How To Spool A Winch Cable

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Ensuring your new winch lasts as long as possible means you need to get into the habit of re-spooling it after every use. How do you spool a winch cable?

Most winches operate with a winch drum on which the line is stored in layers. Correct spooling keeps the cable/line clean, debris-free, and unkinked so the winch motor can operate without strain. Owners should regularly check the line for weakened or frayed spots for proper spooling.

A winch is only good if it works. Whether pulling your boat out of the water, your 4x4 out of the mud, or dragging a classic car onto the flatbed, a winch can create a huge hassle if the cable doesn’t spool in and out correctly. A kinked cable will overlap or get tangled up, which simply causes more strain on the motor. Since the line is already under tension from the load, the winch’s motor can burn up. To prevent this from happening and keep your winch operating effectively for as long as you own it, owners need to ensure that the line is spooling right.

Table of Contents


What Do I Need Before I Start?

You will need a couple of things you will need before you begin unspooling your winch’s cable.

A Flat Space To Work

When you unspool your cable, it is best to stretch it out completely to keep it from kinking as it respools. I like to park my 4x4 out on the street, where I have plenty of room to lay the cable out. This extra effort lets you rinse the cable off with a water hose to remove dried mud or dirt. (The cleaner you keep the winch cable, the easier it will spool and the longer it will last).


A steel cable or winch line can burn the skin off your hands quicker than you can say, “Ow.” Always use gloves. (Even a synthetic rope can burn if they slip through your hands).

In addition, sometimes a tiny piece of metal sticks out from the cable, and when they get driven into your hand, it can be next to impossible to remove. Believe me, gloves are a must.

Safety Glasses

While most 4x4 guys think they are tough enough not to wear safety glasses, protecting your eyes is always a good idea when doing an outdoor job like this. Occasionally, bits of mud or dirt can splatter up while the winching happens, and the last thing you want is to have to stop the spooling to rinse the debris out of your eye.

How To Spool A Winch Cable

The following steps will guide you through spooling a winch cable correctly.

Disengage the Motor - Turn Lever to Freespooling

Most modern winches have a clutch lever on the side of the drum that allows you to pull the cable out, called “free spooling mode.” This feature allows the drum to rotate in any direction without any resistance. The cable can be pulled with minimum effort, which you need to be able to do when spooling.

If there is no lever on the side of the winch drum, press “out” or “free spooling mode” on the remote controller.

Unspool the Cable

Grab the line and begin to pull out the winch rope. Since winch cables can bind at any time, the best thing is to stand clear of the winch motor. (This allows you to react should the motor get activated accidentally).

Pull the Cable Out Completely

If you have experience with winches, it may be unnecessary to stretch the cable out completely, but for novices, this is the best solution. Laying the cable out in a straight line allows you to inspect the winch rope for any signs of damage or fraying.

Laying the rope out completely also helps keep the winch cable from binding as it is spooled back onto the drum. With no resistance, the entire wire should spool efficiently.

Engage the Motor

At this point, have someone control the remote while you guide the cable onto the spool. (Working the remote and handling the winch rope simultaneously). The clutch will engage, and the motor should turn the winch drum.

Slowly Spool the Cable Onto the Drum

As the winch draws the cable in, ensure the wire rope moves around the drum in a single layer (the cable should lay side by side).  The winch line needs to lay on the drum in a straight line across the width of the drum (the line should not overlap until the layer reaches the end of the drum). Guide the line onto the drum back and forth until the line is retrieved.

Repeat the Process Until the Cable is Correctly Spooled

If you encounter a problem, stop the spooling immediately. When a winch cable binds or begins to spool incorrectly. If you notice that happening, stop the motor, activate the free spooling mode, and guide the cable back onto the drum.

Secure the Hook

Different vehicles have different tow hooks, D rings, or covers over the fairlead. If you need to secure the line (particularly on winch lines that do not have fairleads), a good place is to attach the winch hook to a D ring or a towbar. Once the hook is secure, tighten the line to remove the slack.

Which Way Should a Winch Spool?

While the manufacturers of electric winches differ in their design, they spool from the side of the winch drum where the retaining bolt hole is located. The cable should spool in a single layer away from the bolt and then back toward the bolt side.

How Often Should A Cable Respool the Winch Line?

It is always a good idea to inspect and re-spool your winch line after every use. The tension that a winch cable endures when it puts on a load can create fraying and fracturing of the threads of a line. A steel wire cable can develop kinks or bends in the line, keeping the winch from spooling wires properly.  A synthetic rope will begin to look fuzzy from abrasions that occur under stress. Any tear, rip, or fraying of a thread means the winch line should be replaced.

If you respool a winch cable after every use, it also allows for effective cleaning and maintenance. A clean rope/cable will last longer and work more effectively when needed. Damaged ropes can split under a load, which you do not want when trying to get your friend’s 4x4 out of the mud.

What is the Easiest Way To Unspool a Stuck Winch?

Sometimes, a winch can bind up and get stuck. If this situation happens, stop the winch immediately. Press the “Out” button on the remote or free spooling mode, and pull the cable straight down. Inspect the line to see if the cable has a kink or fraying of the cable, which can cause a winch to malfunction.

Is A Synthetic Line or Steel Cable The Best for a Winch?

The type of line you need for your winch depends on how heavy a load you expect to tackle. Steel cables are usually found on older model winches, while synthetic rope is lighter, safer, and easier to use. Most off-road events require synthetic cables as mandatory equipment because they do not store energy and are less of a hazard to bystanders and owners should they break and become projectiles. A rope will weigh less than a steel winch cable and require less effort in unspooling and fastening around an anchor point.