What Is a Tow Winch and Do You Really Need One for Off-Roading

There’s an old saying that you can get a lot done with a four-wheel drive, but when you’re stuck, you’re stuck really bad! Of course, for off-roaders and camping enthusiasts, that means you’re probably stuck so far away from the civilized world that no one else can come to rescue you.

In such a situation, the best tool for self-rescue is a tow winch installed and ready for use. If you are new to this niche, you may be wondering what a tow winch is and how it works.

A tow winch consists of a powerful electric motor that drives a retractable heavy-duty cable. It is permanently attached to the frame of a truck, jeep or similar off-road vehicle. When you get stuck, you can extend the cable and grab onto a large tree or other secure anchor point to pull yourself out.

However, this is a simplified explanation of a somewhat complicated device. The length and type of cable, the type of electric motor, and the specifications of the vehicle are all important factors in finding the best tow winch for your off-road vehicle. Clearly, we need to delve a little deeper into this somewhat technical topic.

How does a towing winch work?

A towing winch has a heavy-duty cable or strong plastic rope coiled on a drum. When you need to move something heavy, pull your vehicle out of a difficult situation, or bail out another vehicle, you release the brake on the drum of the tow winch. This allows the cable to be rolled up and connected to either a stable anchor point or another vehicle.

Now turn on the electric motor, which will drive the drum and gradually tighten the cable. Once the cable is taut, you can increase the torque of the electric motor via the integrated or wireless controls to either pull your vehicle to the anchor point or pull another vehicle or object to you.

What vehicles can a towing winch be installed on?

Four-wheel drive vehicles, such as pickups and SUVs with 4×4 capabilities, are the most common choice for installing a towing winch. These vehicles are often off-road vehicles where the ability to use torque and traction from all four wheels helps optimize the towing winch’s ability to get the vehicle out of a difficult situation. It also helps improve overall stability.

It also helps that these four-wheel drive vehicles usually have plenty of power. The engine and drivetrain can then be used together with the towing winch if necessary.

In addition, powerful engines usually have larger 12-volt batteries that provide adequate power to the electric motor of the towing winch. While many off-roaders also add an additional power source, a direct connection is better.

Flatbed trucks are also a popular option for a towing winch. This is often used to pull a broken down car onto the bed for transport when the wheels stop working.

Towing winches can even be found on ATVs and UTVs. These are usually designed to pull the ATV out of a muddy spot, get extra game out of a difficult situation, or remove an obstacle such as a fallen branch. The lighter overall weight of an ATV prevents it from being functionally capable of towing a full-grown vehicle or travel trailer.

Components of a towing winch and their function.?

There are several key components of a tow winch that all work together to get you and your vehicle out of trouble. A basic understanding of these components will help you ask more informed questions when searching for the right tow winch for your vehicle. It will also help you know the lingo when talking to experienced Overlanders and off-road campers.

1. The winch motor

Most off-road towing winches use electric motors connected to the 12-volt electrical system. The motor then turns the drum that holds the tow rope. The higher the voltage

2. The winch rope

The winch cable is attached to the drum. It is passed through a reel cable or hawse fairlead in the front of the winch. Most winch cables are 40 to 100 feet long, which is usually sufficient to find a secure anchor point or develop a network of ground anchors to pull a stuck vehicle out of a difficult situation.

Traditionally, winch ropes were made from a special type of braided metal strand. In recent years, however, polymeric synthetic ropes have become the new standard for winch ropes.

They are often mandatory in off-road competitions. If you plan to enter your off-road vehicle in competitions, you should give preference to a towing winch with a long plastic rope of at least 65 feet or more.

3. The drum of the towing winch

The drum of a towing winch is where the heavy tow cable is neatly wound up. As it rotates in a circular motion, it winds and unwinds the cable. It holds the spool tightly without you having to worry about it being a problem until you need to use it.

The winch drum also has an internal braking mechanism that holds the load when the winch is not in use. It also prevents the load from slipping back and ensures that the rope does not suddenly come off the winch drum during travel.

