Note: As of Aug 2023, some of these links and manufacturers need to be updated and will be shortly but the overall information is still valid. You can view our full winch selection here.
We receive inquiries every day regarding winch selection so I thought I might address this in writing for easy reference. Some of this is based on experience, some on manufacturer data and some on opinion and is worth exactly what you just paid for it.
Recovery winches, like many products, come in various 'flavors'. Many buyers focus primarily on price, some on name recognition and some purely on reputation and/or experience. We are all looking for 'value', "how much should I spend to get what I want or need?"
TO THINE OWN SELF BE TRUE
The fact of the matter is that most off roaders rarely use their winch, some are lucky (or unlucky) to use it once a year. Avid off roaders may use theirs every weekend. Some are expeditionary in nature and rely on their winch to pull them across rivers, over mountain passes and in many cases in areas with little to no help or support. Another words, their very lives may depend on their winch. So the first thing you need to do is understand YOUR needs.
Are you the 'just in case' user, the 'I wheel several times per month' user or the 'I'm headed to the Amazon' user?
HAMBURGERS, WON TON OR STIR FRY?
First off, where are winches made? This is the most common question next to 'which winch do I need?'. The truth of the matter is that ALL winches are made in China or Taiwan except for Warn and Ramsey. But even that statement is not really accurate. Warn manufacturers their Zeon and other higher end winches in Oregon but you will find Chinese or Taiwanese parts in them. Warn's lower end winches, including their VR EVO series, are typically made in China. ComeUp's very good line of winches comes from Taiwan. Ramsey, while assembled in Oklahoma does use some Chinese and Taiwanese parts from my research. Every other winch is made in Asia, without exception. Tis the global economy as of today.
So then, what is the difference? If most winches are made in China or use Chinese parts then why spend more money? While there are a handful of factories in China that build winches for all of the winch 'manufacturers' and some use a system of ala carte design (you can choose this finish, these solenoids, these levers, etc) some are built to very specific design criteria. Some are tested more than others, some components are better than others, most always this is reflected in price and warranty.
BRAND DESIRE IS THE KEY TO SUCCESS
There are many winch brands out there, some more popular than others but for this article I'll focus on what U.S. Off Road carries. As of today we carry Warn, ComeUp and Viper and I'll group these by price/quality.
What I might classify as our entry level winches are Viper and (previously Engo). U.S. Off Road has carried these lines for many years and have sold hundreds with less than 1% warranty rates, which by any metric is exceptional. They start off in pricing at around $335 and go as high as $600 for synthetic rope versions in higher capacity ranges. Both are Chinese made of course, both companies have extensive experience in the industry. Viper's main focus is the ATV/UTV market and sells thousands per year in addition to their vehicle recovery winches.
The Viper Max with steel cable I originally installed on the FJC in 2011 is now on my car trailer and works perfectly as well. Made in China but fully supported in the USA you can't go wrong with Viper. The new Viper Elite winches use Albright one piece contactors and can be had with Dyneema rope for a great price.
Then there's a mashup of Warn, Mean Mother and ComeUP.
Mean Mother (we no longer carry) is a quality brand from Australia and we have sold plenty of them since 2016. Be sure to read the 4wd Toyota Owner article (14mb pdf) about our FJ winch mount and Mean Mother 9500S winch combo!
ComeUP has seen extensive use in Arctic conditions and expeditions, is made in Taiwan and has a very good reputation. They start off around $900 and go up from there. Again, components, design and packaging are great.
Warn needs no introduction, their brand is known world wide. Warn's high end winches are made in Oregon, lower range in China. Expect top quality and support from Warn.
So which is the better winch? Do a Google search for 'recovery winch problems' or something similar and what will you find? Mostly Warn of course. Why? Simply because there are far more out there, not necessarily because Warn is lower quality.
