Winching How-To: Never Get Your Truck Stuck Again

Learn how to choose, hook up, and use a winch that will get you unstuck quick and back on the trail.

While fishing for steelhead on Michigan's Pere Marquette River one spring, I crossed paths with Dan Suman, a steelheader out of Mears, Michigan. When we took a break for coffee, the talk fell naturally to another of Suman's abiding passions--deer hunting. A few minutes later, he said, "Look, I've got a nice piece of woods; why don't you hunt it with me this fall?"

"You bet. Thanks."

"Well, as long as you're here, stop by tomorrow. My sons have just finished building some new stands. That way you can look the spot over. One caution. Though I've bushwhacked a 4x4 trail on reasonably solid ground, the rest of the place is a total bog. You need to be real careful driving in."

"No problem," I said. "My F250 is all set up for heavy-duty four-wheeling. No way it can get stuck."

The next day I drove over Suman's narrow trail as far as I could before pulling off onto a clearing so I could walk the rest of the way in. As I prepared to turn off the trail, Dan repeated his warning. To ease his mind, I climbed out of the cab and surveyed the clearing on foot. The leaf-covered ground supported my weight easily. "This will do just fine," I said.

I backed the truck in. It promptly sank to the frame in thick, dark ooze that looked like used engine oil.

"What's this?" I said as I climbed down.

Suman looked on with a bemused grin. He knew I was in deep trouble; the top of each tire was barely visible.

I climbed back behind the wheel. I had pulled the truck out of some of Missouri's worst mud, so I wasn't overly concerned about this little Michigan mudhole.

But try as I might, the mud wouldn't yield its prize. Even in low-range 4WD, the truck was stuck fast.

"What are you going to do now?" Suman asked.

When Trouble Finds You: Good question. For starters, hunters and fishermen who routinely venture into rough country should never assume that the vehicle, no matter how well equipped--won't get stuck. At some point, trouble will find even the most careful drivers. That said, a wise approach for the intrepid outdoorsman is to plan for trouble by installing an electric winch. Reduced to essentials, an electric winch is a motorized drum that unspools and spools a length of heavy-duty wire rope. Once the rope has been attached properly to a secure anchor, the winch can draw a 4x4 out of deep mud or off a steep talus slope.

A generation ago these helping hands were bulky accessories that were permanently mounted in massive replacement bumpers. Nowadays you can opt for a detachable quick-mount platform that slides a compact winch into a receiver (front or rear). When the winch isn't needed, the mount and winch slide out for storage in garage or tool shed.

Picking the Winch: Choosing a winch may seem confusing, but it's really fairly simple. Electric winches are classified by duty ratings, which are based on line pull, gearing system, and motor. Let's look at each, in order.

In engineer-speak, Rated Line Pull (RLP) is the weight the winch can pull perpendicular to the ground with a single layer of wire rope on the drum. (Translation: RLP determines the total weight the winch can handle.) The RLP of most winches runs between 5,000 to 12,000 pounds. That's a broad range. How do you know which RLP is best for your vehicle?

In general, winch manufacturers recommend that you choose a winch with an RLP that is at least 1.25 to 1.5 times greater than the total weight of your vehicle. That's because the rated line pull of the winch must be high enough to pull the weight of the vehicle while overcoming the very considerable resistance of mud or a steep slope. To ensure the winch has enough gumption, always round up to a higher rating. You've heard the phrase "less is more?" Well, that doesn't apply to winch capacity. In this case, "when in doubt, oversize."

The key to choosing the proper RLP is knowing exactly how much your vehicle weighs when fully loaded. That means curb weight plus the weight of your hunting and fishing gear, a full fuel tank, and the weight of your buddies--none of whom are on low-carb diets. Fully loaded, the truck could easily weigh 2,000 pounds more than curb weight. If you buy on curb weight only, you won't have enough winch.

The best way to get an accurate weight reading is to load the vehicle, round up your buddies, then take it to a sand and gravel pit, grain elevator, building and supply company, county waste disposal site, or moving company. These facilities have large drive-on scales, and for a nominal fee you'll get an accurate read on your truck's total weight.

Now let's consider cable length and diameter. In general, cable diameter increases with the RLP. Typically, you'll find 1/4-inch cable on lighter RLP winches and 3/8-inch cable on heavier-duty models.

Cable length is a little more complicated. Actual line rating will vary depending on how many layers are wound on the drum of the winch. You can expect a 10 percent drop in rating for each layer of wire rope that remains on the drum.

In other words, a 9,000-pound winch reaches full rating with one layer of line on the drum, but drops to 5,400 pounds with four layers on the drum. Say you have a 9,000-pound winch with 95 feet of cable. Manufacturers say that the average amount of line pulled out is 40 to 50 feet. That means that the real line rating is closer to 6,200 to 7,300 pounds, which can still handle the hypothetical example above. (Don't work yourself into a lather about this. Manufacturer catalogs explain line rating in easy-to-fathom charts.)

Most manufacturers recommend a minimum of 75 feet of cable. If you do most of your hunting, fishing, and camping in the East, Midwest, and South, where trees are easy to find, 75 feet of cable is usually all you need. But if you four-wheel in high-desert sage flats or the prairie grassland, where trees are few and far between, go with at least 150 feet of cable.

