Pickup Trucks 101: Choosing the Right Winch

Pickup Trucks 101: Choosing the Right Winch
By Dan Sanchez for PickupTrucks.com

When you take your truck into the backcountry, it’s more than likely you’ll encounter large rocks, mud, snow or sand. Although your off-road driving skills may allow you to conquer this type of terrain, you may want to consider some insurance in the form of a self-recovery winch.

A winch mounted on your truck will allow you to get out of just about any stuck situation. You may not use it often, but it will more than pay for itself the first time you really need it.

A winch is definitely an investment in your off-road adventures, so it’s wise to do your research before buying one. A variety of winches can handle everything from a lightweight ATV to a full-size truck, like a Ford F-150 SuperCrew or Chevy 2500 HD. Some trucks, like the Ram 2500 Power Wagon, come equipped with a Warn 12,000-pound front-mounted winch that’s integrated into the factory front bumper. But to attach a winch to your pickup, you’ll have to consider using a new bumper or push bar with a winch mount. Another option is to use a hidden winch mount that will allow you to attach and remove the winch to the front and/or rear of your pickup, much like a towing hitch.

Choose the mounting method first, as not all winch manufacturers work with every bumper or push bar available. Most advanced off-road enthusiasts and professional off-road racers recommend starting with a front-mounted winch. Mounting the winch at the front of the vehicle allows a better line of sight to help you drive out of a situation, using the winch as an aid.


Winches vary in size and capabilities, so the next step is to narrow down your choices by properly matching the unit’s pulling strength to your pickup truck. A common rule of thumb is to simply double the weight of your vehicle. Midsize pickups like a Toyota Tacoma or Nissan Frontier can use a 9,000- to 9,500-pound-capacity winch. Full-size trucks like a Ford F-150 or Chevy 1500 require at least a 12,000- or 12,500-pound-capacity winch. For a bigger truck — such as a diesel with lots of accessories, big wheels and more — there are winches that can handle 16,500 to 18,000 pounds.

If you’re still not sure, consider getting a winch with more capacity. Bigger is better in this situation, and it can also put less strain on the winch and extend its service life. But you don’t need to go overboard and consider the unit’s physical size. Typically, larger-capacity winches have larger motors and line spools, so you’ll have to compare information from various winch makers to see what works best with the weight of your truck and how it will be mounted.

Photo courtesy of Sean Holman

Electric or Hydraulic?

Winches are powered two different ways. The most common are electric winches, which use the vehicle’s battery power to turn the motor. Electric winches typically have faster winding speed and are somewhat easier to install. They also offer the advantage of using a remote control that allows you to stand safely away from the winch and vehicle during recovery.

Because an electric winch draws lots of power from your truck’s electrical system, it’s important to make sure there’s enough power to operate it. Look at the winch manufacturer’s amperage rating and make sure your vehicle’s battery and alternator can deliver the necessary amperage to run it at full capacity, even with the headlights on. If not, you may need to upgrade to a dual-battery system or a higher-output alternator.

Hydraulic winches typically use the vehicle’s power steering pump to wind up the winch line. Many enthusiasts swear by hydraulic winches, as they are extremely reliable and not affected by water or low battery power. This is a reason why they are commonly used in areas with lots of mud or water. As long as the truck’s engine is still running, a hydraulic winch can pull you out of any situation. But since there’s extra plumbing and hydraulic lines to add, not all hydraulic winches fit on every truck or mounting application.

Steel Cable or Synthetic?

Winch manufacturers now offer a choice of using a steel or synthetic winch line. Steel is the most common, and for obvious reasons. It’s incredibly strong, lasts a long time and resists abrasions against rocks. Over time, however, steel cables will corrode, fray and sometimes break. If this happens under tension, a steel cable can cause serious injury because of the amount of potential energy stored in the cable.

This is why many off-road-racing sanctioning bodies and off-road events require using only synthetic winch lines. By far, synthetic lines are lighter and hold less potential energy. So if they snap under tension, there’s less chance of injury or damage. While a synthetic line is much lighter than a steel cable, it is also much stronger. But a synthetic line doesn’t resist abrasions well and will eventually snap if it’s constantly rubbed against rocks or dirt.

