How To Use A Hand Winch

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A hand winch is an excellent tool if you don’t have a motorized unit on your 4x4, but what should you know about using a hand winch?

Using a hand winch is not difficult if you follow the steps listed below:

  • Attach the strap to an anchor point (big rock or tree).
  • Hook the portable winch to the strap or tow line.
  • Unlock the winch cable’s spool ratchet and hook the tow line to the object’s tow bars.
  • Relock the spool ratchet and begin to turn the handle.
  • Push, pull, or rotate the handle until the object moves into the desired position.
  • Release the tension in the winch cable, and unhook from the towed vehicle.
  • Rewind the line and release the connection from the anchor point.

A portable hand winch is an essential item to have if you plan on off-roading. Since part of the joy of running through the backcountry is exploring new adventures, you never know when you might get into a situation and get stuck. It can give you a mechanical advantage by applying more towing power to loosen an object that will not move with human effort alone. Operating a hand winch can be intimidating, especially if you have never used hand winches. Let’s review how to use a winch so you will be prepared should the need to use it arise.

Table of Contents


What Is A Hand Winch?

A hand winch is a ratchet-style crank that spools a line, cable, or strap and is used to move objects or vehicles that are resistant to dislodging. Whether you need to move a tree stump from a field or rescue your ATV from the mud, these handy units can make short work of any project.

Most winches use a nylon strap or steel line with a hook on one end and a drum where the line spools with a crank handle or lever on the other. The hook end of the rope wraps around the heavy objects to be moved, and the other end is secured to an anchor point. As the ratchet on the winch works to tighten the line, the jaws clamp down to control the line, and the spool turns progressively, tightening and lifting the load. Eventually, the line tightens enough to move the load in the desired direction.

A Hand winch is much cheaper than a power winch. They can be used when there is no power source for an electric winch or a powered winch on the front of a vehicle.

Where Are Winches Used?

Most hand winches can be used almost anywhere a heavy object needs to be pulled from where it is to where you want it to be. There are many uses for a winch. For example, construction crews can use a winch to secure heavy loads on the back of a truck or off-roaders when their vehicles get stuck in a muddy bog. Farmers and gardeners use winches to pull a tree stump out of the middle of a field or garden.

How To Use A Hand Winch Properly

There are several steps to the effective operation of a hand winch.

Assess The Situation

Before you get the hand winch out of the cargo hold, you need to develop a plan. You need the answers to several questions like

  • How big a job Is this operation?
  • Is there any prep work that needs to be done (brush cleared, roots chopped, etc.)?
  • Is there a clear anchor point to attach the line to?
  • Is there anything impeding the line to the anchor point that needs to be removed?
  • Is the winch line rated strong enough to lift whatever object needs to be moved?

Attach The Strap To An Anchor Point

You should look for a big rock, tree, or another vehicle that can act as an anchor. If you are using a large tree, a strap works better than a chain. The wire cable will dig through the bark, which can be difficult to remove if it cuts into the tree.

Hook The Portable Winch

If the winch is not already a part of the line, mount the winch to the tow line. There should be a set screw that will allow you to place the winch in the proper location. Be sure to retighten the set screw so that the hand winch does not slip while mounted.

Unlock The Rachet Locking Mechanism

You will need to spool out enough line/rope to attach the hook on the end of the line to the object that needs to be towed. Care should be taken when mounting the line between the anchor and the towed object. Shackle the line as low as possible. Once the cable is strung, relock the ratchet mechanism and pull the lever to remove the slack. Watch the cable lift to see that there is a straight line between the two tow points.

Inspect All Connections

Before you begin to work the lever, walk the line and inspect for kinks, fraying, or signs of fatigue. A weakened line will often fail or tear while pulling, which could cause real problems for the tow and the bystanders. If there are suspect areas, do not use the line or throw a dampening blanket over the line so that the weight of the blanket will push any snapped line downward toward the ground.

Relock The Spool Ratchet and Begin to Turn the Crank

The front jaws on the ratchet mechanism will begin to bite into the rope/strap/cable and draw it onto the spool. Continue to push and pull or rotate the handle (depending on what kind of hand winch you are using). You should slowly operate the winch until the object you need to be moved begins to dislodge toward the desired location (out of the mud).

Release the Tension and Unhook the Winch

Once you have moved the load to the point where it is safely free, release the tension of the line, and unhook the winch. Spool in the line, wipe any excess mud or debris from the winch, and store it and the strap.

What Are Some Things To Know Before Winching

Some tips regarding winching that can help you stay safe.

Wear Safety Equipment

A good pair of safety goggles and thick work gloves are essential. If you need to grab the rope or cable for some reason (for example, if it doesn’t slide over the drum correctly), you don’t want to get a hand burn or metal splinter in your fingers.

Cover The Line With A Blanket

The weight of a blanket over the line can keep it down toward the mud and prevent it from flying into your face should the cable snap. A damper blanket can keep onlookers safe.

Keep Spectators At A Safe Distance

Don’t attempt to winch a line with onlookers close by. If the winch fails and the cable snaps, the ends can become projectiles that can cause serious injury.

Do Not Attempt to Winch A Weight Greater Than a Line Can Pull

Heavy-duty winches (both hand-held and motorized) have weight limit ratings. Do not attempt to haul something out of the mud.