Best Winches: Get Your Vehicle Easily Unstuck
A winch can get your vehicle out of tricky situations and over challenging terrain.
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Winches are everything to avid off-roaders, allowing you to get unstuck from muddy terrain, haul cargo, and clear away hazards on the trails. For the purposes of this guide, we let's focus on winches used for vehicle recovery, towing cargo, and clearing large obstacles.
Winches run the gamut in terms of type, load capacity, construction, and design. Keep reading to learn more about winches, our recommendations on best winches, and a comprehensive buying guide on what types of winches to consider based on your vehicle and off-roading requirements.
Rugged Ridge Trekker Winch
A large capacity winch with an 85.3-foot steel cable, offering 6.6HP and a three-stage planetary gearbox.
- 12,500-pound capacity is ideal for most off-roading needs
- You’ll like the IP68 waterproof rating making it great for wet terrain
- Wired remote may be an issue for some as it will require being in close proximity during operation
Champion Power Equipment 3,000-lb Winch Kit
A wallet-friendly pick that supports up to 3,000 pounds, making it great for occasional use.
- Complete kit is ideal for novices that may not have experience with mounting a winch to their vehicles
- Lower 3,000-pound capacity can be limiting and make it only compatible with ATVs and UTVs
Smittybilt XRC 9.5K Waterproof Winch Gen 2
A sturdy 9,500-pound capacity and IP67 rating makes this a solid choice for medium weight vehicles and regular use.
- You get a 3-stage planetary gear system, offering faster line speeds
- A 6.6 horsepower motor aids in giving you the power you need for any job
- This winch comes with a synthetic cable and features a wired remote, which may be a deal breaker for some
Best Winches Reviews & Recommendations 2021
The Rugged Ridge Trekker Winch is a mega-hauler, featuring a 6.6 HP series wound motor clocking a 12,500-pound pull capacity, a nice choice for full-size pickups like the Ford F-150, Dodge RAM, and Chevy Silverado 1500. Complementing 12,500 pounds is a heavy-duty 3-stage planetary drive gear delivering serious power in colder weather, unlike lighter-duty permanent magnet motors.
We love the fact the Rugged Ridge Trekker Winch comes with the choice of traditional steel cable or synthetic line. Both offer their own unique advantages. Traditional steel cables are better suited for rough, abrasive terrain albeit with less flexibility and strength than costlier synthetic ropes. It also includes a wired remote for safe operation.
Kudos to the Rugged Ridge Trekker Winch's limited five-year warranty, which is one of the longest offered on our list. It is only trumped by WARN's limited lifetime warranty.
The Champion Power Equipment 3,000-lb. Winch Kit is a lighter-duty affair. With a 3,000-pound capacity, it's better suited for ATVs, boats, trailers, and other smaller vehicles rather than full-sized trucks. Features include a 1.3hp, 12v DC motor with a 3-stage planetary gear system and a 171:1 gear reduction ratio.
Three drawbacks of the Champion Winch Kit are the lack of a waterproof rating, a paltry 2-year limited warranty (one of the shortest we've seen), and wired controls, which may present a safety concern if not used correctly or from an unsafe distance. Consider this a solid budget option—but only for beginners and light-duty vehicles.
The Smittybilt XRC 9.5K Waterproof Winch Gen2 is an all-around workhorse, featuring a 9,500-pound working capacity, 6.6hp Wound Motor, and a three-stage planetary gear, an excellent choice for midsize pickup trucks like the Nissan Frontier and the Toyota Tacoma. It also comes with an IP67 waterproof rating, making it great for use on muddy terrain. A 12-foot range remote control also allows for precise winch maneuvering.
Note that the Smittybilt XRC 9.5K Waterproof Winch Gen2’s limited 3-year warranty on electrical components is middling. It falls square in the mid-range for warranty length and coverage. For heavy-duty work and vehicle recovery, you'll probably want to look for a sturdier winch—and a sturdier warranty.
Best Heavy Duty WinchWarn 16.5ti Thermometric 16,500-pound Self-Recovery WinchCheck Latest Price
Now we're talkin'. If you’re driving a truly heavy vehicle, you’re going to need serious power to help get you out of sticky situations. With a 16,500-pound line pull capacity, this pick from Warn is ideal for hardcore outdoor enthusiasts or professionals who need to push through rugged terrain without any issues.
You get a 12-volt motor with a 4.6 horsepower rating. More importantly, the motor features extreme-duty sealing so that you can work in not only wet conditions but in the dust and grime without worrying about your motor. Plus, the three-stage planetary gearbox and 90-foot wire rope give you plenty of control for even the toughest situations.
One thing to note is that this winch has to be mounted using a compatible bumper or even a mounting plate for it to be installed properly. While this shouldn’t be an issue for shoppers looking for a winch of this capacity, unsuspecting shoppers may be surprised or frustrated to find that this pick is not a complete kit, as the plate must be purchased separately.
