How ATV Winches Work

By: Jonathan Strickland
Adrenaline-filled extreme sports in the mud-filled forest.
It's all fun and games until someone gets stuck in the mud. See more off-roading pictures.

There's nothing quite like the thrill of driving an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) through rugged and challenging environments. There's also nothing quite like the sinking feeling you get in your stomach when you realize you just drove your ATV into a muddy mess and can't get it out again. To save yourself frustration and embarrassment, you may want to consider adding a winch to your ATV.

Winches serve a simple purpose: They exert force that pulls one object toward another using a cable or rope. Whichever object is the lightest or has the least resistance is the one that moves. If your ATV gets stuck in a boggy area, you can secure the rope or cable from your winch to an object with a lot of mass that can act as an anchor. Then you engage the winch and allow the powerful motor to turn the drum. As the winch draws in the cable, your ATV will move toward the anchor. If all goes well, your vehicle will soon be free from the grip of the mud.


You can also use winches to haul objects toward your ATV. This can come in handy whenever friends get their ATVs stuck in the mud. You can employ your ATV's winch to help your friends out of a jam. A reliable winch may mean the difference between a short interruption in your off-roading adventure and spending a chilly evening walking back to civilization.

We're going to look at ATV winches, how they work and how you can add one to your ATV.


Types of ATV Winches

ATV winch pulling a truck
Two Colorado residents attempt to move a truck stuck in the ice using an ATV winch.
AP Photo/Peter M. Fredin

There are several types of winches on the market. For off-road vehicles in general, you'll find electric and hydraulic winches. Your vehicle's battery is the power source for an electric winch -- you just hook a couple of wires to the battery and you're ready to go. Hydraulic winches pull power by tapping into the hydraulic system of a power-steering pump. But with ATVs, you really only need to look at electric winches. Even so, not all electric winches are alike.

The winch's electric motor provides power to a set of gears called the gear train. There are two types of gear trains for electric winches: planetary and worm. A planetary gear train uses several gears to turn the winch's drum. It turns the drum quickly, which translates into a faster cable-pulling speed. It also creates heat. Worm gear trains only have two gears. They turn drums more slowly than planetary gear trains and don't generate as much heat. While worm gear trains may be slower than planetary gear trains, they also tend to be more powerful.


You can get an idea of how strong a particular winch is by looking at its rated line pull. This is the maximum amount of weight the winch manufacturer says the winch can pull safely. In the United States, this number is listed in pounds.

Another differentiator for winches is in the type of line they use. Some winches use steel cable and others use synthetic rope. A few winches can accommodate either type of line. Synthetic rope is strong and is less dangerous in the event of a line break than cable; however, synthetic rope can wear faster than cable and can also melt if near a heat source for a long time -- such as a winch using a planetary gear train. Cable won't melt but it can splinter. It's a good idea to wear sturdy gloves when handling steel cable.

Next, we'll look at the physics behind using a winch.


The Physics of ATV Winches

ATV with winch
ATV racer Keith Grundhauser's winch blends in well with the frame of his vehicle.
AP Photo/Janet Hostetter

We start with the electric motor. The motor pulls electricity from your ATV's battery and converts it into power. The motor turns the gears in the gear train. The smaller gears in a planetary gear train turn faster than the larger ones in a worm gear train. In either case, the gear train creates torque and turns the drum.

What's torque? Torque is the measure of a force's ability to rotate about an axis. It turns or tends to turn an object. In the case of winches, the gear train produces the torque that rotates the winch's drum. The winch's cable wraps around the drum.


Assuming you've anchored the end of your winch's line to a solid object, the drum will create tension along the line as it turns. The amount of torque the motor can produce coupled with the line's strength determines how much tension the winch can create along the line before you encounter trouble. As long as the winch and line are strong enough, the force created by the winch should be enough to help you dislodge your ATV -- or haul out a buddy who's stuck in the mud.

The winch's torque and line strength determine how much weight the winch can pull. For example, an ATV winch with a powerful motor and strong line can pull 3,000 pounds (approximately 1,361 kilograms) or more. That should provide more than enough power for sticky situations -- most ATVs weigh between 500 and 600 pounds (226.8 to 272.2 kilograms).

If you're using your ATV's winch to help someone else free another vehicle, remember to set your ATV's brakes and block the wheels. You'll need to reduce the chance that your ATV will move toward the stuck vehicle. Establish a strong anchor point with as direct a line to the stuck vehicle as you can manage.


Selecting an ATV Winch

Winch pulling an ATV out of mud
You'll be happy you have a winch if this happens to you.

When shopping for an ATV winch, you'll need to consider how much weight the winch will need to be able to pull. Winch manufacturers rate their products with a number called the rated line pull. This tells you how much weight the winch can safely haul. To determine how much line pull you'll need, you should measure your ATV's gross vehicle weight (GVW). In the United States, we express this number in pounds.

A vehicle's gross vehicle weight is the total weight of the vehicle plus any accessories, cargo and passengers. Once you've determined the GVW of your ATV, you should multiply the figure by 1.5 to determine the minimum line pull rating for your new winch. Why factor in a multiplier? Because even if your vehicle weighs 550 pounds (about 249.5 kilograms) and you weigh 160 pounds (about 72.6 kilograms), you could get stuck in a deep mud pit. The suction of the mud will resist efforts to pull the ATV out and your winch will have to work harder.


