Tips on Trailering Your Boat

advanced boating

Well how do you trailer your boat?

Your Boat Trailer

Your boat trailer is an important part of your boating equipment.  All too often, a trailer does not receive the attention that it demands and deserves.  After selecting the appropriate trailer for you boat and tow vehicle, proper maintenance and continual care when hitching and towing are necessary.  If care and maintenance are neglected, you may be endangering the safety of your boat, your car, your family, yourself and others.

Selecting the Proper Trailer for your Boat

Two important needs should be considered in determining the proper trailer for your boat: the boat’s needs and your needs.

First, the trailer should “fit the boat,” allowing equal distribution of the hull weight.  The trailer should be long enough to eliminate any overhang of the boat transom but short enough to accommodate a propulsion unit of the boat in its fully extended or “down” position.  The trailer should be designed to carry the total weight of the hull, engine, equipment and extra gear normally carried.

Second, a boat which will always be hoisted in and out of the water does not need a trailer as elaborate as the types of trailers used for launching.  Shallow sloping shores or unimproved launch sites may call for a “tilting,” “breakaway,” or extending-tongue trailer.  A trailer that meets your boating needs makes launching and retrieving easier and safer.

Hitching Up your Boat Trailer

Trailer hitches come in a variety of shapes and sizes.  Most boat trailers connect to a ball hitch that is bolted or welded to the towing vehicle.  Clamp-on bumper hitches are not recommended for heavy loads or continual towing.  The weight a loaded trailer places on the hitch of the towing vehicle is called the tongue weight.  Special heavy-duty equalizing hitches are recommended for trailer tongue weights of 250 pounds or greater.  Improper installation of heavy-duty equalizing hitches on trailers equipped with surge brakes can cause brakes to lock, (follow instructions carefully).  The trailer hitch itself should match the size of the ball hitch.  NEVER use a ball hitch that is too small.

It is recommended that the coupling hitch on the trailer have a lock or similar device to prevent it from vibrating loose.  Periodically lubricate the hitch for longer wear and quieter turns.  The trailer must be equipped with a least one, preferably two, safety chains strong enough to control the trailer if the hitch should come loose or break.  The chains should be securely attached to the towing vehicle at a place separate from the ball and bracket.  The chains should be long enough to allow turning but not long enough to drag on the ground.

Loading your Boat Trailer

The weight of the boat, equipment, and additional gear should never exceed the manufacturer’s rated weight capacity.  Proper distribution of the load is of vital importance.

Too much weight on the hitch will cause “tail dragging” of the towing vehicle, impair steering and raise the beam of your car’s headlights into the eyes of oncoming traffic.

Too little, or negative, weight on the hitch will cause the trailer to sway or “fishtail.”

The solution to proper distribution of the load is to adjust the wheel carriage either forward or back.  If the carriage cannot be adjusted, relocate movable gear.  If this fails to correct the problem, consider another trailer of a different design or consult a trailer specialist who may recommend corrective measures.

Towing Your Trailer Boat

Under most states laws, it is an infraction to tow a vessel containing a passenger, except when engaged in launching or retrieving the vessel.

Extra caution is necessary when towing any trailer.  The heavier the rig, the more time it takes to accelerate, pass, and stop.  A long rig requires a larger turning radius.  Curbs and obstructions should be given wide clearance.  Most boats on trailers obstruct the rear view of the driver.  In this case, a rear-view mirror on each side of the towing vehicle is required by law.  The trailer boater should be familiar with traffic and highway laws relating to the towing of trailer.  Contact the local Highway Patrol in you state for further information.

If you are unfamiliar with your trailer or haven’t towed before, spend some time practicing in a place that is spacious and free of traffic.  Take a friend along and practice accelerating, braking, turning, and backing.  Learning to back a trailer up can be confusing at first.  A helpful hint:  while grasping the bottom of the steering wheel, move your hand in the direction you want the trailer to go.  Place some markers out for spacing and practice parking, and if possible, simulate a passing situation so you get an idea of the time and distance required.

