If you own a boat or are in the market for one, you’ll definitely need a boat trailer to haul your boat, and in some cases, even store it. There are several types of boat trailers to choose from and it’s important to make sure that you get the right one for your watercraft. This guide will help you navigate the common types of boat trailers available and the most important factors to consider when deciding on which boat trailer to use.
For choosing a boat trailer, this guide will cover the following factors:
- Common types of boat trailers
- The type and size of your boat
- Type of vehicle towing the trailer
- Duration of weight load
- Type of trailer suspension
- Type of frame material
- Other boat trailer accessories
Common Types of Boat Trailers
There are four popular types of boat trailers to choose from when it comes to hauling and storing a boat properly and securely:
Jump to a specific type of boat trailer:
Commonly seen hauling smaller boats, generally less than six meters in length, bunk trailers are fairly simple in design, which makes them ideal for a variety of boat towing needs. Their simple design and smaller size make them much more affordable than the average roller trailer. Bunk trailers support the boat’s keel with boards, also known as “bunks,” that run down the sides of the trailer. Typically, the “bunks” are protected by soft, felt-like fabric to make it easier to slide the boat off of the trailer and place it directly into the water. The felt also helps prevent scratches in the hull of the boat.
Since they’re relatively simple to use and have fewer working parts, bunk trailers typically require relatively minor maintenance over the lifetime of the trailer. However, they usually require you to submerge the trailer in order to load and unload the boat, which may mean that the brakes, hubs, springs, and axles will be exposed to more grit and water conditions (e.g. fresh and/or salt water), which can lead to increased risk of wear and tear over time.
When selecting a bunk trailer, it’s important to consider how you’ll be loading and unloading the boat, including under what circumstances. In order to safely load a boat on a bunk trailer, you’ll need to have enough room to safely submerge the boat relatively deep in the water. Getting the boat of the trailer can prove more challenging on shallow ramps or at low tides.
Roller trailers support the weight of the boat with multiple cylindrical pieces of plastic, which helps “roll” the boat into the water as you back down the ramp. Roller trailers, which do not have to be submerged as deeply as bunk trailers, are ideal for putting your boat in the water at a shallow ramp or at low tide. Usually, drivers of roller trailers back the boat into the water, getting the back of the boat floating, and then change the alignment of the truck and trailer to get the trailer and boat in the optimal position.
Roller trailers are more costly to purchase up front, and because they have more moving parts, they may be more difficult and costly to maintain over the lifetime of both trailer and boat. However, they also allow for much more convenient launching options, and will suffer less damage to the axles, wheels, brakes, and springs over time, since they will be submerged underwater less frequently.
Float-on trailers are ideal for larger boats that may need deeper water in order to launch effectively and without damage. They’re an excellent choice for saltwater boats, pontoon boats, and other larger boats. They’re also fairly simple to use to load and drop. To drop a boat into the water off a float-on trailer, simply back the trailer into the water until it’s submerged enough for the boat to float off and detach from the trailer. To load a boat, float-on trailers are usually backed deep enough into the water that the boat can simply be floated most of the way onto the trailer, usually by using a guiding rope from the ramp or dock.
Keel rollers, rather than being trailers themselves, are actually used to help support a boat on a traditional trailer, decreasing the risk of damage to the boat and increasing the ease of loading and unloading. Keel rollers attach to an existing trailer, absorbing the shock of launching or hitching the boat as it rolls the boat smoothly into place on the trailer. Generally, they are placed along the centerline of the boat trailer to help support and protect the keel of the boat, which is the most vulnerable during transport. They can help add support to a standard trailer.
Factors for Choosing a Boat Trailer
When choosing a boat trailer, there are several key elements that you must take into consideration. Picking the right boat trailer for your needs isn’t as simple as snagging a trailer that’s the same size as your boat. You must also consider a number of critical factors to make sure that you’ve selected a trailer that meets the legal requirements for hauling with a trailer as well as the specific needs of your boat and tow.
Jump ahead to learn about any of the following primary factors to consider in this section:
- Common types of boat trailers
- The type and size of your boat
- Type of vehicle towing the trailer
- Duration of weight load
- Type of trailer suspension
- Type of frame material
Boat type and size
In order to buy a trailer for your boat, start with measuring the size and checking the type of boat you want to haul. You want a trailer that is long enough to safely nest your boat in different driving scenarios. For example, if you buy a pontoon boat, you’ll need to add 3′ to 5′ in the turning radius to the length of the boat to allow an adequate swing radius in case of tight turns. If there isn’t extra space at the front of the trailer, it could cause the front of the tubes to hit the back of the tow vehicle, which could cause damage to both vehicle and boat.
Measure your boat from front to back and from one side to the other to make sure that you have an accurate measurement of your boat and its overall size. In general, a single-axle trailer can accommodate a boat up to 22 feet, with a maximum weight of around 3,300 pounds. If you have a larger boat, you may need to consider going up to a larger trailer size.
