There’s a lot of 4WD accessories on the market today, and I often question what you really need. In this post, we dive into whether you need a winch on your 4WD, and what you should be thinking about before you fit one.
What is a winch?
Before we dive too far into this, we should cover what a winch is, and what you might use one for. In essence, they are a 12V device usually mounted to the front of your 4WD, which you use for pulling your vehicle out of a situation where they are unable to drive out of.
They have cable or rope that reaches 15 – 30 metres, and you can use trees or other vehicles to winch off, or anchors, or spare tyres dug into the ground.
When would you use a winch?
4WD Winches are used primarily as a method of recovering a bogged 4WD, or one that is unable to continue driving under its own steam. For example, if you got to a section on a hill climb where no matter what line you picked the vehicle just wouldn’t get up it, you might set a winch up to pull the vehicle up and over the obstacle.
This could be off a tree, or it might be off a vehicle in front. Alternatively, if you drove through a soft section and sunk like a brick, a winch would be a good option.
What are the benefits of a winch over a snatch strap?
I can already hear you; I’ve got a snatch strap, why do I need a winch? This is really easy to answer, and the fact is that winches offer a number of benefits over a snatch strap:
They apply force gently
Snatch straps are volatile pieces of recovery equipment. They rely on the build up of kinetic energy when a 4WD takes off, and it applies a fair amount of force over a short period. This is completely and utterly useless in a vehicle badly stuck in mud, and will often result in a broken snatch strap, or even recovery points.
A winch is far more controllable, and allows you to apply gentle force, and then to increase the force more and more in a way that is entirely at your finger tips. For someone stuck badly in mud, this is exactly what you want; you start to break the suction gently, and eventually it will pop up. A snatch strap transfers the energy too fast, and will not recover a stuck 4WD in mud well at all. They are also far more dangerous.
You can use them to twist a vehicle
If you have a snatch block (a pulley for a 4WD winch) you are able to use a winch to do some pretty nifty things. You no longer have to pull a vehicle in one direction; you can attach it to different parts and twist a vehicle around, or pull your car towards a direction that you’d have no hope of doing with a snatch strap.
They only need one vehicle, not two to do a recovery
Snatch straps need two vehicles; the stuck one, and one that is doing the recovery with the snatch strap. A winch on the other hand, can usually be used with just the stuck vehicle (as long as you have something to attach to).
If you are doing remote travel on difficult 4WD tracks on your own, a winch is almost essential for self recovery.
Can you fit a winch without a Bull Bar?
Most 4WD winches require a Bull Bar in order for them to be installed. Some use cradles off the chassis, but a lot of them bolt directly to the bull bar. This means on top of a heavy winch, you then have to fit a heavy bull bar, and pay for both.
Traditionally, Snatch Straps have been hugely popular, and they have their place. They are however, extremely dangerous, and have been a common denominator in many 4WD recovery deaths. We still use them, but not as a first option normally. They also require a second vehicle, which isn’t always around to help you out.
Traction Boards like Maxtrax are truly fantastic. They are safe, easy to use and do an exceptional job. In sand, I’d go for Maxtrax any day of the week over a snatch strap or Winch, and they can be a very valuable 4WD recovery tool to have on board.
High lift jack
Like a normal bottle jack, a high lift jack is designed for picking a 4WD up off the ground at points, and can also be used to make a hand winch. These require points to be used on, can be pretty risky if you aren’t careful with them and they aren’t light weight, but they also work.
If you are badly stuck, you can pick a wheel up, pack the hole and drop the car down, before moving onto the next one.
You don’t see these much anymore, but some people still carry hand winches, and they have the advantage of being removable when you don’t need them, and you can set them up in a much greater variety of ways.
If you want a unique 4WD recovery product, Bogout sell a rope system that uses your wheels as the winch. They work pretty well, and look neat, but I’m sure would have some interesting downfalls (like when only one wheel turns, or getting them off your wheel after, etc).
What do you use your 4WD for?
Deciding whether you need a winch or not ultimately comes down to what you use your 4WD for. If you never leave the bitumen, you won’t need a winch.
If you head off-road regularly, but always with another vehicle and on tracks that are well maintained, a snatch strap is probably going to do the trick.
However, if you are intending on doing a lot of travel on your own, in areas where tracks can be in bad shape, or you are towing something a winch can be amazingly useful.
What condition is your winch in?
You wouldn’t believe how many people fit winches to their 4WD’s, and then when they go to use them they don’t actually work. Winches need to be well cared for, tested, maintained and checked regularly. If you fitted a winch 10 years ago and you’ve never tested or maintained it since, it might be time to remove it and check its in good shape, or you’ll have a winch that is nothing more than a giant paperweight when you really need it.
What’s the downsides of a winch?
Even if you buy the cheapest, junkiest winch on the market, its still going to set you back at least $500, plus fitting. If you want an expensive, brand name unit you can be paying several thousand dollars for the winch, and that money can go a long way in fuel!
Bull Bar requirements
As discussed above, you might find the only way to mount a winch is to get a bull bar, which further increases weight and cost. Do your research very well before you commit to getting anything!
A lot of people have 4WD’s that are overweight, and not necessarily because of GVM (although that is very common), but because of axle weights. Most normal 4WD’s fitted with bash plates, a steel bull bar and a winch will be over their maximum front axle weights, and that means that they are no longer legal, and that insurance can potentially weasel out of any claims that they might make.
A winch can be 25 – 35kg, and a Bull Bar can easily be 80 – 90kg, which is a heap of weight to add to the front of your vehicle. Asides from the axle limitations, that sort of weight means you will use more fuel, you have less capacity to add other gear, and you are likely to need suspension capable of carrying the extra weight.
Inevitably, winches require some form of maintenance within their lifespan. You can choose to do nothing, and hope that it continues to work, or you can remove it from time to time and give it a good service.
You don’t need a winch…..until you do
The ultimate conclusion then, is you don’t need a winch, until you do. If you meet some of the criteria above then you may well have good justification to avoid fitting a winch, and that’s a decision you have to make.
If you feel that there’s a good chance you will need one, then it might be worth fitting a winch.
We have a Runva winch, which I put on because I knew we’d be doing a lot of towing, on our own and on tracks that can be pretty average. So far, I’ve only used it to recover other people, and that’s in 5 years. Lets see what our lap of Australia brings!