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.
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.