A winch is the most important accessory you can get for your ATV because of its ability to get you out of trouble when you mess up and get stuck.
But how exactly does a winch work, what do the different components do, and how do they operate together to make the winch work?
These are some of the things I hope you’ll get a better understanding of after reading this post.
What Is the Purpose of Having an ATV Winch?
The primary purpose of having a winch on your ATV is for self-recovery when stuck in snow, sand, or mud, to recover another stuck vehicle, or to pull a heavy object towards the ATV.
A winch can turn a stuck ATV from a dreadful and exhausting experience to a short but exciting interruption in your off-road riding adventure.
If you’re still not convinced whether you need an ATV winch, maybe this post can better help you decide.
How Does an ATV Winch Work?
The basic principle of how an ATV winch work is relatively straightforward.
- The winch has a long winch rope spooled onto a drum that pulls out and attaches to a solid object or another vehicle.
- When the operator pushes a button to engage the winch, an electric motor inside the winch makes the winch drum spool the rope in or out.
- As the winch rope spools in, the winch exerts a high force on the rope, pulling whatever the rope is attached to towards the ATV. Whichever object is lightest or offers the least resistance moves.
- When an ATV gets stuck, the rope gets anchored to a solid anchoring point like a tree, and if all goes well, the winch will pull the ATV out of the mud as the powerful winch motor spools the rope back onto the drum.
Let us look at the different components and mechanisms and how they make the winch operate.
The winch gets its power from the battery. While the ATV’s built-in charging system continuously emits an electric charge, the power output is insufficient to supply the high current drawn from the winch motor.
The battery can provide a high electric current over a short period, but extensive winch use can drain the battery. Allowing the battery to charge back up after a heavy winching session is essential.
Cables & Wiring
Heavy gauge cables connect the battery, winch solenoid, and winch motor.
Smaller gauge signal cables run from the handlebar remote switch to the solenoid.
The contactor solenoid is a small box connected between the battery and the winch motor. Its primary purpose is to control the electric current from the battery to the winch motor without running heavy wires up to the handlebar switch.
As the operator pushes the handlebar rocker switch, a low current signal is sent to the contactor solenoid, telling it where to direct the high current from the battery.
The contactor can direct the current to either side of the motor to make it turn in or out or cut the power to stop the winch.
Handlebar Rocker Switch & Remote
The winch is operated by the rider from a rocker switch mounted on the ATV handlebars.
The winch has three positions:
- IN: when pressed, the switch signals to the winch to spool the winch rope in and onto the winch drum.
- OUN: When pressed, the switch signals to the winch to spool the winch rope out and off the winch drum
- Release: When the switch is released (not pressed), it signals to cut the power, and the winch goes to its default off position.
Some winches come with an additional wired or wireless remote allowing the rider to operate the winch from some distance away from the driving position.
Remote winch operation can be helpful to ensure the rope spools evenly onto the drum after you’re done winching those times you don’t have an assistant.
When pulling at full capacity, the winch exerts a force onto the ATV with 1500 to 3500 lb or more. The winch needs a solid mounting point onto the ATV to safely transfer all this force.
Typically, the winch is bolted directly to the ATV frame using a custom mounting bracket and heavy-duty mounting hardware.
Ideally, the winch is mounted at the lower part of the ATV to prevent tipping. The winch can be mounted either front or back, but having the winch in the front is the most common.
The sealed winch housing contains and protects the winch motor, gears/transmission and holds the winch drum with the winch rope on it.
There is a mechanical lever on the housing to engage or disengage the winch gears from the winch drum.
Disengaging the gears is known as free spooling and allows pulling the winch rope out manually instead of using the electric engine. This helpful feature helps save time and conserve battery power.
Most, if not all, ATV winches are driven by an electric winch motor. The motor uses a conventional brushed design consisting of windings, magnets, and brushes.
Depending on winch-rated pulling capacity, the motor typically draws about 20A at no load and 100A to 200A at full load.
The winch motor connects to a set of gears that acts like a force multiplier by reducing the speed to increase torque.
While the electric motor is powerful on its own, the gear assembly contributes the most to the winch’s massive pulling power.
Most ATV winches have a transmission with a planetary gear design where multiple small gears are connected and run against slots and outside gears inside the winch housing.
The gears are one of the areas where the difference between a high-quality winch and a low-quality winch typically becomes most evident.
Where a high-quality winch may use gears machined in a CNC milling machine that is held together by metal hardware, some lower-quality winches may use less expensive manufacturing techniques like cast powder metallurgy and plastics hardware to keep the gears assembled.
The output shaft connects to the cable drum on the other side of the planetary gear assembly.
The winch cable drum is typically made from aluminum or steel, and its primary job is to hold the winch rope and to transfer the output foresee from the gear assembly to the winch rope.
The winch-pulling power depends on how many layers of winch rope remain on the drum. The winch is at its strongest with only one layer of rope on the drum, and the remaining pulling power drops with each additional layer of rope, as exemplified in the table below.
|Layers of rope|
on the drum
|Remaining pulling capacity|
in % of rated pulling capacity
|Remaining pulling capacity in lb|
(example: 2500 lb winch)
Improved pulling power is part of the reason why it is recommended to spool out as much rope as possible before a heavy pull.
The fairlead is a component whose main purpose is to lead the winch rope properly onto the winch drum and prevent damaging the winch rope from rubbing against the ATV when pulling at an angle.
There are two primary types of fairlead designs:
- Billed aluminum fairlead for synthetic winch ropes.
- Settl roller fairleads for steel winch cables.
Check this post to learn more about the differences between the two designs.
ATV winces use either a conventional metal wire winch cable or a special synthetic winch rope.
Synthetic ropes offer many benefits over steel winch cables, like higher strength, safer handling, and easier spooling. On the other hand, steel cables are more durable and cheaper but not as convenient to use.
All-in-all synthetic winch ropes have become the preferred alternative in the ATV industry, while some winches still use steel cables, primarily due to the lower cost.
I’ve dedicated an entire post where I compare the two types and go more in-depth on their pros and cons.
The winch hook is attached to the end of the winch rope or cable and is used to attach the cable to the anchoring point or the vehicle being towed.
The hook has a spring-loaded latch that prevents the hook from accidentally becoming unhooked. In addition, it has a hook strap to avoid injuries when unspooling the rope from the winch drum.
Many people use the hook wrong by looping it around the anchoring point and hooking it back onto the winch rope. This mistake can damage the anchoring point and prematurely wear the winch rope.
Check this guide on how to use an ATV winch properly.
Besides the above components, which are included when you buy a winch, many people like to supplement their winch with various winch accessories like a tree saver, snatch block, and shackles.
Check this post for useful winching accessories and equipment.
What Are the Different Types of ATV Winches?
While some vehicles use hydraulic winches, most ATV and UTV winches are powered by electricity from the battery.
What separates the different ATV winches on the market can be boiled down to their rated pulling capacity, what type of winch rope they use, and build quality.
Most winch types and brands apply the same basic design principles, while some execute the designs better, resulting in more robust and longer-lasting winches.
A typical ATV winch has a rated pulling capacity between 1500 lb and 4500 lb of pulling force.
Check out this guide to learn what size ATV winch you should get for your ATV.