Winch Fairleads 101 – 2021 Complete Guide

Isaac
| Last Updated: April 8, 2021

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Winch fairleads are the piece of metal mounted on the front of your winch that guides either steel cable or synthetic rope.

While a common misconception could lead you to believe that all of these are the same, they’re not. So if you’re buying a winch for your vehicle, make sure to check out winch fairleads 101 — everything you need to know from terminology to the various types of winch fairleads.

By doing so, you’ll know exactly what you need for the results you want.

Photo credit: roundforge.com

Winch Fairleads Terminology and Common Concepts

Despite the relative mechanical simplicity and usage of a winch fairlead, understanding common concepts and terminology will make research and choosing your fairlead far easier. Here are some of the terms you’ll come across.

Bolt Pattern

The measurement between the center of the two mounting bolts on a winch fairlead. These come in several sizes depending on the vehicle:

4 ⅞ inch Bolt Pattern

The most common type of bolt pattern found on ATVs and UTVs.

6 inch Bolt Pattern

The bolt pattern size for performance winches on ATVs and UTVs.

10 inch Bolt Pattern

The most common bolt pattern size for passenger vehicles (truck or SUV).

11 inch Bolt Pattern

A bolt pattern size for high-performance winches on passenger vehicles.

Photo credit: overlandsite.com

Hawse Fairlead

A fairlead with no moving parts that allow the rope to slide without abrasion via a chamfered or rounded lower edge.

Chamfer

A cutaway or rolling slope that prevents abrasion, commonly used in a Hawse fairlead.

Roller Fairlead

A fairlead with either two or four rollers that allow the rope to roll in and out of the winch.

Steel Cables

Cables or cords made out of woven steel wrapped around a metal core. These are more durable and cheaper than synthetic cables, but much heavier.

Synthetic Cables

Also known as synthetic rope, these are cords used by a winch made out of interwoven synthetic fibers. They are lighter and more expensive but less durable than steel cables.

Photo credit: roundforge.com

How Do Winch Fairleads Work?

Winch fairleads may just seem like a hunk of metal that guides cables through your winch, but it does so much more. Find out how to winch fairleads work and why selecting one is more important than you thought.

Guiding the Cable or Rope

The first and foremost function of a winch fairlead is to guide the rope around the winch drum. As mentioned above, both hawse and roller fairleads provide the same function, albeit in different methods. Neither option is particularly better in function for guiding rope, rather a matter of preference and budget.

Reducing Lateral Strain

When something is stretched from end to end, in this case, a steel or synthetic cable, it produces lateral strain, which is perpendicular to the longitudinal strain (which is the stretching effect from end to end of the cable). When a cable is on a winch, it experiences both types of strain. However, a lateral strain is what can damage the winch itself. As a result, a fairlead is designed to help reduce this strain, effectively reducing the overall wear and tear on the winch.

Reasoning Behind the Size of Fairleads

If you look at a typical fairlead, they’re noticeably smaller than the winch drum. While this may seem counterintuitive as the cable can’t reach the edge of the drum, it’s actually to protect the winch itself. When the cable can move to the edge of the drum, the risk increases exponentially of the cable getting caught in the drum plates. Once this happens, the winch can easily be damaged to the point of needing excessive repair or even total replacement.

Types of Winch Fairleads

In the world of winch fairleads, you’ll probably only come across two options: a roller fairlead and a hawse fairlead. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, although the selection of each one is typically a personal preference. If you’re unsure which one works for you, check out this in-depth breakdown of each type of winch fairlead. 

Roller Fairlead

A roller fairlead uses two vertical rollers and two horizontal rollers that allow the cable to go in and out of the winch without any abrasion or resistance. Typically, these fairleads are made out of galvanized steel and weigh roughly 10 to 13 pounds, making them highly durable. Because of their size and function, roller fairleads also tend to stick out about 3 to 4 inches, making them about two to three times the depth of a hawse fairlead.

Hawse Fairlead

A hawse fairlead is a single hunk of metal that contains no moving parts. Instead, this fairlead features a chamfered edge, which allows the cable to go in and out smoothly without any abrasion or resistance. As such, the chance for a hawse fairlead to break during the operation of a winch is almost nonexistent. Besides, hawse fairleads come in both aluminum and steel construction and are both lightweight compared to a roller fairlead, weighing in at 2 to 3 pounds for aluminum and 4 to 5 pounds for steel.

When to Use a Roller vs Hawse Fairlead

Because both fairleads perform the same function, choosing the right one depends on some scenarios. Here you’ll find out what fairlead is equipped for what usage.

When to Use a Roller Fairlead

Typically, you would use a roller fairlead when you run steel cable through the winch. This is because the rollers put less strain on the steel cable, which increases the longevity of the cable and reduces the chance that it frays.