4. The gear train of the towing winch

The towing winch gear train, sometimes called “winch drive”, takes the power generated by the winch motor and converts it into pulling force that you can use to move the vehicle. In a towing winch gear train, the gear ratio plays an important role in the rope speed.

There are three major gear systems to consider. The planetary gear, the worm gear, and the spur gear. Each of them has a different efficiency transmission. Of these, the planetary head and motor are generally longer and narrower than spur motors. Depending on where you want to mount your towing winch, this may be a factor.

How much can a towing winch pull?

How much can a towing winch pull?

The maximum pulling force of a winch is factored into the slope it takes to pull the vehicle up. This assumes that the vehicle itself is carrying its own weight on all four tires and that the vehicle’s tires are movable to some degree. This is referred to as the “rolling load”.

Use the following table to estimate the capacity of a winch to pull a rolling load.

With a non-rolling load, such as a vehicle whose wheels are trapped by thick mud or rocks, or a vehicle where mechanical failure has rendered one or more wheels inoperable, the actual pulling capacity of the winch is limited.

In such a case, the general rule of thumb is that you need a winch with a maximum pulling force 150% greater than the actual gross weight of the vehicle being towed.

4 Reasons why a towing winch is necessary for off-roading

Towing winches are absolutely necessary for any off-road camping or overlanding vehicle. When you get stuck, and you will, the tow winch can pull you out. It’s especially handy if you’re the only vehicle going off-road, because it keeps your family from getting stuck in potentially wild conditions.

1: Help for other off-road travelers

You can also use a tow winch to rescue other members of your party when they get stuck. Often, a tow winch on a vehicle with a locking rear differential is the best friend for a vehicle with a limited slip differential.

Especially if you have a friend who wants to have a fun weekend with you in their SUV, and it gets stuck in the mud or slides into a ditch.

2: The setting of the trailer

If you’re camping off the road, a winch can also help you set up or reposition your trailer. Let’s say you found a spot that looked good at first, but later it proved impossible to properly align the trailer.

Hitching the trailer may prove difficult because the tongue is now out of alignment with the hitch of the truck or jeep. In such a case, you can use the towing winch to correct the position of the trailer or at least bring it into a better position to hitch it up again.

A tow winch can also be used to pull the trailer out of a jam. More than one off-road camping enthusiast has parked on gravel or seemingly solid ground until a rainstorm softened the ground and the jack stands sank into the mud.

In such a case, a tow winch can be used to either pull the trailer back to solid ground or at least put it in a better position to be able to hitch up with the tow vehicle and pull it out.

3: Remote site access

With all due respect to the National Park Service and state park systems in all 50 states, there are areas on public lands where you are “technically” allowed to be there and camp.

However, they know full well that no one can ever get there in a vehicle. These sites are reserved for trail campers who travel arduous miles on closed logging roads and trails to stay in a pristine campsite.

If you have a tow winch on your four-wheel drive vehicle, you can navigate these closed logging roads and treacherous trails in comfort and style. If you do get stuck in a muddy or washed out section of road, your tow winch can get you out with confidence.

4: Save money on tow trucks

A towing winch can come in handy at home, too. Especially if you live in a northern state where ice storms are a common winter problem. If you start to slide on an icy road, you could be waiting hours for a tow truck.

Then you’re left with a hefty bill for your troubles. However, a tow winch can get you out of trouble, which can be a lifesaver in a severe storm.

What size towing winch do I need?

What size of towing winch do I need?

The prevailing wisdom is that you should aim for a towing winch that can pull 150% more than the gross vehicle weight rating of your vehicle. You want a tow winch that can pull more than just the dry weight of your vehicle. It needs to be able to pull the fully loaded maximum gross weight, and then some.

Although this is a winch that would pull a truck with its own weight up a steep incline of more than 35 degrees. You would normally only find a scenario like this in an extreme overlanding or off-road competition.

