A winch is one of the most power-hungry accessories you can get for your ATV, so it’s crucial that the wiring is correct.
Wiring a winch so that it turns on is relatively simple. But wiring a winch so that the installation is safe, reliable, long-lasting, and won’t damage the ATV’s electrical system takes a bit more effort.
This guide look at all the aspects of wiring an ATV winch correctly. It does not contain detailed information on mounting the winch to the ATV.
Take your time, and do not skip any part of the guide.
Disclaimer: This guide is not brand-specific but is based on the installation manuals for several well-known ATV winch brands. Your winch wiring harness may be slightly different, but the basic principles apply.
While most winches use the same basic wiring layout, not all use the same color coding and connector patterns.
The best option is always to have the specific installation manual. It’s your responsibility to ensure your winch isn’t designed differently than those in this guide.
Safety Precautions – No, Seriously, Read These!
Always use caution when working with electricity and observe the safety instructions below. Failing to do so could lead to serious injury, death, or vehicle damage.
- Wear eye protection.
- Remove all metal jewelry.
- Disconnect the positive battery terminal before working on the electric system.
- Batteries contain flammable gasses, and sparks from touching a positive wire to the ground could cause an explosion.
- Do not lean over the battery while connecting wires.
- Be careful not to cause a short when working with metal tools near the battery terminals.
NOTE: These warnings only consider the wiring aspect of the winch installation. Please refer to the winch installation guide or owner’s manual for other important safety warnings you should know before operating the winch.
How to Properly Run the Wires
These guidelines apply whenever you run wires or cables for the winch and its controls.
A winch draws alot of power, and if the insulating outer layer of the wiring becomes damaged for any reason, it could cause a short to ground. Possible hazards include a powerful electric burst, fire, and damage to the vehicle’s electrical components.
Apply these guidelines to reduce the risk of damaging the wires:
- Whenever possible, use existing routing paths.
- Never route electrical wires across sharp edges.
- Never route electrical wires through or near moving parts. Example: Drive shafts and suspension components.
- Never route electrical cables through or near any high-heat parts. Example: Exhaust and engine.
- Never route wires where they may get pinched or will wear from abrasion.
- Never route wires across battery terminals. A damaged wire can short out the battery.
- Always insulate any exposed wiring and all-electric terminals using the supplied terminal boots, shrink wrap, or electrical tape to prevent accidental shorts.
1. Mount the Winch to the ATV
This guide does not detail how to mount the winch to the ATV physically, but the winch should be mounted before you begin wiring.
The best option is to get a vehicle-specific bolt-on winch mounting kit that comes with instructions and everything you need to install the winch securely to the ATV.
Related: Alternative ATV Winch Mounting: Upside Down? Truckbed? Hitch? Rack?
2. Prepare the Contactor Mounting Location
The winch works by transforming electrical power into mechanical power. The contactor is an electromagnetic switch that controls the power of the winch. The contactor has two primary functions.
- Firstly, it’s an important safety feature that disconnects the winch from the power source (battery) when the ATV is not in use. This helps prevent unintended operation of the winch. It also prevents the winch from draining the battery when not in use.
- Secondly, the contactor directs power to make the winch should spool in, out, or stop, depending on what signal it gets from the handlebar rocker switch or remote.
Contactor mounting location
The contactor should be mounted in a location that meets the following criteria.
- Close to the battery.
- As dry and clean as possible. Water can damage the contactor by corrosion.
- At a safe distance from a heat source such as the exhaust or engine. Too much heat can melt the contactor or reduce its service life.
- A location with sufficient clearance from all metal structures, such as the frame tubes. When working on the contactor, you want to ensure tools do not cause a short between the contactor and ground (the frame, engine, etc.)
The exact location will vary depending on the ATV, but typical locations include the following:
- Inside, on top, or the side of the front or rear storage box,
- Underneath the seat.
- In front, close to the battery.
For the contactor and winch to work properly, the contactor must be installed correctly. All the wires in the winch wiring circuit connect to the contactor.
Drill the holes for the contactor
Ensure you’re not drilling into fuel lines, the fuel tank, brake lines, electrical wires, etc.
DO NOT mount the contactor yet. It is easier to attach the wires to the contactor before mounting it permanently to the ATV.
3. Mount the Handlebar Rocker Switch and Route Wires
The handlebar switch is typically located on the left handlebar to prevent interference with the thumb throttle.
If you have to reposition some of the original ATV control to make room for the rocker switch, ensure you do not compromise the vehicle’s safe operation.
Ensure the selected mounting position provide sufficient clearance against all vehicle controls and that the clamp does not tighten over any brake lines or cables.
