How to Load a Boat on a Trailer – a Step-By-Step Approach


how to load a boat on a trailer

Whether you are new to boating or a seasoned mariner, knowing how to load a boat on a trailer is going to be a necessary skill for enjoying your local waterways. Not everyone has the luxury of serviced boat retrieval from a marina or boat yard so it is well worth becoming competent at doing it yourself.

How do you load a boat on a trailer? Back your trailer into the water with the wheels submerged. Put chocks behind towing vehicle wheels. Position boat on rollers. Secure boat to trailer. Pull boat away from ramp ensuring the outboard motor is raised. Make final checks and fully secure boat and all onboard accessories before journey.

You may want to undertake a single-handed boat retrieval or have additional pairs of hands to load your boat onto your trailer. Either way the basic steps are the same. If you have any experience in launching watercraft, you will find that the principles of boat retrieval are the same. This information applies to all boat types including pontoon boats.

Don’t be a boat ramp fail!

Loading your boat onto your trailer requires a tried and tested approach if you are to be successful. However for many, successfully loading your boat does not come easy.

Simply type into Google ‘boat ramp fail’ and you will see some epic errors which have caused vehicles to become submerged … or worse. An erroneous approach to loading and unloading a boat can lead to damage to your boat, the ramp or even your tow vehicle. But these accidents can be easily avoided by simply following the correct loading procedure as outlined below.

By taking a considered and well planned approach when it comes to loading your boat onto your trailer you can stay safe and confidently load your vessel quickly with minimal disruption to other water users.

Safety first

Safety is the first thing to consider; you must consider yourself, your passengers and other water users before you try to load your boat.

Always look for safe efficient access to the water which is essential for ensuring that you can safely retrieve your boat. Issues with the boat landing can put your towing vehicle at risk of rolling into the water.

Look for waterways where the ramp will facilitate efficient handling of your boat.

Believe it or not some boat ramps can be unsafe due to poor design or lack of maintenance and should be assessed before launch – don’t assume that just because there is a boat ramp it’s safe to use or efficient. Avoid ramps which have a slope in excess of 15 degrees, that have cracked or chipped concrete or algae growth which will make surfaces slippery.

Strong currents or winds are also hazardous as they can cause the vessel to move off-course and collide with other vessels or the dock while being floated on to or off the trailer.

Have a patient and planned approach to retrieving your vessel and try not to be daunted or embarrassed if there is congestion at the ramp. If you need more time, take it. If you need assistance, ask for it.

Because of the real risks that are involved, where the towing vehicle could enter the water, ensure all passengers exit the towing vehicle before you start to load your boat and consider leaving your seat belt off while undertaking this task so you can exit the vehicle quickly should it be pulled into the water.

A step-by-step approach to loading a boat on a trailer

Below is a step-by-step guide for loading your boat onto your trailer. Be sure to measure your boat so you know its dimensions are don’t try to squeeze into areas you can’t fit in.

Ensure you are comfortable backing your trailer into the water.

The trailer should completely enter the water with the trailer wheels almost totally covered in water. Your tow vehicle’s back wheels should be at the water’s edge.

If you have someone close by that can help you get that person to direct you so that your vehicle and trailer are positioned optimally and fully centred before you make the descent. This is not as easy at is seems as the trailer often moves counter-intuitively to the vehicle when reversed.

When properly positioned switch off the engine and throw on the handbrake. It is also recommended that you place chocks behind your vehicle’s wheels to prevent it from rolling back due to slippery surfaces.

Get passengers off

Let any of your boating passengers disembark at the dock before you navigate your boat over to the ramp where your trailer should be submerged.

Float your boat into a centred position on the trailer. Power loading (actively driving your boat onto the trailer) can damage the base of your boat and erode the ramp and is therefore not advised no matter how much of a hurry you are in or how congested the waterways are.

Your boat should be correctly positioned on the trailer rollers or boat bunks which will offer it key support during transit.

Secure it

Connect your bow winch strap to the bow eye so you can winch your vessel into a secure position on the trailer. The bow of the boat should be touching the winch when in position.

Also connect a backup chain if you have one.

Pull her in

Once secure pull the boat up the ramp adjusting position by re-submerging if the vessel is not properly centered on the trailer rollers. Take your time with this if you need to.

One correctly positioned you are now ready to enter your towing vehicle and drive your trailer and boat up the ramp.

Only once your boat is secure on the trailer should you pull it from the water. At this point you can exit the ramp area promptly to avoid inconveniencing other watercraft users. Do not speed. Slowly but steadily is actually the fastest way to move off as this will help you avoid encountering wheel-spin on slippery surfaces.

Before you move away

Once you are away from the ramp, raise your outboard engine, tie down your boat and remove the drain plug and any objects that may fall from the vessel while in transit.

You’d be surprised by how many people forget to secure life jackets, cups and other accessories after leaving the water. Not only will lost items cost you money to replace but they pose a serious hazard to other road users and can can cause accidents when they fly off your boat especially on freeways and highways.

Final checks

When you are clear of the ramp area, pull over and make some additional checks.

You should have already ensured that your trailer is road worthy and capable of handling the weight of your boat. Make sure your boat is fully secured and tied down properly.

Ensure that the trailer is securely attached to your tow vehicle. Again, you’d be surprised at the amount of accidents caused by simply skipping this check!

Now is also a good time to make sure that signal and brake lights, tyres and brakes are in order even though you already made those checks before you left home (you did check …. right?!).

Extra tips and tricks for loading your boat on a trailer

Below are a few extra tips to help you load your boat safely, quickly and with the least fuss.

Try to find the best loading space.

Ramps with docks offer the most practical arrangement for boat retrieval.

Passengers can readily disembark and the boat can be tied up while you position your towing vehicle and trailer.

Trailer depth offers advantage

Shallower trailer designs offer easier positioning of your boat when retrieving. So consider this when making a trailer purchase.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

Ask for help if you need it. Ignore the boat ramp snobs and reach out to more experienced boaters who will be willing to advise or assist.

Everyone was once new to boat retrieval and you will most certainly get help finding the right technique. People who regularly boat in that area will have a wealth of knowledge and experience that they will most likely love to share. Regular users of those particular waterways will have tips to give you that you could only otherwise learn through experience (and maybe even a few accidents) … so take advantage that knowledge.

Perfect your trailer skills in the parking lot

It is important you learn how to handle your trailer and boat set-up before attempting to use it on the water. Speak to your dealer about specific handling techniques and practice to understand how the trailer will move in relation to your vehicle when reversing.

An hour or two spent in an empty car park, or large deserted road area, will give you the much needed experience of maneuvering your trailer.

Spend the first part of your practice session with an empty trailer and only when you are fully confident in your ability to maneuver it should you practice with a loaded boat.

Don’t hog the ramp

Don’t hog the ramp but don’t rush either.

If it is a 2 lane ramp try to avoid reversing down the middle. If you are new to the maneuver and there is no-one around to help you then by all means use both lanes but when the waters are congested ask for help instead.

Get wet if you need to

Be prepared to get your feet wet.

You may even need to wade into the water fairly deep if you need to optimally position your boat. Even experienced boaters need to do this on occasion especially if the wind is moving the vessel around a lot.

Turn off those lights

Don’t leave your lights on if you are on the ramp in the early morning or close to dusk.

Glare from your headlights can blind other water users and slow them down. Your lights may mean other boaters will struggle to see the ramp access so be courteous and turn your lights off.

If you plan to launch your boat by yourself be sure to read this article.

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