This guide is made to help you troubleshoot the most common ATV winch issues. It will also point you in the right direction on how to fix them.
ATV winches are rugged. They can handle incredible amounts of use and abuse. And as long as you steer clear of the cheapest models and treat your winch well with proper maintenance, you should expect many years of hassle-free winching.
But occasionally, even the best will face some technical issues that must be addressed.
Luckily, there is a lot you can do yourself to troubleshoot and repair an ATV winch that doesn’t work as it’s supposed to.
An Important Safety Note
ATV winches are small but still powerful and potentially very dangerous. If you have doubts or lack the basic mechanical skills to perform the troubleshooting or repairs described in this post, you should take it to an authorized dealer and let them take care of it.
An out-of-control winch has the potential to cause severe equipment damage or possibly cause severe life-threatening injury to yourself or others.
How This Guide Works
I’ve structured this guide so that you can start your troubleshooting based on what symptoms you are experiencing. After all, that’s how it starts; suddenly, the winch will start behaving differently than it should.
This will lead you to the root of the problem much faster than just randomly testing all the different things that can go wrong.
For many of the symptoms, there are several possible causes, and some reasons may give several types of symptoms.
After you have determined what’s causing your problem, you’ll find a suggested solution to the issue.
When the Winch Is Completely Dead
You push the winch switch with the engine running, but nothing happens. The winch motor does not turn or even make a click or a buzzing sound.
The fastest way to troubleshoot a winch that does not give any sign of life is by isolating the problem.
Before you spend too much time investigating other possible causes, it’s a good idea to determine whether the problem is with the winch itself or with the wiring.
To do this, you need to perform this quick test:
The Jumper Cable Test
This test will bypass all the wiring and other electronics and tell you whether the winch motor is working.
- Disconnect all winch cables from the bike.
- Disconnect the battery from the ATV, or use another battery to not damage the vehicle electronics.
- Connect the jumper cables to the battery. Polarity does not matter for this test, but red to + and black to – is always a good starting point.
- Connect the negative cable to one of the terminals on the winch.
- Gently tap the other terminal using the positive cable. This is done to ensure the winch has no dead short. The drum should move slightly; if it does not, stop the test now. Some sparks when tapping like this are expected.
- If the drum moved slightly when tapping, attach the positive terminal completely. The winch motor should operate as usual in one direction.
- Then repeat the test by switching the cables on the winch. The motor should then move freely in the opposite direction.
Now you should know what causes to look at for further troubleshooting.
Cause 1: Blown Fuse or Tripped Circuit Breaker
Some winches, but not all, have a circuit protector or a fuse that is meant to blow when the winch, for some reason, is pulling too much power. A circuit breaker may also trip if it gets submerged in water.
Suggested Solution: If the fuse is blown, replace it with a new one with the correct amp rating.
Suggested Solution: If tripped, the circuit breaker may need to be reset manually.
If the winch starts working again, you have fixed the problem.
If the new fuse blows again immediately or the circuit breaker trips, you likely have a short somewhere.
A short happens when the positive (red) cable gets in contact with any metal part, like the bike’s frame, due to a damaged cable. A faulty switch may also cause a short.
Suggested Solution: Repair or replace damaged cables or broken switches causing the short.
If you can’t find any shorts in the wiring, a short may also be inside the winch itself or in the contactor—more on that further down.
Cause 2: Improper or Bad Wiring
An utterly dead winch often indicates that it’s not getting any power or that something is not grounded as it should be.
Suggested Solution: Make sure the winch is wired correctly.
If it has been working correctly before and you haven’t modified the wiring, an incorrect installation should not be causing your issue.
But if you’re installing a new winch and can’t get any sign of life, it’s a good chance you’ve got the wiring wrong somewhere.
All winches should come with a complete wiring diagram. Make sure you follow it to the point!
The basic principles on how to do the wiring should be the same on any winch. But it’s worth noting that you will see some minor but significant differences between the different brands.
Commonly, the contactor’s battery terminals have different setups, where connecting the wires wrong may lead to a dead winch.