Test the brakes before getting on the open road.  Watch the trailer in the rear-view mirror and listen for unusual noises.

After 5 to 10 miles of towing, stop and check the trailer, hitch, chain, tires, lights, wheel bearings and gear in the boat.  On a long-distance tow, repeat this inspection about ever 100 miles.

Launching and Retrieving Your Trailer Boat

Launch facilities are often crowded and busy.  Occupying the ramp for preliminary launching steps is a discourtesy to waiting boaters.  The following tips are offered to ensure safe launching and retrieving.

Before you leave home make sure accessories (blower, bilge pump, lights) are in good working condition.

Prepare the boat for launching in an adjacent parking area (or at the tip of an uncrowded ramp).  Remove all tie-down straps, disconnect trailer wiring from towing vehicle.  Keep winch line connected until just entering the water.  This will prevent the boat from coming off the trailer in the event of an emergency stop while launching.  Load safety equipment and gear into boat.  Check drain plugs.

Don’t let the noise and confusion of a busy ramp rush you.  You will make fewer mistakes if you proceed with a careful and deliberate launch.

Back the trailer to the left if possible.  This will allow better launching visibility.

If you must leave your vehicle on the ramp, set the parking brake, block the wheels, and set the transmission in “park” or first gear for manual transmissions.

If the launching facility has a floating dock you may wish to secure a line at the bow and at the stern of the boat and assign someone to stand on the dock while you “float” the boat off the trailer.

In retrieving your boat, make sure the boat is properly placed on the trailer.  If the boat has an outboard engine, or an inboard/outboard (I/O) unit, raise it before placing the boat on the trailer.  Pull the trailer up steadily to prevent spinning the wheels.

Never allow a person to stand in line with the winch cable when it is loaded or is taut.

Before entering a roadway, make sure lights are connected and working, the tie-down straps or clamps are in place, and the lower I/O unit or outboard is in its trailering position.  Double check your hitch and safety chains.  Remove or secure gear inside the boat to prevent damage from shifting or to prevent lightweight items from blowing out.

Boat Trailer Lights

The majority of states law requires a trailer to have two red taillights on the rear that may be combined with the stop and turn signals.  Trailers over 80 inches wide require clearance light and rear brake lights visible for 500 feet.  A car towing a heavy trailer must have its headlight beams adjusted to compensate for the upward tilt.

If the lights will be submerged, waterproof light fixtures should be used.  Water promotes contact corrosion and may cause the lamp to crack and short out the entire lighting system, so it is a good idea to carry spare lamps.  The wire coupling to the towing should be high enough to stay dry, or disconnected when the trailer is launched.

Never rely on the trailer hitch for electrical ground connection.   A four-pole connectors should be used.

Boat Trailer Wheels

Tires should be inflated to the manufacturer’s recommended pressure.  Carry a spare tire and wheel, and a jack that fits the boat trailer.

If the wheel bearing are submerged, waterproof bearings and caps should be considered.  If water gets into the hub, lubricating grease will wash away and the bearings will eventually burn out or seize, causing damage and creating a safety hazard.  Waterproofed bearing should be inspected prior to each boating season and periodically during the season.  Non-waterproofed bearings should be checked more often.

Carry a spare set of wheel bearings, seals, and grease.

Special care should be given when traveling with small-diameter wheels on unimproved roads.

Trailers over 3,000 pounds gross weight (combined weight of boat, trailer, and gear) must have a braking system.

If a trailer has electric or other power brakes, the braking system must be operated from the towing vehicle and the two vehicles must be able to stop within 40 feet from 20 MPH.

Boat trailer frames and rollers or pads

Rust should not be allowed to accumulate on the trailer frame and roller parts.  If rust forms, remove the rust and repaint with an antirust paint.  Some trailers offer galvanized coating to prevent rust.  Rollers should roll freely and should not have cracks or flat spots.  Pads should not have cracks or flattened areas.  Roller and pads can be adjusted both up and down, and forward and backward to provide the best support.  For most hulls, the vital support points are:

  • Just under the bow
  • The line of the keel and the planking on each side
  • Where the bottom meets the side and where interior weights are concentrated
  • The transom

Towing Vehicles for your trailer boat

Vehicles are limited in towing capacity.  They are designed to carry people and small loads only.  Towing heavy loads places extra demands on the engine, transmission, brakes and other systems.

