Most winch owners will find their winch cable stuck or jammed up at some point. You set the winch to free spool, but the cable won’t pull out no matter how hard you try.

In most cases, you will be able to free up cable quite easily by knowing the tricks we will cover in this post. Other times you get a bird’s nest of cable that you won’t be able to untangle without disassembling the winch or cutting the cable.

The tips in this post will work just as well on ATVs, UTVs, as with offroad-trucks.

Which method to use will depend on what type of jam you have

Which method that works best to untangle your jammed up winch-cable depends on the type and severity of the jam. 

Winch cables get stuck for a wide range of reasons. Here are the most common ones, with guidelines on which method to use. 

Begin with the first recommended method as it will be the fastest and less likely to cause damage. Then move your way through the other methods until you succeed. 

A few words of caution

  • Always wear leather gloves when handling steel winch cables. Cable strands break as a cable wears, and will tear into your skin when handling the cable. 
  • Never grab the cable closer to the winch than one foot. If you or someone else accidentally press the wrong button, you need time to react so your hand doesn’t get pulled into the winch.
  • Refer to the winch user manual for additional safety tips.

The cable is stuck/pinched between windings

It’s a widespread scenario that many winch owners run into: You put the winch to free spool, but the cable is stuck and won’t come out. 

Most of the time that a cable is stuck, it’s because it is pinched between the cable windings. This happens when you put a lot of force on a cable that previously was only loosely spooled back on to the drum.

These types of cable jams are usually not that bad and can be fixed quite fast with minimal risk of damaging the cable or the winch itself. 

Recommended methods

Work your way through methods one to three.

Overfilling cable on one side of the drum from winching at an angle

The cable or rope has to be distributed evenly over the winch drum width for all of it to fit. Sometimes, however, the situation requires that you winch at an angle. If you are not careful, you end up overfilling the winch drum on one side. 

Recommended methods

Begin with method six before working your way through methods one to five.

Lack of tension has caused the coils to come undone, creating a birds nest

The winch cable needs to be under constant tension, whether you are winching in or unspooling. 

If you, for some reason, get a little slack in the cable, the tightly spun windings may come undone. One coil ends up over the top of another, and you have a bird’s nest of a mess before you know it. 

The only way to fix this is by unspooling until you get past the bad spot and then spool back in neatly. 

Recommended methods

Gently try methods one to three. If this does not help, move over to method four or five. 

The cable has rusted after sitting and won’t unspool

Steel winch cables are lightly oiled when they are new to prevent rusting. This light coat of oil wears off after only a couple of times of use. 

If you leave a wet steel cable sitting for a more extended period, it will rust, leaving it hard or impossible to unspool.

winch cable rust
Winch cable rusted after sitting outside.

Recommended methods

Generously spray the drum of rusted cable with PB blaster or a similar product, and let it sit a little to allow the product to begin loosening up the rust. Then move your way through methods one to three until the cable frees up. 

Method 1: Unspool the cable while applying tension by hand

  • Unspool the winch until it’s at the spot where the cable binds. You will know when to stop by noticing when the cable does not unspool any further. Because of the bind, it will instead reverse and begin pulling the cable back in either way you turn the drum.
  • Grab the free end of the cable with one hand, at least one food from the fairlead. Use your body weight to create leverage and pull straight down. 
stuck winch cable
Use your bodyweight to add tension, or pull straight ahead if you prefer.
  • While maintaining a constant downward pull on the cable, press the “Out” button on your winch for a short second. This should free up the cable. 
  • You may need to spool the winch in and out several times to free up the cable. Continue spooling in and out just a couple of inches right around the binding spot while applying constant tension to the cable. 
  • This method works best if you have a remote or a helper that can activate the winch. Make sure the helper knows how to operate a winch. Be careful not to press “In” as your hand may get caught in the rollers if you don’t pay attention.

Method 2: Set the winch to free spool, attach the cable to a stationary object and reverse the vehicle to add tension

  • Park the vehicle with the front-facing a stationary object such as a large tree, a telephone pole, or the rear hitch of a truck or ATV.
  • Set the winch to free spool. Make sure the spool spins freely. If it doesn’t, the problem is likely not a jammed cable but an issue with the free spool knob or the internals of the winch.
  • Attach the free end of the cable to the solid object at ground level. You can use a strap to extend the winch cable if the free end is too short. 
  • With the winch in free spool, gently back up the vehicle until the line under tension. Make sure that you are not pulling the cable over a sharp edge, as this may damage the cable.
  • Gradually apply throttle to add more tension to the cable until it releases. Do not apply excessive tension or use speed as this may break the drum.

Method 3: Unspool the cable while using the vehicle to apply tension

This method is as far as you should go without having to disassemble the winch. As with method 2, you need to attach the cable to a stationary object. 

But instead of having the winch set to free spool, you will be spooling out the winch while gently backing up the vehicle to apply tension to the cable. 

Do not use speed or yank hard on the cable as this may ruin the gears inside your winch. Winches are designed to pull, but not to be pulled on!

Method 4: Disassemble the winch and untangle the cable

Bad jams or messy bird’s nests are not always salvageable without disassembling the winch. Getting a winch apart is not hard, but you need to pay close attention to how things go together. You do not want to find yourself with a table full of gears that you don’t know how to put together.

