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Fairlead choice

A fairlead guides the cable onto the winch drum, providing a pivoting surface. Steel cable requires a roller fairlead in most cases (manufacturer dependent), which projects from the vehicle and features four overlapping rollers which can deal with winching in almost any direction.

Synthetic cable requires a Hawse fairlead, a compact flush-mounted unit offering a smooth surface for the cable to glide over, as synthetics have a tendency to bind in a roller fairlead. Typically alloy, this surface would be damaged by repeated use of a steel cable.

Steel versus synthetic

For commercial use, and ideally for hard recreational use too, the breaking strength of the steel or synthetic cable should be 1.4:1 stronger than the maximum capacity of the winch.

There are pros and cons for each cable choice. Decide on your priorities.

  • Fatigue, wear and tear: The durability of a synthetic cable is limited. As it stretches, over time synthetic cable does not return to its normal form. If not used properly, synthetic cable wears out, reducing its strength and integrity. Steel cable kinks and strands visibly break after substantial abuse.
  • Weight: Synthetic cable is much lighter than steel and easier to handle.
  • Bending and drum diameter: Because it is so flexible, the first layer of synthetic cable can put very high pressure on a small surface area of a drum, often enough to cause deformation of the drum. This is not always immediately visible, and can lead to performance degradation over time. It is for this reason that a quality synthetic cable should be purchased that is specified to prevent deformation of the drum.
  • Cost: Synthetic cable is more expensive than steel. This is often offset by the saving in weight and ease of handling.

Steel versus synthetic 

Steel CableSynthetic
DurableProne to wear and tear
Predictable characteristicsLess predictable (bending fatigue, elasticity)
CheaperMore expensive
Handles all weatherSensitive to UV when not coated
Functions as a heat sinkSensitive to heat – heat sleeve needed
 Overlay can bind on the drum
 Broken strands are not easily identified
More difficult to handleEasier to handle
Broken strands a cut riskEasy on the hands
Snaps when it breaksImplodes when it breaks
 Bends easily
 Popular in the 4×4 community

Cable considerations

The winch’s highest pulling capacity is measured on the first layer of cable on the winch drum. With every layer of cable on the drum, the winch loses approximately 10% of its pulling capacity (manufacturer dependent).

A minimum of five wraps around the drum is needed when using a steel cable, a full first layer is needed when using a synthetic cable. The remaining length of cable is usable for winching purposes.