A winch is probably the most useful accessory you can get for an ATV. Knowing how to use your winch correctly can save the day when your ATV riding doesn’t go as planned.
But with great power comes great responsibility. When misused, an ATV winch could cause a lot of harm.
In this guide, we’ve included the most critical aspects of the safe and effective use of an ATV winch.
Disclaimer: The information in this article is generic. For specific instructions for your make and model ATV and winch, please refer to relevant manuals such as the ATV owner manual or the instruction manual that came with the winch.
Prepare and Practice
The key to safe and efficient winching is proper preparation and practice to gain experience and confidence.
Tips for Safe and Successful Winching
Winching situations are often somewhat stressful by their nature. When you are far into the woods, and your expensive vehicle is stuck in a mud pit, it can be hard to keep your head cool, particularly if this is your first time winching.
Prepare your equipement. To winch an ATV, you need essential winching equipment. It is advised to bring this equipment with you at all times when riding your ATV. You never know when you need to use the winch.
Practice before you get stuck. In a stressful situation, it is easy to forget some of the critical warnings you’ve read in this guide and the instruction manual.
By practicing in advance, you’ll feel more comfortable with the basics of winch operation and can focus more on the specifics of the situation, the winching process, and its surroundings.
Take your time and stay calm. I know how all you want is to get your ATV unstuck, but when winching is not a time to rush. Take a step back, take a deep breath, get an overview of the situation, plan, and prepare.
When ready, proceed with the actual winching operation slowly and deliberately.
Don’t take any unnecessary risks. Always remember that your winch is extremely powerful and has the potential to cause a lot of damage, injury, or death when misused. Think safety at all times.
Remember: Guidelines and instructions do not replace common sense. No two winching situations are the same, and no amount of guidelines can cover all aspects of things that could go wrong. Ultimately it is up to you to analyze the situation and supplement the general principles and techniques with common sense. When in doubt, stop and reevaluate!
Read and Understand All Safety Precautions
ATV winches may be small but hold the power to cause a lot of damage when misused. That is why winching manuals have an extensive list of warnings and safety instructions, like:
- Never operate a winch while intoxicated by drugs, alcohol, or medication.
- You should be 16 years old to operate a winch. Never allow children to operate the winch or the vehicles involved in the winching operation.
- Wear protective leather gloves, and never let the winch rope slip through your hands.
- Keep bystanders and animals at a safe distance from the winch line, anchor points, and vehicles involved in the winching operation.
- Always inspect the winch rope, hook, straps, and other winching equipment before use. Replace damaged or worn equipment before winching.
- Turn the vehicle ignition OFF when not winching to prevent accidental winch operation.
- Keep out to the side and safely from the winch rope, fairlead, and hook when operating the winch.
- Never touch the winch rope, hook, straps, or other winching equipment while winching or when someone else is by the winch controls.
- Ensure at least five full turns of winch rope on the winch drum at all times.
- Understand and never exceed the weight capacity of the winch.
- Never use a winch as a hoist or to secure a load.
Also, ensure to read and understand all the other safety precautions and guidelines throughout this guide.
IMPORTANT: This list and the information in this guide are not intended to replace the complete list of precautions and warnings found in the manual that came with your winch or ATV.
The Equipment You’ll Need
While the winch works by itself, its versatility, productivity, and safe operation are enhanced with a few common winching accessories.
Heavy-Duty Gloves: Winching involves a high risk of getting cuts which could be avoided by wearing heavy-duty gloves. Steel wire develops barbs as it wears, prone to slicing your skin. The winch hook and shackles can develop razor-blade sharp burrs from wear and high-tension pulling. Leather gloves typically offer the best protection.
A fully charged battery: Winching draws a lot of current and takes a toll on your battery. It is recommended to have a fully charged battery at all times to ensure optimal winch performance.
Winch and Remote: The winch should be securely installed on the ATV according to manufacturer instructions and properly maintained. If the winch has a remote, ensure it works, the wire is not damaged, and the batteries are charged if it’s a wireless model.
Winch Rope: ATV winches either have a steel wire winch cable or a special synthetic winch rope. This guide will use the term “winch rope” for either type.