Every single winch ever built will eventually fail. Whether it's 1 year or 30 years down the road, lightly or heavily used, there is no firm criteria. What is the most common failure? Solenoids/contactors hands down. Most everyone uses sealed one piece Albright type solenoids now instead of the old 'trashcan' style that you would see on a Harbor Freight (30 day warranty) unit. The one piece versions are far superior when it comes to withstanding water, heat and vibration. Next is...and don't laugh, coating failure. Yep, the paint or powder coat tends to come off. Some manufacturers use hydrocoating on their winches and seems to hold up very well but coatings on winches are really no different from paint on your 4x4 but in the form of powder coat, every so often you should clean the grime off and give it a coat of wax...no kidding. Keep a cover on it if you can. Next is motor failure, rare but it happens, especially if you over work the winch and the winch doesn't have a thermal cutoff switch. Anything man makes can and will fail, but those are the common items.
STEEL VS SYNTHETIC
How about steel cable vs synthetic rope? Volumes have been written about this and arguments from both sides have some valid points so I'll simply give my opinion. I will never ever use steel cable again if I can help it. Maybe on my car trailer where the pull is short and straight and the load is typically light and predictable. But on my 4x4 it will be synthetic every time. Why? Several reasons. Weight, a spool of 3/8" x 85' Amsteel or Dyneema is about 3.6 lbs, aluminum hawse 1.5 lbs for a total of 5.1 lbs. Steel cable on the other hand along with the roller fairlead can be up around 30 lbs or more. Then there's safety, synthetic doesn't store near as much energy as steel cable. Snap a rope and it typically falls to the ground, snap steel and you better have a winch blanket on it or you may lose body or truck parts.
Rope is much easier to work with but the drawback is abrasion and UV. On our integrated winch mounts the winch is under the bumper cover so UV doesn't come in to play as much but if you have an exposed winch installation like on a Jeep then it is a very good idea to have a winch cover, and use it. Rope abrasion is best dealt with by using a rock sheath, a ballistic nylon cover over the rope that can be positioned over a rock edge or other spot where the rope may rub. Steel cable can rust so it has to be maintained as well. Like I said, use your Googlefu and read some of the very good articles out there about steel vs synthetic.
OK, SO WHICH ONE ALREADY?
Generally speaking I feel as of today 95% of the winch owners out there will use their winch 1-3 times per year, sure, you may use it a few times a month but very few more than that. An entry level Viper Elite or Warn VR EVO will do nicely at 10 or 12K ratings. Should you go with Warn? If you have the money it won't be lost purchasing a Warn M or Zeon series... or ComeUp for that matter.
Most people are buying 'insurance', light trails, fishing/hunting/camping or even moving a downed tree, this is 95% of us and for those it probably won't make sense to purchase a $1000 winch but that doesn't mean it's not worth it. For most of us though a VR EVO is all the winch we need.
Many will ask what I run on my vehicles? Right now, my 2008 FJ Trail Team, with one of our winch mounts, has a ComeUP 9500Rs, my last FJC started with a Viper 12K steel cable (still on my car hauler working hard years later) and then an Engo 10k with synthetic (still operating today with the new owner). My previous FJ62 had a Mean Mother Edge 12k on an ARB bumper, worked beautifully.
I classify the Warn Zeon and M series and ComeUp winches as expedition class units, but you will pay for them and their abilities. Do you need a built in wireless remote to fully operate your winch (now available on the VR EVO) or is an add on module ok? Is in and out enough or do you want temperature warnings too? Do I care about the brake design? Motor specs? Line speed? There are plenty of details that can drive your decision and the best advice is to study the specs of each winch.
This is very much a case of getting what you pay for but either way we feel that we have a solution to your recovery winch needs.
Here is a handy link to Warn's website so you can compare specs to each of their winch models: https://www.warn.com/how-to-choose-the-right-winch
You can shop our line of recovery winches here: https://usoffroad.us/collections/vehicle-winches
Updated: Sept 2020