Once again we had great support from the local Colorado FJ community for this comparison. Our test trucks included:
Ken (Turbo Truck) | Sandstorm FJ | Fab Fours bumper | Bulldog Winch | Standard cable
Brian (BriansFJ) | Sun Fusion | ARB bumper | Smittybilt XRC8 | Standard cable
Denver (Denver Hagar) | Black Diamond | ARB bumper | Warn M8000 | Standard cable
Shane (Shane4x4) | TRD | Aluminess bumper | Smittybilt XRC8 | Masterpull XD 5/16” Synthetic
Adam (FJinCO) | Titanium Silver | Expedition One bumper | SuperWinch EPi9.0s | Winchline.com synthetic
Nos (FJNos) | Titanium Silver | ARB bumper | Warn M8000 | Standard cable
And special thanks to Taft (MountainMan) for his help spotting & keeping everything running smoothly, as well as James (token Jeep guy) for his patience.
Our test obstacle was a fun little hill just north of Woodland Park, Colorado called Moab Hill. It’s about the most difficult obstacle this close to Denver & Colorado Springs, so it was perfect for our test. There are multiple lines up this hill, for our test we used the easiest (moderate) line so we could have a good test. We want to point out that every FJ in the group could make it up the obstacle without winching, but the two shelves made a perfect test bed for a ‘real world’ winch test.
Most of our winches had to be set up properly before we could use them. It's very important to wrap the cable onto the winch under load before you try to use it. The common rule of thumb is to put about 500lbs (such as another vehicle) on the winch line as you reel it in. This will set the first wraps on the drum really tight so they won't bind while winching. Make sure you do this before you need to use your winch.
The first noticeable difference in the winches is line speed. This obviously relates directly to the amount of load on the winch, and the amount of available power (See sidebar on winching & power). Under load, the fastest winches were SuperWinch and Warn, which was expected. The Bulldog was slightly faster than the SmittyBilt, but both winched just fine. The Smittybilt was noticeably faster when winching with only one wrap of cable on the drum (vs two or three).
SIDEBAR: When winching, always make sure you keep the RPM’s on your FJ above idle. This ensures that your alternator supplies as much power as possible. The standard alternator in an FJ puts out 100 amps, which is a little lower than the 200+ amps required by most winches under load. Also let your FJ idle for a while after winching to recharge your battery. This is where a dual battery setup would come in very handy.
How easy a winch is to use comes down to two aspects: The bumper you’re using and the clutch release. All the winches tested had a similar clutch release lever except the SuperWinch, which uses a pull & turn release. That could be an issue with bumpers like the ARB that hide the winch. It takes a small hand to reach in to the ARB to move the lever. It’s also difficult to observe the winch line being reeled in on the ARB. Both the Expedition One & Fab Fours bumper expose the top of the winch so it’s easy to get to the release and see the winch reeling on to the drum. The Aluminess bumper features a removable door that allows easy access to the release, and good visibility of the winch. If you have a bumper that leaves the winch exposed, you may want to consider a winch cover.
Another best practice when winching is to make sure you leave one wrap of rope on the drum. The technical specs on your winch show that it’s highest rating is with most of the cable off the drum. Each wrap/layer of cable on the drum decreases the power of any winch substantially. One way to increase your power on a short pull is to use a snatch block, this gets more cable off the drum so you get more power. Be careful though, on most winches, the cable is attached with a single screw and one wrap is needed to secure it. Since our Masterpull cable is only 80ft long, we mistakenly rolled too much cable out before winching. The screw held through the pull, but it ended up sheering off from the drum.
If you don't use your winch regularly, here are a few tips to make sure it's ready when you need it. At least twice a year, or before a big trip, re-wrap and inspect your cable for any damage. Replace damaged cable before using your winch. Make sure all your connections are solid and that your winch remote is in good working order. Make sure your battery & alternator are strong and not degraded in any way, since winching will test the limits of your charging system.
Just like many FJ mods, the winch you choose will greatly depend on your intended use. If you’re a hard core wheeler that will be winching 'regularly', a higher end ‘competition’ level winch may be better for you. This also goes for anyone that does many deep water crossings, you'll want to spring for a submersible winch. If you're more moderate and will rarely (if ever) use your winch, then a less expensive 'self-recovery' winch may be a better fit. Of the 6 test trucks in our group, no one had ever needed to use their winch for recovery. At the end of the day, every winch performed great and left no one stranded.