I wrote that title deliberately. One of my eye-rolling pet peeves as a reader and editor is the ubiquity of magazine headlines and cover blurbs that begin with, “Ultimate”—followed by an utterly non-ultimate product—followed by a “!” Firearms periodicals seem especially obsessed with the term. I’ve forgotten how many times I’ve been breathlessly introduced to the “Ultimate Compact .45!” or the “Ultimate Tactical 9mm!” (And don’t get me started on the “tactical” lunacy.)
Of course there is very rarely such a thing as an “ultimate” anything (although Fuller’s 1845 might come close in the bottled beer category). There is only, at best, the ultimate compromise—and this applies universally to the equipment we add to our vehicles. High quality or low price? Strength or light weight? Multi-function operation or ease of use?
If you’re looking at winches for an overlanding vehicle, there’s an additional question to ponder: Do you really need one at all? I addressed this issue some time ago (click here to go to article), but now we’re going to assume you’ve decided that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, and are planning to install one. (Either that, or you’ve simply succumbed helplessly to winch envy.) In either case, how do you minimize those disadvantages?
Aside from cost, the salient drawback to a winch is weight. Not just the weight of the winch and line and fairlead, but also a properly constructed bumper on which to mount it, and perhaps the dual battery system you’ll install to make sure you don’t run your only source dry during a long, maximum-amperage pull. And that weight is in the worst possible spot, way out in front of the vehicle where it applies leverage on the suspension. Aside from spending yet more money on suspension modifications, an obvious solution is a very light winch, but then we run into a compromise: light weight equals low power.
It’s axiomatic that a winch should be rated at around 1.5 times the loaded weight of the vehicle on which it is mounted. Why 1.5 times? Shouldn’t a 6,000-pound winch be perfectly adequate for a vehicle that weighs 6,000 pounds all up? Theoretically, yes, but several things complicate matters. First is the simple fudge factor inherent in the rating of many products. Second, and more universal, is the fact that all winches are rated with just a single layer of line on the drum. More layers equal less rotational leverage for the winch and less pulling power (roughly ten percent per layer)—and it’s not always possible or practical to arrange a winch recovery so that most of the line is pulled out first. Additionally, substrate makes a difference: For example, deep, sticky mud adds significantly to the effective weight of any stuck vehicle, and a large boulder in the middle of a steep uphill pull can spike the effective weight well past its actual mass. Finally, off-center pulls and other awkward situations add to the load on the winch. So the 1.5 factor is a wise generalization.
On the other hand, technique can optimize the power of a winch. First is making sure you have as much line out as possible, either by backing up the anchor vehicle or picking an anchor tree that’s farther away. You can also use a redirected pull to get more line out, for example by attaching a pulley block to a nearby tree, and running the line though that to another anchor tree back closer to you. You’ll lose a bit to pulley friction, but if you can get a couple of layers of line off the drum it will be worth it.
However, the best way to maximize a winch’s capability is to rig a double-line pull: from the winch of the stuck vehicle through a pulley block on a fixed anchor vehicle or tree, then back to the stuck vehicle (or, if you’re rescuing a stuck vehicle with your winch, to a pulley block attached to the rescuee and then back to your vehicle). This setup halves the line speed of the winch but doubles its power, in addition to getting out more line and reducing the layers on the drum. Obviously, relying on this technique also halves the reach of your winch, but, at least in my experience, in the vast majority of overlanding situations (with the glaring exception of tropical-rainy-season mud), 45 feet of usable line is enough to access a natural anchor or another vehicle—and if not, a winch line extension will give you the reach you need. You can gain even more power by adding another pulley block and rigging a triple-line pull, at the expense of even less reach. (Remember to always leave at least five full wraps of line on the drum if you get down to the first layer.)
With the limitations of reach accepted, the 1.5 factor becomes somewhat flexible. Which brings us to the Warn M8000 (and its new brother, the M8000-s).