Most experienced off-road enthusiasts recommend learning safety self-recovery techniques with a steel cable first. Once you’ve learned how to secure the line and care for it properly, you can move to a lighter synthetic line and avoid any unnecessary contact to minimize abrasions.


There’s a wide range and variety of winches. We’ve compiled some of the newest with some of the features that most pickup truck owners like. Contact the manufacturers to get more info, and talk to other truck owners to see which winch they prefer and have experience with. This information — along with assisting or learning proper winch techniques from an experienced enthusiast or off-road backcountry guide — can help you tremendously before you buy your first winch.

Warn XC9000i


Touted as one of the premium winches in the Warn line, the XC9000i has a 9,000-pound pull capacity and runs cooler with a low amperage draw (maximum 460 amps at 9,000 pounds of pull, 6.38 feet per minute line speed). This winch uses a three-stage planetary gear system and weighs 85 pounds. It comes with a remote control and comes in a full-metal protective housing. www.warn.com


Warn PowerPlant HD


This heavy-duty winch comes complete with an integrated air compressor, and the unit weighs 115 pounds. It features a three-stage planetary gear system, a very high duty cycle rating and a low amperage draw of 416 amps at 12,000 pounds of pull (3.6 feet per minute line speed). The built-in air compressor puts out 5 cubic feet per minute at 90 pounds per square inch. It also has a 4.6-horsepower motor and an air tank and intercooler that allow the unit to fill up four 35-inch-diameter tires in eight minutes or less. www.warn.com


Superwinch Talon 12.5 SR


This 12,000-pound-capacity winch features a 6-hp motor and a two-stage planetary gear system that makes it fast and lightweight. The SR designation means it uses synthetic rope, Superwinch’s AmSteel Blue with a Samthane coating that helps the rope resist abrasions. At 12,500 pounds of line pull, the Talon 12.5 draws 530 amps and has a line speed of 3.25 feet per minute. The Talon 12.5 is also available with a steel cable and weighs 94 pounds. www.superwinch.com


Superwinch Talon 9.5i


Midsize and some full-size trucks can take advantage of the Superwinch Talon 9.51’s lighter weight. This winch has 9,500 pounds of line pull and draws 430 amps with a line speed of 5 feet per minute. The Talon 9.5i uses a two-stage planetary gear system and is also available with synthetic rope (Talon 9.5i SR). The winch weighs 67 pounds installed. www.superwinch.com


Mile Marker V-10


Mile Marker’s V-Series winches feature solid-state Mi-Fi electronics that allow you to control the line speed with a hand-held remote. This technology eliminates the traditional solenoids that can wear out or fail over time. The V-10 model uses a three-stage planetary gear system and a 6.5-hp motor and weighs 102 pounds installed. It pulls 10,000 pounds, drawing 385 amps at a maximum line speed of 8.1 feet per minute. The V-12 model pulls 12,000 pounds, weighs 102 pounds and draws 380 amps with a line speed of 6.1 feet per minute. www.milemarker.com


Mile Marker H1200


This hydraulic winch has a 12,000-pound pull rating and uses a separate solenoid control valve that gives it more mounting options. This two-speed winch has a line speed of 5.65 feet per minute in low gear (12,000 pounds) and 31 feet per minute in high gear (maximum 2,000 pounds). The ductile iron body is corrosion-resistant and weighs 98 pounds. The winch can also be operated if it’s fully submerged in water. www.milemarker.com


Ramsey Patriot 9500 UT


The Ramsey 9500 UT has a 9,500-pound pull rating and weighs 93 pounds. At maximum load, it has a line speed of 7.8 feet per minute (at 9,500 pounds) and draws 430 amps. Ramsey’s semi-automatic clutch and 5.5-hp motor reduce winching time, and a wireless remote control key fob can operate the winch from up to 50 feet away. www.ramsey.com


