If you’re new to boat ownership, you may be wondering how you’re supposed to get your boat from one body of water to the next. While the answer might be simple – with a trailer – the actual intricacies of how to go about maneuvering your trailer and boat from one place to another can be intimidating at first.

Combine this with actually launching your boat from the staging area, and it’s no wonder new boaters are overwhelmed by the entire process.

Let this brief guide to boat trailering basics help you make your next launch a successful one. 

Learning to Maneuver Your Boat & Trailer

The first step to boat trailering basics is to take your time to learn how your trailer moves. It is recommended that you grab an experienced buddy, hitch up your trailer, and head to an empty parking lot to practice.  

Understand Acceleration, Braking, and Length

The key with your trailer is to take it very slowly, remain calm, and be aware of the extra length behind you. Depending on the specs of your trailer and the size of your boat, you could be hauling an extra 20’-60’ feet behind you.

Unlike your vehicle, adding on a trailer is going to cut down how quickly you can accelerate, and require you to adjust your braking distance by more than double as any sudden stops can cause your trailer to jackknife or fishtail. This can be incredibly dangerous to both you and the surrounding vehicles.

Become Comfortable With Wide Turns & Reversing

When you go to practice in an empty lot, become extremely familiar with how long it takes you to bring your vehicle up to speed, and how long it takes for you to successfully stop.  Once you have this down, work on taking slow, and wide turns, as your trailer is going to follow the direction you pull it in and not follow your vehicle’s wheels.

Without wide turns, you’re going to cut over corners, run up on curbs, and potentially hit walls or barriers.   Finally, when reversing, go extremely slow and don’t make any sharp turns, as this will cause your trailer to pivot 90 degrees in the opposite direction.

Do a Mechanical Pre-Road Check

Once you’ve become comfortable bringing your trailer up to speed, braking with it, making wide turns and reversing, now it’s time to become familiar with the mechanical pre-road check.  To make sure that your trailer is ready for the road, here is what you need to do: 

  • Make sure that your boat trailer capacity plate can carry the weight of your boat, motor, fuel, and any additional gear that you’re bringing along. You do not want to exceed this weight.
  • Make sure that the tongue weight of your boat also matches the capacity plate on the trailer. If the tongue of your boat is too heavy, it will become difficult to steer it, while too light, and your boat could fishtail. 
  • Match your trailer class to a proper hitch for your boat. The coupler you use should never be smaller than the ball hitch size. Always securely connect your ball and hitch, and use an X pattern underneath the hitch when connecting your safety chains. In the event that your hitch becomes disconnected, the safety chains will catch the hitch and prevent it from smacking the road at speed.
  • Plug in your trailer lights to make sure that they are working both on the trailer, but also with your vehicle headlights and hazard lights. If they are, take note of the length of the cables and how much “give” they have. You want trailer lights that are long enough when connected that you can make your wide turns, but not too long that they drag on the ground. 
  • If your trailer has emergency brakes, now is the time to verify that they work. 

Once you’ve done the above, you can move to loading your boat up and onto the trailer. The key here is to make sure that it is centered on the trailer, and that any gear you’re bringing along is also evenly distributed.

Other than this, make sure everything is tied down properly, and adjust your side view mirrors to get a clear view of both your trailer and the traffic that will be behind you.

Now you can head over to the launch site!

Arriving at the Launch Site & Staging Area

When you reach the launch site, look for a staging area. This is a designated area, often away from the ramp lanes, where you can complete all of your pre-launch preparation. While in this staging area, you will want to: 

  • Load up all safety equipment into the boat 
  • Remove any tie-downs from the boat
  • Check the battery and motor to ensure they are working
  • Firmly place your drain plug
  • Prepare your dock lines and raise your antennas
  • Transfer coolers, bags, and gear into the boat.

Don’t forget to grab the wheel chocks to place behind your vehicle tires for when you go to launch your boat and consider asking a second person to spot you during the launch. 

Launching Your Boat

When it comes time to take your turn to back your boat down the launch ramp, make sure to go slow! As long as your dock lines are ready, you have fuel in the tank, your fenders are out, and you have patience, you’ll be able to launch successfully.

If you’re really nervous, watch some YouTube videos on how the launch process works beforehand, or ask a more experienced boater at the staging area to help. 

You’re In the Water! What to do Next?

Now that your boat is in the water, turn your vehicle off, and throw the wheel chocks behind your wheels. Go hop into your boat and run it down the dock to make room for the next person at the launch site. Once this is done, you can return to shore and move your vehicle and trailer to the parking lot.

If there are a ton of boaters already at the dock and there isn’t room to complete your launch, you may need to wait until some move out onto the water.  

Final Tips: Use Defensive Boating & Be Aware

During the entire process of trailering your boat to launching it, it is critical that you have situational awareness of what is going on in your surroundings. This includes being conscious of other boaters both on the road, at the launch site, and in the water, and mindful of the direction and speed of other boats after you’ve launched.  

Keep your eyes open for things like rocks, buoys, obstacles, sea animals, paddlers, non-boaters, and other inexperienced boaters who may not be as aware as you.  Beyond this, pay attention to the water and weather conditions, as these can change in an instant and may be cause for concern.