The M8000 is rated at—surprise—8,000 pounds, which, for example, is a bit under the 1.5 factor for our FJ60 when it’s fully loaded with gear, fuel, and two people. A lot of later full-size SUVs would blow past it before a single sleeping bag was tossed inside. On the other hand, it’s right in the ballpark for many compact pickups and small SUVs. And the M8000 is very light. I recently had ours off while the vehicle got a full repaint, and put each component on a scale. The bare winch, with no line or solenoid box, weighs only 35.6 pounds. The solenoid box and 1/0 cables to the battery total 7.2 pounds. The steel roller fairlead is 11 even, and 100 feet of Viking synthetic winch line adds a hardly-worth-measuring 2.8 pounds with a safety thimble (the standard steel cable is 13.2 pounds without a hook or thimble).
That’s a total of just 56.6 pounds—and we could reduce that to under 50 pounds with an aluminum hawse fairlead. Interestingly, the Warn M8000-s comes with synthetic line and an aluminum fairlead, and its advertised weight is 55 pounds. Mount it to an Aluminess bumper—which can be ordered without the bull bar so few of us really need—and you’ve got a complete system for around 125 pounds.
The M8000 might be light, but it’s also built to last. I’ve seen, either in person or in photos, disassembled examples of three “different” discount-brand winches (all of them most likely built in the same factory, the Ningbo Lift Winch Manufacture Company in Ningbo Mingzhou Industrial City, China). All appeared to be virtual clones of the M8000—until you looked inside, where compromises in motors, gear trains, and wiring were apparent.*
The motor is the heart of the winch, and it consists of two main components: a central set of wire coils wrapped around the shaft, called the rotor (or armature), and an outer assembly called the stator. When current is supplied to the rotor and stator it produces opposing magnetic fields, which cause the rotor and its attached shaft to turn via the attracting and repelling forces of the fields. The rotor is called an electromagnet because it only becomes magnetized when current passes through it. The stator can also comprise a wire coil magnetized by current, in which case the assembly is called a “series-wound” motor. Alternatively the stator can be constructed with standard metallic magnets that are thus always “on,” as it were. This is then known, logically, as a “permanent-magnet” motor.
Permanent-magnet motors are cheaper to make and use slightly less current (since none is needed to magnetize the stator). However, they overheat more easily than series-wound motors, and the magnets can lose their field strength over time (and temporarily in very cold weather). Permanent-magnet motors work very well in light-duty situations, but for high-stress applications series-wound motors—such as that found in the M8000—are superior. However, not all series-wound motors are the same. Hidden differences in wiring, bearings and bushings, and tolerances mean that in a winch (or any other electrical appliance) the standards demanded by the manufacturer still determine the final quality of the assembled product.
The other major electrical component in a winch assembly is the switch gear that controls power to the motor, typically housed in a plastic box attached to the winch. Traditionally, these have been relays (commonly called solenoids). A relay in our application is essentially a mechanical on-off switch capable of handling large amounts of current, controlled by a smaller-capacity switch elsewhere—the winch’s remote in this case. A relay thus shortens the length of heavy-duty cable that would otherwise be necessary to insure adequate amperage to the winch (the same holds true for other high-draw devices, such as driving lights, that use a relay and a remote switch). Winches usually employ relays in multiples—one or two to handle power-in switching, one or two to handle power-out.
Since relays utilize moving mechanical contacts to transfer current, they are subject to wear and corrosion. Often the result will be that the relay simply stops working, but very rarely a worn relay will stick in the “on” position—with predictable ramifications if you’re operating a powerful electrical device which you need to be able to turn off right now.
In the last few years, solid-state devices known as contactors have begun to replace relays in many winches, including the M8000. A contactor employs a high-capacity semi-conductor to route current; thus there are no moving parts to wear out or corrode. Contactors can still fail, but it’s virtually impossible that they would do so in the “on” position.
The last link in the winch assembly is the gear train by which the motor turns the spool and pulls in (or lets out) the line. Since the motor turns at a high speed, its revolutions per minute must be reduced considerably, both to gain mechanical advantage and to keep the line speed to a manageable level. There are three main types of gear train: worm, spur, and planetary. The latter is the type found the M8000 and most consumer winches these days. Planetary gears are so called because the central gear, driven by the motor, is literally orbited by the secondary gears that drive the spool.
