In this post, we will cover the pros and cons of synthetic winch ropes vs. steel winch cables, for ATV and offroad use. Hopefully, it will make it a bit easier for you to choose between the two.

Aircraft-grade steel cables have been the industry standard since the early days of ATV and offroad winching. Then, about 25 years ago, modern microfiber technology gave us synthetic winch ropes. 

They are two great products that have a fair share of both upsides and downsides. And the fact that both products still are in the market today, clearly shows that both have their place. 

There is no definite answer to which is better. But, one of them has a few upsides that make it a favorite amongst off-road enthusiasts all over the world. 

Summary – synthetic winch rope vs. steel cable: 

A synthetic winch rope is stronger, more lightweight, safer, and more user friendly. While a steel cable is more durable and cheaper to purchase. Steel is often preferred when winching in rocky and otherwise highly abrasive terrains. Synthetic ropes are ideal for weight-sensitive vehicles such as ATVs and are chosen because of their superior safety qualities. 

Synthetic winch rope vs steel cable
Synthetic rope vs steel cable comparison chart.

To write this post, I took a closer look at a wide range of relevant parameters. I wanted to find out how well the two types of cable hold up against each other within each criterion.

Strength

Synthetic winch ropes are made out of polyethylene, and Dyneema is known as the premium brand. 

Millions of small fibers combined into one super strong rope make the material very well suited for most off-road winching applications.

Steel cables are also made up of many fine threads. But instead of synthetic fibers, they use aircraft-grade metal strings that are braided together to make a strong but flexible metal cable. 

If we compare the breaking strength of the same-size synthetic rope with steel cable, the rope comes out as the clear winner.

A synthetic winch rope is generally about 1.3 to 2 times stronger than the equivalent steel cable. 

If we go by weight, the similar weight synthetic rope is actually 15 times stronger than the steel cable.

I recommend that you get a genuine Dyneema product. If you get a cheap knockoff, you have no guaranty on what minimum break strength to expect from your rope. 

Winner: Synthetic rope

Weight

Synthetic rope weighs about 1/6 of what similar steel cable weight. 

The front suspension on an ATV already has to withstand severe abuse from jumps, hard braking, and rough terrain. To make matters even worse, we go and install a heavy winch to the very front of the machine.

One way to improve the handling of your ride is to reduce the combined weight of the winch assembly.

Replacing a steel cable to a few oz lighter synthetic rope may not seem like it will make much of a difference. But if you also take into account that a synthetic rope will allow you to replace your steel roller fairlead to one made from lightweight aluminum, the numbers start adding up. 

steel winch cable weight
Steel cable weight (in grams).
synthetic winch rope weight
Synthetic winch rope weight (in grams).
synthetic winch rope vs steel cable fairlead weight
The steel rollers are significantly heavier than the aluminium hawse. Weight in grams.

Replacing both the steel cable and the steel roller fairleads with a synthetic rope and aluminum fairleads will bring the total weight of your winch down with as much as 20% – 30%. 

Let us compare the weight of the most common ATV winch cable dimensions:

MaterialLengthThickness Cable weightFairlead weight
Synthetic 50 ft (15m) 3/16 in. (5mm)8.5oz (250g)36oz (1008g)
Steel 50 ft (15m) 5/32 in. (4mm) 50oz (1409g) 8oz (229g)

Winner: Synthetic rope

Durability – wear

Both synthetic ropes and steel cables will wear when they’re being used, consider them consumables. 

But synthetic will generally wear faster than steel. This is one of the major downsides that come with using a synthetic material. It is also why some users prefer traditional steel cables.

It’s not as much the actual winching that wears the rope synthetic, but it is prone to abrasion. The rope will wear prematurely any time you winch in abrasive terrains that has a lot of sharp rocks and sandy mud.

Steel cables are much more abrasive resistant. They can handle a lot more of this kind of abuse before you start seeing any noticeable wear such as fraying and abrading.

Another downside you get with synthetic ropes is that the polyethylene material they are made of will degrade over time when exposed to UV radiation from the sun. 

To prevent this you should keep the cable out of the sun whenever possible. Use a protective cover if there is room for one. 

The synthetic material may also degrade if it gets in contact with chemicals or high temperatures. 

One or more of these exposures will likely happen during the lifespan of the rope. Any-one of them has the potential of weakening the rope significantly. Genuine Dyneema can handle temperatures up to 150 °F (65°C) before it starts deteriorating.  

Synthetic rope manufacturers do their best to compensate for these downsides.

