For boaters, nothing is worse than a trip to the lake being cut short by a mechanical breakdown of the boat trailer. The sad—but true—fact is your boat spends more time on the trailer than on the water. The good news is that most problems can be avoided by taking precautionary steps at home.
Avoid frowns from the backseat as you wonder what went wrong with the trailer along that busy highway with this checklist of trailering tips. Some are obvious, others you might not have thought of before.
Add your own must-do steps to complete the list. Just make sure you add this important last step—pack the drain plug. Even better, bring along a spare!
CHECK FOR INVASIVE SPECIES
You should do this upon retrieving the boat while at the ramp. If you forgot, do it now, before you leave home. The most dangerous suspects hitchhike on the trailers of unsuspecting boaters. Invasive species spread when broken plant stems dislodge and float free when a boat is launched, or when mussels attach to the trailer/boat. Know how to recognize Milfoil, Hydrilla, Giant Salvinia, Water Hyacinth and other exotic plants and mussels known in your area. If you discover them, take the necessary steps to remove them from the trailer and/or boat.
SIZE UP THE HITCH BALL
If you also tow utility trailers or campers, make sure the right-sized hitch ball is in place before hooking up the boat. Recreational and light commercial hitch balls come in a variety of sizes, including 1 7/8", 2"and 2 5/16." It is unsafe to use a 1 7/8" hitch ball with a trailer that has a 2" coupler. Don’t mix them up!
USE A MOTOR BRACE
There is a great deal of impact on the transom while the boat is riding on the trailer. This is a different kind of stress on the transom than what you might expect on the water. A transom saver, or motor brace, is the best insurance you can have for preventing damage to the boat and trailer. Don’t leave home without it!
CHECK THE WHEEL BEARINGS
When you stop for fuel, check the trailer wheel bearings. Touch them to make sure they aren’t too hot. If so, the bearings need to be repaired or replaced. Carry a set of spares to be prepared. The good news is that most premium boat trailers are designed to be low maintenance. Make sure your bearings are thoroughly inspected when the trailer is in for scheduled maintenance.
CHECK THE LIGHTS
Faulty wiring or a short connection is usually the cause of a blinking or dark taillight. Avoid getting a ticket or horn blasts from angry drivers by making sure the trailer lights operate before leaving home. Have someone else watch as you brake and switch on the turn signals on the tow vehicle.
INSPECT THE BOW EYE
Make sure the bow eye and winch strap hook are securely fastened to the trailer winch. When the trailer is connected to the hitch, ensure the jack stand and winch are fully raised and secure.
SECURE THE TOP
If your boat is equipped with one, fold the Bimini top and secure all snaps and fasteners before getting underway. A majority of Bimini tops and frames have to be replaced, not because of age, but because the wind catches and blows them up during trailering.
CRISS-CROSS THE CHAINS
Cross the chains under the hitch, so the chain on the left side of the trailer connects to the right side of the hitch, and vice-versa. This will protect the coupler from hitting the road should it somehow jump off the hitch in an accident. If you have an older trailer with “S” hooks, switch those out to trustier shackles. Some jurisdictions even require these under the law.
AVOID A BLOWOUT
Not the tires—your loose gear! Secure any large items with tie-downs or—even better—stash them inside compartments or the cargo area of your vehicle. No one wants to watch an expensive cooler go airborne—especially those driving behind you.
CHILL THE TIRES
Check the inflation on trailer tires when they’re cold. Don't forget the spare! The recommended inflation pressure is on the sidewall of each tire. Duplicate the process for the tow vehicle to make it good all around.
TOP OFF THE TANK
Stopping at a convenience store is practically a given on the way to the lake. You can fill the cooler with ice and top off the fuel tank on the boat. Avoid filling up too soon, though! Gasoline weighs about 6 pounds per gallon. That can add a lot of weight to the boat, especially a problem if you’re taking an extended road trip. So, travel lighter and get better gas mileage by waiting until you arrive near your final destination.
Approach convenience stores, restaurants and hotels with a wary eye if your road trip takes you through uncharted territory. Never whip into a parking lot too quickly. Scan it on the final approach for an easy drive-through exit route before committing to the entrance. Avoiding tight squeezes and dead ends with no easy way to get back out is the idea.
The fun of a road trip is the carefree freedom it affords of being out on the open road. Tame your vagabond instincts by planning overnight stays ahead of time. You can set a goal to achieve a welcome rest after hitting it hard for 8—12 hours, or whatever you set as your daily limit. Plus, you won’t be circling the interstate exit late at night searching for a place to stay if the hotels are sold out.
PACK THE CHOCKS
This simple trick saves back strain and maybe even your trailer from running away. Pack commercially available trailer chocks or wheel-width pieces of 4x4s to block the trailer wheels and prevent it from rolling away when disconnected.
NO JACK, NO PROBLEM
If you have a tandem-axle trailer and the axles are torsion suspension, not leaf springs, you can lift the bad tire off the road by pulling the good tire up on top of a 4x4 block (the same used as a trailer chock).
CARRY A TRAILERING TOOL KIT
Even better, make a trailering tool kit. Screwdrivers and pliers are okay for minor repairs, but it takes special tools for trailer mechanics. Here are a few ideas:
- Tire puncture kit – These are great for patching over punctures in the tread up to 3/8 inch.
- Fix-a-Flat – Canned tire inflators can get you back on the road and to a gas station or repair shop safely without keeping you stranded on the side of a busy highway.
- Trailer jack – The scissor jack in your truck might not cut it for the trailer, so think about a spare bottle jack.
- Plywood board – Cut slightly larger than the base of the jack for a firm, stable base when changing a tire on a soft surface, like sand or dirt.
- Four-way lug wrench – This is a must. Don’t count on using the short, single handle wrench in your tow vehicle. Get a four-way lug wrench that fits the lugs on the trailer. You’ll get better torque, making the job easier.
- Reflectors & road flairs – For added visibility if you have to work roadside in the dark or low light conditions.
- Tarp – Dropping a bolt, nut or small part on the shoulder of the road is a good way to lose it. The tarp gives you a clean work area, and a place to sit while making the repairs.
- A plastic storage container – Store everything in one place, snap the lid and everything stays in the same place.
Lastly, always take a few minutes for a walk-around inspection of the trailer to double-check anything you might have forgotten in preparation for your fun day on the water. If you have maintenance needs your one-stop destination for service and more is Bass Pro Shops/Cabela's Boating Center.