When the winch has been installed on the bike for a while, the cable terminals may corrode or come loose.
Suggested Solution: Disassemble and clean all terminals, one by one, to make sure you have a proper connection everywhere and that they are correctly fitted. Any corrosion can be removed with sandpaper so the terminals become shiny again.
Cause 3: Defective Handlebar Rocker Switch or Remote
Any switch can break due to material fatigue when pushed enough times. Cheaper winches usually come with less robust switches that will fail sooner.
It may also stop working due to water entering and corroding its internals. Again, the cheaper ones are often less protected and are more likely to be acting up after a few encounters with salt and water.
If a switch is damaged or corroded, it may not engage the winch when you push it.
There are several ways you can go about troubleshooting a bad switch:
Test if Other Switches Work
If the bike has more than one switch to activate the winch, you should test them both to see if one works.
It is doubtful that both switches will fail at the same time. If one works, but you get no reaction from the other, it has likely gone bad.
Bypass the Switch
If you have only one switch, you can determine if it’s defective by testing if the winch works when you bypass the switch:
- Start by disengaging the winch by putting the engage lever in the free spool position. You don’t want the winch to be doing any actual winching when performing this test. You only need to see if the winch engine is starting or not.
- Disconnect the remote switch plug from its socket.
- Use a short piece of wire to “jump” two of the opposing four (or three) pins. This wire is called a jumper lead; any wire should work (16 gauge and up). This should cause the motor to start.
- Then try jumping the two other pins. The motor should now start and turn the other way.
- The switch is likely faulty if the winch motor starts and runs in both directions when performing the test.
Suggested Solution: Replace the damaged switch.
Cause 4: Faulty or Dirty Winch Motor
If none of the above resolved your issue, and the system is just dead silent even when performing the jumper cable test, you are likely facing some sort of issue with the winch motor itself.
The Voltage Drop Test
Another way to test the engine is by reading voltage drop across the motor. You need a multimeter to do this test.
- Set the multimeter to VDC (volts, direct current)
- Use some tape or alligator clips to connect the multimeter directly to the winch—one to the grounding and the other to the blue or yellow cable. Polarity does not matter in this test.
- Turn the key on and push the remote switch.
- The reading should be close to or above 12V. If not, it’s a good indication that something is not right within the winch motor.
Possible Solution: Clean the motor. The electric motors inside winches are pretty simple and robust. But they are not entirely fail-proof. And sometimes dirt may enter the motor housing, creating a dead short.
Disassembling the motor and giving it a good clean may be all it takes to bring it back to life.
- Remember to turn off the key and remove the battery terminals before working on the winch.
- With the motor disassembled, spray it thoroughly with brake clean and gently rub it with a toothbrush or copper wire brush.
- Also, clean the inside of the housing.
- If you have an air compressor available, blow off any debris.
Make sure it is dry before you assemble and test it again.
If cleaning does not help, it may have a burnt coil or a short in the motor armature. This may happen if you wire the winch incorrectly or if it’s been overheated.
Possible Solution: Replace or repair the damaged motor. If the motor is damaged, it may need replacing or a complete rebuild performed by a specialist.
Cause 5: Worn or Damaged Brushes
The brushes will wear over time. They may also become damaged by a damaged armature commutator.
Suggested Solution: Replace worn or damaged brushes. If the motor is getting old, the brushes may be worn and need replacing. And if the motor armature gets damaged, it may also damage the brushes.
- Open the motor housing and inspect the motor.
- Look for burnt spots or wear in the brushes. They are relatively easy to replace if they look worn compared to new ones.
When the Winch Motor Turns in Only One Direction
When you engage the winch, either using the handlebar rocker switch or a wired or wireless remote, the winch motor will turn just one way.
It may spool in but not out again, or it may spool out without being able to spool it back in.
Before you spend time and money on more expensive parts, it’s a good idea to ensure the problem is not in the wiring, as these issues are usually cheap and straightforward to repair.
