Fact Checked

What Is a Tow Winch?

Dan Cavallari
Dan Cavallari

A tow winch is a device used to tow or haul vehicles and heavy objects. It is typically mounted at the rear end of a towing vehicle, though in other applications, the tow winch can be mounted in any logical and strong mounting location. Tow trucks and wreckers are common applications for this type of device, as the retractable cable is useful for attaching to a disabled vehicle and hauling it forward either on its own two rear wheels or on a wrecker's flatbed. A cable wrapped around a drum can be fed out or retracted as necessary to accomplish the towing.

One tow truck design features a tow winch mounted toward the front of a truck bed; a boom arm is mounted on the truck bed itself, and the wire cable of the tow winch will run from the winch drum over the boom. This allows the truck driver to mount the disabled vehicle to the tow truck, effectively lifting the front end of the vehicle off the ground while leaving the rear wheels on the ground. The process can be reversed so the rear wheels are raised and the front wheels are left on the ground. The configuration usually depends on the damage done to the vehicle as well as whether the vehicle is front or rear wheel drive.

Tow winches are used to recover vehicles that have slid off the road.
Tow winches are used to recover vehicles that have slid off the road.

Wreckers are specially designed tow trucks that feature a large, flat bed that can be hoisted upward so the rear of the bed tilts downward toward the ground. A tow winch mounted at the front of the bed allows one or two cables to be lowered down to the disabled vehicle; the cables can then be retracted, thereby pulling the disabled vehicle forward and upward onto the bed. Once the vehicle is in the appropriate position, the wrecker operator can begin lowering the front of the truck bed, effectively raising the disabled vehicle off the ground and onto the bed.

A tow winch can be used in other settings as well. Boats often use such systems when towing water skiers or wakeboarders. Some larger vessels may feature extremely large tow winch systems that are gasoline or diesel powered; these can be used for towing other large vessels or even for dislodging the vessels should they become stuck in ice or on land. Sometimes tow winches are mounted on the front of vehicles to help dislodge a vehicle from mud, snow, or other difficult terrain.

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Discussion Comments


I am wondering how much a tow winch cost and if the prices vary according to their durability, strength, and quality?

I would not think that inferior tow winches are on the market, but I can never be sure and I was wondering what good brands there are for tow winches and if there are certain places I can go to see what the recommendations are for tow winches on certain vehicles.

I have thought about consulting a mechanic, but feel like there has got to be a place somewhere where I can easily figure out all I need to know about the different kinds of tow winches and decide which one I need to buy to do what I need to do.


@titans62 - I have heard very bad stories about people not taking appropriate safety measures and almost ending in tragedy.

I once heard a story that the tow winch cable snapped, which was due to it being old and rusted and the strength had been lost, and the wire came back right at the people and actually cut a tree in half behind them!

This shows how bad things can happen if someone were to not take proper safety precautions and this starts by knowing the strength of the winch cable and what it is safely tested to pull.

Usually it will say in the manual for the winch what its maximum towing strength is and what is the recommended maximum weight, which will always be less that the testing strength.


@Izzy78 - You would be amazed at what tow winches can pull, but you have to be extremely careful when doing so as not to try and pull something too hard and end up breaking the winch or going down the hill with it.

I have heard stories of tow winch cables breaking due to too much force put on trying to pull and when this happens the winch cables can break at such a speed that it could potentially cut someone in half if they happened to be standing by.

It is essential to take the utmost precautions when winching something, especially something as heavy as a car.

Disaster can happen if someone does not take the appropriate safety measures and make sure they known what not to do when they are trying to winch something as heavy as a car.


I remember when I was fishing near a river and the guy I rode with somehow drove his truck down a hill and into the river bottoms.

The road to get to the river bottoms was very remote and we did not think there was a way that we were going to have it pulled out.

Despite our presumptions we called a guy who had a tow winch and from several dozen yards away he was able to sit on the bank and pull the truck up the hill and back onto dry land.

He explained to us that as long as he had good ground under him and a good head of steam, meaning that he drove forward consistently while pulling, he would be able to pull out very heavy vehicles even up a steep hill.

Needless to say I was quite impressed with the pulling capabilities of the tow winch and did not think it was possible for it to be able to pull a truck up a hill that steep.

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    • Tow winches are used to recover vehicles that have slid off the road.
      By: Duncan Noakes
      Tow winches are used to recover vehicles that have slid off the road.