Questions? Email Us or call (888)-657-9997
(Hours: M-F 8am - 4:30pm Central)

  • Friend Us on Facebook
  • Follow Us on Twitter
  • Watch Us on YouTube
Free Shipping Daily Deals

ProMark Offroad Blog

How Winch Gears Work for Offroad ATV and Recovery Winches

Planetary Winch Gear

Planetary gears are the most common type of drivetrain for offroad winches.

It takes a lot of moving parts on your winch to get the job done and your vehicle pulled out to safety. The winch gear (or drivetrain, as it’s also called) is what converts the high-speed, low-force power produced by your electric winch motor into a low-speed, high-torque pulling force.

How do winch gears work?

Most electric winches on the market today use a planetary gear system, which is similar to the gearing used for the automatic transmission in your vehicle.

It’s basically a set of gears inside a larger gear. The “planetary” gears revolve around a “sun” gear in the center.

The two other main types of gears are spur gears and worm gears, neither of which are widely available in offroad winches.

The spur gear is composed of a pair of gears, one bigger than the other. The bigger gear connects to the motor shaft, and the smaller gear connects to the winch shaft. Spur gears are fast, smooth, and quiet.

The worm gear is composed of a pinion and worm gear. It operates based on a line of contact rather than a point of contact. Worm gears are common for tow trucks but are much slower than spur and planetary gears.

Planetary Winch Gears

Why are most electric winches designed with a planetary gear system? Planetary gears are compact in size (which allows the winch to fit in tight mounting spaces), lightweight (the less weight hanging off your bumper, the better), and low cost (which gets passed on to the consumer).

Most 12V winches with planetary gears use a brake inside the center of the drum. This can generate a significant amount of heat during long pulls. To reduce the possibility of damage from an overheated winch, most winch manufacturers recommend allowing the winch to cool down every so often during heavy-duty operations or a long period of winching.

What Is the Difference Between a Winch and a Hoist?

XT 4000 lb ATV winch

This XT 4000 lb winch is designed with a dynamic braking system and is not approved for use as a hoist.

They might look fairly similar, but winches and hoists are made for two different purposes. A winch is designed to pull a heavy load across a fairly level surface or a slight incline. A hoist is designed to lift a load vertically or up a sharp incline (greater than 45 degrees).


The main difference between a winch and a hoist is the braking system. Most offroad winches are made with dynamic brakes, meaning that the gear system is designed to automatically hold the load. A dynamic brake uses the gears in the winch to provide resistance, acting as a brake. But with this type of braking system, the winch line could bleed out slightly under a heavy enough load. Dynamic braking is not safe for suspended loads. If you try using your winch as a hoist, the load could slip, creating a danger hazard, or the gears could strip out, damaging the winch.

A hoist, on the other hand, includes a mechanical braking system, which is a physical brake that locks the spool in place so that there is no line bleed. In addition, there is no freespool mechanism available on a hoist.

Some specially-manufactured winches are designed to double as a hoist. In order for these devices to act as a hoist, the device must include a locking brake and no freespool mechanism (or the freespool must be completely removed or disabled). Never use a winch as a hoist unless the manufacturer specifically states that the winch is approved for use as a hoist.

Using the Free Spool Function on a Winch

Winching Tip of the Week from ProMark Offroad


Silverback Recovery Winch with Free Spool Function

Silverback Recovery Winch with
Free Spool Function

Winching Tip of the Week: Use the free spool function to spool out cable to the anchor point. Using the free spool function reserves your battery power for the actual winching process.


Make sure the free spool clutch is always fully engaged or fully disengaged. Using the winch with the clutch in between gears can keep the winch from operating properly and cause major damage. Also, never try to disengage the clutch while the wire rope is under tension or engage the clutch while the drum is turning.

Note: Extreme cold can make the clutch harder to shift. Don’t force the clutch. If the clutch is in the disengaged position and won’t engage easily, pull out some cable and then try again. If the clutch is in the engaged position and won’t disengage easily, tap the power out button on the winch remote before trying it again.

3 Basic Types of Winches: Planetary Gear, Worm Gear, and Spur Gear

There are 3 basic types of winch gears: planetary, worm, and spur gears. The gear train’s job is to reduce the high speed power from the winch motor into a low speed, high torque pulling force. The main difference between these 3 types of winch gears is their transfer efficiency.

Planetary Gear Train

Planetary Gear Train

    • Planetary Gear Winch

      Transfer Efficiency: 65%

      A planetary gear winch is the most popular and most affordable type of offroad winch. It offers strength, smooth operation, and good resistance to torque loads. They also allow for higher gear ratios than worm or spur gears. A planetary winch is typically the most compact of the three types of gear trains, making it the most practical type of winch for ATVs and vehicles with restricted mounting space.

      Planetary gears got their name because of their design, similar to a sun with revolving planets. A braking system is required to hold the load.

Worm Gear Train

Worm Gear Train

    • Worm Gear Winch

      Transfer Efficiency: 35-40%

      Worm gear winches are known for their endless endurance and high reliability. They are also self-braking, eliminating the need for a braking system. On the other hand, they are also mechanically less efficient than either planetary gear or a spur gear winch.

      Compared to planetary winches, worm winches are heavier, more expensive, and more difficult to mount. Worm gear winches also have a slower line speed (especially in a no-load situation) and a higher amp draw than planetary winches.

Spur Gear Train

Spur Gear Train

  • Spur Gear Winch

    Transfer Efficiency: 75%

    A spur gear winch is the most efficient type of winch, with a fast line speed and high reliability. Unfortunately, space requirements make it impractical to mount on some vehicles. If your vehicle has space restrictions for mounting a winch, the design of the spur gear winch may require extensive modifications to your vehicle.

    Also, if you’re set on a spur gear winch, expect to pay a little extra. Very few spur gear winches are designed for offroad use. As with the planetary winch, a braking system is required to hold the load.

Photo Credits: “Planetary Gear Train” is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License at