Project F-250: Installing a Winch

Tom
Update by Tom Suddard to the Ford F-250 project car
May 19, 2020

We’re turning this 2001 Ford F-250 into the best tow vehicle it can be, and have spent the past few months crossing off deferred cleaning and maintenance from its to-do list. And over those months, we’ve been using it, too. In fact, we racked up nearly 10,000 miles (most of those with our enclosed trailer hitched to it) while we sorted out our truck’s flaws.

The verdict? It’s a truck, and it’s great at doing truck stuff. Our V10 averages 9-10 mpg towing at highway speeds and about 14 mpg empty.

But you didn’t expect us to leave things well enough alone, did you? Now that our F-250 is up to par—or back to normal, or at Stage Zero, or whatever term you prefer to describe a perfectly functional stock vehicle—we can start improving it. 

Normally we’d begin with the suspension on a tow vehicle, but honestly this truck is good enough in that department. Sure, we still have upgrades planned, but they’re not urgent. Neither are our plans for more power. Instead, we’re starting off with one of the things we’ve been missing most on our truck: an electric winch. 

Why Winch?

Relax, relax. We can hear you saying, “I don’t care about this, because I’m not going muddin’ or rock crawling or anything like that. I don’t need a winch on my tow vehicle!” And while we certainly respect that opinion, you’re wrong. 

We’re not taking this truck on technical trails, either (the worst it will see is the occasional fire road), but winches are useful for far more than self-recovery. They’re irreplaceable tools that can be applied to a broad range of situations with a little creativity and a few pulleys and shackles. Over the years, we’ve used vehicle-mounted winches to drag project cars out of ravines, pivot cars in tight spaces, load cars on borrowed trailers, pull body panels straight, lift building materials instead of renting a crane, remove stumps and, yes, even get ourselves unstuck off-road. They turn all-day struggles, like picking up a project car that’s been grown in by trees, into minor inconveniences. And they’re far more powerful and safer than come-alongs. 

Plus, they’re inexpensive: We took the easy route here and used entirely off-the-shelf parts, and still spent less than $500. Build your own mount and grab a used winch, and this project should cost you less than half that amount. 

Choosing a Winch

Decision made (we were getting a winch), we started shopping. The rule of thumb when sizing a winch is to pick a pulling capacity that’s 1.5 times the vehicle’s weight. In reality it’s all fuzzy math, as the weight of the vehicle is less important than what it’s stuck in and how deep it’s buried when it comes to pulling capacity. Plus, winches are usually rated by their capacity with the line spooled all the way out. Wind the line in, and the effective diameter of the drum grows larger, decreasing the motor’s leverage. 

What’s all this mean for us? Simple: Bigger is better, with the only downsides being cost and weight. Our truck tips the scales at about 7000 pounds, meaning we’d be shopping at the upper end of “normal” winch sizes.

We perused Facebook marketplace for a few weeks, eventually finding a 12,000-pound Badlands (Harbor Freight’s house brand) winch still brand-new in the box for a good price. Is this the winch we’d choose for a self-supported trip around the world? Probably not—you do get what you pay for, after all—but we’ve had fantastic luck with these winches over the past decade and don’t see any reason to spend more.

Mounting a Winch

Next, we needed a place to put the winch. After all, our truck has a license plate bracket on the front bumper—not a winch mount. There are a few ways to do this: Buy or build a custom bumper that’s designed with a built-in winch tray, modify the stock bumper to accommodate the winch, or add a 2-inch receiver to the front of the truck, then use an off-the-shelf receiver mount to hold the winch. 

All methods have their pros and cons, but our choice was clear: We didn’t want the appearance, cost or weight of a burly off-road bumper, and we didn’t have the time to modify the factory parts. So we ordered a front hitch for our truck. We’ve covered all the ways front hitches are awesome before, so consider this killing two birds with one stone.

Once the hitch arrived, installation took about an hour: Remove bumper, install hitch, reattach bumper, done. While we had the front of the truck apart, we applied POR-15 paint over any surface rust to prevent future corrosion. A receiver mount from Harbor Freight holds the winch. 

Wiring

There was one last piece of the puzzle: electricity. We needed to run a high-amperage power supply to our new winch. To do that, we bolted a circuit breaker next to the battery, then ran 2-gauge wire through the breaker and out the front grille. We spliced in an Anderson-style quick disconnect, meaning hooking up the winch is as easy as plugging in a phone charger. 

Then, we took it a step further. It’s great to be able to winch from either end of a vehicle, so we ordered a 20-foot extension wire with the proper disconnects on each end. Now if we want to winch from the rear, we simply put our winch in the rear trailer hitch and hook up the extension cable. 

Plus, there’s one more trick up our truck’s sleeve: Now that we had a high-amperage quick-disconnect hidden in the grille, it seemed like a no-brainer to make some special jumper cables. We simply spliced a quick-disconnect onto an old set, allowing us to jump-start cars without even opening the hood. Add in that 20-foot extension, and we can jump cars as far away as 25 feet. 

Success

After a few hours’ work, we stepped back and admired our truck’s newest feature. It still looks completely stock—you’d have to be a dork to notice the hitch hiding behind the front bumper. But, in less than a minute, we can mount the winch and drag 12,000 pounds of whatever we want wherever we want. We normally keep the winch under a bench in our shop, and only put it on the truck when we think we might need it. We’re not going to win any rock-crawling competitions, but we’ve drastically increased the utility of our truck. And that’s even better.

 

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