Winch Hook with Hook Strap: At the end of the winch rope, there is a fixed hook designed for anchoring the rope to dedicated winching points on other vehicles. The hook strap is a short strap attached to the hook for safe handling.
Tree Trunk Protector: A wide nylon strap that provides a solid anchoring point around a tree without damaging the tree trunk.
D-Shackles: Using shackles is a safe way of connecting the looped ends of a tree trunk protector or tow straps to the winch rope or a snatch block. D-shackles have a treaded pin for easy removal.
Snatch Block: A pulley designed to improve the winch pulling power or to change the winching direction without damaging the winch rope.
See our list of other useful winching accessories.
Get Familiar With Winch Controls and Features
Your winch typically has a few important control features you must learn to know how the winch operates.
Handlebar Rocker Switch
You’ll find the winch’s primary operating controls on the ATVs handlebars. The switch is typically a rocker design with three modes: IN, OUT, and OFF.
- When the switch is released, it automatically goes to its default OFF position.
- Pressing OUT on the rocker switch activates the winch electric motor to turn the winch drum outward. This is called spooling out.
- Pressing IN on the rocker switch activates the winch electric motor to turn the winch drum outward. This is called spooling in.
Remote Control (Wired or Wireless)
Some winches come with a wired or wireless remote for controlling power out and power in remotely and away from the driver position.
Remote winch operation can be helpful when you don’t have an assistant or when sitting on the ATV during the winching process is not deemed safe or practical.
The remote should be unplugged or turned off when not in use to prevent accidental winch activation or battery drain.
Clutch Lever/Free Spool Knob
The clutch lever, also known as the free-spool knob, is designed to engage or disengage the winch clutch. Frespooling is the quickest way to spool out the winch rope and helps preserve battery capacity.
- When the lever is engaged, the winch gear train is coupled with the winch motor, and the winch drum can be powered in or out by pressing the handlebar rocker switch or remote control.
- When the lever is disengaged, the winch is in the free-spool position. The winch drum is disconnected from the winch motor and rotates freely. This allows you to spool out rope manually by pulling the hook loop.
You’ll find the lever on the winch housing at the opposite end of the winch motor. It typically has the shape of a twist-style end cap or a lever on top.
Understand Winch Pulling Capacity
ATV winches are rated by their pulling capacity, which describes how much weight (lb) the winch can pull before it stalls.
The rated pulling capacity only applies to the first layer of rope on the drum and gradually decreases as more rope gets spooled in and the number of layers on the drum increases.
Exceeding the rated capacity could cause damage to the winch and may cause the winch rope to break.
Check this post to learn more about pulling capacity and what size winch to get for your ATV.
How to Winch an ATV: Step-By-Step Guide
At this point, you should have read and understood all relevant safety precautions, be familiar with how the winch and equipment work, and have practiced basic winching techniques in a controlled environment.
When the need for a winching operation occurs, here is how to approach the task.
Inspect the Winching Equipment
You should never use a winch or winching equipment damaged or needing repair service or replacement. Inspect all equipment before you begin winching.
- Ensure the winch is securely fastened to the ATV.
- Ensure the winch rope is not damaged with severe corrosion or kinks and is not strained. The first 3 feet (1 meter) of rope is most prone to wear and damage from previous use or misuse.
- Ensure you have the straps, shackles, and equipment you need and that it is in good condition.
Choose a Good Anchoring Point
An anchoring point is where you attach the end of the winch rope or a snatch block. Choosing a secure anchoring point is essential in any winching operation.
Your anchoring options often dictate the winching operation’s complexity, and what winching technique is best suited.
Natural Anchoring Points
- Trees. Choose a tree that is at least 4 inches in diameter.
- Stumps. Ensure the stump is not rotten and tall enough to keep the strap in place.
- Large rocks. Big enough to hold the weight of the ATV and not in danger of tipping.
Other Anchoring Points
- Another ATV or vehicle.
- Burry a log with a chain or tow strap secured around the log.
- Drive multiple stakes into the ground at an angle and tie them together.
