Trailering Your Boat: Seven Items to Check Every Time

Yes, I know, a headline like that can come across as a pedantic wet blanket. You could read it that way — I get that, but here’s the way it was intended: There are things you should check on your trailer each time you tow your boat on it,  so that you’re aware of its overall condition and you don’t get stranded or hurt, or hurt somebody else. I look at seven things, myself. So that explains the title.

New truck, new trailer, new boat. The trailer may be the least sexy part of that trio, but it still needs to be monitored just as carefully.

New truck, new trailer, new boat. The trailer may be the least sexy part of that trio, but it still needs to be monitored just as carefully.

If you make it a practice to look over these items you’ll be more aware of what needs to serviced or replaced,  and you can deal with each component’s condition at your convenience, rather than after a breakdown away from home. Those are never convenient.

1. Electrical connections — Before you plug in your electrical connector, take a look at the terminals inside it. Are they corroded? If they get too corroded they won’t conduct electricity, which means your lights won’t work no matter how many times you change bulbs. Also, have a look at the condition of the wiring. It’s not so much a problem on late-model stuff, but wiring that sits out in the sun can dry-rot and the jacketing can crack.

2. Coupler — This also isn’t much of a problem on more modern trailers, but believe it or not, couplers can wear out. I had my trailer in for service once and they called to tell me the coupler needed to be replaced because the tongue lock no longer clamped tightly to the trailer hitch ball. I had no idea. If your trailer tongue is light enough, lift up on the tongue after you have locked the coupler to ensure it doesn’t come off the hitch ball. I’ve had them come undone before and it’s really unpleasant.

3. Safety Chains — Chains tend to take more abuse than you might think. They drag the ground often and are subject to dunking in fresh and salt water. On a cross-country trip, I once wore through a few chain links because of how much they were dragging the ground. Eyeball their condition every time, and always be sure to crisscross them under the tongue. That way, if your coupler does come unhitched, the chains form a cradle to catch the tongue.

4. Lights — We all likely check our lights before we take off, and it’s a good idea. What with all the dunkings they take, it’s a rough service life. Failed lights are also a ticketable offense, so make it a habit to check them before you go out. On older trailers, they tend to go out often enough to warrant replacing the whole lamp assembly. When you do replace them, skip the incandescent bulbs and go for LEDs. They’re superior in every way.

5. Brakes — It’s easier to check trailers with electric brakes, but it’s still important on surge brakes. You’ll know if they work the first time you step on the brakes. I like to have a look at the master cylinder atop the tongue before I shove off. I check for leaks and corrosion at the fittings and at the cap.

6. Bow strap and pinch roller — While you’re checking components on the tongue, keep an eye on the bow strap. The threads that stitch everything together can break down with exposure to salt air and UV radiation. Likewise, the pinch roller can crack and split as years accumulate, and the bolt it spins on can rust to the point of failure. Keeping your boat on the trailer is important, so these pieces are critical.

7. Tires – Trailer tires don’t last as long as you think, and they darn sure don’t last as long as we would like. Two years is a good service life and three years is pushing it. Trying to get any more out of them is false economy, and if they separate from the rim they can damage your trailer and your boat. Check for dry rot and splitting. True story: When I got back from a five-hour drive home on the freeway, I just happened to notice steel belts peeking through a separation in the tread. That tire was about three years old, and nearly stranded me. Never again.

Let’s face it. Trailers aren’t sexy. I don’t mind working on a boat, because it’s a pleasure craft — but I loathe working on trailers because there’s nothing pleasurable about them. However, that non-pleasure increases exponentially when they break down, so it pays to face the lesser of evils before that happens.

A previous version of this article appeared on Boat Trader in July 2015.