How to Manually Operate Electric Winch: Step-by-Step Instructions

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Published By: Aaron Redstone
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Total: 6 min read time

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There are times when the luxury of automatic operation isn’t available—perhaps due to a dead battery or a remote failure.

In such scenarios, knowing how to switch your electric winch to manual operation is invaluable.

It’s crucial to understand, though, that operating a winch manually without proper knowledge can be risky.

Let’s dive into how to safely manage your electric winch when you need to take control manually.

Checking the Winch Before Manual Operation

operating winch manually

Checking the winch before manual operation is a crucial step that should never be overlooked.

This process involves a detailed examination of various components of the winch to ensure they are all in proper working order.

The integrity of these components is vital for the safe and effective manual operation of the winch. Let’s dive deeper into the key aspects of this checking process:

Inspecting the Cable

The cable, often made of steel or synthetic material, is the lifeline of the winch. Before using the winch manually, closely inspect the entire length of the cable for signs of wear and tear.

Look for fraying, kinks, or any damage that could compromise the strength of the cable.

frayed cable is particularly dangerous because it can snap under tension, potentially causing injury or damage.

If any damage is found, the cable should be replaced before proceeding with manual operation.

Examining the Spool

The spool holds the cable when it’s wound up and plays a critical role in the smooth operation of the winch.

Ensure that the spool rotates freely without any hindrance. Also, check for any signs of rust or corrosion that could affect its functionality.

A stuck or rough spool can hinder the manual pulling of the cable, making the operation more difficult and potentially unsafe.

Learn How to Free Spool A Winch

Checking the Brake

The brake system is essential for controlling the load during winching operations. It prevents the load from slipping back when the winching process is stopped.

Test the brake to ensure it engages properly and holds the load securely. A malfunctioning brake can lead to uncontrolled release of the cable, creating a hazardous situation. If the brake does not engage or seems weak, it needs immediate attention before using the winch.

Verifying the Vehicle’s Battery Status

Even though you’re preparing for manual operation, checking the vehicle’s battery status is a wise step.

Ensure that the battery is genuinely dead or disconnected to avoid accidental winch activation.

This precaution helps prevent unexpected winch movement, which can be dangerous if you’re in the midst of manually handling the cable.

Why This Step Matters

This preliminary check serves as a preventive measure against potential accidents and equipment damage.

It ensures that all components are in good condition, thus increasing the safety and efficiency of manual winch operation.

Skipping this step could lead to serious safety hazards, including personal injury and property damage.

Engaging the Clutch for Freespool

The clutch is your gateway to manual operation. It’s typically located on the side of the winch and needs to be set to freespool mode for manual use.

This mode allows the cable to be pulled out without using electric power. However, don’t attempt this if your winch is already under load, as it can lead to uncontrolled release of the cable, which is dangerous.

Pulling Out the Cable Manually

Pulling out the cable manually from an electric winch is a critical process that demands attention to detail and coordination, especially when electrical operation is not possible.

This manual operation usually involves a hand strap or crank handle, provided with the winch, which you’ll need to attach to the drum or cable.

The process typically requires two people to complete it efficiently and safely. Let’s dive into the details of each step involved.

Attaching the Hand Strap or Crank Handle

First, locate the hand strap or crank handle that comes with your winch. This accessory is designed to fit onto the winch drum or cable, allowing for manual operation.

The method of attachment will vary depending on the winch model, so refer to your winch’s manual for specific instructions.

Ensuring that the strap or handle is securely attached is paramount to prevent it from slipping off during operation, which could lead to injury or damage.

The Role of the Two-Person Team

  • The Puller: This person is responsible for manually pulling the cable out of the winch drum. Using the hand strap or crank handle, they apply steady force to unwind the cable. The puller must ensure that they maintain a firm grip and steady pace to avoid jerking motions that could cause the cable to snap back or become damaged.
  • The Guide: The second person acts as a guide, ensuring the cable is dispensed smoothly and doesn’t tangle or snag on any obstacles. This role is crucial for preventing kinks and knots in the cable, which can weaken its structure and lead to failures. The guide also monitors the direction and alignment of the cable as it’s being pulled out, ensuring it lays flat and even.

Coordination and Communication

Effective communication between the puller and the guide is essential. The puller needs to be aware of any issues the guide notices, such as potential snags or when to stop pulling.

Similarly, the guide should inform the puller if more or less tension is needed or if they need to pause to adjust the cable’s positioning.

This teamwork ensures the cable is pulled out safely and efficiently.

Safety Precautions

  • Wear Gloves: Both the puller and the guide should wear gloves to protect their hands from cuts, abrasions, or burns from the cable. Winch cables, especially steel ones, can have burrs or sharp edges that pose risks to bare hands.
  • Eye Protection: It’s also wise to wear safety glasses or goggles to protect your eyes from potential flying debris or if a cable were to snap.
  • Clear the Area: Ensure the area around the winch and the path of the cable is clear of obstacles and bystanders. A free path minimizes the risk of the cable catching on something or causing injury.

Completing the Task

Once the desired length of cable is pulled out, the puller should secure the end of the cable to the load or anchor point as needed, following proper winching techniques. The guide should then inspect the cable to ensure it is not twisted or knotted before any load is applied.

Securing the Load

Securing the load properly is a critical step in the manual operation of an electric winch, ensuring that the task at hand is completed safely and effectively.

This process involves wrapping the winch cable around an anchor point and then securing the cable’s end back onto the winch drum. Let’s break down the process in detail to understand the importance of each step and the best practices to follow.