Some will add a protective anti-abrasion nylon sleeve that slides the full length of the rope. The idea is to use the sleeve as a protector any time you need to winch over trunks, rocks and other objects that may potentially damage the rope itself.

synthetic winch rope sleeve
Protective nylon sleeve.

Most manufacturers also add various coatings to protect the rope from UV exposure, chemicals, or to improve their durability in other ways. 

The rope is most likely to be exposed to heat close to the winch drum. Some winches have the winch brake located inside of the actual winch drum. When the brake is applied, heat will build up from the friction.

It’s just the first few feet of rope that will be in direct contact with the potentially hot metal. To protect this portion of the rope, some manufacturers offer ropes that have a special heat guard that covers the rope. This guard doubles as effective protection against drum abrasion. 

To give you an idea of how a synthetic winch rope will wear over time, I have added a photo of the cable on my own winch.

I have used my winch rope quite a lot over the last three years, and it is still in decent shape. I’ve used it to demolish a wooden dam, log by log as well as countless self-rescue operations.

Once I even pulled a massive Ford F250 pickup running summer tires out of a deep snowy ditch. 

synthetic winch rope wear
The photo shows the current state of my original Polaris synthetic winch rope. It has a rated breaking strength of about 7000lb.

Winner: Steel cable

Dimensions

Winch wires for ATVs are typically 5/32 inches (4mm) in diameter, while the most common synthetic rope size is 3/16 inches (5mm). 

Since the same size synthetic rope is stronger than the steel cable, you can step down one size and still maintain the same minimum breaking strength. This way, you would be able fit more rope on the drum than you would with steel cable. 

However, synthetic ropes in diameters less than 3/16 inches (5mm) is not readily available on the market, so that’s the smallest diameter you will be able to use in any case.

Most available ATV winches have room for 50ft (15m) of rope or more but can fit even more steel cable.

Winner: Steel cable

Cost

Synthetic rope is typically about 2,5 times more expensive than wire cable, depending on which brand and what level of quality you choose. 

After reading this post, you should be able to decide whether the extra cost is worth it or not.

For me, it’s an easy decision; a synthetic rope is worth it every penny. 

Most entry-level winches do however come stock with steel winch cables. Partly because steel has been the norm for many years, but also because steel cables generally cost less. 

Winner: Steel cable

Safety

There is always a potential risk involved when you’re winching with your ATV or offroad vehicle.

It’s essential to minimize the likelihood of something unexpected to happen, but at the same time, it’s just as important to minimize the potential consequences when things do not go as planned. 

Because things do go wrong if you are not careful. Failing to take the necessary precautions in advance may result in potentially fatal consequences. 

Snapped winch cable

A winch cable or rope that snaps under high tension is one of the potentially most dangerous things that may happen when using the winch. Any winch rope or cable may break, regardless of what material they are made of.

But synthetic ropes are much safer when they do break. 

When the winch starts pulling, what happens is that you store an increasing amount of potential energy in the rope or cable. If the rope or cable then breaks, this stored energy will turn the cable into a violent and potentially dangerous projectile.

The heavier steel cable will hold a lot more energy than the much lighter synthetic rope, when under the same tension. Visualize dropping a bowling ball on your foot vs. dropping a balloon from the same height. The weight makes all of the difference. 

Also, the elongation in a synthetic winch rope is minimal. This helps to reduce the amount of energy that builds up and makes the rope behave as safe as possible if it breaks. 

The more elastic steel cable will come flying when it breaks, while the synthetic is just going to more or less drop to the ground.

This is why it is so essential to use a line damper, especially when using steel cables.

So, due to less weight and less elongation, a synthetic rope will not inflict anywhere near as much damage if it breaks as the heavy cable would. And therefore, it’s considered a much safer option. 

Winner: Synthetic rope

Torn hands

Another common winching injury, wich most experienced winch owners will know all too well is what happens if you grab a worn and burred winch cable barehanded. 

Even after a few times use, the cable will start forming small burs that can cause you a lot of pain. That’s why you should never handle a steel cable without proper gloves. 

Synthetic winch cables, on the other hand, does not have this problem. Even worn and seasoned ropes can be handled safely and comfortable without gloves.

Winner: Synthetic rope

Aluminum (Hawse) vs. steel roller fairlead

In principle, synthetic ropes can be used with both steel roller fairleads, as well as a billet aluminum hawse. While the steel cable needs the steel rollers as it will just tear into the softer aluminum.