Guidelines for Choosing a Good Anchoring Point
- It should be as far away from the ATV as possible. The winch provides the most pulling power when most of the winch rope is spooled out.
- It should be as directly in front of the ATV as possible.
Winching should be performed with the winch rope aligned as close as possible to the centerline of the winching vehicle. This will help even spooling of the rope across the winch drum and reduce the load and wear on the rope and fairlead.
Winching at an angle causes the winch rope to spool onto the winch drum to one side, which reduces pulling power and can harm the winch.
- It should be strong enough to hold while winching.
- It should have a shape and size that prevents the strap or chain from slipping.
- It should be as close to the ground as possible.
Decide What Rigging Technique to Use
Each winching operation is unique and may require a different approach to succeed. By learning these three essential winching techniques, you have the knowledge to solve most winching scenarios.
A Basic Single-Line Pull
Straight-line winching is the most basic form of winching technique. In this technique, you pull your ATV straight toward an anchoring point for self-recovery, or you pull straight toward your ATV when recovering another vehicle.
Changing the Pulling Direction
In some situations, there is insufficient space to do a straight-line pull, or a straight-line pull may cause an awkward angle.
You can direct the pulling angle in a more favorable direction by installing a snatch block as a second anchoring point.
The winching line goes as straight as possible from the winching vehicle, through a snatch block attached to an anchoring point, and angles off to another anchoring point or vehicle.
Double Line to Increase Pulling Power
Sometimes the winch doesn’t have the capacity to get your ATV unstuck with a single-line pull.
Basic laws of physics dictate that you cut the winch speed by half but double the winching power by using a snatch block to double the winch line.
Another benefit of doubling the winch line is pulling more layers of winch rope off the winch drum, revealing the lower layers of the rope where the pulling power is highest.
The winch line goes as straight as possible from the winching vehicle, through a snatch block attached to an anchoring point, and back to the winching vehicle, where the hook attaches to a solid part of the frame or a towing point.
Rigging for the Pull
It is time to begin rigging for the pull, depending on what winching technique you’ve selected to use.
Spool Out the Necessary Length of Rope
- Disengage the Free Spool Lever to release the clutch.
- Grab the hook by the hook strap and pull while maintaining consistent tension on the winch rope to keep it from tangling up.
- Continue pulling until you have enough rope to reach the anchoring point or second vehicle.
Prepare the Anchoring Point
You can skip this step if you’re recovering a stuck vehicle using a single line pull and no anchoring point. All other winching techniques involve setting up a solid anchoring point.
- Pass a tree trunk protector or choker chain around your anchoring point.
- Attach a d-shackle to the looped ends.
- When using a snatch block, guide the winch rope through the pulley before attaching the snatch block to the d-shackle.
Secure the Winch Rope to the Anchoring Point
There are two ways to attach the end of a winch rope, by the winch hook or connecting the hook loop directly to a d-shackle
When to Use the Winch Hook
- When attaching to a second vehicle with a suitable mounting spot.
- When looping back to the winching vehicle in a double-line pull.
Always attach the hook to an attachment spot that can handle the load, such as a solid part of the frame, a towing point, or a hitch mount. Do not attach the hook to suspension components, brush guards, cargo racks, or similar components that are not designed for heavy loads.
Ensure the hook only supports a load at its center on the tip. Ensure the safety latch on the winch rope hook is in the closed position and not under load.
When to Attach to a D-Shackle
- When attaching to a fixed anchoring point. This reduces the chance of the hook coming loose. If the winch loop isn’t big enough to fit a shackle bolt, you could insert the winch hook through the shackle.
- When attaching to a vehicle with no suitable mounting spot for a hook.
Swivel the winching hook towards the winching vehicle, and attach the shackle bolt through the hook loop. Tighten until snug and back off by 1/2 turn so you don’t overtighten.
Never hook the winch rope back onto itself. This will prematurely wear the winch rope and could cause it to break.
Gently Tighten the Winch Rope
Engage the clutch and spool in until no slack remains and the winch rope begins to tighten.