Planetary-gear systems are very compact, inexpensive to manufacture, and reasonably efficient. Their salient drawback is that they have no intrinsic braking capability when the winch is spooling out under power, so an internal brake is required, usually inside the spool. This brake will transfer heat to the drum, and subsequently the inner wraps of the line, if, for example, it’s necessary to lower a vehicle’s weight against the winch on a long downhill recovery. This can be an issue with synthetic winch line, which loses strength if it is heated too much. According to Thór Jónsson at Viking, current Dyneema winch line will begin to lose strength if it reaches 150ºF while under load, and will begin to melt in the high 300º range. While the latter point is unlikely during any normal single-vehicle recovery, the former isn’t. For this reason, planetary-gear winches should always be set to free-spool when you are pulling out line to rig the recovery, and should be powered out under load for no more than 20 seconds at a time, then allowed to cool. No such precaution is necessary when powering in, the normal mode for the vast majority of winch recoveries.
(An interesting characteristic of synthetic winch line is that, even if heated to over 150º, it will regain the strength it lost once it cools. At first glance, the bottom layers of synthetic line might appear to be melted after any load, but they’re really just compressed. However, if you exceed that critical 300º-plus point, you’ll be left with a chunk of melted plastic. Thór once had a customer complain after he melted the Viking line on his M8000. Questioning revealed that he’d been lowering all his friends’ trucks down a steep incline one after the other. Further questioning revealed that he’d also melted the winch’s motor.)
Four-wheel-drive overland travel is different than trail running. My early experiences with the latter involved a friend with a beat-up 1964 Land Cruiser FJ40 equipped with a Ramsey winch and an alarmingly frayed steel cable. We took that vehicle over some ridiculous trails, getting stuck numerous times a day and hooking the winch to whatever was nearby to pull it out. I’m still amazed we both survived with limbs intact, but that Ramsey did yeoman duty time after time.
However, on a long overland journey, it’s vital to minimize stress on the vehicle. The aim is to avoid becoming stuck, to take the easy route when possible. Challenging conditions are tackled only when there is no other way through. Thus, on most overland trips a winch is rarely needed, which leads some to argue, why not buy a cheap winch since you’ll hardly use it anyway? While it’s a valid question, my response is the same one I give people who argue for cheap hand tools: If you need the tools—or the winch—something has already gone wrong. Why risk compounding the situation by relying on substandard equipment? A knock-off winch built with inferior materials might well simply seize up after a long period of non-use. Before I get a raft of responses: I’ve known several people who bought new 8,000-pound Chinese winches for $350 or less and have had absolutely stellar service from them. And I know several others who bought similar winches and had them fail quickly or perform poorly. That crapshoot factor is the scary part, even if you’re unoffended by companies willing to reverse-engineer someone else’s work simply to cheapen it and sell it for less.
The final aspect of installing a winch, of course, is learning how to use it properly. You can take the trial-and-error approach my friend and I did, but a far better (and infinitely safer) way is to get professional instruction. Even a basic course such as that taught at the Overland Expo will increase your knowledge and confidence immensely; full classes can be taken from competent schools such as High Trails Expeditions or Overland Experts. Once you have the basic techniques in hand, it’s vital to practice them until every move is instinctive and firmly planted in your long-term memory.
That way, when your truck goes frame-deep in Tanzanian black cotton soil you’ll handle the situation with—dare I say this?—ultimate proficiency.
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Diagrams are from an excellent Warn manual, available online as a PDF; click here to download.
* Sadly and ironically, Warn now offers a line of cut-price winches, the VR series, built to lower specs than the M series, to compete with the brands that copied and undercut Warn in the first place. I’m not sure whether I’m more disappointed in Warn, for not simply redoubling their efforts to convince customers that better quality is worth the investment, or with consumers who are blinkered to everything but price. In their defense, I’ll note that Warn furnishes the same warranty with the VR series winches as they do with their high-end lines; nevertheless, my advice is, if you can’t afford a new M8000 or another top-quality winch, buy a used one—you’ll still be better off than compromising on internal quality.