A boat on a trailer is like having a passport to go cruising on the more than 200,000 lakes and rivers in the United States. Not enough? Venturing north of the border puts many of Canada’s 2 million lakes within trailering distance. The key to taking advantage of this freedom to hit the road is to make sure your trailer, tow vehicle and skill to use them are all up to the task.
Right-sizing a trailer for your boat and expected maximum load is the first step to successful towing. First, calculate the boat and motor’s weight with a full load of fuel (6 pounds per gallon), water (8.4 pounds per gallon) and gear (10% of the total weight is a good guesstimate).
Then multiply that total by 1.1 for an extra safety margin. A trailer’s load capacity can usually be found on the VIN label on the left frame rail just behind the tongue junction. If the total weight is close to a trailer’s max, go one size larger. For length, most trailer manufacturers use a minimum to maximum bow eye to drain plug measurement to determine if a boat will sit properly on the trailer.
The Tow Vehicle
There are lots of number and letters associated with a tow vehicle’s capacity ratings but the one that matters most is the gross combined vehicle weight (GCVW), which is the number calculated in the paragraph above plus the weight of the tow vehicle with full fuel load, max passengers and the gear you might haul if your family was going on vacation. Ordering a vehicle with a towing package will help boost its capability. Again, if you are close to the vehicle’s max, go one size larger.
2021 Ford F-Series and Ram 1500 Series pickups allow the driver to direct the trailer’s path by twisting a knob on the dash when backing up.
2021 GMC and Chevy Heavy Duty trucks: The latest Silverado HD and Sierra HD have available "see-through "Transparent Trailer View technology that uses up to 15 cameras to stitch together camera views to let you see what's behind the trailer while towing
Having a great trailer and tow vehicle won’t matter if you have a trailer hitch that’s not up to the task. Hitches are rated by their max weight towing ability: Class 2 (3,500 lbs.), Class 3 (8,000 lbs.), Class 4 (10,000 lbs.), Class 5 (10,000 lbs.).
- Check tire inflation and condition and make sure lug nuts are in place and tight.
- Look underneath to inspect springs and beams.
- Drop the trailer hitch onto the ball, close the couple and attach the safety pin.
- After plugging the trailer’s electric plug to your tow vehicle, make sure the turn signals and brake lights are operational.
- Double-check the connection between trailer and trailer hitch ball and make sure the safety chains are crossed and are attached to the vehicle from underneath.
- Inspect tie-down straps and transom-saver bar on your engines lower unit.
- Make sure there are no loose items in the boat that could fly out.
- When the vehicle is moving, try the brakes to make sure they are functional. If there is a gravel parking lot nearby, stop hard and look for skid marks to ensure each brake is working.
- If your drive to the ramp is lengthy, stop after 15 minutes and place your hand near the hub to detect excessive heat, which can indicate bearing failure.
- Adjust your rearview mirrors until your tow vehicle is barely out of the mirror’s view.
- Drive as smoothly as possible; gentle acceleration and braking help avoid sudden shifts in weight.
- Allow more space between your vehicle and the one in front of you. The gap should be four seconds or more.
- Checking your rearview mirror more often than normal will heighten your situational awareness and will be a constant reminder you are towing a boat — an especially important factor when turning.
Getting Ready To Launch
- Get ready to launch in the parking lot, not on the ramp.
- Put in the drain plug!
- Remove towing straps, boat cover and transom saver.
- Place items you’re taking along onboard.
- Attach the bowline and get chalks for your vehicle’s rear tires ready.
- Double-check drain plug!
- Place your hand at the bottom of the wheel and move it the direction you want the trailer to go. New boaters should practice this technique in an empty parking lot until it becomes automatic.
- When the tow vehicle starts down the ramp’s incline, stop the rig and shift into neutral. Few people do this but by letting gravity gently pull your trailer down the ramp instead of having the engine pushing it makes it far less susceptible to wandering off line.
- When the boat is far enough in the water to just begin to float, stop the vehicle. While keeping your foot on the brake, place it in park and engage the parking brake.
- Place the chalks under the rear wheels of your tow vehicle to prevent it from rolling back and unhook the tow strap from the bow eye.
- The person onboard should lower the engine or outdrive, start the motor and gently back it off the trailer. If it won’t move easily, back up the trailer until it can break free.
- Make a mental note of how far the trailer is submerged.
Retrieving the Boat
- Back the trailer down the same distance as when you launched it, place the vehicle in park and set the emergency brakes.
- The boat driver should slowly drive the boat as far on the trailer as possible.
- After attaching the tow strap to the bow eye, the driver should keep their left foot on the brake, put the vehicle in low and then slowly add throttle with the right foot while releasing the parking brake when they feel the load try to move forward.
- If the ramp is too slick to gain traction, try unloading the boat and backing the trailer down at an angle to reduce the amount of incline.
- Pull the boat into the parking lot, remove the drain plug, attach the tow strap, stow all loose items then hop in the vehicle and start the conversation about what a great day you had on the water!