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Jeep Wrangler Winches Explained

No serious off-roading enthusiast would ever leave the pavement without a fully functioning winch. The risk of getting stuck in a mud puddle or stranded in a ditch is simply too great, even for experienced drivers. Not to mention recovery winches give Jeepers more freedom and independence. With the help of these durable devices, they can explore rugged trails miles from civilization and pull their Wrangler to safety without any outside help. When shopping for a winch, there are a lot of factors to consider. No one can tell you what winch will work best for you, so the best thing to do is decide what you want to do with a winch and then compare your options.

Extreme Terrain

Which Winch is Which?

Veteran off-roaders have been arguing about which type of winch motor is best for decades—hydraulic or electric? The biggest difference between the two is duty cycle. Because it’s powered by the steering pump, you can winch until the cows come home with a hydraulic motor as long as your engine is running. By comparison, an electric winch is powered by the electrical system, which does not have the power for continuous use. However, electrical motors can provide five minutes of pulling power even on a dead engine. At the end of the day, both motors are more than adequate for the occasional winching required by serious off-roaders.

JK Wrangler with a Winch Mounted in a Stubby Bumper

Electric Winch Motors

Electric winches are becoming more common and a first choice for most trail uses. One of the key benefits of an electrical winch is maintenance. Unlike a hydraulic winch, electric winches require little to no maintenance at all. One of the most important components to monitor is the motor and control unit. Be sure to cover the winch from the sun and other elements that could have a tremendously degrading effect on the components, including the motor, control unit, and synthetic rope/cable.

Electric winches also require a tremendous amount of electricity to function properly. An electric winch is capable of functioning up to five minutes on a dead engine and healthy battery. It’s important to note such a high electrical demand requires careful monitoring of your Jeep’s alternator and overall electrical system.

Continuous use is largely dependent on the size of the winch and weight of the vehicle being recovered. It’s always a good rule of thumb to at least double your vehicle’s weight when choosing a winch to ensure it’s capable of recovering the vehicle without a tremendous strain on the winch’s motor. When properly configured and used correctly during recovery, a winch can offer a great deal of continuous reliable use.

Barricade Wrangler Winch 9,500 lb Electric, Series Wound
9,500lb Electric, Series Wound Winch

Not All Electricity is Created Equal

Electronic winches use electric motors that drive either a worm gear or a planetary gear set in order to turn a drum. The drum is the cylinder the winch cable/rope is spooled around. Electric motors operate using magnetism to rotate, by using magnets with different polarities for the stator and having a rotor that alternates polarity, the motor spins. Electric motors have two major parts you will find in every one of them, a rotor and a stator. The rotor is the internal assembly that rotates and has the output shaft integrated with it. The stator goes around the outside of the rotor and stays stationary.

There are two different styles of electric motors used in winches, permanent magnet motors and series wound motors. Permanent magnet motors use strong magnets for the stator and have an armature with copper coils for the rotor. These motors have a lower amp draw than series wound and tend to be cheaper, however the drawback is that they are more likely to overheat and tend to lose power in cold weather. Series wound motors use field coils in place of permanent magnets and are much more reliable because of it. They are powerful, more reliable, and have a longer service life making them a more popular choice.

Series Wound:

  • Are more reliable
  • More powerful
  • Longer service life
  • Higher current draw

Permanent Magnet:

  • Cheaper
  • Lower current draw
  • Loses power in cold weather
  • More likely to overheat
Barricade Wrangler Winch 12,000 lb Electric, Series Wound
12,000 lb Electric, Series Wound Winch

Permanent magnet motors are best suited for light to medium duty winching. They have a lower amperage draw than series wound, but are more likely to overheat which can cause them to burn out or lose strength over time. Another issue with this type of motor, is that they will lose power in extremely cold weather unlike series wound. Series wound motors are powerful, efficient at high speed, and can produce more torque from the same amount of current. These motors tend to have a greater current draw than permanent magnet motors due to the field coils needing to be powered. Series wound motors are more expensive and draw more current than permanent magnet motors but are much more reliable. If you are planning on using a winch very often then the series wound motor would be a better choice due to their superior durability and extended service life.