Cause 1: Improper or Bad Wiring
Again, the cause of the issue may be some wiring issue.
But before you check the rest of the wiring as described above, you should start by looking at the cable that goes from the remote switch to the contactor.
The cable itself may be damaged, or the connector at the contactor may have come loose.
Also, check if the pins inside the remote control plug have become pushed out of position or bent.
Suggested Solution: Repair or replace any damaged wiring.
Cause 2: Defect Handlebar Rocker Switch or Remote Switch
If the switch is only partially defective, the winch may not go completely dead but can work in only one direction. Test the switches as described above to see if they all work correctly.
Cause 3: Defective, Rusted, or Stuck Solenoid
If you’ve ruled out that the problem is not in your wiring, you will likely find it in the solenoid inside the contactor.
What is a Winch Contactor or Solenoid Anyways?
You can compare the contactor to an ordinary relay. They have the same purpose: To prevent sending all of the current directly through the remote switch, which would require a very impractical colossal switch.
The contactor is basically a giant switch that can handle high currents. It’s activated with a low current from a much smaller switch.
All ATV winches have one, and its job is to switch between sending a positive and negative electric current to the winch. This is what determines which way the engine turns.
You’ll find one two-sided or two single-sided solenoid magnetic coil switches inside the contactor. One is activated when pressing the in button, and the other is activated when pressing the out button.
When the solenoid works as it should, it physically moves when activated, creating the audible clicking sound when pressing the winch switch.
A two-sided solenoid will have four battery cable connections, where one side is wired + to –, and the other is wired – to +. These are often marked with red, black, blue, and yellow, matching the wires. Some winches use only red and black color coding.
Solenoids do, however, tend to break or get stuck. When it’s stuck, you won’t get it to switch between positive and negative currents.
Suggested Solution: You can try gently tapping the contactor with the handle of a screwdriver to free it up. But this will be a temporary fix. It risks getting stuck again until you replace the contactor with a new one.
Because of the wet and muddy conditions that lead you to get a winch in the first place, the solenoids may rust over time. Rusted plungers will not move freely, so you don’t get proper contact.
When you remove the contactor cover, you will quickly see if corrosion is causing your issue.
Suggested Solution: Replace the rusted contactor.
How to Test the Winch Solenoid
You can test the solenoid by hooking a test light on the cables to the winch.
Test first with the blue, then with the yellow. You likely have a bad solenoid if you don’t get a light with any of them.
An excellent way to protect your new contactor is by slathering it with dielectric grease and ensuring it is installed high and dry.
When the Contactor Clicks, but the Winch Doesn’t Work
This one is widespread, and when it comes to troubleshooting, it has a positive side to it:
When you hear an audible click sound, you know the contactor is getting power when the switch is pushed. Everything up to the contactor, including the switch, should be fine.
Cause 1: Battery Issues
The battery is defective or not fully charged, or battery terminals are corroded.
Suggested Solution: Start by ensuring the battery is fully charged and has a voltage reading of at least 12,4V. Remove the battery terminals and clean them to ensure a proper connection.
Also, ensure the grounding cable on the winch motor housing is installed correctly.
This leaves either the winch motor or the contactor.
In a situation like this, you want to rule out one or the other. Again, the easiest way to do this is by performing the jumper cable test described above to see if the winch is working.
Cause 2: Contactor Is Damaged or Corroded
If the winch works as expected when you power it with jumper cables, the issue will likely be in the contactor.
The solenoids may be firing up, but they are not connecting. This may be due to corrosion or damage from overheating.
Suggested Solution: In this case, the contactor needs replacing.
Cause 3: Faulty or Dirty Winch Motor
If the motor does not turn as normal when being fed power directly from the battery, you know it has some issues.
The possible causes for it not working and procedures for troubleshooting and fixing are the same as when the winch is entirely dead.
When the Winch Works Only Intermittently
If the winch works fine sometimes, but other times it just makes a clicking sound, the cause of the issue will likely be the same as when you always get clicking, and the winch never works. Just follow the steps above, and you should find your problem.