Winch motors are either series wound or permanent magnet. Series-wound motors are more suited to longer duration use; permanent-magnet motors require a lower amperage draw. For high-traction applications with full-size trucks, I'm partial to series-wound motors.

The multiple gears found in a planetary-gear winch mean greater pulling speed; the cylindrical worm and round gear of a worm-gear winch, on the other hand, offer significantly greater gear reduction. In this case, you get brute strength but oh-so-slow operation. In general, outdoorsmen will find the faster-working planetary gears best for their applications.

In addition to selecting the winch, you also need to know about accessories, most of which come with the winch. Generally, the accessory kit includes recovery straps, tree protector strap, clevis (which allows you to connect the wire rope to the tree protector strap), optional remote control system, snatch blocks (also known as pulley blocks), tow hooks, and heavy gloves.

Using the Winch: The key to safe winch operation is selecting a stout anchor point. Choose wisely, as winching can generate extreme mechanical forces; if the anchor breaks free--well, to put it in the vernacular, all hell will break loose. Trees, large boulders, and other vehicles make good anchors. If you choose a tree, make sure that it's alive (dead ones topple easily) and that the roots are deep (under towing stress, shallow roots may cause the tree to uproot). Trust me here; I learned both the hard way.

The two most common setups are the single-line pull and the double-line pull.

To rig for a single-line pull, remove the nylon tree strap protector from the winch accessory package. Position it flat and low against the anchor. Next, run the clevis through both loops of the protector and secure with the pin. Put the clutch in freespool, then pull out the wire rope from the drum. Insert the hook at the end of the wire rope into the clevis. (Never wrap the rope around an anchor and then hook it back onto itself. Doing so creates kinks that can cause the rope to break under a load. Wrapping the wire rope around a tree will also damage the tree.) Lay a blanket or tarp over the wire rope about halfway between the winch and the anchor. This helps direct the rope to the ground if it breaks under load.

Slowly take up the slack, then conduct a final inspection of the rigging before powering up to full load. Have your partner climb into the truck so he can steer the vehicle and apply throttle when needed. With a long remote cord, you can also operate the winch from the cab if necessary.

The double-line pull uses a snatch block (also known as a pulley block) to run the wire rope out to an anchor and then double it back to the vehicle, where the hook is attached to the frame--not the bumper, winch, or any part of the suspension. This rig gives you a two-to-one mechanical advantage over single-line pulling, and is useful when the vehicle is really mired. Keep in mind that the anchor will bear the brunt of this double load, so pick a stout one. Also, doubling the power cuts the winch speed in half.

Down to Business: The reason I had been so cavalier about getting stuck was that I had taken one big precaution. I had added a Superwinch S9000 to the F250. With a rated line pull of 9,000 pounds, I figured it could handle anything Suman's woods could throw at it. And because I installed the winch on a Superwinch portable winch platform, the unit slipped into the front receiver nearly as easily as if I were sliding in a Class III drawbar.

But I must admit: This black mud was evil-looking stuff. Fortunately, the truck was positioned directly in front of some nearby trees, so I was assured an easy single-line pull, the simplest and most common winch setup.

Once the winch was properly rigged, I handed the remote control to Suman and hopped into the cab. The instant I felt the front tires lurch forward, I applied some throttle and the truck popped free.

Then I walked back to the gaping hole behind the truck. I could see Suman shaking his head; the imprint of the F250's leaf springs were clearly visible in the mud. So was something else--a large, sunken tree trunk. No wonder the truck had been unable to free itself; the mud-clogged rear tires couldn't climb over the slippery trunk. Even if the front tires had been able to gain purchase, the tree trunk effectively blocked any forward motion.

Take that as positive proof that the unexpected can sink you when you drive offroad. But if you prepare for trouble by bringing along a healthy dose of common sense and the proper equipment, you'll make the going a lot smoother.

Safety Tips: An electric winch, like any powerful tool, needs to be treated with respect. Keep in mind the slogan that test pilots commit to memory: The sky is not inherently unsafe; it is just supremely unforgiving of error.

Here are some quick do's and don't regarding winch operation.

Do:

* Wear heavy work gloves (which protect against sharp burrs when handling a wire-rope winch cable).

* Place wheel blocks behind the tires when winching vehicle up an incline.

* Disconnect the remote control when the winch is not in use.

* Periodically inspect the winch mount.

* Keep yourself and others a safe distance from the winch cable. Onlookers should stand as far back as the length of the cable that's been reeled out. You can protect yourself from a snapping cable by opening the hood or standing behind an open door.

* Double-check all connections and anchor points before operating the winch.

* Make sure the cable spools evenly onto the drum when you rewind it.

Don't:

* Allow the winch to overheat. The motor has been designed for intermittent, not continuous use; if it becomes hot to the touch, stop and allow it to cool down.

* Don't stick hands inside the drum of the winch.

* Don't operate any winch that has a frayed wire-rope cable or a damaged hook.

* Don't move the vehicle to take slack out of the cable. Always use the winch to ensure a taut line.