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Published Jun 15, 2022 10:12 AM

An ATV winch is one of the best accessories you can add to your all-terrain vehicle. In fact, many of the newer machines come pre-wired to make adding an ATV winch easier, and there are simplified kits available now to make it easier than ever to add a winch to whatever ATV you own. 

Why add a winch to your machine? Aside from the obvious advantage of making it easier to recover your ATV in the event you get stuck, you’ll also find that a good winch is essential to help with other chores, like clearing brush, plowing snow, and moving things around the yard or deer camp, like hoisting a big buck up into a tree. It’s like having an extra set of hands that can pull several thousand pounds. The best ATV winches can really make a huge improvement to your machine and help you maximize its potential.

Things to Consider Before Buying The Best Winch For Your ATV

I’ve used most of the major-brand ATV winches on the market today, and they are not all created equal. I’m not, however, going to say “Buy this winch and this winch alone.” Not everyone has the same needs and budget for a winch. Here are some things to remember before making a purchase:

Budget

You can spend less than $100 on a winch, or you can jump to well over $500 and up depending upon what brand you buy. Is that cheaper winch from Harbor Freight going to be of the same quality as a top-of-the-line Warn ATV winch? No, it’s not. But depending upon how much you expect to use the winch and how much you want to spend on it, you might be able to save some money. 

Use 

You also need to consider how much use you plan to get from your ATV winch. I know this can be a bit tricky, because you won’t know exactly how much you’ll use the winch until you actually have one on your machine. Here’s something I learned from a mechanic when it came to this very topic: Make a list of every task you want to use a winch for, and then double it. 

There are some really high-use activities, such as snow plowing, when you’re constantly using the winch to raise and lower the plow blade, along with some relatively low-use activities, like recovering your machine when it’s stuck in mud or snow. If you’re only keeping the winch on your machine in the off-chance you may get stuck, that’s not a high-use activity. On the other hand, if you do a lot of mudding, or use your ATV to plow a lot of snow, you’re going to be using it a lot. I don’t often go mudding, but I have buried a machine more than once while working on spring food plots with an ATV using a  Ground Hog Max plow. If you use a winch often, or if you use it for activities that require you to pull a lot of weight, definitely go with a high-quality ATV winch.

Pulling Capacity

How big of a winch do you need? The pulling capacity of an ATV winch is set by how much weight the winch can pull with no resistance other than the weight itself—and that’s not just the weight of your ATV. I argued with this point with my neighbor when he wanted to add an ATV winch to his Polaris Sportsman. “The machine can’t weigh more than 600 pounds,” he said. “Why do I need to buy a 2,500-pound winch?” I told him that it’s not just the weight of the machine that comes into play here. If you’re stuck in mud, you also have to consider the weight of the mud, and the force of the mud’s suction against the machine. The same goes for snow. Plus you have to take gravity into account if an incline is involved. 

Here’s a basic guide to how much pulling capacity is adequate for various ATV types:

  • 1,500 pounds – Acceptable for lighter ATVs such as sub-500cc machines, and two-wheel drive ATVs
  • 2,500 pounds – Four-wheel drive ATVs
  • 3,500 pounds – Four-wheel drive ATVs and smaller, two-seat UTVs
  • 4,500 pounds and up – All UTVs

It is becoming more common for utility ATVs, like Polaris Sportsman models, to come with a 3,500-pound winch from the factory. This is a result of customer feedback, as more people realize that bigger can be better, and if the prices are close, it never hurts to get a bigger winch.

Cable Types

Winches come with either a synthetic rope or a steel cable, and there are pros and cons to each.

Synthetic Rope Pros:

  • More flexible that steel
  • Doesn’t fray, kink or rust
  • Stronger than steel 
  • Harder to break than steel

Synthetic Rope Cons:

  • More expensive than steel
  • Can knot (and once it does, you won’t be able to unknot it)
  • Can freeze when wet
  • Can slip on the spool if not anchored correctly

 Steel cable Pros:

  • Is less expensive that synthetic rope
  • Does not stretch
  • Does not freeze

Steel Cable Cons:

  • Can be hazardous if it breaks
  • Can rust
  • Kinks can cause jamming issues
  • Can get tangled on the spool, lock up, and have to be cut off

Best ATV Winch Overall: Warn AXON 35-S

Best ATV Winch Overall

Why It Made the Cut

You cannot buy a better winch than a Warn, and this is the company’s best offering to date for a 3,500-pound powersports winch. It comes with synthetic rope and a low-profile design that keeps all of the important parts sealed and away from the elements. All of the internals are heavy duty, so it will last.