TIP: A piece of electrical tape around the handlebars will prevent the mounting clamps from rotating.
Once the handlebar switch is mounted, route the wire harness to the location you’ve prepared for the contactor.
Route the red wire to the back of the ignition switch.
NOTE: Please refer to the guidelines at the beginning of this guide on how to run the wires properly
OPTIONAL: If the winch comes with a wired remote, find a suitable location for the remote socket, drill out the required holes and mount the socket.
4. Connect the Red Rocker Switch Wire
The red wire (usually 20ga) from the rocker switch needs to be connected to a fused wire that has power only when the key is turned ON.
Most ATVs have a spare key-controlled accessory circuit suitable for this purpose.
Use a test light or multimeter to verify that the wire only has power when the key is ON.
Most kits include a wire splice to make the connection easier. Use to splice the red switch wire into the power wire. Wind the connection with electric tape to protect it.
Before securing the cable with zip ties, ensure the cable is not obstructing the handlebar’s full range of motion.
OPTIONAL: If the winch comes with a wired remote, route the wire harness to the contactor location the same way you did with the rocker switch wiring harness. Also, splice the red wire into the same key-controlled accessory circuit.
5. Install the Main Wiring
The main winch wiring consists of four heavy gauge wires. The wires are colored, but not all winch brands use the same color coding.
NOTE: Please refer to the guidelines at the beginning of this guide on how to run the wires properly.
Some brands use red and black wires from the battery to the contactor and red and black wires from the contactor to the winch.
Other brands use red and black wire from the battery to the contactor but blue and yellow from the contactor to the winch motor.
- Red wires are always positive “+”.
- Black wires are always negative “-“.
The contactor terminal layout can also vary between winch brands, so it’s important that you get familiar with your connector before connecting the wires.
The connector and winch motor terminals are usually labeled “+” and “-” or color-coded to make it easier to know which wire goes where.
- If you swap the battery power wires, the battery positive may short to ground.
- If you swap the winch motor wires, the winch turns in the wrong direction.
This is how you connect the wires
- Slip the supplied terminal boots onto all main wire connectors. Do not skip the terminal boots, as they are critical to prevent shorts and possible injury or death.
- Attach all four main wires to the contactor according to markings or color coding.
- Attach the contactor to the position you prepared earlier.
- Route the wires to the winch motor and the battery according to the guidelines for proper cable routing. Secure the wires with zip ties.
- Attach the wire connectors to the winch motor terminals according to the color coding or markings.
- Slip the terminal boots over the terminals and connectors.
- Connect the control wires from the rocker switch to the contactor according to the color coding or markings.
- Check once more that the wires do not cross any sharp edges or moving parts or are in contact with components that get hot.
- Attach the black negative wire securely to the negative battery terminal
- Attach the positive red wire securely to the positive battery terminal.
The winch is now connected but DO NOT use it until after you’ve performed the final system check.
6. Perform a System Check
- Check all the wiring once more and ensure all loose wire ends are wrapped tight and zip-tied.
- Check that all wire connections are tight. You should be able to pull on the wire without it coming loose.
- Check that all the supplied terminal boots are installed and that there are no exposed wiring terminals. You can use heat shrink or electrical tape if you don’t have enough terminal boots.
- Check all fasteners to ensure the winch is properly fastened.
CAUTION: While not related to the wiring, before you use the winch, make sure to read the instructions or operating guide on winching techniques and safe winch operating.
If you don’t have any previous winching experience, the winch’s immense power and how quickly you can get seriously injured may surprise you.
7. Test Winch Operation
To test the winch, turn the ignition key to the ON position.
- Briefly tap the “OUT” button and verify that the winch activates and spools OUT.
- Briefly tap the “IN” button to confirm that the winch activates and spools IN.
- Also, check for proper remote function if available.
Suppose the winch spools IN when it should spool OUT; the wires coming from the contactor are likely wired wrong.
Switch the winch motor connectors and test once more. Do NOT continue to spool in when the rope has bottomed out, as this will damage the winch.
What Gauge Wire Does ATV Winches Use?
What gauge wire your ATV winch needs depends on the engine size and how much electricity it draws.
Most ATV winches use 8-gauge or 6-gauge wire, where 8ga is only used in the smallest 1500lb and some 2500lb winches, and 6ga is used in the more powerful 2500lb to 4500lb winches.
Related: What size ATV winch do you need? (with examples)
Can You Wire a Winch Directly to the Battery?
Some people wonder how you can wire a winch without using a solenoid, but that is not something I recommend you try.
In short, you cannot wire a winch directly to the battery as you won’t have a way to turn it on or off. It is also not safe and will likely drain the battery.