I’ve had a pretty long history with vehicle recovery among other tasks that using a winch is helpful for. I watched the use of rope and pulleys to move trees and lift deer on a skinning rack as a youngster then graduated to straps, chains, and cables to recover stuck vehicles when my friends and I started driving 4 wheel drive trucks off road. While very few of us had an actual winch, we learned a lot of the mechanics of leverage and resistance that come into play. A couple of years later, I got bitten by the towing and recovery bug and spent about 16 years in and around heavy duty tow trucks and even some crane work. I’ve had the opportunity to take multiple classes involving winching, rigging, and resistance over this time and while that’s been great knowledge, there are some basics we all can use to safely move loads with a winch. For some other vehicle related information, check out my vehicle survival post Here.
What Is A Winch?
For our purposes as preppers, winches are anything that moves a rope, cable, chain, or strap around a drum in some manner to lift or move an object. I’ve seen crude winches fashioned out of a bare wheel mounted to a cars axle with a strap or chain around it and a cable looped through a stuck tractor’s tire to free it from a sunken spot as well as many other setups over the years, but they all serve the same mechanical purpose.
What Kind of Winches Can We Use?
Depending on who we ask, I’d be willing to bet that the most common winch that pops into our heads would be the electric, self recovery winches found on the front of many vehicles. I would dare say that this could be one of the most important parts of a survival/ bug out vehicle simply because we are more likely to have to move ourselves or others across treacherous ground in the event of a disaster such as a flood, tornado, or earthquake. Ice and snowy situations can also bring plenty of opportunities to work with vehicle recover gear, so we’ll look into the vehicle winch pretty close in this post. The recognized leader in the self recovery winch market is Warn Winches. I recommend them and they have a value line as well, however I would encourage everyone to purchase one locally because the dealer support at the local level is usually the best. For a budget minded prepper, the most reliable ones I’ve seen used regularly are the new Smittybuilt models. Click below for a heavy duty one:
Beyond the electric vehicle winches, its good to think of the other types of winching devices we may have or need around the farm or homestead. A “Come-a-long” is a type of self contained, hand operated winch that usually has a snatch block, or pulley built in to assist in moving the load. The beauty of this type of winch is that it can be mounted and operated in almost any direction needed. It can lift, pull horizontally, or pull down to an anchor point. These are very handy for farm and homesteading use. Click below to get one for your home:
Another handy, yet inexpensive type of winch can be found in most boating stores, or in supply houses like Harbor Freight tools. If we look around, we can often find used ones left on rotting boat trailers. These winches were designed to pull the hull of a boat up onto a trailer and secure it, however they can be mounted in multiple ways to benefit us. Using one of these winches mounted to a secure post on a skinning rack allows us to raise large animals up high enough to butcher without straining ourselves to lift them. We can also employ them to lift walkways up in a draw bridge fashion, or attach them to a trailer or truck bed to assist loading heavy objects. Click the picture below for an inexpensive trailer winch:
One More type of winch that I find handy around the shop and farm is the chain hoist. This hoist has one chain that is attached to a load and another lighter chain that is pulled by hand to raise or lower the load. Like the most other winches, the advantage is in the gear reduction allowing us to move a much larger mass with the same amount of effort. Below is a decent sized model for around the shop and farm:
Proper Winching Technique
To properly flesh out this topic, I’ll have to add a video explaining some of the concerns we have when using any of these winching devices so I’ll give fair warning here, any of these pieces of equipment can cause serious injury to us and serious damage to equipment if used improperly. For some basics, click on the picture below for a recovery handbook from LandRover vehicles:
To move an object with a winch we have to have at least two connection points. both of these points must be able to withstand the strain placed on them by lifting or pulling. I have seen heavy duty tow trucks with the winch brackets broken an bowed up from the frame and I beams bend under the weight of a load suspended from a chain hoist in a shop, not to mention the number of chains, straps, bumper brackets, and axle parts that I have seen damaged from pulling on vehicles to recover them. The inconvenient fact is that not everything that we need to move was designed to be pulled with a winch.
Vehicle Connection Points: While most vehicles have some sort of attachment points, usually only pickups and SUV’s have adequate tow hooks for any sort of major recovery. If we have to recover a vehicle from a stuck situation, it pays too look closely at the chassis. Don’t hesitate to look at an owner’s manual too if its available. Often times there are recommended procedures listed that can guide us to a reasonably safe connection point. Regardless, Look closely at anything you hook to and anything that the cable or chain will contact as is tightens. Avoid touching and especially connecting to hoses and lines. Look for solid points on the frame if possible and always watch from a safe distance and gradually apply tension. When building a bug out or survival vehicle, it’s a wise choice to plan on adding quality connection points during the build. Below is an example from my Jeep. The two extensions on the front bumper are to connect shackles to.
Home and Farm Connection Points: Engineers spend years in school working with all sorts of mathematical and physics computations to design structures capable of lifting a specified load. For the rest of us, we have to learn from experience and that can be an expensive teacher. Just because the metal beams that support the roof of our garage or barn are made of steel does not mean that they are designed to hang a vertical load from. Those treated hardwood crossties that we might have handy to build a skinning rack for deer might have a weak spot in them that causes our lag bolts or eye bolts for the winch and hoist to pull out as we raise up the animal. Much like the vehicle connection points, we should watch carefully as we lift and pull on anything around the home or farm and whenever possible, we should consider seeking the advice of someone with the engineering knowledge of placing a hoist safely. Below is an example of a purpose built gantry hoist that I’ve used many times. It is far safer than trying to use the roof beams in the shop to lift the engine and transmission in this picture.
When I was in the heavy-duty towing business, I had, probably, over a thousand pounds of rigging and connections that I carried in my truck boxes for winching and lifting. For prepping purposes, we can seldom expect to have that drastic of a need, however some hardware is important. Click the picture below for a basic recovery kit that has a snatch block pulley and some connection hardware that can help you recover yourself or another stuck vehicle as well as perform utility tasks with a winch. Also take a minute to look at the chain and binder information in my YouTube video on load securement by clicking Here. The hardware I use there can be combined with other attachment points for recovery.
I’ve stressed safety throughout this post but there are a few things that need to be added. Not only do we have a chance of damaging the connecting points at either end of a winch pull, we also have to consider what happens to the connection when it breaks free. In an overhead lift, the greatest hazard is the load falling on someone or something. In a horizontal pull, however, things get much trickier. Depending on the force and direction, a hook or pulley can fly off of a broken connection point and become a steel missile in any direction. A steel cable can snap and become a weighted bullwhip that can cut through flesh and bone. In an ideal world, we would be able to perform any winching an lifting functions by remote from a distance out of harm’s way, but that’s seldom the case. The best we can do is to keep ourselves out of the line of fire of a broken cable or falling object and insist all others present do the same. Remember that injuries reduce the survivability of everyone in the group.
Disclosure: I am an Amazon affiliate and may make money on qualifying purchases.