If you only need a towing winch to pull your off-road vehicle out of the mud or to help your friend out of a shallow, snow-covered ditch, then the winch only needs to have a rated pulling force of 30% to 50% of the actual total weight of the vehicle.

The Best Entry Level Towing Winches for Your Vehicle

The good news is that the increasing popularity of overlanding and off-road camping means there are more entry-level towing winches than ever before.

They have the maximum pulling power for many modern vehicles that need to traverse difficult terrain, while being easy to install and intuitive to use in the field.

1: VEVOR 15500 lb capacity truck winch

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  • Waterproof motor12volt electric motor
  • 6.6 HP
  • 15,500 lbs. Pull-through force
  • 93.5ft synthetic steel cable

This Vevor electric towing winch is designed to operate from your vehicle’s 12-volt electrical system. It has a 6.6 horsepower motor that provides a maximum pulling force of up to 15,500 pounds.

More than enough to pull the gross weight of a heavily loaded half-ton pickup truck while still saving power. Although it was originally designed for Jeeps and other off-road SUVs.

What makes this Vevor electric tow winch special is that it comes with 93 feet of synthetic steel cable.

Not only does this give you the length you need to reach any fixed anchor point like a tree or rock outcropping, but it also has the structural integrity to not give under the load generated by the electric motor.

Even if there is no good anchor point nearby, a steel cable this long is often sufficient to use ground anchors or a catch block without compromising functionality.

2: Rockland VMI14 12 Volt DC Electric Integrated Winch

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  • 12V DC 7HP motor with series winding
  • 12,000 lbs. maximum pull capacity
  • 82 feet synthetic rope

This Rockland VMI14 12 volt electric rope has a maximum pulling capacity of up to 12,000 pounds. This will handle the weight of almost any half-ton pickup truck and pretty much any off-road Jeep or SUV.

One of the interesting features of the Rockland VMI14 is that it uses 82 feet of synthetic rope. It is considered safer than conventional steel cables. If it fails, the reaction is far less severe.

Synthetic rope is now required in many off-road competitions. So if you are a competitor, consider the Rockland VMI14 as the best tow winch for you!

3: RUGCEL RG-0021 Waterproof Electric Synthetic Rope Winch

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  • 13,500 lbs. maximum pulling force
  • 7.2 HP
  • 12 Volt electric motor
  • 100 feet synthetic rope

Rugcel’s electric towing winch is very well constructed and features many modern innovations expected by both off-road competitors and overland campers who want a winch that inspires confidence.

It starts with the red, 100-foot nylon-based synthetic winch cable that has a maximum pulling force of up to 13,500 pounds.

It’s powered by a rugged 7.2-hp electric motor. It also features a Hawse Fairlead that protects the synthetic winch cable and reduces its wear while protecting the winch itself from unnecessary damage.

It also has a 3-stage planetary gear system that provides differential, deceleration and reversing. There is even a wireless remote control that allows you to stay out of harm’s way!

Is a towing winch with synthetic rope better than a conventional steel cable?

While there are some die-hard steel cable enthusiasts, many overlanders are switching to towing winches with synthetic cables. It’s far less damaging to the winch itself and also has less catastrophic consequences if the rope fails. Many off-road competitions have rules that require the use of a synthetic winch. Steel winches are not allowed in these sanctioned events.

Is it worth installing a winch on your vehicle?

There’s no doubt about it: tow winches open up your ability to safely enjoy campgrounds and off-road events. They are an essential item for overlanding and can even be useful for your Jeep, SUV or truck.

Increasing popularity and technological innovations have helped them evolve to the next level of performance while lowering the purchase price.

If you’re looking for a powerful model with a traditional steel cable, the VEVOR Electric 15500 lb winch may be the best tow winch for you. Its 6.6-hp electric motor and 93-foot length are enough to get you out of any jam.

If you’re looking for a model that can compete in off-road events and keep you safe while off-road camping, the Rugcel 13.500 may be the best tow vehicle for you. It has all the technical features you want to see to protect your investment, while using a state-of-the-art red synthetic winch cable.

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