In the fourth Fieldcraft Survival installment of our series on advanced Go-Rig driving skills, we look at how to use a winch, the most dangerous but effective tool that a 4×4 owner could possibly hope for in a recovery situation.

In this article, we examine some of the safety rules and techniques that should be adhered to when winching a vehicle.  Please note that a proper 4×4 Advanced Recovery course is recommended before attempting this yourself. Owing to the potential risk to human life or damage to property, we have included a list of rules in bullet format that should strictly be adhered to under any circumstances. Print out the list, laminate it and keep in a safe place in your 4×4 or RV!

Demonstration of how to use a winch

  • There can only be one person in charge of a winching operation. This is not a democracy. The person with the most experience becomes the winch leader.
  • Always wear heavy-duty protective gloves when operating a recovery winch.
  • All spectators or passengers should remain well away from the entire operation. A cable that breaks under strain can lash back and severe a leg or be propelled through a vehicle’s windscreen.
  • Never step over a connected cable, even when slack. Once a cable is connected to a tree or another vehicle, it is viewed as live under all circumstances.
  • When using a tree as an anchor, ensure a proper tree-trunk protector is used, to avoid damage.
  • Remember to keep the cable as low as possible when connecting it, in order to prevent the anchor (tree with winch) from being pulled over.
  • Never wrap a vehicle winching cable around any anchor and onto itself. This will permanently damage the cable.
  • If the remote control of the winch is plugged in, stay well clear of the drum, cable and fairlead area.
  • Look for the drum rotation decal. This is the only way the cable must spool off the drum. Failing which, the winch’s automatic brake will not function in the opposite direction.
  • Never use a winch as a towrope. The cable is not made to handle sudden jerks and may damage itself or the drum of the winch.
  • When winching, try to un-spool as much of the cable as possible. Leaving too many cable winds on the drum, before winching, can actually cause the top layers of the cable, to damage the bottom layers. If the distance between the vehicle and the anchor point (or the stuck vehicle and the recovery vehicle) is too short, use a snatch block to half the distance.
  • Snatch blocks will allow you to double the effective pulling power of the winch. If need be, connect a snatch block with a D-shackle to a tree-trunk protector and loop back the cable to the vehicle itself.
  • The winch’s effective pulling power decreases with each successive layer on the drum. Thus, the first layer of cable on the drum will also be the most powerful pulling strength. However, never winch with less than five wraps of cable around the drum. Cable failure may result otherwise.
  • Always ensure the cable is reeling in as straight as possible. If necessary stops the operation, unwind some cable, and re-engage the winch, to ensure the cable is spooling around the drum evenly and tightly. Remember, the top cable layers will otherwise be drawn into the bottom layers and create a bind.
  • Put a blanket, jacket or heavy sack on the middle of the cable to ensure that if it should snap, it would act as a “parachute” to slow down the recoiling cable. Some 4×4 drivers actually raise the bonnet as well, to protect the windscreen in the event of cable failure.
  • Ensure that you know the maximum load rating of your winch. Never exceed this rating. Once again, use a snatch block to reduce the load on the winch if necessary, by almost 50%.
  • Never allow the cable to slide through your hands and use the switch to take up cable slack intermittently, to avoid shock loads on the drum and cable.
  • When a recovery vehicle is used to extract a stuck vehicle, ensure that the handbrake is up and the wheels are properly blocked with stones or rocks. The gearbox should be in neutral and the normal foot brake may be used to assist in anchoring the vehicle.
  • When winching, the stuck vehicle may assist itself by selecting an appropriate gear (low range, 3rd). Ensure that the vehicle does not overtake the winch cable, as this would allow slack cable to be reeled in onto the drum or the vehicle’s wheels to pass over the cable.
  • When the winch hook is within 5 feet of the drum/fairlead, release the remote control switch and stop the winch. At this point in time, intermittent, small uptakes may be used to get the hook in all the way. Do not over tighten the cable and always keep your hands clear!
  • Always ensure that the cable is inspected after use. If any fraying or damage has occurred, do not hesitate to replace the entire cable.
  • Sometimes it may be necessary to re-spool the cable with zero load on it. The correct method to use is to hold the remote in your one hand and the winch cable in the other and to start as far away from the vehicle as your remote control would allow you. Start the winch with the remote and walk the cable in towards the drum for a couple of feet. Now stop the remote and repeat the entire procedure. Remember to stop the process when you are within 5 feet from the fairlead.

Adhering to the above rules should provide you with necessary basics of how to use a winch safely. However, as noted before, there is no substitute for actually experience gained, in an advanced recovery course, as recommended in the beginning. When doing a winch recovery, a handy tree or rock might not always be available. Under these circumstances, a constructed anchor might be necessary.  This might be a diverse as a spare tire, a log or a boat anchor! We have included some diagrams below to illustrate this more effectively.

In the first drawing, it clearly shows how to use your spare tire as an effective recovery point, when no trees or other vehicles are in close proximity.

spare tire recovery

In the next drawing, it illustrates how to make a “dead man’s log” and use it as an anchor point.

"dead man's log" recovery

In conclusion, remember to stick to well-known brand names, such as Ramsey or Warn.

Ensure that the load rating is sufficient for your vehicle, familiarize yourself with your equipment before setting out on the trail and treat the environment with respect.

Happy Recoveries!


About the Author: Johan de Villiers

After originally trained by the 1994 West German Camel Trophy team, Johan has extensively traversed a number of Central and East African countries, including Tanzania, Zambia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Botswana, Namibia, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya and Zanzibar. On his return to corporate life, Johan has continued to enjoy the outdoor lifestyle and has since led numerous expeditions through Southern Africa. In addition to being a qualified Land Rover recovery expert, Johan is a qualified helicopter pilot, high altitude mountaineer and a regular contributor to various 4×4 publications. His personal vehicle is a highly modified Land Rover Defender 110 TD5.

Johan de Villiers's go-rig