Do I really need a winch?

Recently my friend Sergio Mendez Santiago emailed me from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where he and his wife, Ruth, are putting the finishing touches on their new Mitsubishi Triton, a fine turbodiesel-powered 4WD pickup (sadly unavailable in the U.S.). Like so many of us setting up a new vehicle, Sergio has been vacillating on the decision of whether or not to install a winch. We both thought it would be a good subject to explore. Since I have a Warn 8274 on my FJ40, and I installed a Warn M8000 on Roseann’s FJ60, I certainly appreciate their value (and I think my objectivity is on solid ground)—however, I certainly don’t think one absolutely needs a winch to be able to undertake even ambitious journeys.

No matter what vehicle you drive, from a two-wheel-drive pickup with street tires to a Jeep Rubicon on BFG Mud-Terrains with diff locks front and rear, a 4:1 transfer case, disconnecting sway bar, etc. etc, you’re going to find yourself in situations for which a judgement call is needed. Obviously the two-wheel-drive pickup will have a much, much lower threshold at which discretion should kick in and you turn around, but the Rubicon will have its own threshold, beyond which you stand a good chance of getting stuck. 

In such cases, a winch can give you the leeway to push the threshold, a little or a lot depending on several factors: 

  • Are you with other vehicles that can serve as anchor points for the winch line, or which are equipped with winches themselves?
  • If you are traveling solo, are there natural anchor points, such as substantial trees, within reach of your winch line? If not, would it be possible to rig an anchor, such as by burying a spare wheel in sand?
  • If the vehicle becomes immobilized, will the situation be immediately hazardous to occupants or the vehicle itself? Examples would be getting stuck in an off-camber situation next to a drop-off, or in beach sand below the high tide line.
  • If you are traveling solo, and for some reason cannot self-recover even with the winch, are you a three-hour walk from help, or a three-day trek from civilization?

A winch also provides insurance for situations when you’re simply caught unaware and find yourself stuck—a seemingly firm dry lake bed that suddenly gives way, an innocuous patch of snow that reveals itself as tractionless ice. If you travel solo frequently, and far off the beaten track, a winch offers substantial peace of mind even if you’re not prone to pushing the envelope. And of course with a winch you can assist others, although few people are willing to spend the money solely to be able to act as a good Samaritan.

Speaking of money: There’s more to buying a winch than buying a winch. You’ll need a rock-solid bumper designed to accommodate the winch you’ve chosen. You’ll also need a full recovery kit, including a tree-protector strap, at least two properly rated shackles, a snatch block, a winch-line damper, gloves, and preferably a winch line extension. I strongly recommend replacing the steel winch cable that comes with most winches with a synthetic line, which is far lighter and safer—and more expensive. Even with that weight savings, you’ll probably need to beef up your front suspension to properly handle the mass suddenly placed far out on the front of the vehicle. Finally, you’ll need a heavy-duty battery and charging system in the vehicle—preferably a dual-battery system in case of failure of the primary battery. 

Add up everything and you can figure on tripling the cost of a moderately priced winch by the time you’re finished. (Speaking of which, I urge staying away from the cut-price Chinese clones of Warn and Ramsey winches, for reasons of both quality and ethics.)

Learning about winches and winch lines at OX10.Oh, one more thing: A winch is fully capable of maiming or killing its operator or nearby spectators. So if you do install one, you are obligated to learn its proper and safe use. 

Given the significant expense, the significant associated modifications, and the learning curve, it’s tempting—and a perfectly reasonable strategy—to simply do without the winch; to use prudence when faced with questionable situations, and to make sure you have alternate methods for self-recovery.

To start with, a high-quality air compressor will enable you to properly reduce tire pressure when needed. Obviously you don’t need a compressor at all to lower tire pressure, but if all you have with you is an inexpensive compressor that takes a half-hour to inflate them again, you’re much less likely to air down when it’s called for. Very frequently, if a vehicle becomes stuck in soft sand, all that’s needed to get underway again is to reduce tire pressure to one bar (around 14 psi) or even a little lower. 

A good compressor, like this Extreme Air, is an important tool, especially if you decide to go winchless.A good shovel is mandatory. The cheap little folding “military” shovels are better than nothing, but a one-piece pointed shovel with a stout D or T handle is much better. A KERR (kinetic energy recovery rope) or equivalent snatch strap is also mandatory. Even though we have winches on both our Land Cruisers, the KERR approach is much faster—we used a strap on our last trip twice, once to free a truck from a ditch and once to pull a fallen tree out of the road.

Some people swear by sand mats, others spurn them, still others seem to view them as a necessary overland fashion accessory. The lightweight aluminum replacements for the old surplus steel PSP are much easier to manage, as are even newer plastic designs such as the Maxtrax. But sand mats are still a bulky, mostly single-purpose tool. You must make up your own mind if the terrain you explore makes them worth carrying.

Sand mats, like these plastic ones from MaxTrax, are another good addition to your kit.Another love-it-or-hate-it tool is the exhaust jack, essentially a giant heavy-duty balloon you inflate with the vehicle’s exhaust. An exhaust jack can lift one side of a vehicle clear of even clingy muck. However, I’ve witnessed more failures of these things than makes me comfortable, from incompatible exhaust pipes to failed blow-off valves. Here’s an example from LROTV:

Hi-Lift versus exhaust jack

Put me in the hate-it camp.

Finally, of course, there’s the Hi-Lift jack, the tool everyone loves to hate. Awesomely versatile, fond of jamming, and dangerous if used incorrectly, the Hi-Lift can do everything up to and including winching—if you’re careful. 

I think one of the best uses for the Hi-Lift is as a “casting” jack. Sometimes when a vehicle is stuck in a rut, the only thing needed to regain traction is to move it sideways out of the rut. In such a situation, you can jack up one end of the vehicle until the tires are clear, then simply shove the vehicle sideways off the jack and on to firmer ground. It sounds and looks quite alarming, but is perfectly safe if done carefully. This was the first thing I was taught to do with a Hi-Lift, but the technique seems to have been mostly lost. 

A Hi-Lift can be used to lift buried tires out of sand in order to insert sand mats, but you’re wasting effort if you lift the body of the vehicle and have to overcome suspension droop. Better to use the optional fitting made to hook onto a wheel; then your efforts will produce immediate results.

Winching with the Hi-Lift is glacially slow, and requires a fair amount of chain and other accoutrements—but it works, and its very slowness gives you time to think and avoid unsafe moves. There are several kits made to turn the Hi-Lift into a winch; this video is about the most succinct I’ve seen on the actual process:

Winching with a Hi-Lift 

So there’s my stance. A winch is a valuable accessory, but I would never let the lack of one stop me from exploring—in fact my FJ40 had no winch for the first 20 years I owned it, including all the time I was guiding other vehicles into remote beaches in Mexico, and towing a trailer full of sea kayaks. If you wonder whether it’s possible to accomplish higher-level expedition travel without a winch, I give you Tom Sheppard, who has soloed 100,000 miles of the Sahara in a succession of Land Rovers and a Mercedes G-Wagen—not one of them burdened with a winch.