If the winch works sometimes but other times is completely dead, you are more than likely facing a loose cable, creating a bad connection somewhere. Go over the wiring, and make sure nothing has come loose.
When the Winch Turns Slow or Lacks Pulling Power
You may find that the winch turns but does so very slowly. It seems to be down on power or may even stall out when pulling loads that it usually should manage just fine.
This may be due to a damaged motor, as described above, where you just get a clicking sound. Other possible causes are:
Cause 1: Winch Cable or Rope Incorrectly Spooled Onto the Drum
If the cable or rope, for some reason, is not spooled onto the drum in the correct direction, it will work against the automatic brake. This will be like trying to drive your car with the handbrake on.
Suggested Solution: Spool the cable or rope all the way out, and re-install it in the correct direction. There should be a sticker indicating the proper drum rotation.
Cause 2: Insufficient Battery Power
Suggested Solution: Fully charge the battery. Replace it if the battery is damaged. Clean terminals.
If the battery keeps draining, even after replacing it, the issue may be with the bike’s charging system.
Cause 3: Bad Winch Grease
The grease used inside the winch gears can go bad from old age, becoming gummed up or full of dirt and water.
Suggested Solution: Please refer to the procedure for re-greasing the gears when the winch won’t free spool.
Cause 4: Too Much or Old Grease in the Gears
If you put too much grease in the planetary gears, have used the wrong grease (too thick), or if the grease has gummed up due to water contamination and age, the gears will not turn as freely as they should.
Suggested Solution: Remove old grease, and apply the correct amounts of new grease.
- Disassemble the winch and gears. Take photos underways to remember where everything goes. The planetary gears themselves do not come apart.
- Put the gears in a tub of degreaser for some hours.
- Finish cleaning odd old grease using a toothbrush or similar.
- Get some CV joint grease or other grease with a relatively thin consistency.
- Wear a rubber glove and use your finger to apply a nice, even, but not too thick coating on every gear except the sliding ring gear.
- Also, grease the bushings at each end of the spool.
- Reassemble everything.
When the Winch Spool is Stuck
If your winch cable has become all jammed up and goes in no matter which way you run it, this little trick may get you out of a pinch.
- Get the winch to the point where the jam prevents it from unwinding.
- Wrap the winch cable around a solid object, a tree, or the ATVs brush guard, and gently run the engine for the jam to release.
This works most of the time. Other times it just makes the situation a lot worse.
Another tip is to put the winch in a free spool position and use another winch to pull it out.
When the Winch Motor Gets Very Hot Very Quickly
While some heat is expected whenever the winch motor is being put under a heavy load, an issue may be causing it to get abnormally hot after being used for a short time.
Operating the winch over a long period may also overheat it, with the risk of permanently damaging the motor. Take breaks to allow the motor to cool down.
Cause 1: The Winch Motor Bushing Is Too Tight
At the end of the winch motor, there is a bushing. If it’s too tight from corrosion or debris, it may cause drag and overheating.
Suggested Solution: Remove the winch motor end cap. Use some fine sandpaper or emery cloth and give both the motor end shaft and the inside of the bushing a light rub.
Cause 2: Damaged Winch Motor
Incorrect wiring or previous overheating from overuse can cause permanent damage to the winch motor.
Suggested Solution: Replace the winch motor.
When the Winch Won’t Engage or Disengage
The motor may turn, but you cannot get the winch to engage. Or you may have problems getting the winch to disengage to the free spool position.
When the engage lever does not budge, the problem can be with the knob/ lever itself or the gears; it operates.
Cause 1: Stuck engage lever
Corrosion or debris can cause the engage lever to get stuck, preventing the winch from spinning freely.
Suggested Solution: Clean, remove rust and apply new grease.
The lever must come out to be cleaned, and any rust must be removed. Some levers can be removed without disassembling the winch.
- Simply remove the bolt holding the lever in place, and wiggle the lever out.
- Clean it, and remove any corrosion using some fine sandpaper.
