We Be Winchin’ — Harbor Freight Winch Install

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | September 16, 2010      

If you’re a backcountry skier you might have winch envy. If not now, wait till you’re at a trailhead by yourself, in January, so stuck in the snow that no amount of shoveling will get you out. Do you walk out 12 miles for help, or do you happen to have an electric motor hooked up to spool of rope? We like the electric motor idea, so I always try to run a winch in our various vehicles. Problem is, most winches are expensive and in any case you need a mounting system. We roll big bumper pickup trucks and Jeeps here at WildSnow World HQ, so mounting isn’t a problem. But price is always an issue. More, winches can be notoriously unreliable — especially if you only use them once or twice a year and let them sit there and corrode the rest of the time.

Backcountry skiing winch from Harbor Freight

El cheapo installed. It's not the right winch for 12 hours on a Moab classic trail, but perfect for occasional use for backcountry skiing and climbing access.

You can find winches priced for occasional use. But reliability becomes an even greater concern with the cheapos. Case in point: We mounted a relatively inexpensive Tabor in our previous truck, swapped it out once on warranty after it failed, then went to use the replacement a few months later and it was as dead and cold as the old parking lot ice we were spinning our tires on. I consulted my 4×4 guru at CODE. He said “don’t get your hopes up, we’ve even been having problems with reliability of the more pricey models.”

“Well,” I said, “I’ve been running that low budget Harbor Fright type winch on our Jeep for years now, and it always fires up.” Guru response? “Get another one.” So we did.

These days, you can get a “10,000” pound rated winch at Harbor for around $400.00. That’s compared to prices easily over $1,000 for anything else. Downside? Slow line speed, and a duty cycle of only a minute or so before you need four or five minutes of cooling. More, we doubt the Harbor Freight wonder can really haul 10,000 lbs on a single line pull. But set up with a snatch block for 2/1 mechanical advantage, it is all you need to get just about any normal SUV or pickup unstuck at a trailhead, or rolled through a snow plug on a springtime road approach.

Installation of Harbor Freight winch for backcountry skiing.

Ready for the install. Wire rope is removed because I swap synthetic rope to all my winches. Fiber rope is safer, saves a ton of weight, and is easier to handle -- well worth the cost.

Solenoid pack for backcountry skiing winch.

Surprisingly, this budget winch actually has more quality than our Tabor that cost twice as much and didn't work. For example, the solenoid pack (pictured) is a nice weather sealed unit that'll be easy to swap out if it fails (a common occurrence with winches).

Truck winch for backcountry skiing.

Looking from above bumper though the bumper access port, installation complete, spooled with synthetic line.

Winch from Harbor Freight installed in Silverado.

Looking at the completed install from the ground, facing to front of truck. Only problem with this is winter road salt damage. To prevent that, it's necessary to use lots of silicone grease and judiciously applied duct tape to keep water out of cracks. Some sort of winch cover can help, but covers trap moisture and can even make things worse. I've heard that with these Harbor Freight models, it's a good idea to take the cover off the gear case and pack more grease in to prevent water damage. Perhaps we'll do that. For now, it's working and ready for backcountry skiing adventures!

Note, if you’re new to winching remember you’ll need a snatch block pulley, tree saver strap, and leather gloves for handling the wire rope. It is also advisable to read up on winch technique and safety, or even take a backcountry vehicle recovery class. Also note that winches similar or identical to the Harbor Freight model are sold rebadged by companies such as Mile Marker and Ramsey. If the price is right, they’re worth considering as well. Just remember these winches are designed for occasional use and have a short duty cycle, and may need some weather protection if they’re left just sitting there on you bumper year after year.


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27 Responses to “We Be Winchin’ — Harbor Freight Winch Install”

  1. Andrew September 16th, 2010 9:03 am

    Do you want a rematch with our driveway? 😉

  2. Lou September 16th, 2010 9:04 am

    Yes! But is that aspen I tried to winch from any bigger now? That would be useful.

  3. Drew September 16th, 2010 9:14 am

    Hey Lou, How long have you been running the HF winch in your jeep? What kind of use has it seen? I’m in the market for something for my Willys Wagon/Trailhead approach project, and the idea of spending $900 or more stings. I’ve always been leery of electronics of any kind at HF, but if you’ve had some luck, it may be worth reevaluating.

