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It’s a universal tool at the heart of a fierce debate – one that has been going on for a few decades now.  It doesn’t matter if you ride an ATV or a UTV, or a Jeep for that matter; or whether you ride on rock, mud, sand or trail; a winch is a necessity.   But what type of winch cable should you choose? In the Synthetic vs Steel debate is one better than the other?

There are strong arguments for and against both sides.  Unfortunately there is no right or wrong answer on which winch you choose. It basically comes down to where and how you ride, and what’s important to you.  We can’t tell you which option to go with, only which one is better in different scenarios.

A lot of information out there points to the synthetic winch cable winning out over steel, but this is based primarily on the safety factor alone.  If safety is your top concern, you’ll most likely go with synthetic, however if low maintenance is a priority than a steel winch cable is for you.

We’re going to break down a number of differences between synthetic and steel to see which option is a better fit for you and your riding style.

Price: Is a Steel Winch Cable Cheaper?

If you are extremely price sensitive you’ll choose a steel winch cable – it’s cheaper than the synthetic rope options available.  Although the added benefits of synthetic rope often convince people to spend a little extra to go that route. However you may need to replace your synthetic rope more often than a steel cable depending on frequency of use, exposure to heat and UV rays, and how good you are at maintaining your rope.

Strength: Is a Synthetic Winch Cable Stronger?

Generally speaking, synthetic rope is stronger than steel cable on a per pound basis.  But that isn’t the only factor at play where strength is involved. The surface strength of a steel winch cable allows it to travel over obstacles and rough terrain without fear of damage to the cable itself.  If you ride primarily in muddy, rocky, or sandy conditions a steel cable may be a better fit for you.

A synthetic winch cable, while having more than enough strength to pull the load without snapping, is very susceptible to damage from rubbing up against or sliding along rugged surfaces.  Ensure that your synthetic winch comes with an abrasion sleeve, and use it whenever conditions warrant, to guard against rope damage.

Handling: Is a Synthetic Winch Cable Easier to Handle?

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that a steel winch cable is much heavier than a synthetic one.  The front of your ride has a lot of weight to it already, especially if you’ve added a front brush guard or bumper.  The weight difference can be around 20 lbs lighter if you go with a synthetic winch option and depending on where and how you ride that can make a significant difference to the rideability of your machine.

An added advantage of the sheer lightness of the Synthetic winch cable is that the rope will generally lie on the surface of mud or water instead of becoming completely submerged like a steel cable, making recovery in these conditions easier.

Besides being the lightweight option for winch cables, synthetic rope has the added benefit of being extremely flexible.  This allows it to handle much easier than a steel winch cable, especially when free-spooling and hauling around. It also prevents the synthetic line from kinking like the steel cable is prone to if not handled properly.

Keep in mind that if you plan to use your winch line frequently a synthetic winch cable is a better option.

Weather Resistant: Is a Steel Winch Cable More Weather Resistant?

A steel winch cable is more resilient to different weather conditions than a synthetic one, with rust being its biggest problem.  You will need to inspect the cable from time to time to ensure the steel strands have not been compromised due to rust.

There are a number of environmental factors that adversely affect synthetic rope – heat and direct sunlight being two of its worst enemies.  Both heat and UV exposure will break down the fibers of the synthetic rope weakening it and making it brittle over time. Frequent use in mud, dirt and sandy conditions can also wreak havoc on the durability of your synthetic rope if you don’t properly clean and care for it.

WARN VRX or AXON Winches – Submerged in water

Maintenance: Is a Steel Winch Cable Easier To Take Care Of?

A steel winch cable is much easier to maintain – basically maintenance free, other than an occasional coating of WD-40 to prevent rust.  Synthetic cable, on the other hand, requires regular maintenance to keep it in good working condition. This means spooling it out and washing it when you have been in muddy or sandy riding terrain, as well as drying it out when it gets wet.  Because the rope will retain water, you especially want to ensure it doesn’t get wet when conditions are cold allowing your winch line to freeze – a frozen winch is pretty useless out on the trail.

Sand and mud are extremely abrasive, so if you don’t properly wash and care for your synthetic rope these abrasive materials will get into the rope and damage it from the inside out.  You also want to make sure your Synthetic winch is covered when not in use, making sure it is not exposed to the harmful effects of the sun.

Repairability: Can You Repair a Synthetic Winch Cable?

A steel winch cable is almost impossible to MacGyver out on the trail, unless you carry the proper tools and know-how to do it.  A synthetic winch cable is much easier to do a temporary fix and carry on your way. Although regardless of which winch cable you use, you will want to replace the steel or synthetic cable if they break.  If one part of the cable was compromised enough to snap, you don’t want to risk continuing to use the repaired line.

Safety: Why is a Synthetic Winch Cable Safer?

A synthetic cable is hands down the safer of the two winch cable options, and a major reason why synthetic wins out in the debate.  Many offroad events now require the use of synthetic winch cables, not allowing steel cables to be used because of the safety risk they pose.  

Steel cables retain tension so if the line breaks the steel cable will most likely snapback causing major damage to anything and anyone in its path. It must be said though that Synthetic rope, while generally safer, can also have devastating snapback effects, although that is not as common.  Safety is generally what gives the Synthetic cable a win over Steel in the debate every time.

When using a steel winch cable you must wear gloves at all times.  It’s a good idea to wear gloves when using a synthetic winch as well, but the synthetic rope won’t leave small metal filings in your skin if you forget to take your gloves along.

CharacteristicSteel Winch CableSynthetic Winch Cable
Weather ResistantX

There are a lot of factors at play when deciding on which winch is better suited to you.  Let us know where you stand on the Synthetic vs Steel Winch Cable debate and why.


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Danielle Herbison

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