Synthetic vs. Steel Cable pt.1

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Why Synthetic Winchlines?
Synthetic beats steel. This article is for anyone that hasn’t heard why.

Synthetic Winchlines are Better

Synthetic is Stronger, but it Shouldn’t Matter

Picture this. Your truck is stuck in mud a little bit “off the beaten path.” As far as you know, the only people around are you and your son/daughter. Night falls in about an hour. The only effective way out is your winch. One of you need to steer while the other has to spot. The stakes are high here because of safety.

The question here is, which material would you rather that winchline be made of?...steel cable or Dyneema (the plastic rope material that many synthetic winchlines are made of)?

In this scenario, assume you have a brand new winchline installed on your winch….no deterioration, no compromise in its strength. The fact that its strength has not been compromised means that it is very unlikely that your winchline will snap if it has been installed correctly and if you use it the way it was intended to be used. Minimum breaking strength of the material shouldn’t really matter as a point of consideration for which material to choose because, either way, your winchline was fitted to match the pulling strength of your winch. The load applied to your winchline will only be as much as your winch can put out. So while the 3/8” diameter synthetic winchline has a minimum breaking strength (MBS) of about 18,000 lbs., and a steel cable of the same diameter has a MBS of somewhere around 10,000 lbs., your consideration of which material to choose shouldn’t depend on which one has a greater breaking strength if they’re both on a winch with an 8,500 lb. pulling capacity. Your winchline is obviously not going to get you any extra pulling strength either….that all comes from the winch.

Synthetic is Better Because it’s Safer
Really the question to ask now is, if by some chance that winchline were to break, to which material would you rather be standing in close proximity as a spotter?

Let’s consider what happens when steel breaks and when synthetic breaks. Steel winchlines are made up of multiple strands of steel cables wound up around each other. When a steel winchline breaks, it immediately unwinds and lashes out with great force as it violently whips out on an unpredictable trajectory. “Where it lands, nobody knows.” This is unfortunate for people having to stand closeby because the consequence is that you sort of roll the dice in hopes that the winchline doesn’t break and make contact with you. If it does, that steel winchline can literally cut you in half….a less than ideal ending to an otherwise fun and happy day. :' (

When synthetic breaks, it's always due to a cut of some sort (provided it's on the correct winch and not undersized). Usually if there is an abrasive edge in the mix, and it can cut at a relatively low force. The line generally just falls to the ground. If it does break with enough force to fly outward, the weight of the synthetic winchline is negligible with respect to its ability to cause any serious injury. Score one point for synthetic winchlines!

Synthetic Winchlines are Better Because They’re Easier to Handle
Lighter weight: Had we mentioned yet that they’re lighter? Yes, we had. A 100’ long steel cable winchline of 3/8” diameter weighs about 26 lbs. A 100’ long synthetic rope winchline of 3/8” diameter weighs about 3.4 lbs. Synthetic will save you a little weight on your vehicle, but more importantly, it will save you a lot of effort as you carry it in your hands.

More flexible: Another handling factor is its flexibility. Steel cable is very stiff and hard to manage. Compare this to synthetic rope that easily bends and twist whatever direction you want it to go.

Less harsh on the hands: While we recommend the use of gloves on any material of winchline (a quick slip of the line through your hands can burn them), synthetic winchlines are more gentle on your hands than winchlines made of steel cable. Steel has a tendency to develop barbs that stick out, can catch on your hands or other parts of your skin and then thrash and rip it. Offroaders have a name for the condition developed after much deterioration of the hands from contact with a rough steel cable: “hamburger hands.” The upside is that it lends itself to more dramatic story-telling with friends back home when you reveal the “battle scars” on your hands as evidence of the adversity you endured.

Is there more to be said about how awesome synthetic winchlines are? Yes, there is! But we’ve said plenty for today. Let’s call it a day and check back in sometime next week to give you some more details about why synthetic winchlines will rock your world when it comes to offroad recovery in comparison to steel cable. We’ll also offer an insight or two into potential downsides (not many, but there’s one or two that can be a non-issue when handled correctly).

In the meantime, enjoy the coming days and stay safe on those roads and trails!