  4. Lou September 16th, 2010 9:55 am

    Hi Drew, I’ve been running the HF on the Jeep (a rebadged one from Mile Marker) for at least 5 years, using it an average of probably 5 times a year for short pulls. I have to say it’s really been useful even when used that little, but I did have to replace one of the solenoids as it had the old school ones that don’t age well. I really think the key with these things is to do the following:

    1. Run with plenty of battery and voltage, so use short duty cycle and run truck to keep battery charge up. Use at least stock feed cables that come with winch, or make thicker ones from welding cable.
    2. Short duty cycle, no more than a minute and feel motor side to check for heat.
    3. Protect from weather.
    4. Be ready to endure painfully slow line speed, especially when doubled up.
    5. Test/run a few times a year.
    6. Repack gearbox with grease to protect from weather.
    7. Possibly buy long term warranty (I didn’t).
    8. Beware that return shipping for the warranty could wreck your budget.

    In this case I think you get what you pay for, and where you get less for less money is mostly the slower line speed, and the fact that these winches are for occasional use.

  5. Matt Kinney September 16th, 2010 10:49 am

    Ran a 4-ton Warn Winch on my 78 Toyota Landcruiser and used it to build the Chalet by hauling house logs, firewood harvesting, etc…..I had the winch mounted foreward of the bumper for better “scope”. That kept it from damaging the front end with scrapes, etc… Also had it set up so you could run the cable under the carriage then out and under the rear bumper. This required a couple of “under the carriage” guides. That came in handy for “face plants”. 😆 Seemed like that was a common scenario. Worth considering in your modifications. I worked that winch hard all day at times. I used it for work, not so much for off-roading for fun.

    I kept TWO com-a-longs handy in the gear box. That way my partner could help. They rescued me a couple times when I depended too much on the winch and drained the battery. That is a big truck and if you do get stuck, it will take some amps. Also carried some cable slings for the other side of the equation.

    That blue Landcruiser??? Sold it in 1990 with 170,000 Matt miles on it. I hear it is a work of automotve art stuck deep up the Copper River north of Cordova.

  6. Lou September 16th, 2010 11:13 am

    Good winch stories Matt! Ever pull a tree down on the hood? That’s one that lurks in the past of many…

  7. Drew September 16th, 2010 11:35 am

    Hey Lou! Any recommendations on bumpers? I, too, am looking to “roll with a big bumper.” I have a 2004 Tundra.

  8. Matt Kinney September 16th, 2010 11:53 am

    No trees fell on me. I did toss 8-footers onto the Landcruiser’s roof top carrier for the long haul back to Valdez from 48-Mile. Along with an 8-foot trailer full, I would also pack the inside with smaller rounds. If everything was packed right I could carry a whole bunch of fire wood. We would putz all the way home back over the Pass. In those days, actually years, firewood took priority over skiing. No wood, no skiing and certainly no hottub.

    Looking forward to your final product in regards to “the trailer”. Cheers.

  9. er September 16th, 2010 12:35 pm
  10. Karl September 16th, 2010 12:43 pm

    For those looking at Harbor Freight winches, HF frequently runs coupons for “20% off any item” — add that to the $399 winch, and you’ve got an even better bargain.

    Find the coupons in car magazines, local newspapers, etc.

  11. Lou September 16th, 2010 1:09 pm

    Drew, ARB is the state of the art, but expensive. I bought a Buckstop. Pretty heavy and big, but that’s really the purpose. I always recommend ARB first because they seem to do the most crash testing and stuff like that.


  12. Lou September 16th, 2010 1:10 pm

    Karl, good tip and I should have mentioned it. I actually found a 10% coupon on the web, and it worked!

  13. Drew September 16th, 2010 3:32 pm

    Thanks for the info Lou, good to know. I wonder how much maintenence/upkeep one of the spendy “top shelf” winches take to keep running? The hardcore guys use ’em a TON.

    Matt, funny you should mention come-alongs. I always keep one in my rig (along with 80′ of extra cable) and can’t remember the number of times they’ve saved my butt. I slipped off a muddy track in Montana one time (wheeling alone like a moron) and basically had to pull my truck up a mountainside by hand. Talk about a lot of work! Plus, it was maxing the come-along badly. I broke several teeth out of the come-along hub while I was reefing on it, and each time my truck dropped a few inches before catching. Nerve-wracking to say the least. But I made it out…

    Interesting technique to use underframe guides for rearward winching, too:)

  14. JD September 16th, 2010 6:36 pm

    Good to see at least a sign of Andrew on the interweb. I thought his computer must be broken.

  15. John Gloor September 16th, 2010 7:55 pm

    Lou, I was thinking of welding up a cross member and a 2″ hitch for the front of my 4runner and using a winch on a 2″ bar. Pulls can only be straight forward or backwards though.

