Boat Trailering Guide: How To Trailer Safely

More than 90% of recreational boats are trailerable, which means that trailering your boat becomes an integral part of your boating experience. Knowing how to care for a trailer, launch and load a boat, drive a car or truck with a trailered boat attached and maintain the trailer are all skills that must be learned to enjoy safe and fun boating. Here are some tips on how to become a boat trailering pro!

What are the main parts of a boat trailer?

Although not all boat trailers are the same, there are common parts and it helps to know their names because you may need a good grasp on the vocabulary if you need to describe a malfunction to a mechanic or are buying a replacement part.

Chevy Pickup Truck With Boat Trailer At Ramp
Chevy Pickup Truck With Boat Trailer At Ramp

Tongue, chains and jack

The tongue is at the forward end of the trailer that connects to the tow vehicle. Although opinions vary, most agree that the weight at the tongue should be 5%-12% of the gross weight of the boat and trailer combined. So if the rig weighs 5,000 pounds, tongue weight should be around 500 pounds. Two safety chains function as backups in case the coupler detaches from the vehicle. The chains should be cross below the coupler to form a cradle in case of unexpected detachment. A jack just behind the coupler is operated with a crank to raise and lower a small wheel, which supports the trailer when not attached to the tow vehicle. The wheel helps the trailer be moved small distances by hand for fine adjustments when storing the rig.

Winch stand, winch and bow stop

Toward the forward end of the trailer, the winch stand points up from the main axis of the platform and holds the winch that’s used to pull the boat farther onto the trailer. When properly loaded, the stem (bow end) of the boat rests up against the bow stop, which may be either a roller or a V-block. Often, there’s also a spare tire holder mounted on the winch stand or nearby.

Bunks, rollers and wobble rollers

Boat bunks (also called skids or slides) are long planks that support and guide the hull of the boat on the trailer. They can be made of wood covered with carpeting or plastic/composite. Some trailers don’t have bunks. Instead, they use rollers that are usually clustered and some articulate (wobble rollers) to help load and unload the hulls.

Lights, brakes and guides

Lights should be waterproof since boat trailers are submerged when loading and launching. There is a plug at the coupler that connects the lights to the vehicle for power. This may also connect the brakes for trailers that are equipped with them. Lights may be located on the back light board below the boat or at the top of guides that are poles, which extend vertically to help guide the boat when the trailer is submerged and hard to see.

Fenders, tires and wheel hubs

Trailer wheels often have fenders that are useful for standing on when unloading a boat or adding a cover. Trailers may have single, double or even triple axles depending on the weight of the boat so they can carry two to six tires plus a spare. The wheel hub assembly connects the axle to the tires. It requires periodic maintenance, greasing and bearing care.

Axles and leaf springs

Leaf springs are a form of shock absorber near the axle. They wear out and should be inspected, re-packed with grease and/or replaced periodically. Like tow vehicles, trailers have axles (sometime multiples) and they should be check periodically for cracks, especially with frequent driving on uneven roads.

Straps and cables

The winch uses a cable or strap to snug the boat up onto the trailer. It should be checked regularly for fray. Transom straps hold the back of the boat on the trailer during transport.

How To Safely Launch And Load A Boat Trailer

To ensure a safe launch and retrieval of your boat, there are a number of steps as well as proper ramp etiquette to follow that will keep the peace on a busy weekend.

Launching A Boat At A Ramp

Arrive at the ramp and check on your place in line. Pull to the side and remove the boat cover and any straps. Put in the drain plug and disconnect the lights for better longevity of the bulbs. Don’t disconnect the safety chains and don’t unhook the winch hook from the bow eye. Load in gear as necessary. Decide whether to have a driver in the boat or whether you’ll have a line on the boat to pull it to a dock.

Back down the ramp, lower the outboards or sterndrives, unhook the bow eye and start the engine(s). Drive off the trailer. Pull up to a dock and off the ramp. Load the boat at the dock quickly and make room for others.

Loading A Boat

Back down the ramp until the vehicle’s tires just reach the water’s edge and the trailer is submerged. (For shallower ramps where the boat will not be in adequate depth, this may not be deep enough.) Put on the emergency brake and motion the boat over. Passengers and extra gear should be offloaded at the dock.

Drive or float the boat onto the trailer using the guides if available. Power loading, applying power on the boat engine(s) to load farther up onto the trailer may damage the boat or trailer and erode the ramp. Some facilities don’t allow power loading.

Once the boat is centered and supported, winch the boat up until the bow touches the post. In a high cross wind or in a chop, it may be difficult to center the boat and keep it there while you attach the hook. If it’s possible to wait for the weather to clear, do so. If not, take extra caution to keep hands, feet, etc. out of the way of moving parts.

Slowly drive up the ramp and out of the way of others to finish preparations to get under way. Remove the plug and drain the boat. Add all necessary tie-down straps and cross the safety chains under the hitch. Plug lights in and couple the brakes if needed. Check the functionality of the lights for running, braking and signaling. Ensure the hitch is seated properly and the tongue is locked down. Add and secure the cover if there is one.

