A motorised 4x4 winch can be used in all sorts of vehicle recovery and track management situations, but the most important technique to know is actually the most basic one: the humble single line pull.
Before we get into the procedure of how to perform a winch recovery, let’s define when you might need to use a winch in the first place. The most common reason to use a winch is to overcome a loss of traction that can’t be conquered by lower energy methods – such as recovery boards, reversing and trying again, engaging diff locks or other vehicle componentry, lowering tyre pressures or track building. This also includes situations where you’re bogged (which is where you would usually engage in a snatch strap recovery), but a multi-vehicle recovery isn’t possible.
Here’s a common real-world example: you’re driving by yourself along a forestry track with a camper trailer in tow, and you come across some deep wombat holes as you crest a rise in the track. As you try to drive through them, your rear driver-side tyre is unable to get over the exposed tree root on the lip of one of the holes, and basic recovery techniques aren’t helping to get you past it. You can either turn around, or you can try to pull yourself a short distance over the tree root to the top of the rise, where you can regain traction and keep driving. You don’t have another vehicle to help you out, but you do have a full recovery kit, plenty of large trees to anchor to and, most importantly, a winch.
Once we know that we aren’t going anywhere with our current approach, it’s time to get out of your vehicle and assess the situation. If you can’t pick a new line or regain some traction with recovery boards, track building techniques or otherwise, a winch is going to become our top tool for extracting our 4WD and continuing on our merry way. As soon as we make this decision, we should pull out our recovery kit and put on a pair of recovery gloves.
Anchor points vary in size, shape and solidity, but they’re also one of the most important facets in any winch recovery. This means picking the right anchor point is an important decision. A large and healthy tree is more than capable of handling the recovery loads a single line pull puts on it; if your anchor is another vehicle though, it’s essential that it’s well-placed on solid ground and has appropriately rated recovery points to anchor to.
When anchoring to a tree or rock, prioritise finding a healthy candidate that allows you to pull (as close as is possible) in a straight line. Once you’ve picked your anchor, lay your tree trunk protector around its base before threading a shackle (be it a rated bow shackle, D-shackle or soft shackle) through the eyelets of the tree trunk protector and securing it so it’s ready to be hooked up to your winch.
Head back to your vehicle and turn on your winch remote, whether wired or wireless, and turn on the winch isolator if need be. Use the remote to let out some rope or cable to ensure your winch’s motor is functional since you used it last. At this point, flick the switch on your winch to allow for free spooling of the winch line, grab the end and walk it to your anchor point.
Clip your winch hook onto the shackle that’s connected to the tree trunk protector, ensuring your steel shackle (if you’re using one) is not side loaded. A steel shackle’s load rating or working load limit is compromised when the tension is not placed end-to-end; a load put at an odd angle is called side loading.
With our winch line hooked to our anchor, it’s time to attach a recovery blanket over the winch line. A recovery blanket, also called a recovery damper, is there to absorb energy in the unlikely event of winch line failure. When using a steel cable winch, place the blanket in the middle of the span, while it should be placed near the end of the winch line if you are using a synthetic rope winch, as the hook is likely to be the heaviest section in the span.
With our setup ready, it’s time to disengage free spooling on your winch and prepare for the active part of the recovery. This means that any bystanders, winch operators who aren’t in the vehicle, or recovery spotters will need to clear the area and be a safe distance from the winching vehicle and winch line. Spotters should have a clear line of sight of the recovery zone, while also being clearly visible to the driver to allow for clear communication. On that note, drivers should have a seatbelt on, and the vehicle should be in gear (preferably low range). When the winch is in operation, resist the urge to assist the winch by driving. This can cause you to overrun the winch line later in the recovery – the key point being that you want the retrieval rate of the winch to be faster than you’re driving the vehicle.
Importantly, the driver should be able to see and hear any spotter giving them instructions. It’s key that any spotter and driver communication be clear and concise – agree on some simple hand signals and verbal instructions to ensure everyone involved is on the same page. Once these pieces of the puzzle are all in place, it’s time to start winching.
Communicate to any bystanders that winching is occurring, and then engage the winch to begin the active part of the recovery. Most winching operations only need you to winch your vehicle a short distance to overcome a particular obstacle, which can take just a couple of seconds in real time. For longer winch recoveries, it’s important to give your winch and batteries time to recover – a ratio of one part winching to four parts resting is a safe rule to live by. Continue winching until you reach stable ground where you can safely park the vehicle and regain enough traction to move it without the help of the winch. With our winching complete, you can secure the vehicle and use the winch remote to release tension on the line, making it safe for people to approach and end the recovery.
Time to pack up and continue our journey. Detach your winch hook from your shackle and remove it and your tree trunk protector from your anchor, before then removing your recovery blanket. Inspect each piece of gear before you pack it away, looking for fraying on your tree trunk protector in particular.
After you have examined your winch line for any damage, you can respool it onto the drum. Keep tension on the line as you walk it in while using your remote to draw the line in, ensuring you lay the line evenly and tightly across the width of the drum to ensure a smooth recovery next time. After this, simply turn off the winch isolator and pack away your winch remote and any cables in the same place from which you got them.
Keep adventuring! The purpose of a winch is to pull things, but the benefit of it is that you can go more places off-road when you have one. They can be used to get you back on track, to clear tracks, and to tactically overcome obstacles in a controlled way. By learning how to use a winch confidently and safely, you can drive new tracks and see new places, which is a pretty big upside if you’re a keen off-road traveller.