How to Trailer a Boat Safely

Get on the water faster by using this step-by-step guide to tow a boat.

Here's how to use your towing system to trailer a boat safely:

Step 1: Know your towing capacity.

Check your vehicle's owner's manual for the towing capacity of your car, truck or SUV and make sure the combination of your boat, trailer and supplies won't exceed it.

  • If you drive a small car (like a family sedan), you can probably tow a small boat, but it's unlikely you can tow a large boat. Standard pick-up trucks and SUVs can trailer boats up to 25 feet, but check the owner's manual to be sure.
  • The boat's manual will tell you the "dry weight" of the boat, which is the total boat weight without fuel and gear. Add several hundred pounds to account for fuel, water skis, coolers, and other items that will add to the weight of the boat.

Step 2: Check the hitch

Most towing relies on a ball and coupler system. The receiver is mounted to the tow vehicle and the ball mount is fitted inside the receiver. On the front of the trailer, a coupler joins the ball mount and links the tow vehicle and trailer. Sway control and spring bars promote weight distribution and load leveling.

Make sure the loaded tow vehicle and trailer are level so the hitch works properly. To verify:

  1. Measure the distance between the vehicle and the ground in the front and back.
  2. Hitch the trailer and adjust the tension on the spring bars so the tow vehicle remains at roughly the same attitude (that means if the rear drops an inch after hitching, the front should also drop an inch).
  3. Inspect the trailer to be sure it's level. If it is not, the hitch ball height should be raised or lowered.

Hitch failure is rare, but safety chains are required for travel trailers to prevent the trailer from separating from the tow vehicle. The chains should be crossed in an "X" fashion below the ball mount, with enough slack to allow unrestricted turning. Breakaway switches are also required so that if the tow vehicle separates from the trailer brakes can be activated.

Step 3: Distribute the load

Weigh the trailer to help you properly distribute and balance the load, placing 10 to 15 percent of the trailer's total weight on the front axle (and onto the hitching mechanism) to enhance stability.

To calculate how much weight to put in the front:

  1. Visit a local public scale (a quick internet search of "public scales near me" should help you find one).
  2. Park your loaded trailer on a scale so that the hitch coupler extends beyond the end of the scale, but the tongue jack post (the post on the front of the trailer that rests on the ground when unhitched) is on the scale.
  3. Block the trailer wheels, unhitch the tow vehicle. Note the weight. This is the curb weight of the trailer vehicle.
  4. Place a jack stand (or 4" x 4" blocks) under the coupler and beyond the scale so that the tongue jack post is supported off the scale and the trailer is fairly level. Log this weight rating.
  5. Subtract the reading in line 2 from the reading in line 3 for the hitch weight.

Use the hitch weight to determine where to place supplies in the boat. If it is more than 10 percent of the curb weight, load heavier supplies in the back, at the bottom to keep the center of gravity low and ensure the best handling. If the hitch weight is less than 10 percent of the curb weight, load heavy supplies in the front. You may need spring bars rated for more weight if you cannot keep the tow vehicle from sagging in the back.

Conduct routine maintenance

Because the hubs and lights get dunked each time you launch and retrieve your boat, you'll need to inspect them regularly. Add grease if the hubs are dry. Ask a friend to help you test brake lights, taillights, and turn signals.

Need a step-by-step guide? Download this boat-towing checklist and use it every time you trailer a boat.