The WARN XC9000i performs well in almost all areas, starting with a 9,000-pound pull capacity, three-stage planetary gear system, 12-foot lead remote control, and a generous 12 feet of wire rope. It does an excellent job of keeping cool with its low amp draw, making it safer to use.
Kudos for the WARN XC9000i’s limited lifetime warranty, which trumps all of our recommended picks on this list.
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The “right winch” is going to vary depending on your needs and your comfort level with installing a winch onto your vehicle. But given that reality, we liked the Rugged Ridge Trekker Winch as our Best Overall selection. Along with a relatively reasonable price point, it featured a 12,500-pound pull line capacity which should be more than enough power for most people’s needs.
Meanwhile, UTV owners will like the Champion Power Equipment 3,000-lb Winch Kit. Along with being a complete solution with everything you need to install it on your off-road vehicle, the 3,000-pound pull line rating is more than sufficient, and the wallet-friendly price makes it accessible for a wider range of consumers.
- Opt for winches that can pull a minimum of 1.5-times your vehicle’s gross weight. This translates to a minimum of 9,500-pound pull capacity for midsize pickups and a minimum 12,000-pound pulling capacity for full-size trucks.
- Focus on IP (Ingress Protection)-rated winches for heavy water and muddy terrain activity.
- Go for traditional steel cables over synthetic cables for rocky, more abrasive terrain. Don’t forget to carry a pair of gloves.
- Remote-operated winches are preferred over manual winches for safe operation at a distance. For this purpose, many winches come with 12-foot leads.
- For more power, opt for series-wound winches. For casual use, go for permanent magnet motor winches. However, permanent magnet motors are not as effective in extreme temperatures.
- WARN, Smittybilt, and Superwinch offers a high-quality selection of winches. For the heaviest duty applications, some winches are rated as high as 50,000 pounds.
- Winches are just as useful in clearing obstacles (e.g. heavy boulders blocking trails) than towing trucks out of the mud.
FAQs on Winches
You’ve got questions. The Drive has answers!
Q. What are the other types of winches?
Winches are usually categorized in terms of how they’re powered—either electric or hydraulic.
Electric winches rely on your car’s battery for power. These tend to be the most popular option because they’re easier to install. Best of all, they have a larger winding speed. On the other hand, because they use your car’s battery, you need to make sure your battery can manage that power draw intensity.
Compared to electric winches, hydraulic-powered winches tend to be more stable and won't put your car battery through punishment. Instead, these winches use your car’s power steering pump to operate. Also, they’re better able to manage the elements, making them an ideal choice if you’re going to be using a winch in wet conditions.
Q. What are the top winch brands?
Unquestionably the most established winch brand on this list, WARN winches are well known for their reliability, durability, and quality. It is known for its Zeon series (even load weight distribution across vehicle's frame for better recovery), super heavy duty Zeon Platinum (12,000-pound capacity), the lighter duty/budget Shark series, and the lower profile M800 series. In our product roundup, the Warn 16.5ti Thermometric 16500lb Self-Recovery Winch wins out for best heavy-duty winch, Warn VR EVO 8 Winch with Steel Rope for best SUV winch, and the 9,000-pound rated WARN XC9000i as an Honorable Mention.
Smittybilt is one of the most popular off-roading accessories brands in the world. Best known for the original "Nerf Bar" side step, it now produces everything from overlander tents to roof racks. It also manufactures winches. One of our favorite winches is the 9,500-pound rated Smittybilt XRC 9.5K Waterproof Winch Gen2, compatible with lighter-duty ATVs and UTVs. For midsize pickups and full-size trucks, look to Smittybilt's XRC lineup with winches rated from 9,500 to 17,500 pounds.
A subsidiary of Westin Automotive Products, Superwinch is a highly reputable brand. Founded in 1972, this California-based company manufactures consumer, military, and industrial-based winching products. Some of their winches are capable of pulling as much as 50,000 pounds. One of their most popular products is the Superwinch 1130220 LT3000ATV 12 VDC Winch, which has enjoyed 1,300+ reviews with an average 4.5 star out of 5.0 rating on Amazon as of July 2021.
Q. How much does a winch usually cost?
Up to $350. Expect bargain-basement performance at this price. These winches will carry the lowest pulling capacity (anywhere between 3,500 to 5,000 pounds) and are best used for light-duty applications (e.g. small trailers). Expect synthetic rope over traditional steel cables as well.
$350 to $550. Expect a minor upgrade in capabilities here, with strong motors, higher pulling capacity (up to 12,500 pounds), and a wider variety of mounting options.
$550 and Up. Consider this price range top of the line. Expect industrial level ratings, pulling capacity up to 17,500 pounds, waterproofing, and 3-stage planetary gear systems.
Do not forget to factor in the warranty. WARN winches are known for the longest warranty in the business (limited lifetime). In a world of two and five-year warranties, a limited lifetime warranty is a total steal.
