Winch Maintenance: Stagnation means Decline


So you drive a 4×4, with added goodies such as a winch, hi-lift and maybe a compressor. Most of the time you will not use these extras, or even engage the 4×4 function of your vehicle.

But you should. Frequently, even. It’s called maintenance.

In this case I’m specifically talking about winch maintenance. Let me tell you what I learned over the years.

We were camping at our friend Elmer’s place in Boa Vista (north Brazil). We had just returned from our annual trip to the Netherlands and had brought some tools and goodies with us that needed installing.

Luckily Elmer and his father have a great gusto for tooling on cars, so we drove to their workshop and worked on numerous things.

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Problems With the Winch

In the past we had some security issues with our winch. Like the night we went for dinner in north India, after which we returned to our camping spot. As we drove, I heard a strange noise but ignored it.

The next morning I found two meters of winch cable behind the Land Cruiser. Kids, we assume, had played with the clutch lever the night before and had free-spooled a few meters of cable.

Another tricky moment was the result of five years of cable rubbing: big sparks while driving and a melted battery in Paraguay (read about it here). All because the positive lead had been connected straight to the battery. This made me install a kill-switch near the battery.

I’ve wanted to modify the clutch lever for years so nobody can free-spool the cable, and that’s what led me to my discovery and, as a result, this blog post.

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overland gear - winch maintenance
Prototype tamper proof winch clutch

The Clutch Lever

I had made a prototype of a tamper-proof clutch lever a couple of months earlier in Ecuador and installed it. I drove around for a while to test it. At one point I noticed a cracked O-ring under the bolt I had made, which was not the way it should be so I re-installed the original clutch lever.

I asked my friends of 4×4 Service Valkenburg if they could give me an identical clutch lever so that I could make the modifications on that one. I met Dennis on our annual Overland Reunion event, where he gave me a Warn clutch lever [as well as some heavy-duty engine mounts].


When I was changing the levers, however, I discovered that they were not identical. I needed to improvise to seal the top properly. Unfortunately, in this remote Brazilian Amazon I couldn’t get stainless steel washers, so I was holding off the project for a moment.

But, obviously, that’s not the end of the story or I wouldn’t be writing this blog…

After I had reinstalled back the original clutch lever once again, I checked its movements.

No movement! Nada, zilch, noppes…

The thing was not budging at all!

Elmer concluded that the winch probably had not been used much. Indeed, I confessed, we had had this winch for two years and we hadn’t needed it. The grease must have dried out. Despite all good intentions we hadn’t done any preventive winch maintenance.

overland gear - winch maintenance
Cleaned all the planetary gears of the Warn winch

Fixing the Clutch Section of Our Unused XD9000 Warn Winch

We took apart the clutch section and found it full of caked grease and even a couple of rusty spots. The latter, I think, is the result of that cracked O-ring I talked about earlier. During that time we traveled in the Amazon region and we had some pretty fat rain over the months.

I now assumed that some of it must have gotten into the clutch of the winch.

We soaked the clutch section in diesel for the night, wiped and cleaned it, applied new grease and reassembled it.

The result: a clutch smooth as silk.

Rope Stretching

According to the manual we should have stretched the cable when we installed the winch but we had never gotten to it. In good spirits Elmer and I decided to do it together. Better late than never. We lined up Elmer’s famous home-build Jeep ‘Crocodillo’ on one side and the Land Cruiser on the other side of the workshop’s terrain.

We free-spooled the cable until there were five wraps left on the drum. I attached the remote, turned the key on the kill-switch, and started the engine. I let it run just a little over idle with the hand-gas handle.

I hit the winch-in button.


Nothing happened.

“Wow, that looks like a serious problem, my friend,” some bystander noted.

I got my multimeter (find here) and measured the voltage between the battery and the winch. The source of the problem was the highly robust Hella kill switch (this is what it looks like). For some odd reason it wasn’t letting any juice through.

I disconnected the switch, cleaned the terminals and the inside with ample contact spray until it worked again. I assumed that the elements had affected the functioning of the kill switch as it sits on the outside of the Land Cruiser.

overland gear - winch maintenance
Elmer Jeep’s Crocodillo

Lessons Learned on Winch Maintenance

After all this, we spooled the cable on the drum without further issues. In hindsight, this was a great learning experience and I am glad it happened at a place where I had a knowledgeable friend and all kinds of tools. Had we been in the middle of nowhere, it would have put more tension on the situation.

Preventive maintenance is what we need. I will admit it’s not exactly my forte. If a winch isn’t used much, it will degenerate, it will not lubricate and grease dries out and seizes the mechanics. Or worse, moisture will get in and rust the complete innards of the winch.

Of course, maintenance goes for other stuff as well. Like the locking-free-wheel hubs and the front-end of a part-time 4WD system. I am learning the hard way and I hope this post may save some of you that lesson. Regularly checking to see if your stuff works can save you a lot of headaches when the need arises.

Note to self with regard to our winch:

Do you have more handy tips on this subject? Please share in the comments below, I’d love to hear them.

overland gear - winch maintenance
Using our Warn winch in Japan

First published in 2015 / updated in 2020

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9 thoughts on “Winch Maintenance: Stagnation means Decline”

  1. Good post and very true. I would like to add two things where the advise applies just as well: Run the aircon and auxiliary heater once a month (if you have these gadgets onboard of course)
    We will start the Panamericana (N >S) next spring and hope to meet you guys in a few years time. I’ll keep an eye on your journey 😉
    Regards and happy travelling from Switzerland

  2. Coen, I learned something from racing bicycles in a group, you are either moving up or you are moving back, there is no “sitting in”, or relaxing. Same with equipment maintenance! Avanti!

  3. Lubricate the steel cable with oil to prevent rust and allow the strands to slide against each other. It may be messy in the beginning but the cable sure pays out and rolls up easier.

      • Use wire cable grease. It is liquid when applied and forms a ‘solid’ wax coat when dry. While drying avoid dust as it will stick to the wet oil and form abrasive paste.

        • Great tip, that’s what I’ve used a couple of times to spray in between the leaf-springs. I thought it was called white grease? But apparently it’s not.


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