ATV UTV Winch Buyer's Guide

A winch is good insurance for your ATV. When you find yourself stuck in the mud or if you’re climbing a hill and realize you can’t make it, a winch can really save your bacon.

It's early November. The deer are in rut and you've got a great stand down in the river bottom. It's been raining for three days and you're expecting it to still be a little wet. You load up your gear on the ATV and head off for a long day of hunting. You're riding down the trail and after a short while you're getting pretty close to the spot you're planning on parking your ATV. There is just a small muddy spot to cross. You slow down a bit but the mud is much deeper than it looks and mostly wet clay. You're stuck. But wait, you have a winch! A few minutes of work and the ATV is free of the muck and you're on your way again.

Quite a few ATV winches are on the market today. They come in a variety of sizes to fit a variety of needs and vehicles. Let's look at some of the factors that go in to deciding which winch to get.

You can use a winch in conjunction with a plow and clear that snow from your drivewayWeight

You need to know the weight of your ATV. If you don't already know, it will be listed in the owner's manual. If you don't have your owner's manual, request one from the manufacturer, your local dealer, or search the web for fast results. The weight of your ATV is important because you need to know how much effort will be needed to get you unstuck.


What are you going to be doing with your new winch? If you're just looking to pull your ATV out of the muck, that's fine. But you're overlooking many other uses. A winch is like having an extra pair of hands that can lift or pull 1,500 pounds or more. Are you going to cut some timber? Maybe do some construction work? Maybe you're hunting big game in places where it sure would be nice to have a winch to drag that trophy out? Or maybe you'd just like to use one in conjunction with a plow and clear all that snow from your driveway? From running mud bogs in Louisiana to dragging a bull moose out of an alder thicket, a good winch on your ATV can be a lifesaver. Think about the types of things you could use your winch for and use that to decide which winch is the best for your uses.

Which winch do I buy?

So you've figured out the weight of your ATV and what you want it to do. Now you need to figure out which winch you want. Several companies vie for your consumerism when it comes to winches. They all offer some basic features and differ in style and capacity. It's up to you to decide which is the right company for you, whether you want one brand over another can depend on price, features or name recognition.

Winches are listed by pulling power. They start at around 1,500 pounds and run up to and over 3,000 pounds of pulling capacity. There is a saying that goes with winches: you can never have too much winch. This is true to an extent, but if you're looking to run a winch on your sport-class ATV, then you'll want to consider the weight. Plus, if you don't need it, the extra cost for the extra pulling power is a waste.

Cabela's Trail Tamer ATV Winches by Superwinch

  • • Sub-2,000 pound capacity winches

    These winches are for smaller, lighter ATV's. Generally speaking, if you have a large-displacement, four-wheel drive unit, you're not going to be looking at one of these winches. The big trend with ATV winches right now is the use of these winches on sport/utility-class ATV's. These smaller winches can tuck nicely into the frame rails of a sport ATV and can really get you out of a jam. Imagine climbing a steep hill on an isolated trail only to have the traction elves leave you hanging on the edge of disaster. Wouldn't it be nice to have a winch to help get you over the top?

  • • 2,000-3,000 pound capacity winches

    These are your standard winches and are suitable for most pulling jobs. Most of your utility class ATVs will require you to use a winch in this range. You don't want to overload the winch so a smaller unit isn't an option. Plus other uses for winches with utility-class ATVs lend themselves to larger winch pulling capacity, such as construction work, cutting timber, or even big game hunting.

Even the best ATV is going to get stuck sometime, so make sure you're ready for the worst with one of these powerful winches. But you don't have to be bogged down in the mud to appreciate one. They're also the ideal choice for tough jobs around your ranch, acreage or cabin. Spend enough hours in the backcountry with your ATV and you will eventually encounter a sticky swamp or seemingly inaccessible downed trophy that's too much to tackle without a little help.

Warn ATV WinchDon't forget the UTVs

For those of you who have one of the ultra-versatile UTV's , such as the Polaris Ranger, there is a winch for you too. At least one company makes a 4,000-pound class winch designed specifically for the loads that a UTV would put on one. These are compact winches made to take a lot of abuse. They are closer in design to the winch you'd see on a truck because they are mainly operated from outside the vehicle. They offer tremendous pulling power to handle everything from self-recovery to moving downed trees.