Over time, the rollers may require maintenance to file down nicks and burrs caused by the steel cable. A common misconception is that you can’t use synthetic cables with a roller fairlead. 

Photo credit: roundforge.com

But as long as the rollers are new or have been filed down after use with steel cables, they should work just fine.

When to Use a Hawse Fairlead

Due to its heavy-duty construction, a steel hawse fairlead is also capable of handling the stress of steel cable without any damage. However, a steel hawse can also handle synthetic cables with ease.

If you want to reduce the additional weight from a winch, the best option is an aluminum hawse fairlead. Keep in mind that an aluminum hawse fairlead is only compatible with synthetic cables, as steel cables can erode aluminum with continual use of the winch.

Fairlead Construction: Steel, Aluminum, or Composite?

Winch fairleads only come in three materials: steel, aluminum, and composite. However, the construction method makes a huge impact on which one you select for your winch. If you select the wrong one for your needs, you not only risk the operation of the winch, but also the safety of those around you.

Steel Fairleads

Steel is the hardest construction metal for fairleads. As such, they can handle the stress of a steel cable as well as a synthetic cable. They’re also the longest-lasting option.

Aluminum Fairleads

Aluminum is a softer metal than steel. Therefore, aluminum fairleads are only capable of handling synthetic cables, limiting their use for people who prefer the durability of steel cables.

Photo credit: headstrongoffroad.com

Composite Fairleads

Composite fairleads are one of the newer options available today. However, steel cables immediately saw through them.

Synthetic cables don’t take much longer. If you’re on a budget and you use your winch only a few times a year, a composite fairlead might get you by. Otherwise, opt for steel or aluminum.

Fairlead Finishes: Do They Matter?

Both steel and aluminum fairleads come with a few different finishes, but do they matter? Maybe. It’s highly dependent on your winch usage and cable selection, but here’s a glance at each one.

Galvanized

This is the most common type of finish on roller fairleads. It’s the most durable of the bunch, protecting from corrosion and standing up to the punishment of steel cables.

Powder-coated

Powder-coating is a dry powder applied to metal that’s cured with heat. In fairleads, it’s most often used with steel hawse options. While it can stand up to continual use with synthetic cable, steel cable will wear it down where you need to repaint it for the fairlead to remain corrosion-resistant.

Anodized or Polished

Anodized or polished finishes are used with aluminum hawse fairleads. It provides little to no additional protection against coating but also is the most inexpensive.

Fairlead Mounting

If your previous fairlead has reached the end of its useful life, you will have to install a new fairlead. This will typically be a straightforward process, but you may have a few aspects to consider.

Hardware

Fairleads notoriously come without any mounting hardware. So as a general rule, you should save the two bolts from the old fairlead to mount the new one. If you need new bolts, these are typically ⅜-inch or 7/16-inch bolts. Make sure they’re long enough to go through the fairlead and your bumper.

Photo credit: bonzpartz.com

Distance

For ATVs and UTVs, the distance between the two bolts will be either 4 ⅞ inches or 6 inches apart. For vehicles, the distance between the bolts expands to either 10 or 11 inches.

Tips

If you’re installing a new winch fairlead, you may need a mounting plate, so be aware of that especially on foot-forward fairlead configurations. Additionally, this is a great time to install a winch line stopper, which protects the fairlead or winch from damage if the cable gets reeled in too quickly.

Roller or Hawse? That’s a Fairlead Question

Whether you choose to run synthetic or steel cables, your fairlead makes all the difference. So make your decision on this ahead of time and pick a fairlead that’s up to the challenge.

People Also Ask

Some people also ask additional questions regarding fairleads to choose the right one for their needs. Here are some of the most common inquiries.

Where Does Your License Plate Go After Installing a Fairlead in the Way?

You have two options. If you have a hawse fairlead, you can typically find a license plate mount to accommodate your needs. In other cases, such as with roller fairleads, you may have to install a flip-down license plate holder.

Photo credit: quadratec.com

Can I Use a Roller Fairlead With Synthetic Winch Rope?

Although some might say a roller fairlead is for steel rope only, the truth is that you can use a synthetic rope. Just make sure that the rollers have no nicks, burrs, or sharp edges that could damage your synthetic rope.

Can You Use a Winch Without a Fairlead?

Technically, no. But without a fairlead, the cable will wind around only one side of the spool. Besides, a fairlead gives you a pivot point for directional pulling that you wouldn’t get without one.

What is a Fairlead Stopper?

A fairlead stopper is a piece of rubber-mounted at the end of your steel cable that prevents excessive damage if you reel the cable in too quickly.

Isaac

I used to work in construction and landscaping, so I've seen my fair share of ratchet straps, winches, and similar rigging gear. I started Winch Central because I've seen some nasty accidents due to crappy rigging or poor practice. I wanted to be able to recommend good equipment that's SAFE and also provide resources for how its used. I handle the research side of things here as well as product selection for gear reviews.