Winches ~ Which One

winchesThere are three main types of power winches that are available on the 4WD market today.

The one we see very little of these days but was the first power winch to appear on the market, is a PTO winch (Power Take Off).

The letter PTO describes the power source which is taken from the transfer case and is driven by a small drive shaft up to the front of the vehicle where the shaft drives the gearbox of the winch. This type requires the engine to be running to work the winch. As can be imagined this is a very powerful winch given its power source.

The next and certainly the most widely used today are the 12V-powered electric winch.  It is similar to the winch gearbox of the PTO winch however this unit derives its power from the battery first and then from the alternator as a resupply of the voltage used from the batteries. The engine doesn’t have to be running to use the winch for short periods.

The third power winch has its power supply from the engine like the PTO winch but from a different point.  This unit draws power from the power steering system.  This is a fully enclosed hydraulic system, which is designed by the manufacturer to operate using the power steering system in today’s vehicles.  The hydraulic pressure is syphoned off to the winch and the pressure is used to run a hydraulic motor fitted to the winch similar in size to the electric motor of the 12V-powered winch.  This winch must have the engine running to obtain power, as does the PTO winch.

Then there is the hand winch.  This unit obtains its power from the driver.  The one who got stuck in the first place?  The engine does not have to be running to operate this winch.  All that is required is a fit operator and a little bit of time.

When using a winch there are situations when the engine cannot, or should not, be running.  It is at this situation that the electric winch would be the most useful, as long as dry cell batteries are used and not wet cell.

All front mounted winches have a weakness in that the direction of work can only be forward.  This is not a problem if the winch is being used to recover another vehicle.  If however the situation is that your vehicle with the winch is stuck and no forward anchor point exists, then the humble hand winch is able to be used to pull from the rear,left or right side of the vehicle.

When using any winch, we need to be aware of the forces involved and the potential for injury if something goes wrong!  To perform a recovery operation safely and effectively, we need knowledge of –

· Recovery mechanics and Calculating TPR
· Safe working loads of our equipment and anchor points
· Tackle layout
· Safety precautions, including STU
· Operating procedures
· Etc,etc.etc

Your best insurance against injury is knowledge. Do a comprehensive recovery course for peace of mind. Regular one-day courses are available

A summary of the advantages and disadvantages of the various winches on the market might make your choice a little easier.

Electric winch


· Widely available
· Easy to use
· Will work for a short time without the engine.


·     Winch efficiency (power) drops quickly
·     Draws a lot of current (flattens batteries)
·     Single speed of operation
·     Only pulls forward (if front mounted)
·     Electric motor can be affected by water

Hydraulic winch


·     Very powerful
·     Always full power
·     2 speeds
·     No need for a second battery
·     Motor is not affected by water immersion


·     Steering takes precedence (winch stops if the steering is altered during winching)
·     Needs engine running
·     Only pulls forward (if front mounted)

PTO Winch

· Very powerful
· Always full power
· Driver has a lot of control over the winch
· Multiple speeds (drives through the gearbox)

·  Needs engine running
· Only pulls forward (if front mounted)
· Expensive (requires PTO drive in the transfer case)

Hand Winch


· Cheaper
· Versatile
· Mobile (can pull from any direction)


· Requires effort and time to set up
· Requires effort and time to use
· Requires effort and time to pack away
· Occupies valuable storage space
· Less powerful
· Operator is more exposed to danger