Steel wire winch cable has been the mainstay of the winching, recovery, and hauling industry for many years. With the introduction of synthetic winch rope in the early ’90s and its subsequent growth in popularity, the debate continues about which is better. But just like the classic Ford versus Chevy argument, what is really better actually boils down to what is best for you and your situation.

Any crusty old-timer will probably swear by steel, while most newbies run synthetic because the racers use it or their winch came with it already. The attendees of the Ultimate Adventure were recently polled on their thoughts, which we have presented to you here. But since both lines have their pros and cons regardless of our personal opinions, we’ve done a quick comparison to give you the facts and dispel a few myths.

Both will whip back after breaking. The heavier steel stores more kinetic energy, so it can cause more damage, but synthetic does not just break and fall to the ground. A winch line weight should be used on both.

“Steel cable kinks too easily.”

Steel does not kink by itself — that is operator error. The same goes for cable or rope pulling in between wraps. Properly wrapped and aligned, neither kind should be an issue.

“Aluminum fairlead is needed for synthetic, not a roller.”

False. A roller fairlead is fine as long as it is designed without sharp edges that can damage the synthetic line or allow the line to slip between the rollers.

“You don’t need to wear gloves with synthetic rope.”

Gloves should be used for both. While a synthetic rope won’t develop barbs, it can trap debris which can cut you.

“Synthetic rope won’t whip back if it breaks.”

Wire rope can get severe kinks and flat spots that weaken it. Loose cable also bird-nests when not under tension.

Damaged winch Steel Cable Image

Cable vs. Rope

Steel cable

• More durable
• Longer lasting
• Dissipates heat from internal brake drum
• Less expensive than synthetic

• Heavy
• Stores more kinetic energy
• Difficult to handle
• Develops barbs
• Difficult to field fix
• No load wraps can unspool to a bird’s nest
• Can rust
• Can kink

Synthetic rope is generally made from an altered polypropylene material and has a stronger breaking strength in tension than a similar-sized steel cable.

• Lightweight
• Stronger than steel (when new)
• Floats
• Comes in pretty colors
• Easy to handle
• Simple to field fix
• Won’t rust

• Doesn’t dissipate heat, which can affect the winch brake
• Subject to abrasion
• Strength degrades at 150 degrees
• Can get heat aged by repeated overheating of brake drum
• UV degrades it
• Sand and dirt can cut internally
• Needs a sheath for protection from debris and sunlight
• More expensive than steel
• Needs to be cleaned of mud, sand, and debris
• Can retain water and freeze
• Lots of cheap imitations on the market