Boating Basics Online - Basic Boating Safety Course
Chapter 5 - Preparation

Trailering Your Boat

RV pulling small boat on a trailerThe majority of recreational boats in the United States are trailered to and from the water. Your boat trailer is only one part of the entire boating package, which includes the boat, trailer, hitch and towing vehicle. Neglecting the trailer’s maintenance can result in damage to your boat, your towing vehicle or both.

The trailer must have a load capacity adequate to carry the boat, motor, fuel and all equipment that may be carried in the boat as it is trailered. By law, trailers are classified by the maximum amount they may weigh when fully loaded. It is highly suggested that you never exceed 85% of a trailer's total capacity.

Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR)

Class 1 - GVWR to 2000 lbs. (suggest 1700)
Class 2 - GVWR to 3500 lbs. (suggest 2975)
Class 3 - GVWR to 5000 lbs. (suggest 4250)
Class 4 - GVWR + 5000 lbs. (suggest 85%)

Your trailer will also have a Gross Axle Weight Rating (GAWR), which is used to describe the minimum tire rating needed for that load. It must be at least equal to the GVWR.

All these numbers, plus trailer identification number, are on a capacity plate.

Capacity Plate

Another very important item to consider is the towing vehicle. It also must meet certain performance standards such as engine power, engine cooling, transmission cooling, wiring, brakes, battery, suspension, alternator, axle ratio, tires, and wheels in order to tow the boat and trailer. You should consult your dealer for advice. Each tow vehicle also has a maximum weight that it may pull by law. Again, it is suggested that you not pull more than 85% of the vehicle's limit.

Attaching trailer to car with safety chainsThe trailer is attached to the towing vehicle by a trailer hitch. A socket on the front of the trailer drops over a ball on the back of the hitch and then locks down. These two parts must match in size. The ball size is determined by the class of trailer. The hitch should be permanently attached to the towing vehicle and should handle the load you are attempting to pull. Bumper hitches (attached to bumper only) are illegal in some states and not recommended.

In addition to the trailer's capacity weight, you must also consider "tongue weight." The weight of the trailer tongue that attaches to the towing vehicle should not be more than five to fifteen percent of the total weight of the rig. Adjusting the tongue weight by moving the balance point of the trailer makes the tow more stable. If the tongue weight is too low, the trailer will fishtail at high speed. You should shift weight forward to increase the tongue weight. If the tongue weight is too high, it will drag down the rear of the tow vehicle and make steering difficult.

Examples of incorrect weight distribution
Too much weight on the rear of the trailer will cause the trailer to fishtail and may reduce traction or lift the rear wheels of the tow vehicle off the ground. Too much weight on the hitch will cause the rear wheels of the tow vehicle to drag and may make steering more difficult.

Rollers and/or pads are used to support the boat on the trailer. There should be sufficient support so as not to allow the boat to warp. You should make sure that all support surfaces are in contact with the boat at all times. Tie down straps should be used to secure the boat to the trailer both fore and aft. In addition, all fuel tanks and other equipment inside the boat should be secured so that its weight does not shift during towing.


Preparing to tow safely

Road Handling

The weight that you are trailing will make your towing vehicle less responsive in many respects. Speeding up, slowing down and all maneuvers will require more time to accomplish. Leave more room between you and vehicles in front of you to make sure you can stop should they brake suddenly.

Make sure your side view mirrors are large enough to provide an unobstructed rear view on both sides of the vehicle.

Remember that your turning radius is much greater. Curbs and barriers must be given a wide berth when turning corners. Backing a trailer can be somewhat tricky, but with practice you should be able to accomplish the task in a minimum amount of time. The trailer will turn in the opposite direction of the car; take it slowly and try to avoid oversteering. Prior to operating on the open road, practice turning, backing up, etc. on a level, empty parking lot.


  1. Do initial launch preparations away from the ramp so as not to impede launching for others.
  2. Raise the outdrive or motor, remove the support bracket and install the drain plug.
  3. Disconnect the trailer wiring. Remove tie down straps and again check the drain plug.
  4. Make any equipment adjustments necessary and check the drain plug.
  5. Connect the fuel tank, check fluid levels and check the drain plug.
  6. Drive to the ramp and back the boat and trailer down the ramp, keeping the tow vehicle's wheels out of the water.
  7. Set the emergency brake, shift into Park, and block the wheels.
  8. Someone should get aboard the boat, turn on the blower, lower the motor, look for water entering the boat, sniff the bilge and start the motor.
  9. Make sure you have attached a bow line to the boat, then release the winch and disconnect the winch line.
  10. You should be able to launch the boat with a slight shove or by backing the boat off the trailer under power.
  11. Return the towing vehicle to the parking lot as soon as the boat is launched so the next person in line may proceed.
  12. Move the boat to an area away from the ramp to load additional equipment and passengers.


The steps for retrieving the boat are essentially the reverse of launching. You always should be courteous of others launching and retrieving.

  1. Unload the boat away from the ramp if possible.
  2. Back the trailer into the water, again keeping the tires of the tow vehicle at water's edge, not in the water.
  3. Maneuver the boat carefully onto the submerged trailer, attach a bow line and shut off the engine prior to raising it.
  4. Winch the boat onto the trailer and secure it. Do not stand in direct line with the winch cable. It could break and cause an injury.
  5. Drive the trailer and boat out of the ramp for cleanup, reloading, securing equipment and safety check.
  6. Remove the drain plug to allow water to drain from the bilge.
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