But using synthetic ropes with steel rollers is generally not recommended. Here is why:

  • Some steel rollers are not designed to be used with synthetic ropes. The rope will flatten out when under tension. And because the way many steel rollers are designed, you risk snagging issues in the corners where the rollers meet.
  • Bolts and spindles on a steel roller may cause snagging issues as well. On a billet aluminum hawse, there is nothing the rope can catch on-to. 
  • Any steel roller will eventually rust after some use, which is not good for the rope.
  • The synthetic rope is very smooth. Because of this, the rollers will often not roll properly; the rope will slide against a roller that does not move. 
  • Finally, there’s the fact that a billet aluminum hawse weighs much less than the steel rollers.

If you still want to use a steel roller fairlead with a synthetic rope, you must make sure it has no previous damage from being used with a steel cable. Any burrs or scuffing in the rollers will wear the synthetic rope prematurely. 

There are roller fairleads on the market that are specially made to be used with synthetic ropes. These have synthetic plastic materials in the rollers and will not damage the rope. 

I generally recommended that you replace your steel roller fairlead with a lighter aluminum hawse at the same time you replace your steel cable with a synthetic rope. They weigh less, cost less, and there is overall less that can break.

synthetic winch rope aluminum hawse
An aluminum hawse gives you a light-weight, clean looking winch setup.

Winner: Synthetic rope (with a billet aluminum hawse)

Sub-zero capabilities

Synthetic rope has the disadvantage that it holds water. This will add some weight to an otherwise lightweight setup. The added weight of the is not necessarily a deal-breaker, but add sub-zero temperatures and you may be in for some bad luck.

If the water-soaked rope freezes, it may transform your winch to a useless block of ice. If you plan on riding in arctic conditions, make sure your synthetic rope stays relatively dry.

Steel cable does not hold water the same way and is, therefore, less likely to freeze.

Winner: Steel cable

Anchoring

A common rookie mistake is to anchor the winch rope or cable by looping it around your anchor object and hooking it to itself. 

This method is not good neither for winch ropes or steel cables and should be avoided for a number of reasons:

  • The hook will damage the rope.
  • The anchor may damage the rope (especially if it’s a rock).
  • The rope may damage the anchor (especially if it’s a tree). 

The correct way is to use a tree strap around the anchor. Use a shackle to connect the winch hook to the tree strap.

Here are 16 other cool ATV winch accessories.

On the hook-end of the rope, you must make sure there is a proper steel thimble. Both steel cables and synthetic ropes should have one to ensure a safe and durable connection between the cable and the hook.

Winner: Draw

In-field repairs

Synthetic rope has the benefit that you can splice it if it breaks. In the worst case, you can tie a proper knot, and then proceed with your rescue operation.

If your steel cable breaks, there is no way you can repair the damage. If you don’t have any friends there to winch you out, you may have to rely on your own two feet to get back home. 

Winner: Synthetic rope

Maintenance

A synthetic rope needs more maintenance and care than steel cable. You need to wash it regularly in hot soapy water to keep it in good shape. Otherwise, grains of sand will work their way into the rope’s core, where it will wear the rope every time you use it.

With steel cable, you can get away with giving it a spray with wd 40 or chain lube from time to time to prevent it from rusting. If you do not take proper care of the cable, however, rust will start developing, and it will soon start losing some of its strength. 

Winner: Draw

Spooling 

Spooling the rope or cable correctly back onto the winch drum is an essential part of your winch-maintenance-routine. But this part is even more critical when it comes to steel cables.

If the relatively stiff steel cable doesn’t spool smoothly and evenly onto the drum, you risk getting permanent kinks in the cable that will make spooling even harder the next time.

Steel cables generally don’t take bending very well. Keeping a steel cable bent will deform and weaken the cable permanently. 

Another benefit of synthetic ropes is that they can be stacked to one side of the drum without breaking the winch rods like a steel cable would.

Winner: Synthetic rope

Winch rope vs. cable for plowing

When you’re plowing, you are winching in and out all the time to lower or raise the plow blade. This repetitive movement will wear the rope or cable on the same spot every time. 

With steel cable, you also have the issue that steel does not like being bent repeatedly. Try bending a nail back and forth; it will break after just a few times. The awkward winching angle from the winch and down to the plow blade will weaken the steel cable prematurely.

Synthetic ropes tend to hold up longer if you do a lot of plowing. Note that the abrasion guard should not be at the front of the rope when you use it for plowing. Spool out a few feet of extra rope, slide the guard down the line and spool it back on the drum.

But even with synthetic ropes, you will eventually run into snapping issues if you plow snow as a contractor. 

If you plow for a living, try completely removing the rope from the drum, and then replace it with a few feet of 2 ½ inch tow strap. Get the type that has a hook on each end, cut off one of the hooks and install it to the winch drum. Attach the hook to the blade.

Winner: Synthetic rope