Pros:

  • Less expensive
  • Widely available
  • Doesn’t require the engine to be running
  • Easier to install
  • Can be used in situations where you can't start the engine
  • Faster line speed
  • Higher quality winches are submersible

Cons:

  • Should only be run for short periods of time before cooling
  • Serious draw on your electrical system
  • Can drain a battery very quickly if used while engine is off
  • Permanent magnet motors are sensitive to impacts
Barricade Wrangler Winch 9,500 lb Electric, Series Wound Winch

What You Need to Operate an Electric Winch

Electric winches use a very large amount of power and can quickly deplete a typical automotive battery, you may even begin to see your Wrangler’s lights begin to dim as you pull your friends out. Most automotive batteries are designed to put out a large amount of energy to start a vehicle, after which the vehicle’s alternator will take over to supply the engine and accessories power while recharging the battery. Once the vehicle is running its main purpose is to smooth out power fluctuations from the alternator. If a battery is removed from a newer running vehicle it could cause thousands of dollars in damage to delicate electrical components. A simple upgrade is to replace it with a battery like the Optima yellow top. Why this helps is the battery is not only designed for starting a vehicle, it acts like a deep cycle battery so your winch is able to operate longer without draining your battery completely.
 
While a new battery is a great solution for the casual winch user, repeatedly subjecting a battery and stock charging system to the abuse of a winch repeatedly in a short span of time can kill your shiny new battery and/or your factory alternator. For this reason, the best way to get your Wrangler ready for a winch is to simply install an alternator capable of outputting a higher amount of current. What this does is allow your Jeep and winch to both operate solely off of the alternator without putting an added strain on the battery, and because the new alternator is designed to handle this abuse your electrical system is safe to winch another day.

Optima Yellow Top Battery Installed in a Wrangler

Hydraulic Wrangler Winches

Hydraulic winches run off of hydraulic fluid are typically more expensive than electric winches and have a slightly more involved installation. With electric winches you simply bolt on the winch and connect a few wires, with hydraulic winches you must tap into your power steering pump, run high pressure lines to the winch and possibly install hydraulic solenoids. The main benefits to hydraulic winches is that they have a 100% duty cycle and are fully submersible. Having a 100% duty cycle means that it can be run constantly without any negative effects, this is extremely useful for commercial uses and for large off-roading events that you may need to use the winch often.

Hydraulic winches work by using a fluid in a confined space and using a pump to create a pressure differential. This pressure differential involves having a low pressure fluid stored in a reservoir before the pump that becomes pressurized inside of the pump which moves to the driven component and back to the reservoir. In addition to a reservoir, pump, and lines, there will be several valves that control the flow in the system.

Winches with hydraulic motors are less common in the off-roading world but are very popular for commercial uses due to their duty cycle and reliability. Hydraulic winches are able to run constantly without having to worry about overheating or failing. One of the main drawbacks to hydraulic winches is they run off the steering pump. Therefore, the engine must be running in order for it to operate. Unfortunately, you may not be able to have the engine running in certain situations where you would need a winch. If you are planning on using a winch commercially or for a rescue vehicle, a hydraulic winch would be the best option thanks to their ability to run constantly without having to worry about burning out the motor. This is one of the main reasons why vehicles like tow trucks use hydraulic winches.

Pros:

  • Can be run all day without any adverse effects
  • Submersible
  • Very reliable
  • Great for daily use

Cons:

  • Complex installation
  • Only operates when engine is running
  • More expensive
  • Slow
  • May reduce steering ability while in use if connected to power steering pump

The Pros and Cons of Using Steel Cable

Steel cable has been around for a long time in the winch world and is still very popular today, mainly because it is very strong and rugged. Made from strands of carbon steel, wire rope is the traditional choice for winch line. It’s what is wound around the winches that come directly from the factory. This kind of winch line has a lot of things going for it; it’s heat resistant, abrasion resistant, relatively inexpensive, and is low maintenance. However, it does has several drawbacks. 

