How Off-road Vehicles Work

Off-road Winches

A gnarly bumper, such as this one on a Hummer off-road vehicle, makes a winch much more practical.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

If you drive off the beaten trail long enough, you'll eventually have a stuck vehicle that needs to get unstuck. This is known as "recovery" in off-road vernacular, and a winch is the most common type of recovery tool. A winch is a hauling or lifting device consisting of a rope, cable or chain winding around a horizontal rotating drum. A power source, usually a motor, turns the drum to spool up the line. On most off-road vehicles, the winch mounts to a bumper, usually the front.

Those are the basics. Next, you need to think about the kind of winch to install based on the challenges you anticipate facing. Hydraulic and power-take-off (PTO) winches require a running vehicle to operate. The former works via fluid pressure coming from a hydraulic pump driven by the main engine. The latter is driven by a gearbox mounted on the rear of the transfer case. Both deliver good power, so they are ideal for heavy lifting. And they can run continuously without draining the battery or overheating. However, they can't operate if the motor is dead, although you can hand-crank some PTO winches in this situation.


The most common types of off-road winch are electric winches, which draw power directly from the vehicle's battery. For this reason, they can run with the engine off, but they won't work indefinitely. They also generate less power than hydraulic or PTO winches, though in most recovery situations, they function well.

You can use either steel cable or synthetic rope in an off-road winch. Some enthusiasts argue that steel cable is superior, but some synthetic rope boasts a breaking strength of almost 20,000 pounds (9,072 kilograms) -- more than twice as strong as steel. More important, rope is much lighter, which makes the entire winch package lighter, which in turn puts less strain on the vehicle's suspension. Either way, you might want to think about upgrading your springs to handle a winch's extra weight. And don't forget to upgrade your factory bumper, which likely won't be strong enough to handle the demands of self-recovery winching. Look for an aftermarket bumper that supports extreme loads without intruding on your vehicle's crumple zone.

If you're still on the trail for more information, keep driving to the next page. We have a full list of links and articles about off-road driving.

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