Wrapping the Cable Around the Anchor Point

  1. Selecting an Anchor Point: The first step is to choose a strong and stable anchor point capable of withstanding the load’s weight. This could be a tree, a rock, another vehicle, or any sturdy object that won’t move or collapse under tension. The integrity of the anchor point is crucial for the safety of the operation.
  2. Using a Tree Protector or Strap (if applicable): If you’re using a natural element like a tree as an anchor, it’s important to use a tree protector strap or a similar device. This not only protects the tree from damage but also provides a more secure grip for the winch cable.
  3. Wrapping the Cable: Carefully wrap the cable around the anchor point. Ensure that it’s wrapped evenly and securely, avoiding any sharp edges or angles that could damage the cable. The cable should lay flat against the anchor point to distribute the tension evenly.

Feeding the Cable Back into the Drum

After wrapping the cable around the anchor point, the next step is to feed the end of the cable back onto the winch drum. This is where precision and attention to detail are essential.

  1. Routing the Cable: Route the cable back towards the winch, ensuring it doesn’t drag on the ground or catch on any obstacles. The cable should follow the straightest, most direct path possible to reduce the risk of damage or wear.
  2. Attaching the Cable to the Drum: Attach the end of the cable to the winch drum. Depending on your winch model, this might involve a specific attachment point or method. It’s important to secure the cable tightly to the drum to prevent it from slipping or coming loose under load.

Switching the Clutch Back to Normal (Locked) Mode

With the cable securely attached to both the anchor point and the winch drum, the final step in securing the load is to switch the clutch back to its normal (locked) mode.

This step re-engages the winch drum with the winch motor, preventing the drum from spinning freely and ensuring that the load is held firmly in place.

  1. Locating the Clutch: Find the clutch lever or knob that you previously set to freespool mode for manual operation.
  2. Engaging the Clutch: Follow the manufacturer’s instructions to switch the clutch back to the normal (locked) mode. This might require pushing, pulling, or turning the clutch lever or knob to the specified position.
  3. Double-Checking: Once the clutch is engaged, it’s a good practice to double-check that the cable is properly secured and that the winch is ready to hold or pull the load. Ensure everything is set correctly before proceeding with any winching activity.

Safely Operating the Winch Handle

Safely operating the winch handle during the manual operation of an electric winch is a crucial aspect that demands vigilance and proper technique.

This process involves manually cranking the winch to either pull in or let out the cable, depending on the task at hand.

The primary objectives are to maintain control over the cable’s tension and to ensure the safety of all individuals involved and the integrity of the load being winched.

Here’s a detailed look at how to achieve this:

Maintaining Control of the Cable

The essence of safely operating the winch handle lies in maintaining a consistent tension on the cable.

Allowing the cable to become slack can lead to tangling, kinking, or snapping, which are significant hazards. When manually cranking the winch, the operator should:

  • Apply Steady Force: Use consistent and steady force when turning the winch handle. Sudden jerks or pauses can create slack or cause the cable to wind improperly on the drum, leading to potential damage or failure.
  • Monitor Cable Tension: Keep a close eye on the cable as it winds onto or off the drum. The tension should be sufficient to prevent slack but not so high as to overstress the cable or the winch mechanism.

The Role of a Spotter

A spotter plays a critical role in the safe manual operation of a winch. This person should stand in a safe position where they can clearly see both the winch and the load, as well as the path of the cable. The spotter’s responsibilities include:

  • Communicating Hazards: The spotter should alert the winch operator to any potential hazards, such as obstacles in the path of the cable, improper winding on the drum, or any signs of cable wear or damage that become evident during operation.
  • Guiding the Operation: The spotter can offer guidance on when to start and stop winding, based on the position of the load and the condition of the cable. They can also signal when adjustments are needed to maintain proper tension.

Safety Best Practices

To ensure the operation remains smooth and controlled, follow these safety best practices:

  • Wear Appropriate Safety Gear: Both the operator and the spotter should wear gloves to protect their hands from cuts and abrasions. Eye protection is also advisable to guard against flying debris or in the unlikely event of a cable snap.
  • Keep the Area Clear: Ensure that the area around the winch, the cable’s path, and the load is clear of bystanders and obstacles. This minimizes the risk of injury or interference with the winching operation.
  • Regularly Inspect Equipment: Before commencing manual operation, inspect the winch handle for integrity, the cable for signs of wear or damage, and the winch mechanism for any signs of malfunction. This helps prevent accidents caused by equipment failure.


Manual operation of an electric winch is a valuable skill, particularly in emergencies. Remembering these key safety procedures can make the difference between a job well done and a dangerous situation.

Always exercise caution against overextending the winch’s capabilities manually, and seek professional help if you have any doubts or concerns.

Knowing how to operate your winch manually not only enhances your self-reliance but also ensures you’re prepared for whatever the road throws your way.

Disclaimer: As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases at no additional cost to you. But all my reviews and guides are genuine and come from my experience.

Aaron Redstone 

Hi, I'm Aaron, the founder of Off-Road Pull. My love for off-roading began in my teenage years while exploring the diverse landscapes of Arizona.

With more than 16 years of experience in off-roading and winching, I bring a blend of practical know-how and a background in mechanical engineering to provide you with detailed and trustworthy advice.

My passion is to share this knowledge with both newcomers to adventure and experienced off-roaders. When I'm not tackling rugged terrain or crafting in-depth articles, you'll find me capturing the scenic beauty of the outdoors through my lens.

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