- Apply some grease and re-install.
Other winch models require some disassembly for the lever to come out.
- Take off the winch cover.
- Remove the bolt that holds the spring-loaded detent ball in place.
- Wiggle the whole lever out and give it the same treatment described above.
Now that your winch is already disassembled, it may be a good idea to service the gears while at it.
Cause 2: Sliding Ring Gear Won’t Operate
Dirt, corrosion, or grease can prevent the sliding ring gear from operating correctly.
Suggested Solution: Clean and remove corrosion. Apply oil.
Inside the winch, on many models, there is a ring gear that needs to slide freely sideways for you to be able to engage and disengage the winch.
If this gear or the outside diameter of the winch housing it slides up against starts to corrode; it will become stuck either in the engaged or disengaged position.
Dirt and other debris won’t help the situation either.
Disassemble, clean, remove rust, lightly coat gear and housing surface with oil, and reassemble.
It may also be hard to get this ring gear to slide if someone mistakenly has applied grease on the outside of the gear or to the inside of the gear housing.
While the other winch gears should be lightly greased with CV-joint-type grease, this is not true for the ring gear.
The grease will create too much drag, making the gear hard to operate. A light coat of oil is all that should be used here.
Cause 3: Mechanical Gear Failure
If the gears have become damaged somehow, you may not be able to budge the engage lever at all. Using the winch to tow someone, or trying to yank on someone stuck, is a common rookie mistake that will likely strip the gears.
Suggested Solution: Replace damaged gears.
You need to disassemble the winch and inspect for damaged gears. All damaged parts can be replaced to get the winch back in working order.
Cause 4: Stuck Twist Style End-Knob
Warn, and many other ATV winch manufacturers use a design where you must twist a knob at the end of the winch housing to switch between free-spool and locked position.
However, this design seems to be a bit more fragile than the angled knob often seen on larger winches. Some models have issues with the knob getting stuck due to bad design.
What happens is that the knob gets stuck when it is over-rotated, and the clutch bar gets hung up on a small plastic sliding ramp that’s part of the design.
You can disassemble the knob to put everything back in place, but if your winch is affected by this issue, you will soon get it stuck again if you are not careful.
Suggested Solution: Get upgraded parts from the manufacturer.
If you face issues engaging or disengaging a winch that uses this type of knob, I suggest taking it to the dealer to get upgraded replacement parts if it’s still under warranty.
When the ATV Winch Won’t Free Spool or Drags
Even if you manage to get the winch to disengage correctly, it is tough to free-spool. It requires a lot of force to pull out the cable/rope.
Cause 1: Burrs on the Sliding Ring Gear
Burrs on the gears can create drag against the inside diameter of the gear housing.
Engaging or disengaging the winch under load may create a burr outside the ring gear. This creates mechanical friction and makes it harder to free-spool the winch.
Suggested Solution: Use a file and gently remove any burr. Apply oil before reassembling.
Cause 2: Grease on the Sliding Ring Gear
The sliding ring gear and the inside diameter of the winch housing that it slides against should not be greased.
Not only does this makes it hard to engage the winch, but it will also create drag, making it hard to free-spool the winch.
Suggested Solution: Remove grease, apply a thin layer of oil.
Cause 3: Bent Winch Drum Flanges
If you winch at an angle, all the cable will stack up on one end of the drum.
This may not only get the drum stuck, but it may also damage the drum itself by forcing the sidewalls outwards.
Suggested Solution: Disassemble and try to straighten the drum walls. If it cannot be repaired, the drum needs replacing.
When the Winch Slips Under Load
Cause 1: Clutch not Engaging
If the winch is slipping, this may be due to the clutch not engaging correctly.
Suggested Solution: Try troubleshooting why it won’t engage as described earlier.
Cause 2: Stripped Gears
The gears may be stripped, whether it is due to using the winch, the clutch not being completely engaged, or incorrect use like towing or yanking.
Suggested Solution: Disassemble the winch to inspect the gears and replace them if needed.