Boat trailer basics

What you need to know before buying

By Pat LynchPat Lynch

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Bunks or rollers?

Whether you opt for a simple or deluxe trailer, you’ll be deciding between two basic styles: bunks or rollers. For easy loading and unloading, roller trailers can’t be beat, making them a popular choice for lake hoppers and day trippers. As the name implies, this style employs a set of rollers for boat support, allowing you to easily roll the boat on and off the trailer — a critical factor if you’re using steep, shallow, or uneven boat launches, says Gordon. The rollers also help centre the boat as you winch it out of the lake. But keep a close eye on their condition over periods of frequent use, since the wheels can begin to flatten, giving the boat hull uneven support.

Bunk trailers, which use material- covered planks, or bunks, instead of rollers to support the hull, are generally acknowledged to be the superior choice for infrequent users and boaters looking for long-term storage. “Bunk trailers give better support,” says Jacobs, “and that makes them better for storage because the weight of the boat is more evenly distributed.” While primarily suited for use on level, well-maintained boat launches,bunk trailers will load more easily on steeper launches if the bunks are thoroughly soaked down.

If you’re interested in saving yourself a few bucks (and who isn’t?), the used market will often have some goodies, but you’ll still have to find a trailer tailored to your boat’s needs and uses. Exercise caution when buying used and carefully consider the suitability and condition of the trailer you’re checking out. As Tom Blight points out, “It’s always ‘buyer beware.’ Most of the time, your eyes are going to tell you a whole lot of the story.” After 26 years in the marine industry, he has a few suggestions for prospective buyers: “Check out the tires. See what kind of shape they’re in and look for uneven wear patterns, which can indicate alignment problems or a bent axle. Same goes for the bunks and rollers. You can easily put some new material over a worn-out bunk, but rollers are another story.” Worn rollers will need to be replaced at a cost ranging anywhere from $6–$30 apiece. Test the lights, jack up the trailer, and spin the wheels so you can listen to the bearings, and take a close look at the tongue, Blight advises. If the trailer’s been fishtailed, the tongue could be bent, making it unsafe for road travel. But don’t reject a used candidate just because it doesn’t look like a million bucks. “A painted trailer can look pretty crummy if it’s a couple of years old,” says Blight, “but it still may work great.”

Maintaining your investment

Once you’ve picked the perfect trailer and tailored it to your needs, you’re going to want to keep it on the road for as long as possible. And that means taking care of your investment. Wheel bearings are a good place to start. Aside from simply keeping them greased so that they won’t seize or overheat, Jacobs suggests replacing them every three years, or any time you notice rust accumulating on the bearing surface — a sure sign that you’ve got a leaky seal. Trailer tires must also be closely inspected — check for pressure, uneven tread wear, cracking, and general deterioration on a regular basis. “There are only two reasons you see a trailer broken down,” says Blight. “One’s a tire and the other is a wheel bearing. You’ve got to treat your tires like the truckers you see on the side of the road — they get out there and bang ’em to make sure they’re okay. The bearings are a bit harder, but if you put your hand on the hub and it’s really hot, you’ve got a problem in there.” A hot hub is an indication of friction inside the wheel bearing, likely caused by poor lubrication or a failed bearing seal. Keeping your trailer’s parts well-lubricated will also help extend their life. Sandy Gordon recommends trailer owners regularly oil the hitch mechanism and tongue-jack pins as well as perform a check of the lighting systems every time the trailer is hooked up for the road. Look for corrosion on the plugs. And for those who find themselves on the road early in the season, he suggests a regular trip to the car wash if there’s still salt on the roads, particularly if your trailer is painted, not galvanized.

This spring, as I pull away from the boat launch in usual Relic style, snarling through the May drizzle, I know that the only landlubber worth its salt will be rolling down the road, on its way to the cottage garage to hibernate until duty once again calls.


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