Ramsey Patriot 15000


This heavy-duty winch pulls up to 15,000 pounds and weighs 120 pounds installed. At maximum load, it draws 460 amps and has a line speed of 3.9 feet per minute. The Patriot 15000 uses a 5.5-hp motor and a three-stage planetary gear system. It also features a compact body with an integrated solenoid system, and it has a four-roller fairlead. It can be used with a wired or wireless remote control. www.ramsey.com


A must down here in the Mississippi delta. We have used several different Warn and Superwinch models over the years, and have not had problems with any of them so I won't be any help. One idea we had that works tremendously well was to mount an atv size winch on a headache rack. We used that set up all the time for reasons you wouldn't imagine, pulling deer and elk into the bed, pulling boats up on trailers, etc.

@ uncle bud- Great thought about the headache rack w/ the winch. It is kind of a head slapper/ I get it idea... Thank you very much...

@ Mike L- I love this kind of story a lot less crying involved.

I don't care for the hydraulic winches. The engine HAS to be running to use it. For a winch in a non-commercial setting I will always go for electric.

I've been told that if you use a synthetic line you have to be careful not to heat up the spool too much by riding the brake in the winch. The synthetic lines can melt onto the spool. That is the only real disadvantage I've heard about synthetic lines. They are lighter and you can get sleeves for them to protect from abrasion.
Steel lines can be very dangerous. I've seen one break and it made a huge mess of the tailgate on the truck that was being used as an anchor. An old blanket or tarp should be placed on the line to absorb a break.
Snatch blocks, tree straps, load rated chain (appropriate to winch strength), and cables of various lengths (again matched to winch strength) are a must. Spare shackles, and spare hooks come in handy as well. A good 4 ft. jackall/highlift jack is also a must and can be used as a winch if need be.

@gabe logan -
I've seen batteries go dead after extended winching. The alternator in some instances will have a real hard time keeping up with the draw on the battery.
I've know guys who've installed deep cycle RV batteries on a battery isolator to keep the truck battery from being killed.

I haven't seen a PTO winch set up in years. Some of the older p/u's used to capable of running them. I know you can get the Frod HD's with PTO capability.
The headache rack winch set up is a good idea. I've seen mostly work trucks and game warden trucks with those set ups. I've seen tons of guys with ATV winchs on their cargo racks and/or car-topper boat racks. I'd like to get a cargo rack for my 12 ft. aluminum boat and set it up for winching onto the rack.

@Mike - I agree with Gabe. These kind of stories are great.

Warn is the best , I have a Warn 9.5 XP and its saved me a tow bill a few times .

Two problems.

1) GM’s HD pickups need to get rid of their torsion bar independent front suspension.

2) The GM All Terrain Concept has no winch.

The Warn integrated winch blocks airflow to the turbo diesel intercooler.

@ Tony - I think that a receiver hitch cradle winch would be the better choice for most guys. You then have the option of connecting it to the front or rear of the truck.
Ram has said that is one of the reasons they do not have a diesel powered Power Wagon - the winch blocks the intercooler.
The new EB 3.5's have their intercooler where a winch would mount.
I haven't looked closely at a Ford HD but I suspect that is where they have located it as well.

@ Lou- I agree with you about batteries/alt's being killed by over winching. However you still can do a good solid tug or 2 to get to a better position. Now As to pto winches they are still out there. I use a 60,000 lbs winch on my military wrecker (also known as a HEMTT) Those are for what I hope is an obvious reason pto/hydraulic driven winch. I can't even fathom a electric winch with that weight rating or the amps required to move that much mass.

I'd get one if i could find a kit or bracket to mount it at the head of my tundra bed to help get my ride on snapper in and out of the bed easily. I push it up the ramps now, however it really takes a toll on my back. Getting up age now so its not as fun as it use to be.

tony 1) i have not had any problems with my Chevy front end with torsion bars, abd there easy to adjust for road trips or off road trips. 2) Chevys don't get stuck.

