DIY Everything: How to Install a Winch

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How to Install a Winch

Have I ever told you about the time my buddy and I got our Jeeps stuck in a creek? And that it was raining, causing the creek to rise? Oh, and that our Jeeps both flooded while we were miles from cell service? Did I mention we had to sleep in our flooded Jeeps for the night so we could hike to an area with cell service to get help? Yeah, that’s what happens when you go out unprepared.

We all know it’s a bad idea to go out into the wilderness alone, but as I learned the hard way, that doesn’t help a whole lot of you’re both unprepared idiots. After that we both went and bought winches so that we wouldn’t run into that issue again — or at least better avoid it the next time.

With this being a general guide, I of course won’t be able to go into a step-by-step guide specific for your vehicle, winch type, and mounting method, but for the most part, the concepts involved are pretty universal. I’ll try to cover most of the common scenarios.

A Note on Safety:

Winches are no joke. When you’re dealing with many thousands of pounds of force on just a small, portable cable, scary things can happen, and they happen faster than you can react. With that being said, here are just a few best practices that I cannot stress enough to keep in mind:

Use synthetic winch line:
The problem with steel winch cable is that while it is very strong, if something does go wrong, it has proven itself on many occasions to be deadly. The problem with steel is that it stretches and stores a huge amount of energy that can be catastrophic if released all at once. This could be the line snapping, a D-ring breaking, tow strap tearing, etc. If it happens, you can expect the steel to rebound back with extreme force.

Synthetic cable on the other hand stores very little energy, and if something does break, it has very little mass to hurt anyone seriously. As synthetic line has become more popular over the past decade or so, the cost has come way down — to the point where I just do not see any reason to still use steel braided cable.

Do not use chains:
This is the same issue as with steel braided cable, except probably worse, because it’s much more difficult to tell the strength rating of whatever random chain someone brought out on the trail run. Tow straps are an inexpensive winch extension. Do not use chain.

Get back, you fool:
No matter what cable you’re using, do not put yourself between the vehicle and whatever it is you’re pulling. Stay out of the way and try to keep Warn Winch Cable Damperyourself perpendicular to the angle of stress on the line — meaning don’t put yourself in front of or behind the direction in which the line is running.

Put a weight/blanket on the center point of the winch line:
This is mostly for steel cable (which you shouldn’t be using), but is smart to use on synthetic line as well. By putting a weight on the center of the winch line, this can absorb some of the energy in-case something breaks. Many recovery kits come with special weights to drape over the line just for this reason.

Wear Gloves:
This again mostly goes for those still using steel cable, as they can have splinters that can seriously tear your hand apart. However, it’s not a bad idea anyway, when dealing with any recovery situation, there is a lot of weight involved, and your hands can get pinched. Do as I say, not as I do.

How to Mount a Winch:

First you need a winch plate or a bumper that has one built in, and you need to make sure that mount can accommodate the way that particular winch needs to be mounted. There are four categories your winch can fall into in terms of mounting:

Foot down:
Where the winch mounts parallel to the ground – probably the most common mounting method.

Foot forward:
Where the winch mounts perpendicular to the ground behind the fairlead.

Foot down OR foot forward:
Many (maybe the majority?) winches these days can be mounted in either configuration.

Foot down AND foot forward:
Some winches need to be mounted using both methods. This mostly applies to very high rated winches.

Chances are you’ll be just fine with foot down, but be sure to check with the manufacturer of the winch before hand to be sure. They should list the mounting style in the literature that came with the winch or on their site.

I’m not going to go further into the specific mounting process from here, as it’s really just 4 bolts onto the winch plate, and then (probably) 4 bolts from the winch plate to the frame or bumper of your vehicle (or 2″ hitch receiver).

Let’s Talk Hardware:

Bolt grade identification

Your winch and/or winch plate probably came with mounting hardware, but if it didn’t, or you want to play it safe, it’s not a bad idea to go to the hardware store and get some yourself. Grade 8 hardware is the gold standard, you can tell it apart by the 6 radial lines on top of the bolt head (grade 5 have 3) and are usually found in a gold-ish color due the zinc plating they receive to help prevent corrosion.

Peace of mind goes a long way.

Wiring a Winch:

Most commercially available winches are electrically powered, so that’s what we’ll be covering here (hydraulic winches do exist but they aren’t generally used in recreational applications). First thing to keep in mind is that winches are very power hungry machines.

If you’re using your rig’s main battery, it’s always a good idea to keep your car running while operating the winch to avoid draining the battery — and it’s not a bad idea to put the car in neutral and raise the RPMs a bit to give the alternator a little more juice to compensate. Some people choose to power their winches off of an auxiliary battery as well, depending on the Wiring a winchkind of use it will see.

The most common method for average occasional winch usage is to mount the winch up front and run it off of your rig’s sole battery. It’s recommended to have at least a 440 cold-cranking amp battery and a 60 amp alternator (most trucks and SUVs do).

  1. Connect the positive wire (usually red) to the positive post on the winch
  2. Connect the negative wire (usually black or brown) to the ground post on the winch
  3. Run both wires from the front into the engine compartment
  4. Make sure to keep the wires out of the way of significant heat sources or anywhere the wiring can rub or get pinched.
  5. Connect the positive wire from the winch to the positive post on the battery, most winches include an in-line fuse (I recommend installing one if not).
  6. Connect the negative wire from the winch to the negative ground post on the battery

You can choose to be done at this point, or if you want to get fancy, you can wire switching for the winch into the cab of your vehicle. This isn’t essential, as winches will come with remotes, either wireless or with enough wire to reach back to your window.

Some people also opt for installing quick disconnect wiring so they can remove the winch if it’s not needed. This is common for 2″ receiver winch mounts and for those who don’t want to carry the weight around when they don’t plan on using it. If you do install quick disconnect wiring, ensure that it is the same gauge of wire as was supplied with your winch.


Anything I missed? Have any questions? Any DIY guides you’d like to see in the future? Drop a comment below!

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