When getting a new winch for your ATV, what size of winch you should choose is one of the critical factors to consider. And by size, we usually talk about its rated pulling capacity, measured in lb.
So what size ATV winch should you get? A good rule of thumb is choosing a size winch with a rated pulling capacity of about 1,5 times the gross weight of the ATV. A 2500 lb to 3500 lb rating will be suitable for most ATV winching applications. Smaller ATVs require a smaller winch than larger machines do.
How to Know What Size of Winch You Need for Your ATV
For the average ATV owner, what size of winch you will need is usually determined by how heavy the ATV is. Most other uses, like lifting an ATV snow plow or collecting some light firewood, require far less pulling capacity than pulling the bike when it gets stuck.
So the general rule where you take the gross weight of the bike and multiply it by 1,5 will be just fine for most ATV winching applications.
Gross weight is the total weight of the ATV, including all fluids, the operator’s weight, cargo, and accessories. You should be able to find the maximum gross weight of your ATV in the specification section of your owner’s manual or by looking it up online.
Some manufacturers do not list the maximum gross weight your bike can handle. If that’s the case, you can easily calculate it. At least precise enough to choose the correct winch size.
Start by looking up the curb weight, which is the bike’s weight, ready to ride, but without the rider or any cargo. Then you add the total payload capacity on the front and rear rack and the rider’s weight, typically 165lb (75kg).
For example, the maximum permissible gross vehicle weight (GVW) of my Polaris Sportsman XP 1000 is 1550 lb (690kg). Multiply this number by 1,5, and you get 2325 lb. This indicates that a 2500 lb winch should match this specific bike well.
Here are some examples of what size winch you will need for various sizes of ATVs. Remember, there is no exact science to this. These are only general guidelines that will apply to the average user:
ATV engine size
Suggested winch size
Up to 350cc
350cc to 500cc
1500 to 2000 lb
500cc to 850cc
1500 to 2500 lb
850cc to 1000cc and UTVs
2000 to 4500 lb
Related: In this post, you’ll find 29 creative ways to use your ATV winch!
Exceptions to the 1.5 Gross Weight Multiplication Rule
The general rule of multiplying gross weight with 1,5 does not always apply. In some of the more extreme winching situations, the weight of the ATV is no longer that relevant to what size of winch you need.
Here are some examples of situations where the 1,5 x GVW rule may come short:
- When you get your ATV properly stuck in deep mud, or when you need to rescue a friend in the same situation, you will need a lot of pulling power to come loose. The bike will act as an anchor, and the suction effect of the mud keeps it in place. The actual weight of the ATV does matter, but how badly you are stuck matters more in this case.
- When planning on using your winch to pull any heavy objects, like a boat or big game.
- When winching in very steep hills.
- If you plan on using your ATV with a heavy trailer, you will need significantly more pulling power if you get stuck.
If you think there is a chance you will find yourself in situations like these regularly, you are probably better off going up one size when you buy the winch.
I recommend multiplying the gross weight by two instead of 1,5 for the more extreme winching applications. If you take the example with the 1550 lb Polaris Sportsman, you will need a 3000-3500 lb winch to be fully covered.
I tend to find myself pushing my equipment to its limit. It’s made to be used, right?
This is why I choose a 3500 lb winch over the stock 2500 lb for my sportsman. A friend of mine has the same ATV but with the stock 2500 lb winch. Both are Polaris winches from the same series. He gets by just fine with the 2500 lb in most practical use.
But for me, the comfort of knowing I have the winching capacity to handle all perceivable and unperceivable winching situations is well worth the extra money.
- If you anticipate using the winch only on rare occasions, such as when you slightly misjudge and find yourself minimally stuck, adhering to the 1.5-rule should suffice.
- If you enjoy pushing the limits somewhat like me, you will likely be better off with a slightly more powerful winch.
What Does the Winch Rated Pulling Capacity Mean?
This rating is given in lb (pounds) and describes how much weight the winch can pull before it stalls. For example, a winch rated 2500 lb should be able to create a line pull of 2500 lb before it stalls.
The rated capacity is measured with just one layer of windings on the winch drum, where the pulling power is at its highest. The pulling capacity decreases gradually as you put more layers of winch rope onto the drum. This happens because of the physics of leverage.
As the winch rope shifts further away from the winch drum center, the motor has to work harder to pull the same amount of weight. In other words, the maximum pulling capacity decreases.
Layers of rope
on the drum
Remaining pulling capacity
in % of rated pulling capacity
Remaining pulling capacity in lb
(example: 2500 lb winch)
Because of this phenomenon, it would be best if you always did your heavy winching with 1-2 layers of rope on the drum. This is called the pulling zone. Doing so enables the winch to pull with less effort, effectively increasing the winch motor’s life expectancy.
It will also result in a lower amperage draw, keeping your battery sharp for longer before it drops in voltage.
If your ATV keeps losing battery power, it may be because you use the winch too much or incorrectly. In this post, we look at how using the winch for plowing can drain the battery.
Do the winch’s physical dimensions matter?
What most people talk about when they are talking about what size of a winch to get is not the actual physical size of the winch but rather how much it can pull before stalling out, known as the rated line pull.
That’s not to say that the physical dimensions of the winch don’t matter. You should always ensure that the winch you choose will fit your specific ATV before purchasing.
Also, make sure that the winch you choose offers a winch mount that fits your particular bike.
Boosting Your Pulling Capacity
What if you find yourself needing more pulling capacity than you currently have?
Upgrading to a bigger winch is always an option. But it’s also the most expensive and not always necessary.
A much cheaper alternative is getting a snatch block to use when you need extra pulling power.
Using a snatch block correctly will double the winching capacity of your existing winch. You can even increase the capacity further by using two pulleys.
However, you lose some available winching reach as the winch line must go through the snatch block and back. Add an extra winch rope to your kit to ensure you always have enough reach.
Can You Trust the Rated Winch Capacity?
Some less-known and cheaper brands can be overly creative in their marketing. For example, they might label a product as “3500 lb,” suggesting it’s the winch’s capacity when the actual rated winch capacity is significantly lower.
The major brands have too much to lose to mess around like this. But if you are getting a budget model, it’s worth ensuring the numbers match up. Read the fine print on the box, or ask the seller what the actual rated pulling capacity is.
What size ATV winch should you get for snow plowing?
A winch of 1500 lb or larger is suitable. For frequent plowing, a larger winch is advisable as it lasts longer and operates more effortlessly.
What size is an ATV winch cable?
Synthetic ATV winch cables are typically 3/16 inches (5mm). Steel wires generally are slightly smaller, with a size of 5/32 inches (4mm). The typical winch cable length is 50 ft. (15m).
There we have it – the ins and outs of ATV winches explained with real-world examples and relatable situations.
Remember, it’s not about buying the biggest and most expensive winch. It’s about understanding your needs and making the smart choice, whether that’s for rescuing a buddy’s stuck ATV or winching in steep hills.
With the knowledge from this article, you’re now better equipped to choose a winch that perfectly suits your ATV and your adventures.