Keep in mind that certain types of boats may have a more prominent influence on the type of trailer you end up needing. For example, pontoon boats can easily launch in shallow water, which means they may function just fine on a roller trailer.
When choosing a boat trailer, price may be the top factor that ultimately determines which trailer you end up getting. However, when it comes to weighing out how much you’re willing to pay for a boat trailer, be sure to factor in the cost of maintenance as well as the initial purchase. Bunk trailers are often more affordable, both to purchase and to maintain, than roller trailers or float-on trailers. Larger trailers, including double-axle trailers, are also frequently more expensive.
Take a look at your overall budget and how it impacts your trailer purchase. If you’re buying a boat and trailer for the first time, you may want to take your trailer budget into consideration when selecting what boat you want to buy. While there are many features that can make your boat and trailer easier to use, if you have a low budget, you may want to consider going with a less-expensive model, even if it means foregoing some of those additions to your trailer.
As you determine your budget, you should also take into consideration the cost for maintenance on your trailer. If you purchase a roller trailer, you should factor in the cost of regular maintenance as well as the initial cost of the trailer itself.
Type of vehicle that will tow the trailer
When considering your boat and trailer purchase, you’ll also need to consider the obvious: the type of vehicle you plan to use to tow your boat and trailer. Each vehicle has a set towing capacity: the amount that it can haul. Sometimes, you can find this information on the sticker inside the door of your vehicle. Other times, you’ll need to calculate it yourself.
To find your vehicle’s towing capacity, subtract the truck’s curb weight–the amount it weighs sitting empty–from its Gross Combined Vehicle Weight Rating, or GCVWR. If you cannot find the GCVWR for your vehicle, you may be able to look it up by VIN online. Keep in mind that towing capacity includes the weight of any passengers and cargo as well as the actual weight of the trailer and boat, so if you’re planning to take your entire family out for a boating expedition, you may want to carefully consider how the weight of those family members and the gear you’ll take along with you will influence your vehicle’s towing capacity.
If you look up your vehicle’s towing capacity online, keep in mind that towing capacity may also be changed by the vehicle’s history. Some types of collisions can cause damage to the vehicle that may decrease its overall towing capacity.
Once you know the vehicle’s towing capacity, take a look at the weight of your boat and the weight of your trailer. If you’re coming close to the max towing capacity of your vehicle, especially once your truck is fully loaded with passengers and cargo, you may want to consider a different vehicle to tow your trailer or a smaller trailer for your boat. In general, you should add 15% to the boat and trailer’s weight when calculating overall towing weight for safety and to ensure that your vehicle has the right towing capacity.
You may also want to keep an eye on your total weight and GCVWR in order to make sure that you meet the legal requirements associated with pulling cargo. According to federal regulations, you can only drive a combined weight of up to 26,000 pounds of truck, trailer, and cargo without a Class C driver’s license. If the combined weight of your truck, trailer, and boat exceeds that maximum amount, you may need to choose a different towing combination for your boat or consider testing for your Class C license. The Ford F450 Super Duty Crew Cab, for example, starts with a curb weight of 8,600 pounds, which means that it can quickly exceed your legal limits. Your state may also have specific regulations that include stricter weight requirements, so make sure you look up your state’s laws before you start hauling.
Duration of weight load
Carefully consider how long your boat will likely be sitting on its trailer. Some people only place their boat on a trailer when it’s headed to the nearest body of water — or at most, for a trip in for maintenance or a longer road trip to reach a different body of water. Other people, however, will store their boats on their trailers during the winter months when boating season is no longer in session.
Storing your boat on its trailer, especially if you’re storing your boat in a garage or parking space, can offer a great deal of convenience. However, you should also take that into consideration when purchasing a trailer. If the boat will be sitting on the trailer long-term, you may want to consider a more durable trailer option, like aluminum or galvanized steel trailers, rather than planning to purchase a painted steel trailer.
When out of water boats sit on their trailers for long periods of time, they are more likely to show signs of deformity in the area where the weight rests most often. Changes in boat appearance, including divots in the hull, are more likely to occur on roller trailers than on bunk trailers. However, even bunk trailers can lead to changes in the overall appearance of the boat hull over time.
Types of trailer suspension
Boat trailers usually come with either torsion or spring suspensions, both of which can offer advantages depending on the situation. Torsion axles have thick rubber cords concealed in the axle’s tubing. These rubber cords compress as the wheel moves up and down, offering a smooth ride for both the boat and the people in the truck.
This type of boat trailer suspension has fewer working parts, which means lower maintenance costs. However, they do cost more when repairs are needed. Furthermore, they may distribute the force of an impact less than spring suspension systems, which means that if you hit a curb or other small obstacle, the full impact will go in one location, rather than getting spread across the boat trailer.
This type is more commonly used because of the overall lower costs. They offer better tire wear and a steadier ride, not to mention better ability to absorb shock as the trailer travels across potholes or uneven ground. Overall, spring suspension systems offer better support for the trailer and boat, which can mean they will hold up better time. However, they do have a metal-on-metal design that can increase the need for repairs over time.