The essential for any vehicle used for trailer towing are:

  • Adequate power to merge with traffic and climb with a load
  • Heavy-duty engine cooling system
  • Properly running transmission, possibly equipped with a transmission cooler
  • Brakes with premium lighting
  • Heavy-duty springs or air shocks to strengthen suspension
  • Heavy-duty shock absorbers

Towing “packages” are available through most automobile dealers and should be considered for towing heavy boats.  A towing package includes such things as non-slip differential, heavy-duty cooling system, heavy-duty flasher, oversize battery and alternator, heavy-duty suspension, special wiring, special rear-axle ratio, and larger ties and wheels.

Boat Storage

If the boat is stored outside, the drain plug should be removed and the trailer and boat tilted slightly to allow any accumulation of water to drain.

If a boat cover is used, it should be tailored for the boat.  Water can “puddle” on an improperly fitted cover.  The weight of puddle water can rip the cover or allow the cover to slip off, funneling the water inside the boat.  A top drawstring can pull the cover high to prevent puddling.  A bottom drawstring with tie-downs and weight placed along the bottom will keep the cover from whipping in the wind during towing.  Tires may be covered during storage to eliminate sun damage but covers should be removed during wet weather to prevent damage from dampness.

Do’s and Don’ts at the Boat Ramp

At times boat ramps may be crowded. Suppose every time you launched your boat,  no one was tied up at the dock, and each time you retrieved your boat, the ramp was clear and you waited only momentarily, if at all, for your turn. Enjoying this situation isn’t impossible. It just takes a little application of the Golden Rule and some launch ramp smarts when accesses are crowded. Here are six ideas you can use to make launching and retrieving tolerable for everyone. 

Get to know your favorite boat ramps so you can plan your launching and retrieving for maximum efficiency. Boaters tie up boat ramps because they don’t realize that many access sites have specially built areas for launch preparation and for tie-down after retrieval. These places are called rigging and derigging areas. If we used these places, more boaters could launch and retrieve, and a long line at the ramp itself could be shortened. 

Before you launch your boat at an unfamiliar access, look the place over and decide how you’re going to launch and retrieve for maximum speed and safety. Is there a dock at which you can get your gear ready immediately after launching and where you can secure your equipment before retrieving out of the way of those who are launching and retrieving? Will the wind or current make maneuvering your rig for launching and retrieving difficult? If you launch on a river, will a tide change make you alter your launching and retrieval scheme?

If a boat ramp site doesn’t have rigging and derigging areas, prepare for launching in a parking space. As soon as you retrieve your boat and get it on the trailer, attach the bow hook and make your way slowly to the parking area. There, away from others trying to launch and retrieve their boats, work with your equipment and get ready to leave. Remember that the ramp itself is only for launching and retrieving, not for preparing your boat and gear. 

Before you call it a day and return to the ramp to retrieve your boat, put your tackle away, prepare mooring lines and get everything ready that’s coming out of the boat for storage in your tow vehicle. Don’t perform these tasks on the ramp. You won’t tie up the ramp this way, and you’ll get home faster. In addition, when you launch the next time, organizing your gear this way can help you get under way faster.

If ramps have docks, where you can wait for friends or complete your boating preparations, use them instead of waiting on the launch ramp. You can also beach your boat on smooth shorelines at the launch site either to wait for friends to board or to wait your turn to retrieve your boat.  Make a written checklist for launching and retrieving. You increase your efficiency by getting your gear ready for use and by storing items quickly. A routine governed by a checklist increases your efficiency and lets you spend the least amount of time at the ramp. 

Applying these ideas before you launch can give you and everyone else at the ramp more time on the water. Crowded boat ramp sites don’t always have to mean long waits and frayed nerves. It’s up to us.