Key Features

  • 3,500-pound capacity
  • 50 feet of Spydura Synthetic Cable
  • All-metal design

Pros

  • Sealed internals
  • Precision-made gearing
  • Synthetic rope

Cons

  • Higher cost
  • Requires mounting kit

Warn sets the standard by which all other electric winches are compared, and with good reason—they work, all the time. The company is always improving their products, and the AXON is their best ATV winch to date. This one is rated for 3,500 pounds, and there is a 4,500-pound model for bigger UTVs. It is completely reliable, too, making it an easy pick for the best ATV winch. I have the equivalent truck winch on my vehicle. When I’m going on a trip, I only select gear that’s reliable and essential for road tripping, and the Warn winch is part of that.

How good are Warm ATV winches? Most of the major ATV manufacturers use Warn Winches for the accessory packages and outfitted models they sell. I asked a rep from one of these manufacturers why that was, and his response was telling. “We chose the Warn Winch because the last thing we want is for someone to buy our machine with a winch from the factory, and have them need to bring the machine in for a warranty repair due to a failed winch. With a Warn, we don’t have to worry about that.”

Best Polaris ATV Winch: Polaris Sportsman 570 with Rapid Recovery

Best Polaris ATV Winch

Why It Made the Cut

The only thing that can be as good or better than the top-of-the-line general-fit winch is one designed by the machine manufacturer specifically for your model ATV. That’s what Polaris set out to do, and they succeeded.

Key Features

  • 3500-pound pulling capacity
  • Designed to fit your Polaris ATV
  • Pre-wired so it mounts in minutes
  • Rapid recovery makes winding cable back in easy
  • Synthetic rope

Pros

  • Made to specifically fit Polaris ATVs
  • Rapid Rope Recovery
  • Pre-wired and mounting hardware included
  • High quality

Cons

  • Requires familiarity with the switches
  • Designed for Polaris machines only

Polaris set out to design a winch that integrates perfectly with their machines, and the Pro winch does that and more. These winches are really high quality and the Rapid Recovery function lets you spool the synthetic rope back in 5 times faster than in normal-use mode. You just need to be aware of the switches so you don’t try to use it in Rapid Recovery mode.

These are the easiest-mounting winches on the market. Polaris designed their ATVs to have a winch mounted, and the wiring is pre-done. The mounting hardware is also part of the design of the winch, so you can have it on the machine in 20 to 30 minutes.

Best Bargain Winch: Superwinch LT2000 12v DC ATV Winch

Best Bargain Winch

Why It Made the Cut

There are several ATV winches in the $100 range, and this one is and always has been the best option. Superwinch is a big brand that has been at this a long time. Their winches are solid performers, and owners like them.

Key Features

  • 2,000-pound pulling capacity
  • Low-amp magnetic motor
  • 50 feet of steel cable
  • Comes with a snatch-block hook and a tow shackle

Pros

  • A lot of value for the money
  • Lots of mounting options
  • Low-amp magnetic motor lasts a long time

Cons

  • Too small for UTVs

For a simple winch, this unit from Superwinch actually packs a lot of value into the package. You get the winch and all the wiring, as well as 50 feet of steel cable, a roller fairlead, a snatch block hook, and a D-shackle—everything you’d need for a basic recovery. Superwinch is a major brand, too. Superwinch used to be the standard equipment winches for Can-Am, and the value packed into this package is hard to beat.

Best Mud Winch: SuperATV Black Ops 3500 LB Winch Kit

Best Mud Winch

Why It Made the Cut

There are only a few ATV accessory companies known for making gear that will withstand hard-core elements, and SuperATV is one of them. This winch can handle anything from use on the farm or hunting property, all the way to extreme mud bogging. 

Key Features

  • 3500-pound pulling capacity
  • Sealed, heavy duty wiring
  • Remote control
  • Synthetic rope
  • Heavy-duty gearing

Pros

  • Wireless remote
  • Sealed for mud use
  • Heavy-duty construction

Cons

  • High cost
  • Requires mounting plates

The SuperATV winch is from a family-owned, ATV-specific business that specializes in performance. The company is well known for ATV accessories and parts that include things like windshields, lift kits, bumpers, and more. What is to like about the SuperATV winch kit is that the wiring is heavy duty and includes enough to mount to virtually any machine. You also get a synthetic rope with a rubber bump-stop and aluminum fairlead. 

Best Honda ATV Winch: Kolpin Quick-Mount ATV Winch Kit

Best Honda ATV Winch

Why It Made the Cut

While Kolpin makes Quick Mount Winch Kits for other machines, this is one of the best units you can get for Honda ATVs. It is a high-quality ATV winch that is pre-mounted and wired for a Honda, making installation much easier.

