When you are getting a new winch for your ATV, what size of winch you should choose is one of the key factors to consider. And by size, we’re usually talking about it’s rated pulling capacity, measured in lbs.

So what size ATV winch should you get? A good rule of thumb is to choose a size of winch that has a rated pulling capacity of about 1,5 times the gross weight of the ATV. A rating of 2500 lbs to 3500 lbs will be suitable for most ATV winching applications. Smaller ATVs require a smaller winch than larger machines do.

How do you determine what size of winch you need for your bike?

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.

atv winch size plowing snow
ATV snow plowing does not require having a large winch. 1500lbs is often enough.

So the general rule where you take the gross weight of the bike and multiply it by 1,5 will be just fine for the majority of ATV winching applications.

Gross weight is the total weight of the ATV, including all fluids, the weight of the operator, cargo and accessories. You should be able to find the maximum gross weight of your ATV in the specification section of your owners 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 weight of the bike, ready to ride, but without the rider or any cargo. Then you just add the total payload capacity on the front and rear rack, and the weight of a rider, typically 165lbs (75kg).

As an example, the maximum permissible gross vehicle weight (GVW) of my Polaris Sportsman XP 1000 is 1550 lbs (690kg). Multiply this number by 1,5, and you get 2325 lbs. This indicates that a 2500 lbs winch should be a good match for this specific bike.

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:

In this post I’ve listed 29 awesome ways to use your ATV winch!

But 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 own ATV properly stuck in deep mud, or when you need to rescue a friend that finds himself 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 keep it in place. The actual weight of the bike does matter, but how bad you are stuck matters more in this case.
  • When you are planning on using your winch to pull any heavy objects, like a boat or big game.
  • When winching in very steep hills.
  • When you plan on using your ATV with a heavy trailer, you will need that much more pulling power if you were to get stuck.
atv stuck in mud winch
You won’t regret getting a decent size winch if this happens to you!

If you think there is a chance you will find yourself in situations like these regularly, you are probably better of going up one size when you buy the winch.

For the more extreme winching applications, I recommend you multiply the gross weight with 2 instead of 1,5. If you take the example with the 1550 lbs Polaris Sportsman, you will need a 3000-3500 lbs 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 lbs winch over the stock 2500 lbs for my sportsman. A friend of mine has the same ATV but with the stock 2500 lbs winch. Both are Polaris winches from the same series. In most practical use, he gets by just fine with the 2500 lbs.

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 don’t expect to use the winch other than the rare occasion where you misjudged and find yourself getting just barely stuck, you will be fine using the 1,5-rule.

If you, like me, enjoy pushing the limits somewhat, you will likely be better off with a slightly more powerful winch.

What does the rated winch pulling capacity actually tell you?

This rating is given in lbs (pounds) and describes how much weight the winch can actually pull before it stalls. For example, a winch that’s rated 2500 lbs should be able to create a line pull of 2500 lbs 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 on to the drum. This happens because of the physics of leverage.

ATV winch rope winch drum pullong capacity
Ideally you should do your heavy winching with 1-2 layers of rope on the winch drum.

As the winch rope shifts further away from the center of the winch drum, the winch motor has to work harder to pull the same amount of weight. In other words, the maximum pulling capacity decreases.

* The listed numbers are approximate and varies between different makes and models of winches.

Because of this phenomenon, you should always do 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 life expectancy of the winch motor.

It will also result in a lower amperage draw, keeping your battery sharp for a longer time before it’s starting to drop in voltage.

If you find that your ATV keeps losing battery power, it may be because you are using the winch too much or incorrectly. In this post we take a look at how using the winch for plowing can drain the battery.

Does the physical dimensions of the winch matter?

What most people talk about when they are talking about what size of a winch to get, it is not the actual physical size of the winch they refer to, 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 make sure that the winch you are choosing will actually fit on your specific ATV before you make your purchase.

Also, make sure that the winch you choose offers a winch mount that fits your particular bike.

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 those times you need some extra pulling power.

When using a snatch block correctly will actually double the winching capacity of your existing winch. You can even increase the capacity further by using 2 pulleys.

You do however lose some of the available winching-reach as the winch line will need to go through the snatch block and back. Add an extra winch rope in your kit to make sure you always have enough reach.

Can you trust the rated winch capacity?

Some of the cheaper and less known brands are a bit too creative in their marketing and write for example 3500 lbs as the winch name, while the actual rated winch capacity is a lot lower.

The major brands have too much to lose to be messing around like this. But if you are getting a budget model, it’s worth making sure that the numbers match up. Read the fine print on the box, or ask the seller what the actual rated pulling capacity is.

Related questions

What size ATV winch should you get for snow plowing?

Any ATV winch from the size of 1500 lbs and up is big enough to be used when plowing snow. If you plow a lot, it is better to get a slightly bigger winch because it will last longer and operate with less effort.

In this post we take a closer look at how well ATV plows really work.

What size is ATV winch cable?

Synthetic ATV winch cables are typically 3/16 inch (5mm). Steel wires generally are slightly smaller with a size of 5/32 inch (4mm). Typical winch cable length is 50 ft. (15m).