@Gabe Logan- Warn sold a winch set-up like that years ago- quit because it kept wrinkling the bed-rails.
Hydraulics have their place, but you'd better have a rig that always stays running- I stalled out in a hole once and had the starter quit- winched out on battery and cleaned out the starter. Would have needed a snorkel with a hydraulic.
Double vehicle weight is a bit overkill- I ran a an XD9000 on a Bronco (5000# empty), and it always pulled, even single line.
Biggest problem with synthetic line is contamination- repeated mud soakings are tough on them, while steel cables are unfazed by mud or sliding past stumps.
Dennis- get an ATV winch and mount it on a 2" square tube.(http://www.ourdealsrock.net/359-jk40b.aspx) Then just bolt a receiver adapter (http://www.tractorsupply.com/trailers-towing/towing-systems/hitches-receivers/hitches/reese-farm-amp-ranch-class-iii-step-bumper-hitch-receiver-1890610) into the bed upside down. should cost less than $100.

@ Dennis - you'd probably have to get something made to bolt a winch onto it. A bracket that crosses from one bed pocket to the other might work or you'd have to bolt a winch through the floor of the box.
Warn has a product that would work as well.

@ sandman 4x4 you said chevys dnt get stuck, guess your chevy sits in the driveway, I use to drive a chevy, and it got stuck lots, and had lots of trouble, gettig up hills, never had the problem in my ford like i did that chevy, get a life chevys get stuck just like any truck.

great article mike, just one nit pick, an object cant have potential kinetic energy, kinetic energy is the energy of an object in motion, potential energy is the amount of "stored energy" if you will

I've always bought Ramsey. Never had a problem.
As far as size, double the dead weight of the vehicle it's mounted to.

@ tj - nice to see someone who paid attention to their high school physics teacher. LOL
A winch line stores energy much like a spring.
@MrKnowitall - good points.
I've always cleaned, then dried my cables, chains, tow straps etc. after use. I like to give them a spray of water dispersant like WD40. They will last longer and be less prone to breakage. I've always treated those items like tools. Look after them and treat them with respect and you'll stay out of trouble.

The funny thing about offroad modifications - the more off road capable you make your truck the worse you'll end up getting stuck ;)

@Lou- right you are about getting stuck worse. I always liked Bar&chain oil on the cable- its a little messy, but it stays on there and makes it a bit more flexible, preventing snags. Just as important is proper re-spooling- I used to winch up a hill to get the cable back on nice and tight.

Just drive a Toyota!!!! Never need a winch!!!! You can just get out, pick it up and carry it through the mud hole. lol. My Chevy never gets stuck!!! I drive it through 27 feet thick mud daily!!! Okay I don't own a chevy either. My HEMI never gets stuck though!!! It will simply inhale the mud and spit it out the exhaust. Well maybe that's a lie also. My Ford never gets stuck!!!! Unless the mud is too thick, slick, or deep.... Sorry guys, I'm just bored. (But I do actually drive a Ford.

The first thing to look for is an American winch company.
The second thing is that it is Made In The U.S.A.
The third thing is to make sure that the winch is rated at least 1 to 1-1/2 times the weight of your vehicle.

@tj: Thanks for the catch! Fixed.

@alton - funny.

My favorite winch is...

A log chain.

The trouble with a winch is you have to hook it to something. Here in the West, or out on the beach, there's not much to hook to.

I prefer to travel with a 'buddy', so we can hook to one another using the thirty year-old log chain I've owned since my dairy farming days. If it stood up to recovering my tractor and corn chopper, it'll stand up to recovering my measly F-250.


hey Mark Ingalls , if you are on the beach or any sand, mud or even some rocks, all you do is dig a hole big enough for you spare tire, connect the end of the cable to it and bury it in the hole (about ) 40' in front of your toyota, and just turn on the winch an pull your truck out, dig up your tire (or any anchor) and go home.

I want to know more about your winches

Choosing the right winch...that is easy.

There is only one choice. Warn winch. They are the only American winch company that still manufactures most of their winches (economy winches excluded) in the U.S.A.

Bu the heavy duty one as they are guaranteed with power and torque for hitching big cars and trailers.

