How Does A Winch Work? – 2021 Guide

| Last Updated: April 26, 2021

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Winches have been utilized for decades, and even today, they have their place in every industry imaginable.

You will find a winch handy in personal applications and they're a great addition to your truck's equipment. Investing in a quality winch is not an investment that you will regret.

There's no denying their usefulness, but how does a winch work, and how do you operate it effectively? Let's find out!

Winch Terminology and Common Concepts

Winches are mechanical devices that can be used for light-duty or heavy-duty jobs depending on their design. You can wind up and wind out the cable, or you can hold and adjust the tension. 

Down below are the concepts and the terminology you should know if you want to work a winch effectively.

Common Terminology

Let's discuss the typical terms you might hear thrown around regarding winches:


A drum, or spool, is a cylinder onto which you spool on the cable.


The crank is attached to the drum, and you use it to wind up and wind out the cable. Instead of a crank, some winches have a motor, while some utilize both.


Winches might have a solenoid brake, a mechanical brake, or a pawl used to maintain the tension between a winch and an object.

Free Fall

Releasing the tension between the winch and the object held by the brake, and letting the object wind out freely.

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Dragging or pulling heavy weights with force.

Maximum Pull

Maximum recommended capacity at which the winch can pull or lift.

Static Hold

Maximum recommended capacity at which the winch can hold an object under tension. 

Full Drum

Maximum length of a cable or a rope that can be wound onto the drum.

Working Load

This is a weight that the winch can haul safely. The exact number is somewhere between 20% to 40% of the maximum pull, depending on the design of the winch. 

That number can be exceeded, but if you do so often, your winch will quickly fail.

Manual Override System

This refers to manual cranking of the winch in emergencies such as motor failure or power outage. Most advanced winches have a manual override system.

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GVW Rule of Thumb

A rule that will help you calculate how powerful of a winch you need. The formula is gross vehicle weight x 1.5 = minimum winch size.

Amperage Draw

Referred to how much power the winch draws from the battery to operate. 

Input Torque

The torque required to start pulling the load.

How Does a Winch Work?

Essentially, a winch pulls the attached object with a cable using a motor, a hydraulic system, or muscle power. However, winches are usually more complicated than that, so here's a detailed explanation of how a winch works and how to operate it.

Keep in mind, you will have to undergo and pass a certain test to operate industrial hydraulic winches.

Before you begin operating a winch, you need to mount it safely. You can mount the winch near a tree and tie it around, or you could mount it onto your truck's front end. Try to mount the winch as close to the load as possible while keeping the rope in a straight line from the winch to the object.

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The Motor

Every winch needs to draw power from somewhere to run the motor. Hydraulic and electric motors are the most common. 

Electric motors are more common than hydraulic, because they're faster, and you can connect them to a power source such as a vehicle's battery. 

Hydraulic winches require hydraulic pressure to run, they're slower, but they can haul much heavier objects which makes them excellent for various heavy-duty applications.

On top of the motor is a solenoid box that's directly connected to your battery with a series of wires going into the motor.

If you're an off-roading enthusiast, and you enjoy submerging your truck in mud and water, steer away from hydraulic winches and look for an electric winch instead. 

The reason being is that hydraulic winches require the engine to be turned on, so if your truck gets stuck with the engine completely submerged underwater, the truck won't turn on and you'll be stuck. Electric winches need only battery power to work.

The Gearing System

A 2-stage (small and large gear) or a 3-stage (small, medium, and large gear) gear system transforms the power from the motor into the pulling force. The gear system is engaged and disengaged with a clutch. The operation procedure of the clutch system varies depending on the design, but every clutch system does the same thing.

The Drum and The Rope

The rope is loaded/wound onto the cylinder drum that rotates once it's powered by a motor. That is essentially how a winch works; The drum rotates and spools the cable onto itself.

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Synthetic ropes and steel cables are used to pull the object. They're connected to the drum at one end, and they have a hook on the other end. A synthetic rope weighs less than the steel cable, and it's much less dangerous if it snaps under a load. 

However, steel cables are more durable, and they're used for heavy-duty, industrial applications. Steel cables should have a damper that will keep the cable from snapping uncontrollably if it breaks.

Most winches have a remote control with which you operate the winch. The buttons on the remote might differ depending on the design, but they should be pretty straightforward. Now that you understand the basics, you should know how to operate a winch safely and effectively. Hook it up and try it out!

Types of Winches

Electric and hydraulic winches are the most used winches, however, there are various other winches with their applications. If a hydraulic or an electric winch doesn't satisfy your purpose, take a look at our list of other winches.

What is an Electric Winch?

Electric winches require an electrical power supply to pull and lift heavy loads, so they're most usually found at the front of a heavy-duty truck. The main advantage of electric winches is that they are handy; they can be connected to any electrical power supply, and you're ready to haul. 

However, there also lies their biggest disadvantage; They can draw the battery relatively quickly, and to pull heavy loads, they need lots of electricity. An electric winch will perform very well for your applications, and it's easy to operate. That makes it one of the best options on the market.


  • Electric winches require very little knowledge to install, and they can easily be transferred.

  • These types of winches are fast and they can pull quite a hefty load effectively.

  • Electric winches are very affordable and compared to other types of winches, electric winches are easy to operate and maintain.


  • Electric winches aren't designed for heavy-duty applications, which makes them a bit less versatile.

  • Since they require electricity to function, electric winches aren't best suited for continuous use.

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What is a Hydraulic Winch?

Hydraulic winches have a hydraulic system and a pump. They are one of the best heavy-duty winches on the market, and they're used to move heavy equipment and machinery. Hydraulic winches can be found in many industries, but they require a trained worker to function.


  • Hydraulic winches are excellent for heavy-duty applications; they can pull extremely heavy objects.

  • Hydraulic winches are strong and durable with proper maintenance, but they will break down if you don't replace worn-out parts.

  • These types of winches can be used continuously without any problems.


  • Hydraulic winches are much more complicated, which makes the parts more expensive, and they're a lot harder to operate.

  • Due to large, complicated components, hydraulic winches are difficult to install.

  • Compared to other types of winches, they're much slower.

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A winch is one of those tools that you didn't know you needed before you purchased one. It will make your off-roading, farming, or boating much easier, and much more fun. Now that you know how to operate a winch, we invite you to look through our winches and choose the one that will make your life easier.

People Also Ask

Winches can get quite complicated. You don't know what type of a winch you need, how powerful do you need it to be, nor do you know how to operate a winch. Well, our staff is ready to answer any questions you may have about winches, and down below are the most common questions we get. Hopefully, you find them helpful as well!

How Big of a Winch Do I Need?

You shouldn't pull more than 40% of the winch’s maximum capacity. We recommend that you measure the weight of the load you're going to be pulling and double it to get the recommended winch capacity. If you're going to pull heavy loads continuously, the loads should weigh closer to 20% of the winches maximum capacity.

How to Attach Cable to Winch Drum?

For a detailed explanation, check out our article on attaching the cable to the winch drum. First, remove the old winch cable from the drum using simple tools like a screwdriver, or a wrench, depending on your winch. Once you have done so, mount the cable in the same way. 

Put a small amount of cable into the open slot and tighten it down. Turn on the motor and draw the cable over the top of the drum around the spool. Control the cable, but make sure that it doesn't layer.

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.