When all else fails, inch by winch
  |  First Published: July 2006

In previous articles we have addressed the issue of vehicle recovery focusing on various types of recovery straps including the snatch strap and, more recently, the snatch rope. All of these methods require at least one other vehicle to act as the recovery vehicle.

However, there are numerous situations where a vehicle needs recovery when isolated or when the surface means a recovery vehicle is unable to gain traction, or the distance between the recovery vehicle and the disabled vehicle is excessive.

Previously, we have stressed that recovery gear should be viewed as an insurance package – there when you need it but hopefully in storage for the majority of the time. As increasing numbers of Australians take their vehicles into more isolated and challenging locations in groups or solo, the ability to extract one’s own vehicle becomes an absolute necessity.

In such situations a winch provides the best solution for extracting the vehicle, particularly if it gets stuck solo. Winches allow load to be applied easily, effectively and smoothly with a minimum of fuss. If used correctly they are safe and powerful and in many extreme situations can represent the only guarantee of extracting a vehicle from a dire situation.

I can think of a number of situations in which I have found myself in where a winch was the difference between losing a vehicle and recovering one. In later articles I will discuss these situations but suffice to say, when you have a vehicle stuck in a deep quagmire in the delta country north of Lake Eyre with no hope of rescue, a winch is essential.

I am not suggesting that the great majority of off-roaders would travel this terrain but there are numerous parts of Australia where a winch could be essential for recovery of a vehicle or trailer.

As is always the case for all recovery equipment, dangers are involved and safety precautions need to be heeded and practised. It is strongly advisable that people using winches be thoroughly trained in their use, application and maintenance. I will have more to say about these issues later.


Winches earn their keep in a wide variety of situations. The most obvious is where a vehicle is travelling alone and outside assistance is not available.

• Soft, porous surfaces, especially when wet, will bog a vehicle so deeply that extraction by a second or third vehicle becomes impossible or dangerous. Surfaces can range from soft, porous sand (such as around a stream crossing) to silts and clays combined with sand (on many inland flats, dry lake surfaces, dry stream crossings and river beds, depressions between sand dunes and so on). In the latter instances, saturated material acts like glue, immobilising the vehicle with a suction effect.

• If a vehicle has slipped over the side of a slope or into a deep rut or gully, winching becomes essential.

• If a vehicle becomes suspended on its chassis on rocks or logs, eliminating effective traction, a winch is essential for recovery.

• Winches can be used to safely lower or recover vehicles down a slope.

• A bogged camper trailer or off-road van can be recovered independently of the tow vehicle in a severe bog.

• Winches are extremely useful for recovering vehicles up steep, rocky or eroded slopes. If the slope is wet and slippery, winching one vehicle to the top of the slope allows the other vehicles to be recovered up the slope if necessary. If travelling alone, there is no alternative except waiting for track conditions to dry out.

• Vehicles disabled by mechanical breakdown can be recovered on to a trailer or truck using a winch.

• Winches can be use to remove obstructions from the track, including logs and boulders.

• If a vehicle has rolled over or on to its side, a winch can be used to right it and the same applies to trailers.

• We have used winches to undertake repairs where a controlled load is required. For example, lowering a gearbox and transferring it out of a vehicle; lifting a vehicle for suspension repairs; applying load to close cracks in a chassis for welding and so on. In such cases extreme caution and significant skill is involved but I list these just to demonstrate how versatile a winch can be.


A comprehensive range of winches is available for a variety of vehicles and applications. Most come complete including wire rope, a roller fairlead guide, free-spooling clutch, forward and reverse gearing and a remote control. As an alternative to wire rope, Dynamica or Plasma rope is also available – more about this later.

The correct winch capacity and type will be determined by the intended application, vehicle type, weight and size and mounting considerations. As a general guide, the following formula can be used: Gross vehicle mass x 1.5 = the minimum size and capacity of the winch.

For heavy duty requirements a further 30% to 50% weighting factor should be applied. The gross vehicle mass (GVM) is found on the vehicle compliance plate.