Hmm, pickup truck ownership sounds really tricky. Would you recommend one to a person who has minimal skill in car maintenance?

I have a Chevy 1500 truck and a double axle trailer. I would like to use my wench to pull my dead tractor onto my trailer with it attached to the truck. I would also like to have the ability to mount the wench onto the receiver of the truck in case I need to use it wiythout the trailer. Does this make sense and can this be done? Email me at gag1025@yahoo.com.

As has been already stated there are a lot of winch types for every need. There are both cheap and expensive winches out there. Before any winch purchase the first mental step is to consider on what job you need it and how hard would you work it. Would you use it occasionally when going off road in weekends or would you use it more frequently on a daily job basis ?
I consider the engine power, the speed and the transmission type are the most important criteria when choosing a winch. And surprisingly or not, I see that a high horse-power engine and a solid planetary transmission could be found on the above the average price category.
Bottom of line, I think that is wrong to put the price as the first criteria. It only is the result of the purchase research.

I have had many mud trucks from old IH scouts to a 79 Ford SWB on 47 inch Super swamper ltb's. An old warn model 8274 is the only winch I will ever own. It says it is only 8000 lbs but I have out pulled 12000 lb winches many times. American Made is the way to go. Find a 8274 and end your search for a winch.

My'89 GMC 3500 3+3 4x4 454 v8 has a heavy duty winch bumper and a winch running off the transfer case. I can shift the winch with the 4 spd. tranny from high to low speed depending how fast i want it to travel. the winch has a 1/2 steel cable on it. What is my towing capacity? Truck weighs in at 9000 lbs rough, on truck scales. I am thinking of having my truck redone, anyone know anyplace that does nice work?

Great thread! Thanks, guys, I learned a lot.

I've owned a Warn Xti 9000 electric winch, which I still have, it was on my truck during Hurricane Katrina and got salt water in it. Does anyone know if I can get that fixed? I only had to get the winch worked on once. I got a 1997 Jeep Wrangler Sahara in October 2005 with 65,400 miles, now it has 85,300 miles. I have a new Accord Coupe too so that's why so little miles. The guy that owned the Jeep before me built a bumper and winch mount for the Jeep with his father, put a 10,500 lb hydraulic winch on the bumper/ mount. I haven't used it a whole lot but when I have used it, it blows that Warn I had out of the water. I like the two speeds, the fact that it doesn't bog my battery down, it's very quite and has a remote just like electric winches. I pulled up trees and tree stumps after Hurricane Katrina. I'm sure some would agree that a 10,500 lb winch for a Jeep is too big and it may be. But I'd rather have more when I need it rather than less and it came with the Jeep. I have a snorkel, 6 Warn Lights, 2 Spots on the bumper and 4 Floods on a light rack. I'm definitely ready if another Katrina comes or if weather causes flooding. If you're looking for a winch, I would consider a hydraulic and a Mile Marker.

How do you know you've outpulled 12,000 lb winches with your 8,000 lb Warn Alex? It doesn't seem believable and I doubt you're telling the truth. I guarantee if you put your 8,000 lb winch on a truck and pulled with it, then put a 12,000 lb winch on the same truck and pulled. Both in the same manner. The 12,000 pounder will beat you every time. I bet my Mile Marker 10,500 would outperform your 8,000 Warn Electric too. I've had a 9,000 lb Warn and I know the Mile Marker would outperform that Winch. I love Warn products but through Physics what you are saying doesn't add up.

I guess a 2000 lbs utility winch is a joke for pulling out 3/4 ton pickups

I have tested a 2000lbs winch can easily pull an ATV but no idea about the truck.

This is a off the wall comment but one you may find interesting.

I was thinking of using a 15,000lb wench as a elevator lift. Mount overhead securely- then drop the line to a cage that has a door for one person to open and close. Attach guide lines to the cage and encase in a enclosed structure with windows . Have a stop at two floors. Would it work? Use a large man of 300 lbs as a example. This is for a live tree house for older person for lazy guest who do not want to climb stairs.

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