got questions. The Drive has answers!

A. Winches aren't cheap, but they'll save you money in the long run by not requiring you pay Search and Rescue for their efforts. A good-quality winch will set you back between $800 and $2,000. And winches are absolutely case studies in you get what you pay for.

Do not forget to factor in the warranty. WARN winches are known for the longest warranty in the business (limited lifetime). In a world of two and five-year warranties, a limited lifetime warranty is a total steal.

A. Capacity. A winch manufacturer's pull line rating is arguably the single greatest factor when purchasing. It is the intersection between the drum line’s tensile strength and the winch's actual pulling capacity. As a general rule, users should purchase winches with a working load rating 1.5 times the weight of their vehicle’s gross weight. For example, if a vehicle’s gross weight is 5,000 pounds, the winch’s capacity should be 7,500 pounds. If in doubt, go with winches with a larger capacity, assuming all other criteria (drive trains, mounting options, type of rope, motors, etc.) are met.

Drivetrain. Winches offer three gear options: spun gear, worm gear, and planetary gears. Like vehicles, winch gears vary based on transfer efficiency and work similar to teeth, converting a high sped motor with low-speed torque to not disrupt the load carry. Spun gear winches tend to be the cheapest, with a high transfer efficiency (75 percent) and smooth and quiet operation due to a high contact ratio between the motor’s input axle gear and the wheel’s output axle gear. Worm gears have the lowest transfer efficiency compared to spin and planetary gears (35 to 40 percent) and rotate slower, costing less to compensate. Planetary gears are the most common type of winch gear, popular with automatic transmission vehicles with higher gear ratios, albeit mid-range transfer efficiency (65 percent)

Type of Rope. Winches use two types of rope: traditional steel cables or synthetic rope. Traditional steel rope works very well with muddy terrain, better handling off-roading environments better than synthetic cables. However, synthetic cables are lighter and stronger, albeit less wear-resistant to UV rays, heat, chemicals, and other abrasive external elements.

Remote Control. Winches come with corded or cordless options. Wireless remote control winches are best, allowing for more precision winch direction, even from a distance. If trudging through mud, jagged-edged climbs or rocky terrain is on the agenda, wireless winches are a must.

A. Consider the motor and whether it’s rated for the type of hauling you’re trying to do. Look for durable winches and most importantly consider the water resistance, as a winch that can’t be exposed to water won’t last long. 

A. This is going to depend on your vehicle. Experts agree that winches should be able to pull 1.5 times your vehicles’ weight. But in general, heavier vehicles need more powerful winches. 

A. Yes, winch plates are a must. Many manufacturers sell vehicle-specific winch plates. Universal winch plates can be used as long as the 10- x 4.5-inch mounting pattern is used. Many bumpers already come pre-installed with winch plates, while others need a universal winch plate to be purchased separately. Lastly, some vehicles already come equipped with front-mounted winches integrated into the front bumper. Be sure to consult with your winch’s manufacturer for the correct mounting method. 

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