Synthetic Winch Rope vs. Steel Rope: Which is Best?

Rugged Ridge winch on a cobalt blue Jeep.

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Winches are an essential piece of gear for off-roaders and overlanders, and you can’t have a working winch without a proper rope. They work by winding up on a spool, powered by the winches motor. The rope becomes taught, providing the tension and torque needed to pull large objects. Between synthetic rope and steel rope, there are many differences, including varying pros and cons. Depending on who you ask, you’ll find a different answer to the question of which type reigns superior. Users can opt for a steel cable or synthetic winch rope for their winches, based on their purposes and preferences.

What is Steel Rope

A steel cable winch rope on a silver Jeep.

Steel rope has long been the standard for winches, excelling in vehicle recovery and utility work. They’re built for removing trees, rocks, and other large gritty objects since they’re highly resistant to abrasion. They also excel at winching in tight spaces, with their ability to withstand high levels of friction. Steel ropes are completely immune to UV damage, as steel is unaffected by this factor. There is a wide range of steel rope options to equip vehicles with for optimal off-roading. Let’s explore the perks and pitfalls to pay attention to!

Advantages: Affordable, Durable, Low Maintenance

Aircraft-grade steel is more durable than synthetic winch rope, offering greater efficiency and reliability among treacherous terrains. Through mud, rocks, sand, and snow, steel won’t fall prey to fraying and abrasion. Steel rope tends to be more affordable than synthetic winch rope, and the fact that it doesn’t become weathered as easily means that you can save money on winch cable replacements in the long run. Steel rope’s ability to endure the elements with ease also means less maintenance and upkeep. Not only can steel rope be a money saver, but a time saver too.

Disadvantages: Prone to Rust & Rough Edges

Steel cable requires less upkeep to maintain, but they do require more frequent inspections for cable damage. It is more likely to experience kinks, making it more difficult to spool up on the drum, decreasing effectiveness. Stainless steel cable is prone to rust and can develop rough edges over time, making gloves necessary during handling. A light, protective layer of WD-40 or chain oil can help deter moisture and combat these slow, insidious rust invasions. Steel rope also holds more energy and will therefore have a greater, more hazardous impact if it snaps. However, with precautions and proper winching techniques, steel rope can be safe for use.

What is Synthetic Rope?

Warn synthetic winch rope on a crimson Jeep.

Introduced to the scene in the mid-90s, synthetic rope was viewed as an innovative solution for advanced winching. Derived from synthetic lines used in the maritime industry, synthetic rope paved its way to become what is now the most commonly found type on winches. Its popularity has soared over the last few years, and they are now a widely available rope type. Synthetic ropes consist of cutting-edge polyethylene synthetic fibers, such as nylon, polypropylene, or dyneema. There are a variety of high-quality synthetic winch ropes for sale by trusted manufacturers. Warn Spydura Synthetic Winch Rope is a popular choice, constructed of high molecular weight polyethylene and ballistic nylon sliding sleeve for remarkable tensile strength and abrasion resistance. Let’s investigate the strengths and weaknesses of synthetic rope for winches.

Advantages: Lightweight, Safe, Storable

Synthetic winch ropes are more lightweight than steel ropes, making them easier to use and store. Since synthetic rope weighs less than steel, it releases less energy when it breaks, meaning it is less capable of causing damage to your vehicle. Using more lightweight components also has its perks when you’re trying to keep the load under your vehicle and winch weight rating. A lighter rope might afford greater flexibility with what you can bring with you while off-roading. Additionally, lighter ropes are easier to handle and are unlikely to form kinks or sharp edges like steel rope. Synthetic winch rope can be handled without the protection of gloves and is widely regarded as the safer option of the two. It is also a safer option with more security because even if it breaks while in use, it can be repaired with the right braiding techniques. This means you won’t ever have to risk being stranded in the middle of Moab while trying to enjoy your overlanding trip.

Disadvantages: Fragile and Freeze-Prone

Synthetic rope isn’t quite as strong and durable as steel cable, so it may not hold up as well in extreme weather conditions. It is susceptible to damage from UV exposure, excess heat, chemicals, and abrasion. Unfortunately, synthetic rope isn’t durable enough to endure everything- these factors can really weaken the line. To combat this weakness, most synthetic rope employs a special sleeve to protect against abrasion. Synthetic winch rope can also absorb water, which can add unwanted weight to your winch. It can freeze in the cold, rendering your rope useless for the time being. Synthetic ropes may require periodic cleaning, as dirt and sand can get lodged in the rope’s center. If abrasive matter remains here, it could weaken the rope from the core out. However, this maintenance is a minor shortcoming in the grand scope of all the safety and security synthetic ropes have to offer.

Conclusion: Synthetic Winch Rope vs. Steel Rope

Warn winch and winch rope on a navy blue Jeep

Depending on your preferences and the type of terrain you typically traverse, one type of rope might be better than another. If you seek a highly durable rope at a low cost that will last for years to come, a classic steel rope might be for you. For off-roaders who prioritize safety and preparedness above all else, synthetic winch rope is the way to go. Don’t get roped into purchasing the wrong rope. Take the time to consider your climate, terrain, uses, and priorities.

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At Omni Garage, we make it our mission to level up your vehicle to its highest potential, at the lowest price. Whether it’s traveling to a job or traversing terrain, we’re all about getting you where you need to go.