Once you've determined your minimum line pull rating, think about the kind of terrain you like to drive on. If there are a lot of marshy areas around, you'll probably want a winch with a line pull rating that's higher than the minimum you've calculated. If you avoid wet areas, your winch won't need to be quite as powerful. You can find ATV winches with line pull ratings ranging from 1,500 pounds (680.4 kilograms) to 4,500 pounds (2,041.2 kilograms). Most ATVs, however, won't need anything stronger than a 3,000-pound (1,361-kilogram) pull rating.

Consider the size of your ATV. Remember, you'll have to mount your new winch to your vehicle, so you'll want to choose a winch that will fit the front or back of your ATV. Keep in mind you'll also need an ATV mounting system. And don't forget to keep the weight of the winch itself in mind as well -- a heavy winch can dramatically change the way your vehicle handles.


Attaching ATV Winches

Before you slap an ATV winch onto your vehicle you'll probably need to install a mounting plate. Most ATVs don't have a spot on the frame designed to hold a winch without some modification.

Winch mounting plates come in dozens of varieties. The mounting plate you choose depends upon the type of ATV you drive and the make, model and line pull rating of the winch you've chosen. You'll want a plate that can withstand the forces it will experience whenever you're using the winch. Be sure to choose a mounting plate that's compatible with your winch. You may also need to replace either the rear or front bumper of your ATV -- not all plates work with stock bumpers. Some manufacturers offer mounting systems that include a new customized bumper and the mounting plate all in one package.


Some tools you may need while installing a winch include:

  • Ratchet
  • Wrench
  • Voltage meter
  • Screwdriver
  • Drill
  • File

Once you have all your materials, it's time to get to work. Your winch and mounting plate should come with specific instructions to guide you through the process. No two installation jobs are exactly alike, but in general you'll follow these steps:

Mount the plate -- or mounting system -- to your ATV. Bolt the plate in place, being careful to move any wires or hoses out of the way so that you don't damage your ATV. Use an adhesive like Loctite to secure the bolts as you tighten them. Next, mount your winch onto the plate. Make sure it sits on the plate properly before securing it.

You should also make sure your winch's line has an unobstructed path. If you wish to check your line, you may need to disengage the gear train so that you can pull the line out a few feet. Just remember to engage the gear train after you test it or you may find yourself wondering why your newly-installed winch isn't working.

Now it's time to wire your winch. Winch systems use a relay box called a contactor. Find a place to mount your contactor -- many ATV enthusiasts will install contactors under the driver's seat. The contactor acts as the central wiring point for your winch. Run the wires from your winch up to the proper contact points on your contactor. This may require drilling and filing to run wires to the proper spot.

Next, mount your winch control switches. A good place to mount switches is near the steering mechanism. Many winches use switches that connect both to the contactor and to the ignition switch on the ATV. With the switch connected to your ATV's ignition, you'll only be able to run the winch while your ATV's power is on. Use a voltage meter to find the hot lead on your ignition. This is the lead you'll need to connect to your winch switch. The other switch wire connects to your contactor. Again, follow the instructions included with the winch.

Once you have your switched wired in place, you can connect your winch to your battery. You're ready to go!


Using ATV Winches

Using a winch is simple. On the end of the winch's line is a hook. Many winch hooks have a self-locking mechanism on the end that prevents the hook from slipping off during winch operation. To use the winch, use the controls to turn the drum in reverse so that it feeds line out. Feed out enough line to connect the end to your anchor point (or other vehicle if you're using your own ATV as an anchor point). Secure the end of the line around the anchor or vehicle. Try to establish a clear line between the anchor and the winch.

Once the line is secure, you can engage the winch to begin pulling in the line. The most important thing to remember when using a winch is to be safe. Be careful not to stand too close to the winch, particularly if you're wearing loose clothing. The winch is a powerful piece of machinery and could cause a severe injury if you were to get caught in it.


You should also avoid walking over or standing near the line as the winch creates tension. A worn line may snap and it could injure you if you're in the way. Depending on the situation, you might need to sit in the ATV's driver seat while operating the winch. Some ATV winches come with a remote control, allowing you to stand out of harm's way while operating the winch.

Another thing to keep in mind is that manufacturers design winches to pull cable along a horizontal plane that is more or less parallel to the ground. You should never use a winch as a hoist to lift an object vertically. Doing so could cause damage to your vehicle or the winch, or could cause the line to snap.

Remember to inspect your ATV before taking it out for a ride. This applies to your entire vehicle, winch included. Who knows? You may spot something that needs to be replaced or repaired before it becomes a real problem.

With a little caution and patience, you'll free your ATV -- or your friend's vehicle -- from being stuck in no time.

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Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • ATV Connection Magazine Staff. "Winching it Up." ATV Connection Magazine. 2007. (Nov. 11, 2009)
  • AutoAnything. "Winches Research Guide." 2009. (Nov. 12, 2009)
  • "Installing a Vehicle Mounted Electrical Winch." July 26, 2006. (Nov. 12, 2009)
  • ORC Staff. "All About Winches." Dec. 1, 2005. (Nov. 12, 2009)
  • Taylor, Jesse. "Choosing an ATV Winch." 2009. (Nov. 12, 2009)
  • TonyD. "Gorilla Winch Installation." ATV Source. 2009. (Nov. 12, 2009)