When selecting a winch take into account the weight when fully loaded with camping gear, additional fuel and water, accessories, storage and so on. If towing an off-road trailer or camper, take this into account as well.

In times past 8500lb to 9000lb winches (about 4 tonnes) were the norm. Today 10,000lb to 12,000lb winches are available with more powerful motors and clutches and stronger gearing. Such winches are about the same size as their smaller cousins and can be fitted to the overwhelming majority of 4WD bull bars. High-mount, high-speed winches are also available for competition and for situations where recovery needs to be quick and efficient. Winches fall into four main types:


These are powered by hydraulic fluid and circuitry and are relatively expensive. They are used mainly in commercial applications such as timber-getting and mining. They are rarely used on 4WDs because of cost and complexity although there is no doubting their efficiency, reliability and constant pulling power.

However, TJM Products have produced an excellent and affordable (about $2300) hydraulic winch powered by the vehicle’s power steering pump. I have one installed on our company’s recovery ute (we extract vehicles off Lennox and South Ballina beaches) and for constant and continuous pulling power there is no equal.

These winches have been rigorously tested and their ability to provide continuous winching over extended periods means peace of mind in difficult recoveries.

In a recent incident we had to use one over almost four hours. Forget an electric winch in such a situation, its operation is limited to five to 10 minutes due to battery limitations.

Hydraulic winches may be slower but they excel in arduous and continuous use. To be able to operate, the engine must be running. If the vehicle is mechanically disabled, the winch cannot be used – for example, when drowned in a stream crossing.


Power take-off winches are mechanically driven via the vehicle’s transfer case through a driveline to the front-mounted winch. PTO winches are manufactured for a limited range of vehicles which need to have the appropriate PTO port to the side of the transfer case and connections to allow operation. Toyota’s commercial range of vehicles are an example.

The PTO provides for toughness and reliability for serious applications, thanks to worm gearing. Winching speed is variable via the selection of vehicle gears (it is run through the transfer and therefore the gearbox) and engine revolutions.

Uninterrupted winching is available while the vehicle is running, with a strong capacity of 8000lbs (3600kg). Once again, the engine must be running. Like the hydraulic winch, this is its major limitation.


These are the most effective and efficient over a wide range of situations, especially when the engine is inoperative. They are compact due to the use of planetary gearing and are run by high-efficiency 4hp to 5hp motors powered by the vehicle’s battery. Because they can drain a 75amp-hour battery in under 10 minutes, dual battery systems are recommended.

They are easy to install and operate and can be switched between vehicles. They range from 2500lb (1134kg) capacity to 12000lb (5400kg) although larger units are available. These sizes generally can be accommodated in modern 4WD vehicle bull bars.

When the going gets tough electric winches must be used intermittently to allow time for the motor to cool down and for the battery to recharge with engine running continuously.


These winches are highly versatile and portable. They are relatively cheap and lightweight , especially the aluminium variety. They are low-maintenance and can be switched between vehicles easily, thus servicing the needs of a group.

I regard them as essential equipment even when an alternative power winch is in stalled. Why? Because they can be used to pull a vehicle forwards, backwards, sideways, onto its side, can be used without motive power or when a battery is flat, can operate as a hoist, in vehicle repairs and to remove obstructions – they can even be used as fence strainers.

However, there is a downside – they require sheer physical effort via a lever action of the handle. If on a steep slope, this effort can be substantial.

These winches generally come with 20m of cable, a collapsible handle and storage reel. The cable or wire rope feeds through the unit via a free-spooling lever in forward or reverse.

The unit is protected from overload via a shear pin and spares are stored conveniently in the handle. Hand winches come in two main sizes – 2600kg line pull (1600lb hoist or lift) or 1600kg line pull. While the Tirfor winch is regarded by many as the Rolls Royce of the range, the Mean Green, Ox, Tuff, Black Rat and Tuff Pull units are all excellent clones which are more reasonably priced.

• Next month: Winching in more detail.

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