Boat trailer basics

What you need to know before buying

By Pat LynchPat Lynch


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Peering between the steering wheel and the wind-whipped canvas roof, I skip the family boat across the dark waters of Manitouwabing Lake, muttering obscenities in tune with each bone-jarring bounce. Decked out in my most precious cottage finery (navy toque slung low, ratty old mittens, and a dirt-encrusted Kenora dinner jacket), I play Beachcombers under threatening skies, grouchiness growing in the guise of Relic as I round that final curve. The rendezvous has been pre-arranged: By the time I pass under the low road bridge, I should see a truck backing down the gentle boat launch, easing our painted bunk trailer into the lake’s frigid depths.

But this year (like every year) I’ve managed to beat the trailer to the boat launch, and this year (once again, like every other bloody year) the weather is horrible. “Landlubbers!” I mutter, staying in character as the outboard idles near the end of the launch-ramp dock. “They’ve no respect for us salty men of the seas! Aaaaargh!” While I begin to plot against Bruno Gerussi, the arrival of truck and trailer cuts my reverie short, and I guide the boat gently into its winter cradle. With straps in place and the craft on an even keel, we pull it from the lake and drive 10 minutes back to the cottage garage, where boat and trailer, united once again for the long winter months, will lie in repose until spring breaks the lake’s winter-long freeze.

It’s a seasonal ritual, and over the years we’ve avoided the financial and logistical hassles of storing the boat in someone else’s space on someone else’s time because the trailer affords us the freedom to move it from lake to land when the season demands. And with a spot to store it at our own cottage, the only downside to the whole operation is my steadily declining Beachcombers impression and the invariably crummy weather.

If you’re considering buying a boat trailer for any reason — be it storage savings, travel, or just because you can’t refuse the deal — be forewarned that the process isn’t as simple as it seems. You can’t just walk into any old marina and pick out a trailer that’s going to work safely for your boat.

Sizing up your vessel

First, you have to know the width and shape of your hull, as well as the length of your watercraft. To determine the length of your boat, measure in a straight line from the transom to the boat eye. Next, says Mark Jacobs, owner of the Marine Cradle Shop in Markham, Ont., buyers should “consider the maximum weight capacity of the boat, fully loaded with gas and gear.” But don’t just go by the brochure weights. Often, your boat manual will only tell you the “dry weight” of the boat, not including fuel, gear, batteries, other accessories, and your engine, if it’s an outboard. Most marinas will be able to give you a rough estimate of the combined weight of your boat and engine by comparisons with similar models but Jacobs recommends that you overestimate your total, simply to ensure safe trailering. “I’d guesstimate gas at about 10 pounds per gallon, add, say, a 25-pound anchor and a couple of hundred pounds for all the extra gear that gets thrown into the boat.” Once you have a rough idea of the total boat weight and its length, you can start shopping for the trailer that suits your needs.

“The first thing I ask customers is what they want to do with the trailer,” says Tom Blight, a sales rep at Doral Marine and Recreation in Innisfil, Ont. “Are they going to be hauling it all over the place or just moving it from the lake to storage?” The differences in use, says Blight, determine the grade of trailer a customer should consider. Boats that are going to be trailered more frequently and over further distances should be supported by heavier-duty trailer options. “There are a lot of different qualities of trailer out there,” says Blight. “A better-quality trailer can be adjusted to fit the hull of the boat and will hold up better over the long run. You wouldn’t buy a small, uncomfortable pair of shoes just because the price is right, would you? The same thing goes for trailers. Don’t skimp out.” Sandy Gordon, co-owner of Gordon Marine in Gananoque, Ont., says as a general rule you can expect to pay $1 for every pound of your total boat weight (loaded) when purchasing a new trailer in the 2,000–6,000 lb category.

With weight and length in mind, don’t forget that the trailer you choose is going to have to be towed safely by your vehicle. Check the operating manual of your car or truck for its trailering capacity, but also consider the vehicle’s current condition and power when deciding on a maximum tow weight. Choose a hitch that can pull the combined weight of your boat and trailer.

If you lift your trailer to a horizontal position and weigh it at the coupler, you should be lifting anywhere from 5–10 per cent of your total boat and trailer weight. Called the “tongue weight,” this load affects the stability of both trailer and vehicle. Ideally, when the trailer is attached to the hitch, it should ride on a horizontal plane and not pull up or push down on the rear end of the vehicle. Without enough tongue weight, a trailer will be pulling up on the hitch as well as the rear end of the towing vehicle, making driving unsafe as well as prompting trailer fishtailing. But too much tongue weight can sink the back end of the tow vehicle, increasing pressure on its springs and shocks, raising headlights into oncoming traffic, and potentially compromising its steering. A lot of lightweight vehicles present problems for towing, as Sandy Gordon points out. “If a guy comes in with a Honda Accord and a 3,000-pound trailer setup, you’re not going to put 300 pounds of tongue weight on the trailer or his front wheels will be reaching for the sky.” By shifting the trailer’s wheel axle forward or back, a service that many marinas offer, the trailer’s tongue weight can be customized to the capacity of the towing vehicle.

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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