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Synthetic vs Steel - Review


Synthetic vs Steel Winch Line

In today’s market for recovery devices, manufacturers provide a plethora of tools that range from the tried and true Hi Lift jack to some of the more advanced kinetic ropes that are fairly new on the scene. These tools and the techniques utilized to operate them vary widely based on terrain, vehicle type and simply personal preference. For today’s review, we’re going to focus on a topic that has become a big discussion point amongst 4x4 enthusiasts – should you use Steel or Synthetic cable and which is better for your circumstances?
Before we can get to a heads up comparison, let’s have a quick history lesson.

Steel Cable

Going all the way back to the 1830s, Steel cable was invented by Wilhelm Albert for the mining industry. The need to hoist and pull increasingly heavy loads demanded the use of stronger materials to complete the job. Steel cable was an excellent candidate because of its incredible strength and ability to survive the abusive environment, most notably the abrasive terrain containing rocks, sand and mud. Steel cable was also fairly easy to manufacture and with basic care, the durability of this line was fairly remarkable.

Fast forward to today and aircraft-grade, galvanized Steel cable is still a strong force across numerous industries – mining, farming, construction and 4-wheeling. In the 4x4 industry, Steel cable can be used both for utility applications (i.e. removing trees) and winching vehicles. It is fairly inexpensive, durable and easy to come by. This durability has made Steel cable a fan favorite in the rock climbing industry because the lines can be run fairly safely over rocks and other difficult terrain.

On the flip side, one major downfall of Steel cable is its ability to store energy. When Steel cable snaps, this energy is instantly released and can have seriously deleterious consequences. It is not uncommon for a failed Steel line to fly backwards and damage the winch vehicle or worse, seriously injure someone standing nearby. It is because of this danger that a heavy damper (i.e. blanket) is always draped over the line while under tension. This damper will absorb quite a bit of the energy a snapped lines releases, resulting in a cable that falls flat to the ground.

Steel cable also develops burs over time that can slice through skin and is prone to kinks, so precautions such a wearing a pair of gloves is mandatory. The weight of Steel cable and the proper Roller Fairlead is also fairly significant when compared to Synthetic, coming in at ~30lbs heavier than an 80ft length of comparable Synthetic line.

Synthetic Cable

Fairly new to the 4-wheeling scene, Synthetic cable has been around since the 80s in the form of Dyneema Sk75. This line was originally designed for long line fishermen and was first sold commercially to the 4x4 industry in the 90s.

Synthetic is seen as a major advancement in our industry, but is it?

Synthetic cable is inherently fragile when exposed to sharp objects and when debris finds its way through the woven fibers. This type of cable is weakened by UV radiation and with prolonged exposure, damage to the fibers will occur, significantly lowering the cable’s capacity. The cost of this line has decreased over the years, but it is still an investment when compared to Steel.

Also, excessive heat from your winch drum can damage Synthetic cable. If you are pulling for an extended period of time, it is recommended to take a break to allow your winch to cool off, especially if you have an older model.

So why is Synthetic winch line sales booming?

To start, Synthetic line stores very little energy. When it snaps, it simply falls flat to the ground, significantly reducing the potential for injury associated with failed lines under tension. Synthetic line is also quite a bit lighter then Steel, saving a valuable amount of weight that would normally hang over the front bumper.

When handled and maintained properly, the service life of Synthetic cable is comparable to Steel. Even though there is no industry standard for overall lifespan, many individuals are running their original lines for 10yrs+. Synthetic line, should it snap or become frayed, the ability to field repair is quite possible. There are a few repair kits out on the market and a repair is as simple as following the directions.

Just like Steel cable, maintaining your Synthetic line is paramount to its longevity. Most notable is washing your winch line after dragging it through the sand, mud, etc. to remove small pieces of debris. By following this simple rule, you will significantly reduce the chance of damaging the fibers.

Another benefit of Synthetic is its ability to easily unspool/spool onto your winch. This line is resistant to kinking and with proper technique, you are not likely to create a spider’s nest on your winch.

Side-by-Side Comparison

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The Verdict

With just about every piece of equipment and tool you own, what’s “best” is different for everybody. If you run a rig that lives in the deep mud or you find yourself regularly patrolling sharp rocks, Steel cable may be the best option for you.

Steel cable is more resistant to damage and even though there are ways to operate Synthetic line in these environments, Steel line in the king over rough terrain and for moving objects such as fallen trees.

However, if the higher price of Synthetic line does not deter you, it’s the favorite amongst many wheelers who prefer the advantages of the extra margin of safety, light weight, ease of use and the ability to field repair this line. If you are considering Synthetic line and feel your conditions are just too harsh for its use, you can easily find it spooled on winches in environments ranging from the ice in Greenland to the heat of Australia.

Synthetic line is a formidable opponent against the legacy Steel line, but what’s the right choice for you?

For additional information and opinions regarding these two types of lines and many other products within your Recovery Toolkit, please visit the Recovery Equipment section of www.gmc4x4.com

Author: Craig (Sparg93)


Good points.


I had steel, went to synthetic, but on big trips I take the steel along in case the syn gets trashed, but so far so good.