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Boat Trailering Basics

Launching a boat for the first time can be unnerving. Here are some suggestions to smooth the experience out.
By West Marine Staff and Miguel Maldonado, Last updated: 12/1/2021
By West Marine Staff and Miguel Maldonado, Last updated: 12/1/2021
Miguel Maldonado holding up large lingcod

Miguel is an experienced boater you'll find on the water nearly every weekend.

If you are new to trailer boating, backing a boat down a launch ramp under the critical, impatient gaze of more experienced boaters can be unnerving. Recognizing this, we reached out to West Marine crewmember Miguel Maldonado, who has boating in his blood. Miguel routinely trailers his 25‐foot Steiger Craft Chesapeake along the California coast where he enjoys fishing and crabbing on Monterey Bay. In this article, Miguel provides some useful advice and tips to help you build confidence and enjoy a safe trailering experience.

Before You Trailer Your Boat

Miguel says, “trailering can be stressful if you’re new to it.” He also says, “The important thing is to keep calm, slow down and watch your surroundings. You may have anywhere from 15'–35' of extra length behind you, which will cut down on your acceleration and require your braking distance to double, if not triple.” Miguel explains that you should become familiar with how long it takes you to safely bring your vehicle and trailer up to speed and to a stop before driving on a highway. He recommends you take slow, easy turns and break before you think you need to, with gentle pressure to ease into a stop.

Pickup truck hitched to boat on trailer

The larger the boat, the greater the stopping distance and the wider the turning radius.

Take turns wider than you normally would, and “remember that your trailer doesn’t retrace your path the way the back wheels of your car do; it follows the direction you pull it, meaning it may cut over corners unless you take it wide.” When reversing, remember that any sharp turns will push the trailer to pivot to a 90° angle in the opposite direction. Practice backing up with your trailer in an empty parking lot or your neighborhood. Miguel recommends that you pretend “your passenger has a cake in their lap that you don’t want to spill, tilt or drop.”

Getting on the Road

Miguel recommends that you make sure your trailer is ready for the road. “Give your trailer a quick checkup. Plug in your trailer lights and make sure they’re all working like they’re supposed to, and are connected with enough extra length to make turns—but not so much length that the cables drag on the road. Verify that the trailer lights light up when you turn on your vehicle headlights and hazard lights. If your trailer has emergency brakes, verify that they work while stationary. Ensure the ball and hitch are connected securely, and cross your safety chains in an X pattern underneath the hitch so that, if the hitch becomes disconnected, it will fall on the chains and keep your trailer from smacking into the road at speed.”

Diagram showing direction of trailer in relation to steering wheel when backing up

When backing up, turn left to push the back of your trailer right, and right to push it left.

The Staging Area

Once you’ve safely made it to the boat ramp, Miguel recommends that you look for a staging area. “Do not enter the staging area until you are ready to get your boat in the water; no one wants to wait behind someone who’s just passing the time until their friend shows up. Once in the staging area, put your fenders on your boat, raise your antennas, remove straps and prepare your dock lines. Remember, this is a quick-moving line. If you need to take time to transfer coolers, bags, gear or anything else to your boat, do so in a parking lot and then move to the staging line so you aren’t pressured to throw everything in at the last minute.” If your boat has a transom plug, make sure it’s in place before you put your boat in the water As Miguel explains, “failure to do so will cause your boat to begin to sink soon after launch.” Miguel also notes that you should, “have a pair of wheel chocks ready for placement behind your vehicles tires after you have backed down the launch ramp.”

Miguel recommends having someone spot you and provide an extra set of and eyes when you launch your boat.

Aerial view of boats at launch ramp

Launch ramps can be very busy, so be sure to prepare ahead of time!

Backing a boat down a launch ramp into the water can be stressful and requires patience and the careful, slow movements discussed earlier. “Ensure your fenders are out, your dock lines are ready, fuel is topped off and your keys are in the ignition.” Miguel also recommends watching some videos online to get a feel for the process, or launching with an experienced friend to ensure you’re doing so safely and efficiently.

Once in The Water

Once your boat is in the water, common courtesy requires that you walk your boat to the end of the dock to make room for the other boaters waiting to enter the water. Return to your vehicle/trailer, move it to the parking area and hurry back. “If your boat is at the end of the dock, and the dock is full of other boaters waiting for you to head out, you’re probably taking too long. Get into your boat and out of the way quickly so other boaters can enjoy their day, too,” Miguel says, “but remember to keep calm. Rushing can lead to accidents, so your real goal here is to be as efficient as possible before and after you launch.” Take your time with the parts you are worried about or need to practice. Remember that holding up other boaters can lead to stress, which can result in hastiness and accidents.

Pickup truck at launch ramp hitched to submerged trailer with boat on it

The Better Boater

Miguel stresses the need for situational awareness. “Constantly check your surroundings, respect the direction and speed of other boats and act accordingly. Defensive boating is the key to safe boating. Always keep your eyes open for hazards like rocks, buoys that indicate rules or underwater obstacles, floating debris, sea animals, paddlers or other non-boaters in the water—plus green boaters who aren’t aware of their surroundings or haven’t learned the basics yet.” Venture forth with caution, learn and understand the capabilities of your boat and be honest with yourself about your level of boating expertise. Constantly reassess your abilities when facing increased wave action, unique hazards or challenging weather. Miguel always recommends, “If you don’t know, drive slow.”

Two boats on their trailers in parking lot

Check over your boat and trailer before driving back home.

Miguel points out that, “Conditions on the water constantly change. Check the marine weather report a day or two before heading out, and it closely the morning of your trip. Remember that nice weather always brings out more boaters, which will mean dealing with more traffic. This is another time your situational awareness will be tested and you’ll need to be on top of your game.”

Learning to manage your boat safely is like learning to drive a car. With practice, all of this will become second nature to you, and we hope you enjoy every moment. Be safe out there.