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Know Before You Buy: Winches

Warn Industries pioneered the electric vehicle winch in the late 1950s and have been in business since 1948 when they pioneered the locking 4WD hub. As surplus Jeep vehicles were coming back from WWII, the company developed a way to make these vehicles more drivable and increase their fuel economy, and they’ve never stopped innovating.

I talked with Warn to get the inside scoop on what to look for when buying a winch. Here’s what they said.

1991 Mitsubishi Pajero, with Nitto Ridge Grapplers, in silt

What Kinds of Winches Are There?

In terms of a vehicle-mounted winch, they can often be broken into three categories based on how they’re powered: electric, hydraulic and PTO (power take off). The vast majority of winches you’d find on a truck or SUV are going to be electric. The winch is wired up directly to the vehicle’s battery and powered off that. After that, you get into different capacities depending on the vehicle’s weight. At Warn, we suggest taking the rig’s gross vehicle weight rating, or GVWR, and multiplying it by 1.5 to get the minimum pulling capacity. After that, buyers often have a choice in rope, speed and other features.

What Kinds of Bumpers Do You Need for Mounting a Winch?

Whichever bumper a buyer selects should be up to the extreme pulling forces a winch creates. This means that it’s designed, tested and engineered to work with a winch. Companies such as WARN, ARB, CBI and many others make bumpers designed to handle these stresses.

I run a Warn M8-S winch and ARB winch bumper on my Nitto Ridge Grappler-equipped 1991 Mitsubishi Pajero. My husband and I wanted a durable winch bumper that had a proven track record, had high quality construction and was made by a company that will stand behind its products. We’re experienced with ARB and own many of their items (from a tire patch kit, portable air compressor, Classic Series II fridge to even another winch bumper) so we knew if we bought ARB, we’d be set. Their customer service is superb and quality is great. It also helps that their North and South American headquarters is located in Seattle (just a few hours from where we live).

1991 Mitsubishi Pajero

What Kind of Winch Suits You Best?

The aforementioned calculation of GVWR x 1.5 = minimum pulling capacity is your first step to finding the right winch. From there it’s deciding which features you want. Wire rope is heavier, extremely durable and abrasion resistant, but stores more potential energy when under tension. Synthetic rope is lightweight, easy to handle and doesn’t develop the sharp barbs that steel rope can. However, it’s more susceptible to damage from abrasion and may require more maintenance than steel.

Warn offers several winches with an IP68 waterproof rating. This means the winch can work underwater and really keeps the moisture and dust out—providing a longer service life. That’s not to say non-waterproof winches can’t get wet, but the IP68-rated units are much more durable. Add to this features like line speed, size, weight and optional accessories, such as wireless controllers, and there’s a winch for pretty much every budget, vehicle and use.

WARN M8-S winch on a bumper

What Size Winch Do You Need?

We've said it before, but it's still the first thing you need to look at when buying a winch: GVWR x 1.5 = minimum pulling capacity. It’s generally ok to round up, too. However, you don’t simply want to put the biggest capacity winch you can find on your rig. A Suzuki Samurai does not need a 15,000 lb. capacity unit; something that big could potentially damage the vehicle. Follow the formula and use common sense.

What Are Some Features to Know About?

Waterproofing is a popular trend in winches, as is wireless control. Wireless gives users the ability to be farther away from the unit, and not tethered to the vehicle. This provides options when using the winch. Other things include easy-to-use clutches, temperature and load sensors, and of course, styling.

WARN M8-S winch on a bumper

What About Warranties?

WARN truck winches have a limited lifetime warranty on mechanical components and a seven year warranty on electrical parts. Other manufacturer’s warranties vary.

How Do You Maintain Your Winch?

After a user gets the winch properly installed and wired up, you need to stretch the winch rope. This ensures the rope lies down on the winch’s drum evenly and under tension. It will help to prevent rope damage when pulling for the first time.

WARN winches are mostly maintenance free. However, if a user has a non-waterproof unit and is regularly submerging it, it’s a good idea to take the winch apart every now and then to make sure no water or debris is in the motor, drum or gear train.

1991 Mitsubishi Pajero off-road

Some owners don’t use their winch very often. We recommend unspooling the line and winding it back on a couple of times a year, at a minimum. This allows the motor to warm up and evaporate any moisture that might be inside. It also helps to lubricate the winch’s gear train to keep things running smoothly. Plus, all of our winches are rebuildable, so if something does need to be fixed, it doesn’t just get thrown in the trash.

WARN M8-S winch rope spool

These tips and tricks should help you pick which winch, as well as its features, are best for you. Keeping in mind that mounting it to a sturdy and high-quality bumper is just as important as selecting the right winch.

Photos by Mercedes and Andy Lilienthal

Click here to see the Pajero tackle trails in the Pacific Northwest.

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