On the con side, wire rope is much heavier than synthetic rope and may fray. Synthetic rope is also stronger and is not nearly as dangerous as wire rope should it snap. Steel cable is also susceptible to rust and will do just that if it is not properly cared for. The best way to protect it is to keep a layer of chain oil or WD-40 on the cable. Another issue with steel cable is it can be very dangerous, even when being used properly. When handling the cable thick gloves should be worn to protect your hands from burrs formed as the wire wears. These burrs can easily cut through skin like a knife. One of the most dangerous issues with steel cable is it stores a lot of energy meaning if it snaps it can slice a person in half.

Pros:

  • Cheaper
  • Abrasion resistant
  • Less likely to fray
  • Not affected by UV light or chemicals
  • Low maintenance
  • Heat resistant

Cons:

  • Rusts
  • Heavy
  • Not very flexible
  • Harder to spool
  • Can form sharp burs
  • Stores kinetic energy which can seriously injure someone if it snaps
  • Difficult to repair
  • Vulnerable to crushing
8,500 lb Steel Wrangler Winch Cable
8,500 lb Steel Winch Cable

The Pros and Cons of Synthetic Rope

Synthetic rope entered the off-roading world in the 90’s and has become very popular due to its safety benefits. Its biggest safety feature is unlike steel winch cable; synthetic rope doesn’t store anywhere near as much kinetic energy. This means if it were to snap it’s less likely to cause any serious damage to anyone or anything. For this reason, synthetic rope is required on your winch for a large majority of sanctioned off-road events.

Pros:

  • Doesn’t store as much kinetic energy
  • Won’t form burs so it can be handled without gloves
  • Much lighter than steel cable
  • Floats on water
  • Easily repaired in the field
  • Flexible
  • Crush resistant
  • Higher break strength than steel cable of same diameter
  • Can be easily cleaned
  • You can fit more synthetic rope of the same load rating as steel on a spool

Cons:

  • Can be damaged by UV light and chemicals
  • Not very resistant to abrasion
  • Can fray from heavy use
  • Expensive
  • Can be damaged by heat
12,000 Wrangler Winch Synthetic Line
12,000 Winch Synthetic Line

Winch Line Capacity

When it comes to deciding what winch is best for your Wrangler, an important thing you will need to decide is what size winch to get. Obviously the heavier the vehicle, the stronger the winch you will need to pull yourself out of a bad situation, a good rule of thumb is your winch should be at least 1.5 times the weight of your Wrangler. If your Jeep is stock other than the winch you will be adding, you can just multiply your gross vehicle weight (GVW) by 1.5. However, if you have done all kinds of crazy mods like a lift, bumpers, wheels, tires or anything else, you should take your gross vehicle weight and factor in weight of the mods you have done before multiplying by 1.5. If you feel like being extremely accurate you can take your Wrangler to the local weigh station or scrap yard and find the exact weight of your Wrangler when it is fully loaded with all of your gear that you might bring with you when you off-road, this will give you the most accurate weight of your Jeep for winching situations.

JK Wrangler at Raush Creek

Winch Mounting Systems

The single most important consideration when selecting a mounting system is to make certain it can handle the pulling capacity of the recovery winch. The weight of the system might also be an issue, since it can cause the front suspension of your Wrangler to ride a bit lower. This could adversely affect ground clearance and result in approach angle issues. Make sure you have a mounting system that’s up to the task of keeping your winch properly secured.

How to Safely Use Your Winch

The most important part of using your winch is doing it safely. Using the correct equipment and winching techniques will prevent injuries and damage to the equipment. One important thing to remember is during winch recovery there are two safe places to be; far away from the cabling, and inside the vehicle. A snapped cable will whip with enough force to slice you in half.

As mentioned earlier, gloves are of vital importance. Burrs in the wire cable or sharp debris picked up by synthetic rope can slice hands open while being handled if thick leather gloves are not worn.