Key Features

  • 3,500-pound pulling capacity
  • Synthetic rope
  • Pre-wired for easy install

Pros

  • Pre-mounted and wired
  • Very fast mounting time
  • High-quality winch

Cons

  • Does not fit every Honda ATV model
  • May require a longer battery bolt

There are three reasons this ATV winch gets included. First, I have mounted winches to several Honda ATVs over the years, and the job isn’t easy or quick. This kit cuts that time by 3/4ths, and makes it much easier. Second, there is no guesswork into the cables and wiring, as it is all set to the perfect sizing. Third, Kolpin is owned by Polaris, so the overall quality is outstanding. How well do I like this particular ATV winch setup? I have it on my own Honda ATV. Kolpin makes a wide range of these kits, too, so it’s likely that there’s a model for your ATV, no matter the brand.

Best Harbor Freight ATV Winch: Badland ZXR 3500

Best Harbor Freight ATV Winch

Why It Made the Cut

Harbor Freight incorporated the elements of higher-priced ATV winches into their newer ZXR series from Badland. For recovery purposes, and some other uses, these are pretty good winches for the money.

Key features

  • 3,500-pound pulling capacity
  • Three-stage gear system
  • Wired remote control

Pros

  • Low-amp magnetic motor for low battery drain
  • Wired remote control
  • Handlebar-mounted control
  • High speed 
  • Low price

Cons

  • Durability a question mark
  • Synthetic rope has to be added separately

All jokes aside, there are quality products available at Harbor Freight stores, and any serious off-roader on a budget knows that the Badland ATV winches are actually quite good for the money. Durability is a question mark simply because I haven’t had the opportunity to test these out yet, but owners of Badlands ATV winches give them very high marks. For most uses, you’ll never have an issue with Badland ATV winches. 

How I made these picks

I’ve been riding and using ATVs for several decades now, and have been testing and writing about them for almost 20 years. I’ve used all of these ATV winches with the exception of the Badland. I’ve personally installed most of these winches, as well as a few more, and I have been on the receiving end of the bad times that come from when a winch fails. I am an admitted gearhead and love to get into the nuts and bolts of everything I am into, which includes ATVs and other power sports, including trucks, snowmobiles, boats and more, and I love to hunt and fish. My recommendations are based my own experience and that of colleagues in the industry to whom I reached out to discuss what went into the designs of these products.

FAQs

Q: How big of a winch do I need for my ATV?

The old rule when picking how big of an ATV winch you need was that you went by multiplying the weight of your ATV by 1.5. However, most manufacturers are now going closer to doubling the weight of your machine as a minimum. Remember, the winch will only pull the rated weight when there is nothing acting against that weight, so think of it as a 1,500-pound winch pulling 1,500 pounds of weight with nothing acting against that weight. Since that is never the case, you need a winch that is capable of pulling more than the weight of the ATV.

Q: Who makes the best ATV winch?

The conversation of who makes the best ATV winch will always start and end with one brand name – Warn. Warn winches are simply the best because no one has been in the business of making the highest quality winches longer than Warn has. They are pricey, but they are also worth the cost due to longevity and quality.

Q: How can I increase the pulling capacity of my ATV winch?

There is really only one way to increase the capability of your winch, and that is with a snatch block. A snatch block is a pulley through which you run your winch line and run the hook end of your winch back to your machine. You then attach the snatch block to a stationary object, or to whatever you want to move with the ATV. By adding the pulley, you are effectively doubling your pulling capability. This is why it is always a good idea to have a tow strap and snatch block as part of your reliable off-roading gear. A 2,500-pound winch might not get you out of the mud, but 5,000 pounds of pulling capability might.

Q: Is a 2,500-pound winch enough for my ATV?

Yes, a 2,500-pound capacity winch should be plenty big enough for your ATV. That’s enough pulling capacity to cover any ATV currently on the market. Can you go bigger? Sure, and you can even go smaller, although I would not recommend going smaller than 1,500 pounds.

Q: How do I know what winches will fit my ATV?

Most ATV winches use a general mount, but most ATVs require a winch-mounting plate to attach the winch to the machine. Be sure to check what type of plate your specific ATV requires, and never wing it when it comes to mounting. That can cause damage to both the winch and the ATV.

Final Thoughts

An ATV winch is really a simple tool in that it pulls line back onto a spool using gearing that helps create pulling power. The differences between a bad ATV winch and the best ATV winches are small, but extremely important. It isn’t about the most power, or the highest cost. It is all about doing the job repeatedly and effectively every time you call upon the winch to do so. The winches on this list will do that.

I consider an ATV winch to be an important part of the machine, and I have one on every machine I own, with the exception of a go-fast sport machine that I kept from my youth. It may seem intimidating to add a winch to your ATV, but it is doable with a few tools, so time and modest mechanical ability. It is one of the most practical accessories you can add to your ATV.

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