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How Does a Hydraulic Winch Work?

left-hand-garage-hydraulic-winch.pngFor the avid off-road enthusiast, few aftermarket accessories carry as much value as that of a quality recovery winch. A winch is as utilitarian in nature as the trail vehicle to which it is equipped. When travel along the trail takes an unexpected turn, a winch often proves to be the only viable means of rectifying the situation that one finds themselves in.

Winches come in two main configurations, hydraulic and electric. Each type of winch carries its own specific value, and a consumer’s choice between a hydraulic or electric winch often comes down to a matter of personal preference as well as an adequate consideration of the demands of a particular application.

In order to make an informed decision as to which type of winch to purchase, it is important to understand the operating characteristics of each. While many consumers have a general understanding of the manner in which an electric winch operates, few are as versed in their understanding of hydraulic winch operation.

Why Choose A Hydraulic Winch?

As of late, it seems as if much consumer interest has been based around all that is new and exciting in the world of electric winch development. Still yet, a number of off-road enthusiasts continue to outfit their vehicles with the most robust hydraulic winches available. This begs the question of what advantages hydraulic winches offer over their electric counterparts.

In truth, there are several reasons behind the sustained popularity of hydraulic winches, many of which center around the sheer power potential of these heavy-duty winches. In most cases, hydraulic winches possess a far greater degree of pulling power than electric winches of roughly the same size.

By their very nature, hydraulic winches are extremely efficient, directing the vast majority of their power toward the task at hand and are largely immune to overheating. Alternatively, a significant degree of an electrical winch’s energy is transferred into heat, which can lead to overheating of solenoids and other components under extreme circumstances, such as winching heavier vehicles up significant inclines.

Another advantage of a hydraulic winch is its continuous operation. While most electric winches possess a set duty-cycle, hydraulic winches are capable of non-stop use and will carry forward with any recovery mission that they are tasked with, without interruption. This can come as a notable advantage when attempting to hoist a vehicle out of a precarious situation.

Those who often find themselves traversing creeks also tend to find favor in the use of a hydraulic winch, due in large part to submersibility of such units. While many electric winches feature a notable degree of protection against water ingress, hydraulic winches are typically capable of operating in a flawless manner, even when completely submerged. Due to the closed nature of a vehicle’s power steering system, little to no possibility of water intrusion exists with the use of a hydraulic winch.

On the other side of the coin, hydraulic winch use does come with its share of drawbacks as well. Hydraulic winches typically do not feature as quick of line speeds as their electric counterparts and are incapable of operation when the vehicle to which they are mounted is not running. Winches of this type also tend to be substantially heavier than most electric winches.

How Does A Hydraulic Winch Work?

A hydraulic winch uses a vehicle’s power steering pump to create a pressure differential in order to provide ample force for operation. For a pump of this design to function, a vehicle must be running, thereby preventing pressure loss.

When a hydraulic winch is in use, fluid is directed from a vehicle’s power steering pump (hydraulic pump), through a set of high-pressure lines, where it is then able to be utilized by the winch’s hydraulic motor. A hydraulic winch simply capitalizes on the basic hydraulic system already present on every vehicle that features power steering.

As the fluid travels through this system, it is directed through a control valve that allows an operator to manipulate its dispersal in a systematic manner. This control valve utilizes a system of levers as a method of input, rather than a remote control, as is common with the bulk of electric winches. The winch’s wire rope or steel cable is then allowed to spool inward or outward, depending upon the orientation of these control levels.

A hydraulic force is imparted upon the winch’s planetary gear train which actively rotates the unit’s drum to facilitate spooling in the central void between the unit’s drum flanges. The winch’s cable or rope is then guided through a fairlead for seamless distribution.

The pulling capacity of a particular hydraulic winch is dependent upon several factors, including the operating pressure, gear ratio, and component integrity of the unit in question. In general, hydraulic cable winches come in numerous sizes, making them perfect for use in a wide variety of applications. Additionally, the hydraulic winch market only continues to grow as a number of renowned manufacturers such as Mile Marker continue to expand their product lines.

Selecting a Winch of the Correct Capacity

In order to determine which winch size is best suited for your particular application, you must first take stock of your truck’s GVWR. Every vehicle on the road today is assigned a Gross Vehicle Weight Rating, which denotes the anticipated weight of a vehicle in its operational state and with a fully occupied cabin.

A vehicle’s GVWR can be found in several different ways. The most common of which is by consulting the data placard contained within a vehicle’s driver-front door jamb, studying the vehicle owner’s manual, and visiting the vehicle manufacturer’s website. When this designation is located, record the value in a way that allows it to be quickly referenced.

The simplest way to determine the size of winch that is needed for a particular vehicle is to multiply the vehicle’s GVWR by 1.5. This ensures that any winch purchased will have ample power to pull your truck from any number of unanticipated predicaments.

Prior to making such a determination, one must also take stock of any additional upgrades which have been made to any truck which is to be fitted with a winch. Non-OEM components such as aftermarket bumpers, push bars, bed covers, camper shells, and custom wheels all add additional heft to your truck, which tallies up much faster than most would figure. This weight must also be factored in when determining the size of the winch that will be required.

At times, it can be nearly impossible to accurately account for the weight of such aftermarket upgrades, especially when a truck has been heavily modified from its original form. However, there is a simple way to estimate the total sum of this additional weight, which will provide you with a ballpark figure from which to operate.

This can be done by estimating the weight of these accessories at an additional 30 percent of your vehicle’s total gross weight. This weight can then be added to the vehicle’s manufacturer designated stock GVWR to provide a rough estimate of your truck’s post-modification weight. Although this figure will not be an exact representation of the cumulative weight of these accessories, it will be close enough to ensure that you are not left without enough winch to cover your bases.

The following two equations will assist you in determining the size of the best winch for your particular application.

GVWR X 1.5 = Optimal Winch Size for Stock Vehicles


GVWR+(.30)GVWR X 1.5 = Optimal Winch Size for Heavily Modified Vehicles

To provide a real-world example, consider the 2020 Ram 1500, which has a base GVWR of 6,800 pounds. The following equation would provide an adequate estimate of the optimum winch size for this particular model of truck.

6,800 X 1.5 = 10,200 LBS (for Stock Vehicle)


6,800+(.30)6,800 X 1.5 = 13,260 LBS (for Heavily Modified Vehicle)

While some might be tempted to make do with a smaller winch than that specified by the product of this equation, doing so can prove to be inhibitive when you find yourself in a particular situation where the use of a winch becomes necessary. Nobody wants to be in the midst of winching their way out of trouble, only to find that they are ill-equipped for the job.

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