If you’re new to the process of launching and loading, consider creating a checklist that will ensure nothing is forgotten.

Tips for safely driving when towing a boat on a trailer

Driving with a trailer changes the way you drive a vehicle. Be mindful of the new element in the equation and take extra caution to stay safe on the road.

Make wider turns

You may have an extra 20 or 30 feet behind you when towing so tight turns won’t be possible. Make sure the entire trailer can make the turn, not just the tow vehicle.

Compensate for weight and windage

A vehicle that is towing 5,000 pounds of boat and trailer will not be able to stop in the same distance and will not handle the same way as usual. Give yourself extra time to accelerate or slow down and more room to merge into traffic or stop. Pump the brakes slowly to avoid jackknifing the whole rig. If it’s windy, the trailer may fishtail or the boat may become an unsteady kite attached to your vehicle. Slow down. Do not exceed the vehicle manufacturer’s towing recommendations and give yourself extra time for the trip.

Back safely

When in reverse, place your hands on the bottom of the steering wheel. The trailer will move to the side that your hands do. This also allows you to face forward and use your mirrors to back into a parking space or down a launch ramp.

Use your signal lights

It’s more important than ever to use your signal lights when turning or merging because you now have a long (and potentially) wide load so you must let drivers around you know your intentions. Before each departure, ensure all lights are working properly.

Keep a fire extinguisher handy

Trailer wheels and parts get hot. Anything can happen so keep a fire extinguisher in the back of your tow vehicle or mounted on the trailer for immediate use if necessary.

What kind of maintenance do boat trailers require?

Just like the boat, a trailer needs periodic inspection and maintenance. Nearly half of reported trailer problems center on tire failure so proper care is key.

Check tire pressure regularly and inspect the sidewalls for cracks or dry rot and the tread for wear. Check the spare to ensure the lug nuts haven’t rusted and can be removed in case of a flat. If storing the boat/trailer for long periods of downtime, fully inflate the tires, wash them with soap and water, and take the load off by jacking the trailer up if possible.

Inspect U-bolts, winch stands, axles, cross beams and hitch couplers/tongues and the winch cable/strap. Tighten and clean all as necessary. Check transom straps as well as safety chains regularly.

Periodically, inspect the trailer for cracks and tighten loose bolts. Do this often if you drive on bumpy roads.

Ensure that the bunk covering (carpet) isn’t worn or matted to the point where it will act as a break when loading or launching. Make sure all rollers are functional and that they turn easily.

Regularly lubricate wheel hubs with grease and check the bearings, which will need to be re-packed annually. Also spray lubricant on the jack gear and coupler/tongue. If submerging the trailer in saltwater, rinse with fresh when possible.

Check brake lights, running lights and turn signals and their wiring. Carry spare bulbs and fuses in the trailer travel kit.

Safety tips for fueling a boat on a trailer

Take extra precautions at the pump. Know the boat’s fuel tank capacity and don’t top up because cool fuel that comes up from underground will expand when heated in the sun and on a hot road. Don’t walk away while the boat is fueling and slow down the fueling as you reach the top. (Usually the sound will change as the tank fills.)

Know where your boat’s tank vent is and make sure it is not overflowing. Fuel with the boat level and fill multiple tanks evenly to keep the boat and trailer in balance.

How to properly size a trailer to a boat
Find the metal or plastic certification label attached to the left forward side of your trailer to check the maximum load-carrying capacity. The Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) is the load-carrying capacity plus the weight of the trailer. Don’t allow the total weight of your boat, engine, gear, and trailer to exceed the GVWR.

If you’re shopping for a new tow vehicle, consider the GVWR and make sure the horsepower is adequate. A dealer or the boat’s manufacturer should be able to supply information on the capacity of the trailer or the weight of a given boat.

How to safely store a boat and trailer
Keep a boat covered when storing. Keeping it clean and waxed will help its overall condition. The trailer should have had all maintenance performed prior to long-term storage and the tires should be inflated.

There are numerous locking systems available for the tongue so that a trailer cannot be moved or stolen. A combination of a trailer wheel boot and a tongue lock will be most secure.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do I need separate boat trailer insurance when towing?

Boat insurance will cover damage to your boat trailer, but there is no liability coverage. On the other hand, car insurance covers the trailer but not third party liability. Auto and boat policies vary so check the details with your agent but you can purchase separate trailer insurance just to be sure. Also, insurance may not cover items such as trailer towing by an assistance vehicle needed due to tire damage. Most boat insurance companies offer a rider that provides roadside assistance for trailers.

Some small trailerable boats may be added to homeowner policies. When calling an agent, be prepared with the boat’s length, motor brand (if any) and its horsepower.

Do boat trailers need to be registered?

Boat trailers do need to be registered with the DMV. Depending on the size of the trailer, a title may or may not be needed. Depending on the sate, trailers may have an annual registration plate or a permanent license plate affixed to the back.

Do I need a license to tow a traileable boat on the road?

Unless your load exceeds eight feet in width, there is no special permit or license needed to tow a trailerlable boat.

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