How to: Clean and tension your synthetic winch rope

How To Clean Your Winch Rope

The winch is the unsung hero of many off-roading expeditions. Regularly used to pull others (or yourself) out of trouble, it's not usually given the credit it deserves until it’s absolutely needed.

The winch rope is, of course, the primary rigging component. It must have incredible tensile strength all while holding up to shear forces, abrasion, friction, dirt and so on. 

In the past, 4WD winches had heavy steel cables which posed extreme hazard under tension and would cut into any objects in their path. These days, modern recovery winches have a lighter synthetic rope which is both easier and safer to use.

We’ll explain how to look after your winch rope and how to clean it.

Why Do You Need To Clean A Winch Rope?

The synthetic rope used for winching is an ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene. This is usually shortened to UHMWPE and is often known as Dyneema (the brand), produced by Avient.

It has incredible tensile strength due to its long molecular chains. Per unit weight, it can be fifteen times stronger than steel. Impressive! Making it significantly lighter and easier to handle.

Most damage to a winch rope doesn't come from the winching itself. Instead, it often stems from abrasion of both rubbing on other surfaces such as rocks and trees and also from internal friction by accumulation of debris such as quartz from mud, sand etc. 
If the winch rope isn't cleaned regularly, the lifespan will be heavily reduced and you'll need to buy a new one. Warranties are unlikely to cover this cost since it isn't a manufacturer defect but considered wear and tear. The price depends on various factors, but expect to pay up to $200 for a replacement winch rope with solid eyelets.

Thus, you see the importance of cleaning your winch rope. It'll last longer, be more reliable, work better, and cost you less. It's a win/win!

How Often Should I Clean My 4x4 Winch Rope?

We recommend cleaning your winch rope after each use, especially if the terrain was dirty, dusty, or wet.

We recommend cleaning your winch rope when the fibres have debris build up, this is often after every use during mud recoveries and most recoveries in dryer, dustier conditions.

Often long adventures means a lot of recoveries until the next wash bay and that’s part of 4wding, being mindful of this may mean less mud exposure by keeping the rope high with prevention in mind. 

In short, it's best to clean your winch rope when it’s dirty to prevent wear on the next use, but an unused rope doesn’t need cleaning periodically based on time alone. 

Step #1 - Unroll And Inspect The Winch Rope

You have two options for unspooling the winch rope:

  • Engage free-spool mode by disengaging the clutch and pulling the rope out by hand
  • Pressing ‘WINCH OUT’ on your controller and lightly guiding the rope out by hand.

Either option is fine, but we'd recommend powering the winch out. It's an excellent opportunity to check the function of almost all components at the same time; isolator switch, wireless transmitter & receiver, solenoid, wired connections, electric motor, gearbox, drum seals.
This acts as a testing phase of the winch so we know it’s in working order for the next trip. Any symptoms of abnormal sounds, inaction, stuttering etc will warrant further inspection.

You may also remove the winch rope from the drum, for the Ultra Winch PDX, it’s a single 6mm hex bolt. This can make cleaning and drying easier as the car can then be driven/parked separately as the cleaning process begins.

Step #2 - Clean The Winch Rope

Time for a bubble bath!  All you need is some PH neutral soapy water and your hands.Most car washes are safe, but avoid heavy duty truck washes.  Don't use a wired brush or any abrasive scrubbing material since these could irritate or fray the fibres in the rope.

With your bucket of soapy water, bathe the winch rope, a small section at a time. Manipulate it underwater to adjust the stands and fibres, releasing any trapped particles. Use your hands to clean it as thoroughly as possible. We’re looking to expand the weaves and shake the particles out. The weave will naturally contract and elongate - more on this later.

Once you’ve washed the rope, it’s time to rinse the soap off by either dunking it in a clean bucket of water or rinsing it with the hose.

winch rope cleaning

winch rope submerged cleaning rinse


Removing as much moisture as possible will make tensionsing the rope easier, cleaner and more effective. Ringing the rope out and a quick shake will get most water out in a minute. Avoid hanging your rope out in the sun for days as UV light exposure will fasten discolouration and may decrease strength and longevity.

Cleaning A Steel Wire Winch Cable

A quick note on steel wire: avoid using soapy water if you can. Any residual water could turn to rust, damaging the cable.

Instead, use a dry wire brush and compressed air (if possible).

Some choose to oil steel wire cables. It helps keep rust at bay but will hold much more dirt. Check with your cable manufacturer or distributor for the best advice.

Step #3 - Installing the rope and tensioning.

Fitting the rope back on is, of course, the next and final step but most importantly it’s tensioning it to ensure a confident spool for your next recovery. 

Firstly, guide the anchor of the rope through the fairlead and reinstall the 6mm hex bolt.
When rewinding the winch rope, the most important things are tension and a neat coil. Without these, the layers will begin to pinch against each other, causing problems further down the line. Neatness is also vital for reducing the number of layers. 

Keep the rope tense by utilising a slight hill or incline. Attach the winch rope to an anchor point higher up the slope. Turn on the car's ignition and put the vehicle transmission in Neutral. Now, wind the winch in, carefully guiding the rope into neat coils using the steering wheel.

If you don't have a hill, create a similar anchor point for the winch rope. The vehicle should still be in Neutral, but this time half-apply the brakes. This could be the handbrake or footbrake. The extra opposing force creates tension for winding the winch rope back in.

You might finish winding the rope in and decide it needs to be neater or tighter. Don't be afraid to undo it and restart. It'll mean you avoid more problems in the future. Having a friend with you - either in the car or inspecting the winch rope - can make things much more efficient.
winch rope tensioning

Final Tips

We look at rope cleaning as a comprehensive cleaning, analysis and tensioning schedule that will ensure you know the functionality and integrity of your winch components to give you the confidence to take on your next adventure!

Winches are designed to be used. If they sit doing nothing for months or years, they'll start to struggle. The planetary gears could suffer from a lack of lubrication and possible moisture exposure. The motor may build up some moisture from ambient humidity through the pressure relief breather valve. 

Unwinding your winch every so often helps keep these issues at bay by running the motor to dry it out, identifying and diagnosing potential problems. 

Are you interested in a high-quality, top-of-the-range winch? Check out our PDX MK3 range here.

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