    Another expensive but versatile choice is a Tirfor Griphoist. You can get larger ones from 10,000-40,000 lbs. They are manual cable hoists which are much better than come-a-longs. You can through them in the back of any vehicle, and they are rated for hoisting, in addition to winching.

  16. Lou September 16th, 2010 8:44 pm

    I’ve always wanted to rig some of those underneath cable guides, as I do get stuck pretty often where a rearward pull would work much better. If you’re careful, you can sometimes route it under without guides for a gentle pull backwards…

  17. Matt Kinney September 16th, 2010 10:08 pm

    Ya … bottom plates work fine in a pinch to keep the cable out of trouble, but the cable will slip to the side if you are in …”wildmud”. 8) 😀

    Nothing fancy. You probably have a chunk of metal laying in the garbage can that will suffice if you can figure where to put the guides. Mine was easy as they were welded to the center and rear bottom plates with a “forked” guide to steer it clear of the rear bumper. I assume there are factory guides available.

  18. Paul September 16th, 2010 10:54 pm

    Yikes! I hate to see synthetic line on a winch because it stores so much energy when it stretches. If something brakes a lot of energy is going to be released – think giant rubber band. Very dangerous. Steel cable stores very little energy and is much safer in my opinion.

  19. Lou September 17th, 2010 5:10 am

    Paul, it is EXACTLY THE OPPOSITE of your take. Read up on it. If synthetic line breaks or comes loose it just falls to the ground, in the same situation steel cable releases stored energy and has been known to kill people. Lou

  20. Paul September 17th, 2010 8:34 am

    Wow! I just read up on this and you are absolutely correct. I have never heard of this, but now I see that synthetic is the preferred choice. Not only does it store less energy, but it is stronger!
    I have been under the impression for many years that it was dangerous to pull out vehicles with nylon rope because if a tow hook broke loose it would rocket through the windshield. I also would have thought synthetic would get hot and almost melt together on the spool, but evidently not. Thank you for straightening me out!
    I always throw a jacket over the steel cable when I’m winching, but now I’m thinking if it stores that much energy a jacket won’t help much if it breaks. Maybe time to replace with synthetic…

  21. Lou September 17th, 2010 8:36 am

    Nylon is not kevlar… yes, using a nylon rope can be incredibly tricky and dangerous. They snap and throw things around at firearm velocity…

    The Kevlar winch ropes ARE sensitive to heat, another reason to really watch the heat of the winch as you use it.


  22. Paul September 17th, 2010 8:43 am

    I noticed that all of the above comments regard electric winches and some are wondering about durability. I have had a Milemarker 10,500 lb. hydraulic winch that runs off the power steering pump for over ten years and have found it to be bullet-proof. The only maintenance I do is to hose it off and keep the cable spooled tight. In addition I can winch all day and not have to worry about the winch over-heating or the battery being drawn down.
    The one drawback is that the enigne must be idling for the winch to operate, although this has never been a problem for me.

  23. Tom Winkler September 17th, 2010 8:48 am

    I believe both of you are right. Synthetics include nylon, dacron (polyester), exotics, ie aramid, etc. A risk comes with the stretch of the line. Stretch is of course useful for reducing the shock loading, eg, a climbers fall. Nylon stretched beyond the breaking point may retract close to the speed of sound! Aramid, (kevlar) or similar fiber construction have minimal stretch at the breaking point and will thus have little recoil when it snaps. Also keep in mind if the line is stored exposed to sun (uv) its useful life is limited.

  24. Lou September 17th, 2010 9:11 am

    Thanks Tom. The main point is that the synthetic winch lines have minimal stretch and are thus very safe. But one has to be careful when using steel cable, or things like regular nylon rope and “snatch” straps that stretch and store energy.

  25. Sam Reese September 20th, 2010 6:44 pm

    Dyneema or Kevlar pull ropes? I can’t find kevlar ones online…

  26. Lou September 21st, 2010 5:57 am

    Sam, they make some winch extension lines, look for “synthetic.” If by “pull rope” you mean a tow rope, you’d want to use the usual nylon tow strap for that, because they have some give. Towing with a non-stretch synthetic winch line would be like towing with a chain. Lou

  27. jay beaudin September 24th, 2010 9:56 am

    My movable Warn Winch is pretty handy. It fits in trailer receivers on the front or back of your vehicle.

    When I go into the snow ditch it is often with the front bumper buried: just take the winch out of it’s dry box and install where needed. Comes with a long cord remote too. Keeping it out of the weather helps improve dependability tremendously.

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