If you remember our previous article on 4×4 Off Road Recovery Basics, we went over basic terminology of recovery. We covered things such as GVW, Kinetic vs Static, Working Load vs Breaking Strength, and more. We are going to start uploading our Recovery Tips and Tricks Series! In this article, we get to cover the vigorously debated topic of Synthetic Winch Line vs Steel Winch Cable.
We do not claim to be professionals or experts at recoveries. The advice below has been taken from years of off roading experience, as well as long hours of pulling 2wd Chevys from the mud at 2am around the Sacramento Area.
Should I Use Synthetic Rope Winch Line or Steel Cable Winch Line for Winching?
This has been a huge debate ever since synthetic ropes appeared on the scene. And really, the answer is “yes”. When it comes to synthetic rope vs steel cable for winching, there are positives and negatives to both, and really depends on your personal preference, and, more importantly, how you will be using your winch line.
Synthetic Winch Line Positives
The main positive of synthetic rope is its weight. Because it is so lightweight, if it breaks under load, there is much less force flying through the air to injure someone with. If you get hit by a broken synthetic line, it won’t kill you. It may still hurt, but you will live.
Also because it is lightweight, you can help keep weight off of your off road rig. Some people love going for lightweight build. Perhaps maybe they prefer to have a heavy rig, but need to keep the accessories lighter. In which case, having an extra 20 lbs of winch line weight removed from the equation can be nice.
Another positive of synthetic rope is that it compacts better than steel. Because it can compact down better than steel, you can get more of it on your winch drum. Whereas most typical winches limit you to roughly 90-100 feet of steel cable on your drum, you can put upwards of 125-150 feet of synthetic rope on the same winch drum.
Synthetic Winch Line Negatives
One of the major negatives of using synthetic rope is that it is high maintenance. Rope fibers can have a very high tensile strength, meaning you can put a ton of stress on the fibers lengthwise before they break (pulling it tight). However, compared to steel, rope fibers will always be fragile when exposed to cutting, chafing, scraping, or any other force that acts perpendicular to the line itself.
Because of this, you have to be very careful about using synthetic rope on rocky ledges, outcroppings, or any other semi sharp objects. One little knick on the rope while under load can snap a synthetic line.
The other downside to synthetic line is that the rope fibers break down and lose strength when dirt and mud is introduced to the line. This means that any time you use your synthetic winch line in mud or sandy conditions, you need to be extremely diligent about washing the line out when you are done. This entails unwrapping the entire line, washing it, letting it dry, then wrapping it all back up on your winch.
The last downside to synthetic rope is its susceptibility to the elements. Most rope fibers will break down in UV light, similar to how a rubber band gets brittle when left in the sun. Essentially the fibers get dried out. When that happens, their breaking strength drastically decreases and you can see synthetic winch lines break on a fairly easy, normal pull.
Most synthetic lines nowadays are coming pre-treated with mildew resistant coatings. This helps protect the rope from mold and mildew growing on it. Mold and mildew are fungi that, as they grow, break down whatever material they are on. They also wreak havoc on lungs. This doesn’t mean that mold and mildew will never grow on your rope, it just means it will take longer for the mold and mildew to begin growing.
The best defence to combat mold and mildew on your synthetic winch lines, is to a) keep them out of the weather by covering them with a Warn Winch Line Cover, or b) unwrapping your winch line and letting it fully dry before wrapping it back on your winch drum.
Steel Winch Cable
Whereas you have safety, but high maintenance with synthetic winch lines, steel winch lines harbor very low maintenance, but yield deadly consequences if they break under load.
Steel Winch Cable Negatives
Steel winch lines are heavy. Because of their weight, they maintain a much higher force than synthetic rope when flying through the air. Think of a bicycle hitting you at 20 mph vs an F150 hitting you at 20mph. The bike probably won’t kill you. It will hurt, but you will still be alive, which is a very different situation if you get hit by the F150.
Another downside to steel winch line is that as steel fibers break over time, they create tiny little metal spurs on the line. These spurs (which can rust!) can very easily puncture human skin and caus bad infections if not treated properly. So, always wear gloves when handling steel winch cable!
Another negative of steel winch cable is how thick it is. Generally speaking, with a regular ⅜” steel winch cable, you can only get 90-100 ft of cable on your winch drum. Usually, that is enough, but if you are regularly setting up 2 or more snatch blocks, then you will quickly run out of working line.
Steel Winch Cable Positives
A positive of steel winch cable is that it is far lower maintenance than synthetic rope (which, is really synthetic’s only downfall). You can drag steel cable over rocks, through mud, under sand and it will resist all of the wear and tear that synthetic rope undergoes.
You also don’t need to unravel it and wash it off after every use. However, it does help keep the mud and grime off of your gloves the next time you use it.
Roughly once per year, maybe once every 2 years, you will need to grease your steel cable winch line. This greasing process helps to prevent rust from building up. It also helps keep the little wire spurs from showing up in the first place. It won’t prevent the wire spurs from ever happening by any means, but it will help keep them from appearing under normal conditions.
There you have it! The positives and negatives of synthetic winch line vs steel cable winch line. Both options work. Both options are very viable. It all depends on you and your uses.
For us, we do a lot of off road recoveries that involve pulling people out of dirty situations. Thus, we run a ½” steel cable that is actually off of a crane. We have 85 feet of it wound up on our Warn 9500lb winch, and we converted our old ⅜” winch cable into a 70 foot extension line.
If you are doing more dirty recoveries, you might want to look into a steel cable winch line. If you are doing mainly just regular off road wheeling recoveries in the snow, or just use your winch 1-2 times per year, then we highly recommend synthetic rope winch line. Just from a pure standpoint of safety and ease of use, synthetic wins if you are just using it in emergency situations rather than a workhorse.
Bonus Info! Do I Need A Specific Snatch Block for Steel vs Synthetic Winch Line?
Nope! Any snatch block (that is properly rated for the working load and breaking strengths that you will be using it for) will work. The big thing you will need to remember is to not use a synthetic winch line on the same snatch block that a steel cable has ever been used on. Due to the spurs that steel winch cable creates, they can create rough spots and nicks on the snatch block wheel, which can very quickly break a synthetic winch line under load.
If you don’t already have a snatch block in your recovery gear arsenal, we HIGHLY recommend getting one. When used properly, you can double and even triple the pulling strength of your winch. This way your limiting factor on your working load will most likely end up being your winch line rather than the winch. It also takes strain off of your winch and allows your winch to work more efficiently. We recommend the below snatch blocks for off road recoveries.
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