Why you should replace your steel cable

Published: February 28, 2020

ATV towing truck out by a winch Photo by Derek McNaughton

Ice covered the flooded road to the cottage. At 15 cm, it probably wasn’t thick enough to support our half-ton truck; but since the water was only 10 cm deep, was there any harm in trying to cross? Even if we did break through, recovering a pickup truck from a foot-deep error in judgment shouldn’t be too hard, right?

Sure enough, rifle-like cracks signalled our mistake when the truck crashed through the ice and sank to the front bumper. Uh oh. Reversing proved impossible at such an angle on the ice. We’d have to winch the ol’ horse out.

Pickup truck half stuck in frozen lake being towed by ATV
Photo by Derek McNaughton

Using the right type of cable can make the whole operation safer. Synthetic cable, which looks and feels more like rope, is superior to steel for a bunch of reasons. Made of tough polyethylene strands, synthetic cable is lighter than steel.

Close up of synthetic cable
Synthetic cable. Photo by Liam Mogan

It coils around a winch drum better, and won’t rust or sprout burrs that can jab fingers. More importantly, synthetic cable doesn’t store as much energy when pulled tight and has a higher minimum break strength, so it tends to be safer than steel cable, which can be deadly if it snaps.

close up of steel cable
Steel cable. Photo by Liam Mogan

Overloaded synthetic can also snap, but the recoil is less of a projectile. Synthetic is more prone to abrasion over rocks or hard surfaces, but you can use a sleeve to protect it. No matter what kind you use, you should regularly inspect your cable for signs of fraying. Though synthetic is more expensive, it comes in varying thicknesses and break strengths, so it can match the stoutness of steel. Go with at least 3/8″ thick for light-duty cottage work. 

In our case, 3/8″ synthetic cable wound around my ATV winch (that we strapped to a tree) tugged at the partly submerged truck, freeing it from the ice. No steel required.

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