Check the Winch Rope
Ensure the remaining winch rope on the winch drum is neatly wound onto the drum, or it may jam up as you begin to spool in.
Establish Winch Dampening
A winch dampener helps absorb the energy if the rope breaks while winching.
Some winching kits come with a dedicated winch dampener. Other alternatives include using a heavy jacket, a tarp, or a small log.
Place the dampener on top of the winch rope midway between the winch and the anchoring point.
You might need to reposition the winch dampener on longer pulls to ensure it remains in the mid-position. Stop winching and release the tension on the winch rope before moving the dampener.
Ensure No One Is in the Winching Zone
While winching, no one should stand in these areas:
- Behind or in front of the vehicles involved in the winching operation
- Near the winch rope, snatch block, or anchoring point.
Vehicle Operation During the Pull
Proper vehicle operating during the pull varies from self-recovery to recovering another vehicle.
When Recovering Another Vehicle
- The winched vehicle can steer while winching but should not drive to prevent slack in the winch rope. Slack can cause the rope to get entangled and may damage the winch.
- If you have to propel the winched vehicle, use the lowest gear available and slowly apply throttle while being careful not to cause slack in the winch rope.
- The winching vehicle should be in neutral with the parking brake engaged and the engine turned on. Some user manuals tell you to leave the ATV in Park, but this puts a lot of strain on the gearbox internals. A safer alternative is to anchor down the rear of the winching vehicle to prevent it from moving.
- The winch internals and winch rope are not designed for trying to “jerk” on a stuck vehicle. Never drive the winching vehicle to take up the slack in the winch rope, neither slow nor fast.
When Performing Self-Recovery
- The ATV should be in neutral with the parking brake disengaged, and the engine turned on. Avoid driving the vehicle to prevent slack in the winch rope.
Alert bystanders before you begin winching.
When spooling in, it is critical to monitor whether or not the winch rope is spooling correctly onto the winch drum. Ask an assistant for help or use a remote, allowing you to observe the winch line yourself. Also, monitor vehicle stability and anchoring points throughout the winching operation.
You or your assistant should stand to the side of the vehicle and away from the winch rope. Do not grab or attempt to steer the winch rope while pulling.
Begin winching at a slow and steady pace. Do not repeatedly turn the winch on and off, as this can damage or overheat the winch.
You should stop winching and reposition the equipment if the rope isn’t winding correctly onto the winch drum.
Continue winching until the winched vehicle can drive forward without the help of the winch.
Prevent Overheating or Running Down the Battery
Heavy winching draws a high current load from the battery. Extensive winch use without enough time for the battery to charge back up will drain the battery.
The winch engine generates a lot of heat when pulling. It is typically not advised to pull for more than 45 seconds before taking a break to allow the winch to cool down.
Some winch manufacturers provide a run time guidelines table in the instructions manual with run times ranging from 10 seconds to 10 minutes, depending on load.
If the winch stalls during operation, it is likely overheating. Allow it to cool down for at least 10 minutes before resuming winching.
After the Pull
Secure the Recovered Vehicle
Put the recovered vehicle in park and put the parking brakes on.
Disconnect the Winch Rope
Unspool to create slack in the winch rope and disconnect the winch hook and any shackles from the anchor points.
Rewind the Winch Rope
If the rope was spooled unevenly onto the winch while winching, you must disengage the clutch and pull it back out before spooling it in.
The aim is to spool the rope tightly and evenly across the entire width of the winch drum.
Ask an assistant to grab the hook by the hook strap and pull with constant tension straight forward.
As you spool in, ask the assistant to walk towards the winch while maintaining constant tension and moving the rope from side to side.
Stop winching when the hook is about 6 ft or 2m from the winch to avoid the hands of the assistant becoming pinched. Spool in the remaining part of the winch rope without tension.
Don’t allow the hook to enter the fairlead, as it may get jammed and could cause damage to the fairlead. Winch the last few inches in small steps.
Can I Use My ATV Winch for Other Purposes?
ATV winches are designed only for pulling horizontal loads and do not have the safety features to work as a hoist or suspend loads.
That being said, here are 28 creative ideas for alternative ATV winch uses.