Type of frame material
Boat trailers typically come in painted steel, galvanized steel, or aluminum.
Painted steel trailers
Painted steel trailers are ideal for freshwater use, since they often fail to hold up long-term when exposed to saltwater. Saltwater often erodes the paint and the overall quality of the trailer, which can lead to higher replacement costs over time. However, painted steel does create a more packaged look when color-matched to the boat, which can be appealing to many drivers–especially if you also match the look of your trailer and boat to the color of your truck.
Pros of painted steel framed trailers:
- Painted steel is often a less expensive option
- You have multiple color and graphic options available
- Paint coatings are abrasion resistant, which can help protect the metal
Cons of painted steel framed trailers:
- Painted steel is more likely to have problems with corrosion, which can make them a problem, particularly, in saltwater environments
- Painted steel may require more maintenance
- Many painted steel trailers suffer rust, especially in areas with damage
Galvanized steel trailers
Galvanized steel trailers are coated in liquid zinc, which is designed specifically to help keep rust and corrosion at bay. These trailers are, as a result, often more likely to hold up over time.
Pros of galvanized steel framed trailers:
- Much less likely to rust
- Lower maintenance costs over time
Cons of galvanized steel framed trailers:
- More expensive
- Usually a dull gray color, which some boating enthusiasts do not like
- Heavier, which some drivers do not like and can impact the towing weight of the trailer and boat
Aluminum trailers are among the most popular types of trailers in many areas. They offer a variety of colors and options, which makes them the perfect solution for many boating enthusiasts.
Pros of aluminum steel framed trailers:
- Aluminum will not rust (though it will corrode over time)
- Improved fuel economy
- Lighter overall weight and design
- More maneuverable
- Multiple visual options
Cons of aluminum steel framed trailers:
- Lighter weight, which means they may be easier to damage
- More expensive than steel trailers
Before choosing a boat trailer, make sure you take a close look at available materials and how they may impact the life of your trailer and its towing capacity. Make sure you match your trailer to both boat and towing vehicle. For example, if you’re driving a vehicle with a lower towing capacity or that you know will be loaded with passengers and cargo when you head out on your trip, consider purchasing a trailer with an aluminum frame for a lower overall weight.
Other boat trailer accessories
While accessories might not be the key factor in choosing a boat trailer, they could end up being the determining factor, especially if you’re trying to choose between two otherwise equal boat trailers. Make sure you take a look at:
Boat trailer tires are specifically designed for trailers, built to carry heavy loads on non-powered axles. Take a look at your tire features. Do you want radial tires, which have more overall flexibility and better traction? Does the trailer come with the right tires for your needs? If you’re buying a secondhand trailer, make sure the tires have not been replaced with light truck or passenger tires, which will not wear or carry your boat correctly over time.
Your trailer should come equipped with tail lights that will easily hook to your vehicle’s system, which will make it easy for other drivers to see what you’re doing on the road. LED lights are seeing increasing popularity in many vehicles, including trailers. They can offer longer overall life as well as increased brightness, which can make your trailer more obvious on the road. You may also want to consider whether you want your trailer to have other lights, including front and rear clearance lights and rear identification lights, which can make them easier for other drivers to navigate around on the road.
Take a look at the capacity of your jack as well as its ease of use. Single wheel jacks have a capacity of 1200 lbs or less, so you’ll want to check the weight of your boat before using them. Dual wheel jacks, on the other hand, may have a larger capacity. Foot jacks will help extend the overall length of the jack and have a foot, rather than a wheel, at the bottom, and are often intended for larger boat and trailer packages.
If you’re looking for ease of use and convenience, you may want to consider a tongue jack, which raises and lowers the boat to make it easier to hook and unhook the boat trailer.
Load rollers and guides attach to the trailer and extend out into the water when you’re loading your boat, providing two clear visual targets that you can then use to guide your boat into the appropriate position. Load guides are ideal for boaters who are just getting started or who know that they will frequently need to load in windy conditions or heavy currents, since they can make it easier to load the boat onto the trailer.
How will you get up into your boat trailer if needed? If your trailer is high off the ground, you may want to consider whether you’re more comfortable with steps or a ladder as you move into the boat.
If something happens to the trailer in an accident, do you want components to break away easily? If you have areas of the trailer that hang out over the usual use area, you may want those components to simply snap away for easy replacement, rather than causing considerable damage to the trailer, another vehicle, or the dock.
Your Boat Trailer is Also a Serious Investment
Choosing the right boat trailer is a big decision, whether you’re purchasing boat and trailer together or you need to purchase a new trailer for your boat. With these strategies, however, you can make sure that you have the information you need to choose the ideal trailer for your needs.
Browse all our boat guides:
- Complete Guide to Boat Storage
- In-Depth Guide to Dry Boat Storage
- In-Depth Guide to Wet Slip Storage
- Guide to Types of Boat Trailers
- Steps for How to Winterize a Boat
- Steps for How to De-Winterize a Boat
- Buying Your First Boat
- Tips for Buying a Houseboat
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