Updated June 2022
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Buying guide for Best electric winches

An electric winch is often seen as an invaluable rescue tool for four-wheel-drive off-roading, and that’s true, but with the right setup, it offers great versatility for all kinds of pulling and lifting tasks, everything from getting your boat on the trailer to loading and unloading cargo in a commercial environment.

From AC or DC power to cable type and waterproofing, there’s a lot to consider when shopping for an electric winch, and selecting the right model for your needs is about much more than the maximum load rating.

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Always wear good, strong gloves when using an electric winch. Rope and steel cable can make a real mess of your hands.

Key considerations

First, let’s look at the key areas of intended use, load rating, and horsepower.

Intended use/load rating

DC power: Most times you see an electric winch, it’s attached to the front of a 4X4, whether that’s a lightweight ATV or heavy truck. This type of winch runs off the 12-volt DC power provided by the vehicle and has a load rating of anywhere from 1,500 pounds to over 15,000 pounds. Of course, you can’t just attach these to the bumper — the forces would rip it right off — so it needs to be anchored to the frame, and a mounting kit is usually provided. It’s also possible to attach these winches to the rear end or, with a little ingenuity, to a frame mounted in the pickup bed. The latter offers great versatility for loading and unloading, particularly if you combine it with a simple ramp.

DC winch motors are either permanent magnet or series wound. If you’re buying a rescue winch, the former is cheaper and perfectly adequate. The latter is found on heavy-duty, high-end models.

AC power: Some portable electric winches can run off 110/120-volt AC domestic power. These range from lightweight 1,000-pound-rated models for household use up to 4,000 pounds for professional jobs. These are great because in the right circumstances you can use one to load at one end of the journey, unplug it, and use it to unload at the other end. It doesn’t need to be mounted to the vehicle. Of course, if you’re using it as a hoist, particularly vertically and/or with a tripod, it’s vital you learn and follow proper safety precautions. It’s strongly recommended that you choose a model with an automatic safety brake, which will prevent the load from descending in the event of a problem.

Battery: Although not common, cordless electric winches are now starting to appear. Currently 24 volts, load ratings are in the 1,000-pound range, which is enough to load and unload an ATV. We’ve also seen them used to pre-tension fencing while it’s fixed permanently. We suspect that larger batteries will soon be fitted, and it’s an area of the market that is bound to grow.

Horsepower: In addition to the load rating, check the motor horsepower. A 10,000-pound winch with a six-horsepower motor should handle the task with noticeably less effort than one with a four-horsepower motor and so ought to last longer (though, of course, the build quality is also a factor).

Electric winch features

Waterproofing: Some winch motor and control housings are waterproof, which means they’ll not only work when submerged but also keep out all the dirt and grit that can cause wear and damage.

Safety: Electric winches generate a lot of heat. It’s not usually a problem, but some have running and cooling periods that need to be adhered to — you risk permanent damage if you don’t. Some also have a safety cutoff to avoid overloading your vehicle’s battery. The very best electric winches have thermometric feedback with an LED readout that constantly tells you the motor temperature and warns of potential problems.

Remote: A remote control allows you to work at a safe distance, but calling it a “remote” doesn’t mean it’s wireless, so it’s worth checking. Some are attached by cable and the length of that cable might not be what you need.

Cable/rope: You’re probably used to seeing winches with steel cable. It’s very strong and has great durability. However, synthetic rope is worth considering. It’s lighter, less likely to damage other items if it breaks, and can actually be stronger than steel. The drawback is lower abrasion resistance, so it’s not recommended in sandy areas, for example.

Also, the length of the cable might be an issue. The shortest we’ve seen is 25 feet. Most are either 50 feet or around 100 feet.

Free-spool clutch: Many electric winches drive the cable both out and in; you can usually find the speed if that’s important to you. Some offer a free-spool clutch, so you can just pull, which makes them much faster to unwind.

Weight: The weight of your electric winch won’t make a lot of difference when mounted on the front of a big truck, but it might on a lightweight utility vehicle, so if that’s what you want it for, it’s worth checking.

Electric winch prices

Inexpensive: You can find good, basic electric winches for lightweight vehicle use (ATVs and UTVs) for around $70. Models that can handle up to 3,500 pounds can be found for around $100. Few have cordless remotes, but they are available.

Mid-range: Fully featured, high-quality electric winches with capacities of 9,000 to 17,500 pounds for 4X4s, SUVs, and trucks range from a little under $300 to about $600. You can also find 120-volt general-purpose winches (capacities from 2,500 to 4,000 pounds) in this range. The few cordless electric winches currently available cost from $200 to $350, but capacities are only 500 to 1,000 pounds.

Expensive: The ultimate heavy-duty electric winches with thermometric feedback and high-durability synthetic rope will push your cost above $1,500 and can be as much as $3,000.


  • Respool the cable. When you receive your winch, it isn’t ready for use. The rope or cable is only loosely wound and could jam or damage the motor. It needs to be respooled under load to work correctly. Look online for winch respooling videos.
  • Decide if you need accessories. Electric winches usually come with a hook but rarely with shackles. Think about your likely uses and add a couple of shackles of the appropriate size to your order if necessary. Snatch blocks (a kind of pulley) are inexpensive, but when used properly can double or triple the capacity of your winch. A winch cover is a low-cost extra that protects your winch from dirt and grit when it isn’t in use.
  • Safety first. Rope and cable breakage are rare but can be very dangerous. A winch damper or winch blanket is an easy-to-use safety device that can prevent serious injury.
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Check your cable regularly. Look for rust, kinks, or fraying. If it’s damaged, replace it. If it breaks, you might end up stranded, and there’s the potential for injury.


Q. Is an electric winch difficult to fit to a vehicle?
It shouldn’t pose a problem for the average auto enthusiast. It needs to be bolted to a suitable support and wired into the electrical system. Most are mounted to the front of the vehicle, where there’s plenty of clear space, but it could be mounted on the rear if that suits your purpose. The important thing is fixing it securely. Standard bumpers are rarely adequate. The manufacturer should provide instructions, and there are numerous helpful videos online.

Q. Is there a way to calculate the power of a recovery winch for off-roading?
Yes, and it’s straightforward, too! To provide adequate power to rescue a stuck vehicle, experts recommend that the winch should be rated for a minimum of 1.5 times the gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR), which includes passengers and gear. Go bigger, by all means, but not less.

Q. Are electric winches better than hydraulic models?
It’s not really about “better”; it’s about the right winch for the job. Electric winches offer great versatility. They are relatively easy to fit to your vehicle (if you need to) and can be very affordable. The drawbacks are that they can overheat if put under heavy load for long periods, and it could overload your electrical system. A hydraulic winch won’t do that, but you have limited choices. They’re often expensive, and they attach to your power-steering pump, so the engine has to be running to power one. Nevertheless, if you need to use a winch for hours at a time, it will deliver consistent, reliable performance.

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