Updated March 2022
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Buying guide for best atv winches

Whether you use your ATV for work, play, or a combination of both, a winch is the one accessory every owner should seriously consider buying. If you’re miles from anywhere and get stuck, a winch is likely to be the only rescue tool that’s going to help you.

An ATV winch is also great for moving obstacles like fallen trees, controlling ascents and descents that otherwise might not be possible, retrieving game, pulling out old fence posts, loading and unloading your ATV from a trailer — you never realize how useful an ATV winch is until you’ve got one.

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In many cases, fitting your winch will require a mounting plate that isn’t included in the kit. You’ll need to buy one separately.

Key considerations


The size of the winch is probably the most important consideration. While the maximum will to some extent depend on what you intend to use the winch for, there is a clear minimum that’s recommended for rescue purposes. It’s a straightforward calculation using the gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR), which is your ATV plus any gear and passengers: 1.5 x GVWR.

For example, if the GVWR is 2,000 pounds, you need an ATV winch rated for 1.5 times that, or 3,000 pounds minimum. More power is seldom seen as a disadvantage, though there may be little point in buying a 6,000-pound winch for a vehicle that only weighs half that. That said, if you have a heavy-duty use in mind and your vehicle is capable of handling it, ATV winches rated for up to 12,000 pounds are available.

Cable vs. rope

The second big decision is what is loaded on the winch spool: synthetic rope or steel cable.

Rope: It’s natural to think that steel is the way to go for maximum strength, but in fact, modern polyethylene synthetic rope has a higher load-bearing capacity. It’s also significantly lighter, and it doesn’t rust the way steel can. Rope is also less dangerous in the event of breakage (and it is often mandatory for race events).

On the downside, while synthetic rope can handle more weight, it wears out more quickly if dragged across rocks and rough terrain. Manufacturers also recommend keeping rope as clean and dry as possible, so a minor amount of maintenance is expected. On high-end winches, rope is often an option at extra cost.

Cable: The main reason people use steel cable is abrasion resistance. Steel cable is also quite a lot cheaper than synthetic rope, so it’s usually what is offered as standard, particularly on budget ATV winches.

On the downside, when steel cable frays, it leaves razor-sharp wires that can rip your hands to shreds if you’re not careful.



Sealed: ATV winches are usually front-mounted, though there’s no reason you can’t put one on the rear if it suits your purposes. Either way, they’re bound to get covered in dirt, mud, and who knows what else. None of that stuff is particularly good for the mechanicals of your winch, so look for a sealed motor and bearings.

Permanent magnet: Drive often comes from a permanent magnet motor. There’s nothing wrong with wire-wound motors, but they aren’t as efficient and so tend to be physically larger than their magnetized counterparts.

Gear train: Steel planetary gears are the optimum choice for a winch. The design delivers higher torque for a given size (so they can be made more compact) and spreads the load more evenly (which makes for a longer life and less noise). They also reduce backlash. Bronze bearings help the motor run more smoothly.

Brake: A mechanical brake adds another layer of safety, giving you the ability to secure the cable regardless of whether the motor is working or not.


There are various control options available. Handlebar-mounted switches are common. You might also have a rocker switch for fixing into a dashboard. Remote controls are frequently part of the package. They’re usually corded (the longer the better to keep you out of harm’s way), though cordless models do exist and arguably offer additional safety. The latter, where available, usually come at an additional cost.


The cable or rope is wound onto the spool via a guide called a fairlead. This can be a simple slot or a set of rollers that reduce friction. Fairleads can be made of steel or aluminium (to reduce weight), but the latter should only ever be used with synthetic rope — steel cable will wear through it.


The spool itself could be aluminium or steel. We’d go for the latter, even if synthetic rope is being used. The increased durability more than makes up for the added weight. A free-spool option allows you to disengage the drive, meaning you can pull cord off the winch much faster. It should be easy to engage and disengage.

Hook and shackles

A latch hook should come as part of your ATV winch kit, but it’s unlikely you’ll get any shackles. If you need them, you’ll have to buy them separately.


In general, we view a warranty as a reflection of the manufacturer’s confidence in its equipment, but warranties can be confusing, so you need to look at them carefully. With ATV winches you’ll frequently see different periods for mechanical and electrical components (perhaps five years for mechanical but only one for electrical). Another option is a limited lifetime warranty. It sounds impressive, but it’s important to understand what the “limits” are.

ATV winch prices

Inexpensive: The cheapest ATV winches we found cost between $70 and $100. Quality is fine — some top manufacturers offer models in this range — but with one or two exceptions, power is likely to be 1,500 to 2,000 pounds.

Mid-range: In general, prices rise in line with performance. You can get a basic 3,000-pound model for around $120, but a 3,500-pound ATV winch kit with multiple switch or remote options can be $300 or more.

Expensive: A top-quality, fully-featured 4,000- or 5,000-pound winch can cost $400 to $500. Though larger models are available, few ATVs would require the power or warrant the expense.


  • Wear tough, protective gloves at all times. Heavy-duty winch rope and steel cable are extremely abrasive and will easily cause blisters or remove skin.
  • Keep everyone well away when operating the winch. Winch operation only requires one person. Anyone else should stand well clear. Maximum safety is provided by a remote control, so you can be well away from any danger if things go wrong.
  • Double-check connections are secure before applying pressure.
  • Invest in a winch blanket. This safety device is designed to be laid across the rope or cable while the winch is working. In the event of it snapping, the blanket helps prevent a serious accident.
  • Follow the manufacturer’s maintenance suggestions. Check the entire length of the rope or cable periodically. Replace it immediately if it appears frayed or damaged.
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Don’t forget to check the physical size of the winch. There’s a lot of variation in ATVs, UTVs, and side-by-sides. Just because a device is called an “ATV winch” doesn’t automatically mean it will fit your vehicle.


Q. Is it easy to fit a winch to my ATV?
If you’re reasonably handy with a wrench and have a basic knowledge of auto electrics, it shouldn’t be a problem. There are several helpful videos online. However, you should call in a professional if you’re not confident. The last thing you want is to discover a fault when you’re out in the middle of nowhere.

Q. Can I use an ATV winch as a hoist?
If you’re talking about vertical lifting rather than towing, it’s possible but not always recommended. Some manufacturers even caution against it. At the very least, for safety reasons you should only use a winch that’s fitted with a brake, so you can make the load safe while it’s suspended.

Q. What’s a tree saver?
A tree saver is a broad towing strap, usually made of heavy-duty nylon webbing, that you can wrap around a tree to minimize any damage when you’re using it as an anchor to pull your ATV free.

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