An electric trailer winch is a device used to pull objects onto a trailer that may not otherwise be able to be easily loaded. Consisting of an electric motor powering a steel drum or spool, the electric trailer winch is spooled with a steel wire or synthetic cable, either of which is fastened to a steel hook on the leading end of the cable. The winch cable is pulled to the end of the trailer and attached to the object to be loaded. Once hooked to the object, the electric trailer winch is activated by pushing a button on a control pad, activating the drum to begin rotating to retrieve the cable and subsequently pull the object onto the trailer. Ramps are commonly placed at the rear of the trailer to assist the winch in pulling the objects up and onto the trailer.
One of the most common uses of an electric trailer winch is to pull a vehicle onto the trailer to be hauled. Often, the vehicle is a race-only type of vehicle that uses a special, high-performance type of clutch that prohibits loading the vehicle under its own power. The electric trailer winch cable is pulled off of the spool and positioned near the ramp area of the trailer. With the vehicle in position behind the trailer, the winch hook is attached to the chassis of the vehicle. With the vehicle's transmission placed in neutral, the winch is switched on and pulls the vehicle onto the trailer.
Even though the electric trailer winch is powerful enough to pull the vehicle up the ramps and onto the trailer bed, it is not intended to act as a locking device used to secure the vehicle to the trailer while in towing mode. Chains, tow straps and chain binders are the recommended methods of securing a vehicle to a trailer. Often, once chained securely, the pressure is released from the winch cable to avoid over-stressing the internal winch components. Occasionally, the winch is left semi-tight to function as an emergency fail safe in the event a chain tie-down should fail.
Some types of electric trailer winch are used on boat trailers to pull the boat onto the trailer. This style of electric trailer winch is also not intended to be used as a primary tie down. It is common for the boat owner to place a chain binder from the winch mount onto the winching attachment ring on the front of the boat to secure it to the trailer. Often, the electric trailer winch is a modified version of a hand-cranked winch, with an electric motor installed in place of the hand crank.