How the Winch's Controls Work

On all winches you should have a lever/switch. This is your clutch. The clutch controls whether your winch drum is engaged or if it is able to free spool. If your winch is engaged then the drum is meshed with the motor, however if it is able to free spool then it is disengaged from the motor and it can be pulled out by hand. The winch should be switched to free spool when you are pulling out the cable to use it, however, do not forget to re-engage the clutch after you are done with it. This lever/switch should never be touched while the motor is running or while there is a load on the cable. Doing so can cause damage to the winch or injury to yourself. Along with your clutch lever you will have motor controls, IN and OUT, each will run your motor in a different direction to allow your winch to operate.

Stretching the Cable

After you first install a winch onto your vehicle you should “stretch” the cable. This means you respool the cable with tension to prevent slippage while winching. A winch cable that slips while winching could experience added strain that could increase the chance of the line snapping. The easiest way to stretch your cable is to find a hill with a slight incline and use the weight of your Wrangler to tightly respool the cable. This should be done while the engine is running to prevent the battery from dying and without people around to prevent any accidental injuries. Before placing a load on the winch cable, ensure there are at least five turns of cable on the drum. While respooling, be sure to evenly spool the cable on the drum to prevent any part of the cable from being crushed.

Anchoring a Winch

When it comes to any recovery it is important to consider your anchor point, if you are in a forest you can most likely find a sturdy tree to use. If you are in a desert or in the middle of a snow covered field, you may not have a solid anchor point, in this situation you will need to use a ground anchor. To create your own while you are stuck you can use a log or your spare tire.

Natural Anchor

  • Find a sturdy tree in front of your Jeep
  • Wrap a tree strap around the tree and connect both ends with a D-ring
  • Connect winch cable to D-ring

Ground Anchor

  • Begin by digging a hole 2-3 feet deep
  • Tie a chain or tree strap around the log or tire
  • Place tire/log into hole angled away from your Wrangler
  • Bury your tire/log and pack down tight
  • Use a D-ring to connect your winch cable to the anchor strap

Straight Line Recovery

You’re having a great time on the trail and decide to push your Jeep’s limit a bit too far and get stuck in mud. You quickly glance the terrain and luckily find a tree straight ahead. It’s now time to get your gloves on and a bit dirty. Ensuring your winch is in neutral and the line is rolling free, pull the line by the hook, never grab the line itself, and pull it out towards the tree. Wrap the tree strap around the tree trunk, the lower the better, ensuring the trunk is big enough to support the pull. With the strap around the tree, connect both looped ends of the strap with a D-ring. You always should hook the hook of the winch line to a D-ring. Never around an object and back onto itself of around the loops of the strap. Using a D-ring ensures the safest connection point for the hook. Once properly hooked, drape a line dampener over the line for added safety, go back to the Jeep and engage the winch in the forward drive position. Ensure no one is standing in front of or closely alongside of the Jeep. From inside the Jeep, remotely engage the winch, while slowly accelerating forward to recover the Jeep. This same procedure can be done to another Jeep, using D-rings attached to the Jeep’s frame as the anchor point.​

  • Find an anchor directly in front of the winch, do not try to winch sideways
  • Clear the area of spectators
  • Disengage winch clutch
  • Wearing a pair of gloves, pull your cable to your anchor point
  • Using a tree saver and a D-ring connect the cable to the anchor
  • Place a line dampener on cable halfway between anchor and the Jeep
  • Re-engage winch clutch
  • Connect the controller to the winch
  • Start the engine to prevent draining the battery
  • Begin the pull 
  • Once your Jeep is free and able to drive, respool the winch cable
Olympic 4x4 Front Bumper Wrangler Winch Mount for 2007-2017 JKs
Front Bumper Winch Mount Installed with Winch

The Not-So Straight Line Recovery

Sometimes you don’t have a straight approach for a direct-line recovery and you have to create an angled or side-recovery. In that case you would incorporate the use of a snatch block pulley. The snatch block would be connected to the D-ring attached to the tree strap. The winch line is fed between the pulley and the hook attached to the end point of another Jeep’s D-ring or a D-ring around another tree strap. The pulley in the snatch block allows the changing of angle and properly distributes the pulling of the Jeep.