Tip: Take photos as you disassemble to help you if you forget what goes where.

  • Remove the winch from the vehicle. 
    • Disconnect the positive and negative cables.
    • Wrap some electrical tape around the positive cable to prevent shorts.
    • Remove the fairlead
    • Unbolt the four bolts that are holding the winch in place.  
    • On some trucks or ATVs, you may need to remove the bumper or panels to gain access.
  • Take the winch over to your workbench.
  • The winch is held together by two or four hex bolt rods. Remove all four bolts.
  • Now you should be able to wiggle the winch apart so that the winch drum comes loose.
  • Start working free the end of the cable. Continue until you have untangled every knot and unspooled the cable from the drum. 
  • You may have to use a pair of vise grips and a screwdriver. Be careful not to damage the winch drum or cable.
  • With the cable off the drum, reassemble the winch and install it back on to the vehicle.
  • Spool the cable back on to the winch neatly and under tension. 

Method 5: Disassemble the winch and cut the cable

If none of the above methods helped to free up the winch cable, you might need to cut it to get it off the drum. 

If the tangle has left a bunch of bends and kinks in the cable, it should be replaced anyway. A steel cable that gets kink weakens where the bend was. It also gets curly, making it harder to spool back to the drum nicely.

  • Follow the steps from method 4 to remove the winch from the vehicle. It is much easier to cut the cable when you have the winch on your workbench. 
  • Use a pair of vise grips and a screwdriver and work the cable around until you have a loop of cable to cut. Again, be careful not to bend or otherwise damage the winch drum, or you will be replacing that too.
  • Use a pair of heavy-duty bolt cutters to cut the looped cable. 
  • If you are not able to cut the cable, try using a small torch to heat it up where the cut will be. Red hot metal cuts much easier than when cold. Make sure you do not direct the torch to the drum or winch as it may weaken the metal or burn off paint. 
  • As an alternative to bolt cutters, you can use a Dremel tool with a cut off wheel. Make sure to wear protective glasses as these discs tend to break and shoot splinters out in any direction.
  • Continue creating loops and cutting until you can remove short pieces of cable.
  • This whole procedure does take some patience. Expect to use 1 – 2 hours or more. 

Method 6: Fix winch that is overfilled with cable

A winch that is overfilled with cable on one side from winching at an angle is easier to free up if you lubricate it with some oil before trying the above methods. 

Use a good lubricating oil free from acids and corrosive substances. Make sure to wipe off any excess oil after you are done as oil retains dirt, which will wear the winch and cable prematurely. 

How to prevent a stuck winch cable?

When it comes to preventing suck winch cables and winch ropes, the key is in the preparation. Here are a few essential tips to avoid cable chaos in the future:

Make sure the cable or rope is wrapped under load

Both steel cables and synthetic ropes have to be wrapped to the winch drum under load in a neat and even pattern. Winding the cable on too loose will allow the cable to

move around and cross over on itself. This will cause it to bind up when you add tension.

The goal is to make sure the lower cable windings are wrapped tight so that the free end of the cable does not slip down between them when you add tension.

A tight and smooth wrap is particularly important with synthetic ropes. A synthetic is less likely to jam, as long as it was spooled correctly. If not wrapped properly, a synthetic rope is, in fact, more likely to get stuck than a steel cable. 

Head over to this step-by-step guide if you want to learn how to install a winch cable or rope to your winch properly

Re spool the cable or rope neatly after each use

The winch cable will often spool back up quite randomly and messy as you do the winching. 

To prevent binding next time you use the winch, you should unspool and re-spool the cable neatly while under tension after each use. 

In the heat of the moment, it is easy to forget this vital aspect of winching. But it is the most useful tip to prevent problems down the line.

Install a fairlead with spring-loaded rollers

People that use their winches professionally don’t have time to mess around with stuck winch cables. 

Consider installing a fairlead with a spring-loaded roller. This type of fairlead makes sure that there is always tension on the cable when you spool it back in, allowing it to spool back on to the drum, tight and neatly. 

Replace a kinked cable

A steel cable that is full of bends and kinks is tough to spool back in neatly. If you find yourself getting a stuck cable regularly, you may save you some agony by getting a new, smooth cable. 

How to free up a cable stuck in the anchoring hole at the hub of the winch drum/spool

Many winches use an anchoring hole through the hub of the drum to hold the cable in place. The cable is locked into the hole with a set screw or held in place with a wedge.

Wedge style fasteners

winch cable wedge
Wedge style cable fastener.
  • Notice how the cable doubles back into itself, creating a loop.
  • Use a hammer to punch an awl through this loop and try to pull the cable further through the hole. This will loosen the tension on the wedge so that it pops out. 
  • With the wedge out, you should be able to pull the cable back through the hole. 

Hex set-screw style fasteners

  • Remove the hex set screw.
  • If the cable does not come out, you may need to use a 5/16 punch and a hammer to punch it out. Soaking it with PB blaster or a similar product may help.
  • Some cables are stuck so bad that you have to use a grinder and grind it down to a smooth surface near the hole. Be careful not to damage the winch drum.
  • Then use a drill to drill out the cable. Use a drill bit that is slightly smaller than the hole. Again, be careful not to damage the winch drum.
  • Soak the cable with PB blaster and try hammering it out using a punch. You may need several attempts before the cable frees up.