Q. What are some key winch features to know about?
Capacity. A winch manufacturer's pull line rating is arguably the single greatest factor when purchasing. It is the intersection between the drum line’s tensile strength and the winch's actual pulling capacity. As a general rule, users should purchase winches with a working load rating 1.5 times the weight of their vehicle’s gross weight. For example, if a vehicle’s gross weight is 5,000 pounds, the winch’s capacity should be 7,500 pounds. If in doubt, go with winches with a larger capacity, assuming all other criteria (drive trains, mounting options, type of rope, motors, etc.) are met.
Drivetrain. Winches offer three gear options: spun gear, worm gear, and planetary gears. Like vehicles, winch gears vary based on transfer efficiency and work similar to teeth, converting a high sped motor with low-speed torque to not disrupt the load carry. Spun gear winches tend to be the cheapest, with a high transfer efficiency (75 percent) and smooth and quiet operation due to a high contact ratio between the motor’s input axle gear and the wheel’s output axle gear. Worm gears have the lowest transfer efficiency compared to spin and planetary gears (35 to 40 percent) and rotate slower, costing less to compensate. Planetary gears are the most common type of winch gear, popular with automatic transmission vehicles with higher gear ratios, albeit mid-range transfer efficiency (65 percent)
Type of Rope. Winches use two types of rope: traditional steel cables or synthetic rope. Traditional steel rope works very well with muddy terrain, better handling off-roading environments better than synthetic cables. However, synthetic cables are lighter and stronger, albeit less wear-resistant to UV rays, heat, chemicals, and other abrasive external elements.
Remote Control. Winches come with corded or cordless options. Wireless remote control winches are best, allowing for more precision winch direction, even from a distance. If trudging through mud, jagged-edged climbs or rocky terrain is on the agenda, wireless winches are a must.
Waterproofing. Look for winches with an IP (Ingress Protection) rating. IP ratings classify a winch's resistance to mud, dust, water, and other elements relative to exposure. For example, IP67-rated winches can be submerged in a meter-deep of water for up to 30 minutes. IP68-rated winches can be exposed to water three meters deep indefinitely without losing their operation. To determine which IP rating to follow, factor in your off-roading environment and anticipated riding/towing situations.
Q. What should I look for when buying a winch?
Consider the motor and whether it’s rated for the type of hauling you’re trying to do. Look for durable winches and most importantly consider the water resistance, as a winch that can’t be exposed to water won’t last long.
Q. How powerful of a winch do I need?
This is going to depend on your vehicle. Experts agree that winches should be able to pull 1.5 times your vehicles’ weight. But in general, heavier vehicles need more powerful winches.
Q. How do I choose a winch?
For starters, your winch’s working load capacity should be at least 1.5 times greater than your vehicle's gross weight. If your vehicle’s gross weight is 6000 pounds, then your winch’s working load capacity should be 9000 pounds. To err on the safe side, go for double the working load capacity of your vehicle’s gross weight. For an extra frame of reference, consider a 9,500-pound rated winch for midsize pickups like the Toyota Tacoma/Nissan Frontier and a 12,500-pound rated winch for full-size pickups like the Dodge RAM and Ford F-150.
Q. What is a good brand of winch?
Our favorite brands are WARN, Smittybilt, and Superwinch. All three are highly reputable brands that have a strong lineup of industrial, commercial, and military-grade application winches.
Q. Are winches worth it?
If you're an off-roader, winches are definitely worth it. They are the first line of defense for vehicles stuck in muddy or challenging terrain. They can also be used to remove large obstacles like rocks and boulders off a trail to restore clearance.
Q. Do I need a winch plate?
Yes, winch plates are a must. Many manufacturers sell vehicle-specific winch plates. Universal winch plates can be used as long as the 10- x 4.5-inch mounting pattern is used. Many bumpers already come pre-installed with winch plates, while others need a universal winch plate to be purchased separately. Lastly, some vehicles already come equipped with front-mounted winches integrated into the front bumper. Be sure to consult with your winch’s manufacturer for the correct mounting method.
Q. What IP rating should my winch have?
If you frequently navigate through mud and water, then we recommend a winch with a minimum IP67 rating. IP67-rated can handle heavy water blasts in spurts. An IP68 rating turns the corner, allowing your winch to operate continuously underwater without breaking down.
Q. What are winches used for?
Winches are used for pulling stuck vehicles out of muddy terrain, hauling cargo, and clearing large obstacles from trails using a wire rope and motorized drum. It's one of the most important accessories an off-roader should have to avoid a potentially disastrous situation.
Q. How much do winches cost?
Winches can cost anywhere from $200 upwards of $1000. As with almost all products, you get what you pay for. In this case, higher-priced winches come with higher pulling capacities (12,500-pounds or more), planetary gears, IP ratings, and higher structural integrity than their cheaper counterparts.
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