Each recovery example has a unique purpose. The most important thing to keep in mind when winching a vehicle is line tension. Ideally you need to minimize extreme angles, while using proper anchor points and snatch blocks to compensate for the angles to minimize stress on the line. Also, safety is important, the lines carry a tremendous amount of tension, if not properly maintained, might fail while in use. If there is no line dampener in place the result of a whipping steel line can be catastrophic for not only the occupants in the Jeep but people standing along the side. Proper maintenance, planning and use of appropriate parts will ensure a safe recovery and get you back on the trail quickly.

If you have a steel cable on your winch, for safe winching you need to always keep a pair of thick work gloves to protect your hands from sharp burs and a line dampener. A line dampener helps protect you and everyone around you from a line snap when you are winching by putting some weight on the center to help absorb some energy and pull it downwards. If you do not have one a heavy blanket, floor mat, jacket, or even socks full of rocks or sand can be used in its place as long as it has some weight to it.

  • Find an anchor directly in front of the stuck vehicle
  • Clear the area of spectators
  • Using a tree saver and a D-ring, connect snatch block to the anchor
  • Park the winch vehicle in the desired location facing the anchor
  • Disengage winch clutch
  • Wearing a pair of gloves, pull your cable to your snatch block and feed it through
  • Pull the cable to the stuck vehicle and connect to a recovery point
  • Place a line dampener on each length of cable
  • Re Engage winch clutch
  • Connect the controller to the winch
  • Start the engine to prevent draining the battery
  • Instruct the driver of the stuck vehicle to place the vehicle in gear and give it gas while you are using the winch to pull the vehicle out
  • Once the vehicle regains traction and is free, respool the winch cable
JK Wrangler with Front Bumper Mounted D-Ring Shackles Installed
D-Ring Shackles Installed

Additional Accessories for Your Winch and Recovery

With your winch there are several tools and accessories every off-roader should keep with it. One of the cheapest and most important accessories for a winch is a good cover for the winch. This will help protect your winch, fairlead, and your cable from the elements. Steel cables can easily rust if they are not properly cared for and synthetic ropes can be damaged by exposure to UV light and chemicals.

Tree trunk protectors, d-rings, snatch blocks, tow straps, and snatch straps are all extremely useful additions to your tool bag. A tree trunk protector will both protect a tree from being damaged and can give you a little extra length to work with. D-rings, tree trunk protectors, and snatch blocks are commonly used together to do corner recoveries when you are unable to pull another vehicle out straight due to an obstacle.

Wrangler Barricade Winch Cover
Wrangler with Winch Cover

How to Use Additional Recovery Tools

The old saying “Always use the right tool for the Job” is especially true when discussing Jeep recovery with a winch. The improper use of the winch or these tools can cause serious damage to your jeep or harm to people in the area.

Tree Protectors/Strap: usually consist of polyester webbing similar to a tow strap. The strap wraps around the base of a sturdy tree trunk in-line with the Jeep’s winch. It’s important to note the girth of the tree stump and ensure it can be used as an anchoring point for recovery.

D-Ring: These heavy duty shackles are the main contact points for the winch hook. You should always use a D-Ring to unify both ends of a tree strap or to properly engage another Jeep’s recovery point. The winch’s hook should snap onto the D-Ring and never directly to the anchoring point.

Snatch Blocks: these pulleys are used in situations when a recovery point is at an angle or to create a multi-point anchoring system, utilizing the pulleys as increased leverage points for an increase in anchoring force.

Recovery Ropes: Recovery ropes are designed to offer some rebound and elasticity, the ideology is to build momentum to help aid in recovery. These ropes are especially useful during recovery in mud.

8,000 lb Capacity Snatch Block Pulling a Wrangler
8,000 lb Capacity Snatch Block Puller Set Up
Fitment includes: JK, TJ, YJ, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018