Mount 'em up

Make sure you use a proper mounting bracket designed for your ATV, such as a Cabela's brand or a Warn kit. Winching can place quite a bit of strain on your ATV's frame. A proper winch mount is designed to withstand those pressures and not damage your frame. You wouldn't want to destroy your toy, would you? It is also safer to have the winch mounted correctly for obvious reasons.

Another thing to look at is your electrical system. Installing a winch is like any other modification. You need to look at everything before you do it. Make sure your battery is fresh before installing a winch. This isn't a big deal with a fairly new model but if your ATV is a few years old, you may want to have your battery checked out, maybe even replaced. It is always a good idea to check your battery often and look for signs of wear. Most ATV's have a strong enough electrical system so as not to be drained while operating a winch.

Warn ATV WinchThings to know and look for

To make your winch more convenient and easy to use, look for these important features as you shop so you get a winch and accessories that will work best for you.

Free-spooling clutch

This feature allows you to pull cable from the spool without having to pull against the gears. Pulling against the gears will delay the time it takes to secure the cable to a tree or other solid object. This is an important feature. It allows you to quickly release cable and it saves wear and tear on your winch.


You may be asking, "What's a fairlead?" Oh, about a foot depending on how fast the bird is... No, seriously, it is a guide that helps the spool lay down cable tightly and evenly. They come in two basic styles.

  • • Roller

    It protects the wire cable from unnecessary abrasion and wear as you're pulling the cable on and off the spool due to rollers that cover every angle. It also helps to guide the cable on and off the spool tightly and evenly at any angle.

  • • Hawse

    Like a roller fairlead, a hawse fairlead helps guide the cable on and off the spool tightly and evenly, but there is less cable abrasion protection due to the lack of rollers.

Warn ATV WinchRemote mounted/rocker switch

Sometimes called a rocker switch, a remote switch is generally mounted on the handlebars and gives you the option of controlling the winch while on your ATV. Some come with six-foot cords that allow you to control the winch while pulling your bike out of a mud hole as you stand on dry ground.


Winches are tough. There is no question about that. But having a cover is just that much more insurance that it will last a long time. A cover will keep dust and dirt out of the winch motor during storage and rides.

Winch kit

Winch kits combine all of the accessories you need to get your ATV out of just about any situation, and usually do it at a much lower cost than buying the pieces individually. For example, the Cabela's kit includes a tow strap with loops at each end (doubles as a tree strap), a nylon storage bag equipped with straps to keep the kit securely mounted on an ATV rack, a steel shackle, a pulley block and a mesh bag for storing wet equipment after you pull your ATV loose. This is a basic kit and offers everything you'd need.

Winching techniques

Two methods are used for pulling with a winch. These two methods determine the potential pulling power of your winch and can help you decide which one is best for your situation.

  • • Single-line method:

    This is the most common method for using a winch for pulling. A single-line pull means that you attach the cable directly to a tree or to the object you're pulling. The pulling capacity of the winch does not change, meaning a 1,500-pound winch will pull 1,500 pounds with a single-line.

  • • Double-line method:

    A double-line pull effectively doubles the pulling capacity of the winch and is achieved by using a pulley block. When using a pulley block, the winch's hook and cable are wrapped around the pulley block and then attached back onto the ATV. The pulley block can be anchored on a secure object (tree) to pull your ATV, and the winch, out of trouble. The other method is to secure the pulley block to a heavy load that is then pulled toward the winch. In either case, a 1,500-pound winch will act like a 3,000-pound winch.

Remember; don't try to get too much from your winch. A steel cable that is stressed beyond its capacity will snap. The results can be devastating to anyone standing nearby. Most manufacturers recommend that when pulling with your winch, the smart thing to do is place a heavy blanket or coat over the middle of the cable to reduce the whipping action that is created when an over-stressed cable breaks. Consult your owner's manual for details on how to best accomplish your winching task in the safest manner possible.

Don't forget the manual option

A mechanical option is available in the form of a ratchet winch. Unlike most conventional electric winches, a ratchet winch can be quickly interchanged from the front to rear of an ATV offering greater versatility. They are basically compact and self-aligning with enough pulling strength for some heavy loads.

A ratchet winch works just like a ratcheting tie-down strap. You have a gear with a locking pin and you provide the movement by way of a handle. The pin locks the gear so the tension doesn't pull out the line or strap that you just reeled in. Think of how a ratcheting socket wrench doesn't let you turn the opposite way you're wrenching. It's the same basic principal. This is a very simple system that offers right around 900 pounds of pulling capacity in a lightweight, economical package. This may be the option you want to take if you need a winch of some sort and don't mind that it is manually operated.