Your Complete Guide to Towing a Boat

Driver towing a boat behind his truck

If you’re new to boating, you’re probably thinking a lot about spending time on the water and caring for your boat. One thing that new boat owners often forget to take into consideration is towing a boat from your home or storage location to the water.

Surprisingly, towing a boat can be quite different from driving your average car or truck. While the boat trailer moves and brakes with your SUV or truck, it is a completely separate vehicle. Learning how to safely attach your trailer, navigate the road, and properly put your boat into the water can prepare you for a successful outing on your favorite body of water. This guide will provide you with information about towing packages, hooking up your trailer, and towing a boat to your destination.

Understanding Your Towing Package

The term “towing package” describes all the attachments on your vehicle that help you safely tow a boat. While you might have a vehicle suitable to tow a boat, the features of your towing package will depend on the size of your boat and the type of boat trailer you choose. Consider these features of your vehicle’s towing package:

Towing hitch class

The size of trailer hitch you need depends mainly on how heavy your boat is. Towing hitches are measured by class.

  • Class I: Also called bumper hitches, these hitches are designed for boats under 2,000 pounds.
  • Class II: Used for boats that weigh up to 3,500 pounds
  • Class III: Used for boats weighing up to 5,000 pounds
  • Class IV: Used for boats weighing up to 12,000 pounds
  • Class V: Used for boats weighing up to 18,000 pounds

Tongue weight

Your hitch’s tongue weight is an important factor in towing capacity. As a rule, your tongue weight should be 10 to 15 percent of the total weight of your boat and trailer. If your tongue weight is insufficient, you’ll have reduced control on the road and experience more sway while driving.

Towing capacity

When it comes to towing a boat safely and comfortably, it’s essential that your vehicle stays in control while towing your boat trailer. Make sure your vehicle’s towing capability meets the class of your trailer with this quick guide:

  • Cars and small pickup trucks: Class I only
  • Midsize trucks, vans, and SUVs: Up to Class I, Class II, and small Class III
  • Large trucks and select large SUVs or vans: Up to Class IV and Class V

Side mirrors

When towing a boat, your side mirrors are your main points of visibility since your boat obscures the view in your rearview mirror. If your vehicle isn’t equipped with towing mirrors, consider purchasing an aftermarket set.

How to Trailer Your Boat

Hitching your boat trailer to your vehicle is often referred to as trailering the boat. Failing to safely hitch your trailer could mean losing your boat or even causing a catastrophic accident on the highway. Take these steps to safely trailer your boat before you start your trip:

  1. Line up the ball with your trailer hitch and lower the hitch down over the ball. This may take some practice and a helper to help direct you.
  2. Once the hitch is in place on the ball, close the latch and insert the safety pin.
  3. Cross the safety chains and secure them to the truck.
  4. Attach the brake safety line to your vehicle.
  5. Plug in the trailer lights and ensure everything is working properly before starting your trip.

Pro tip for towing a boat:

When choosing a storage location for your boat, consider accessibility and space for properly hooking up the boat. Also, consider if you need extra space to store any additional items for your boating adventures.

Safely Towing Your Boat

Aerial view of a boat trailer connected to an SUV

Navigating the road with a trailer can be a challenge. If you’re a new boat owner or in the market for a boat, you’ll be interested in learning the basics of towing before you get out on the road.

Even if you’re accustomed to driving big trucks, towing a separate vehicle requires practice and specific driving techniques. This means you’ll need to take into consideration the additional weight and length of your vehicle and even the effects of shifting winds. Use these tips to safely tow a boat to your destination.

Perform a walk-around inspection before hitting the road

It’s essential to ensure that both your towing vehicle and the trailer are in ideal shape before you begin your trip. Walk around the entire perimeter of your vehicle and boat to complete a final check of these areas:

  • Properly inflated tires on both the vehicle and the trailer
  • Evenly distributed weight in the boat and truck
  • Secured trailer hitch with the safety pin and safety chains firmly attached
  • That the ratchet straps and winch are securely attached to the boat and trailer

Practice before your first trip

Just like with periodic boat maintenance, taking the time to learn how to tow your boat can help extend its lifespan. No matter how much driving experience you have, it’s essential to practice towing a trailer in a controlled environment. Take your trailer to an open parking lot to practice curves, turning, and backing before you hit the road. After you’re comfortable driving with no traffic around, tow your boat locally before taking a longer trip.

Create space around your vehicle

Towing a boat will limit your ability to speed up and slow down quickly. You’ll also need extra room for passing and turning. This means you should keep a healthy following distance at all times. When pulling out onto the highway or changing lanes, you’ll need additional space to account for the extended size of your rig and slower acceleration to match traffic speed. When it’s time to turn, position your trailer tires on the outside of the lane to make a wide turn and avoid hitting the curb.

Avoid sudden movements

Jerky acceleration, braking, or turns lead to swaying, which can be a serious danger on the highway. When possible, downshift to slow your vehicle instead of jabbing the brakes repeatedly. Avoid passing when it’s not necessary or you don’t have sufficient space to change lanes safely. If you experience sway, don’t hit the brakes. Instead, remove your foot from the accelerator and allow your vehicle to slow until the swaying stops.

Periodically inspect the vehicle and trailer

If you’re traveling for more than an hour, you’ll want to repeat your pre-trip inspection every time you stop. In addition to your pre-trip checklist, you’ll need to ensure your tires, wheels, and bearings are handling the trip properly. Touch the hubs and tires of your vehicle and trailer to ensure they’re warm and not hot. If the tires or hubs are too hot to touch, you likely need to have the bearings serviced immediately. When you arrive at your destination, prepare the boat for the water and perform a final inspection before launching the boat.

Launching Your Boat Into the Water

When you’ve arrived at your destination, you still have a final challenge. Safely getting your boat into the water can be difficult for new boat owners. Backing a trailer is one of the hardest aspects of towing your boat. Use these tips to launch your boat safely:

  • Pull forward as far as necessary to position the trailer straight behind your vehicle before backing.
  • Put your hand on the bottom of the steering wheel while backing. In this position, the direction you move your hand is the direction the trailer will go.
  • Watch your side-view mirrors for an accurate view while lining up with the ramp.
  • Don’t expect to back up in a perfectly straight line. Instead, make tiny corrections as you slowly back up.

Towing your boat safely not only protects your investment, but it’s also an important responsibility that keeps you, your family, and other drivers on the road safe from harm. Learning how to tow your boat properly means you’ll be excited to take it on the road more frequently and enjoy time spent out on the water. Getting used to the essential safety habits of towing your boat will also quickly create habits that become a natural part of your routine.

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