Winch Fairlead Myths Debunked

By Nena Barlow

This article originally appeared on

When you purchase a new winch, it usually comes packaged with a fairlead. A winch with wire rope comes with a roller fairlead, and a winch with synthetic rope will have a hawse fairlead. We’ve talked before about good winching practices and winch rope care, but let’s talk about the pros and cons of your fairlead choices, and why you may want to switch fairleads.

No matter which fairlead you choose, it is important to keep it unobstructed, clean, and free of nicks and gouges than can catch your winch line as it slides on and off of the winch drum. A hawse fairlead is lighter and slimmer than roller fairleads. It is easy to install and inspect regularly. Its slim design makes it less likely to impact rocks, trees, or other things that can damage the surface of it. It weighs significantly less than roller fairleads. However, whenever the rope is dragging across it, there is friction. And friction is what will wear out your winch rope. Not all hawse fairleads are created equal. It should have a smooth, rounded radius for the rope to slide over—and no sharp edges. The opening needs to be approximately the same width as your winch drum in order minimize friction on the rope and allow it to wind back on the drum evenly.

Roller fairleads are heavier and bulkier than hawse fairleads. They are more complicated to install and maintain. There are six bolts required on a roller fairlead (one for each roller, and two to hold it to the bumper), as opposed to only two for the hawse. There is much more surface to inspect; you must rotate each roller all the way around to check for burrs and scars, and to ensure that they are able to spin freely. However, the roller fairlead allows for freer movement of the rope because the roller surface moves with the rope and does not make the rope slide across it, which would create more friction.

Although an ideal winch scenario is to pull straight ahead, circumstances don’t always allow that. Photo by Mary Leas.

Which do I use? I like synthetic rope and a roller fairlead, along with a clean Flat Splicer to eliminate the metal thimble getting dragged into the fairlead. Whenever I post photos of my winch fairlead setup, someone comments, “But you can’t use synthetic rope with a roller fairlead!” The usual argument is that synthetic rope can get caught in the corners of the rollers. If you have properly designed rollers, this doesn’t happen. In fact, with the frequent winch use that I do, I find that hawse fairleads tend to abrade synthetic winch rope far more than the rollers. After more than a decade of using synthetic rope on my winches, and trying it both ways, I find a roller fairlead to be more effective for my needs most of the time.

The final choice, though, is yours. Given the advantages and disadvantages, and your specific needs and four-wheeling environment, you must choose what works best for you.

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About the Author
Nena Barlow
Nena Barlow

Barlow Adventures owner, Nena Barlow grew up in the Southwest, exploring the back roads by Jeep, horse, and hiking boots. She has been in the Jeep business since 1996, providing tours, 4wd instruction, location scouting, offroad event planning, trail mapping & photography, and recovery.

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