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How to Back Up a Boat Trailer

Ian Fortey by Ian Fortey Updated on June 17, 2021. In Boats

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When you first get a new boat it can be very exciting. Getting out on the open water, having fun, enjoying the sun and the sea. But there is one part of boat ownership that many boaters find intimidating. Backing up your boat trailer. It’s just something many boat owners struggle with at first. When you need to back the trailer up to the ramp that first time, it can cause some anxiety. But once you get the hang of it, it’s not nearly as difficult as it seems. You just need to make sure you know what you’re doing and follow some simple rules. If you through the process step by step you will be moving your boat trailer like an expert.

Rule Number One

The most important thing to remember about backing up your boat trailer is that you need to see it. If you can’t see the side of your trailer, you need to stop what you’re doing. You would be surprised at the number of people who are willing to wing it when they can’t see where they’re going. This is where a side mirror comes into play. Backing up is impossible and dangerous without using your mirror.

From the driver’s seat, you need to be able to see on the side of your trailer. The boat trailer should be visible in about one-third to one-half of the side mirrors. The other half or two-thirds of the side mirrors should show you any hazards that may be around. You can back your trailer like a pro with extended mirrors. You can buy wider side mirror attachments at auto supply stores. You want the trailer in sight at all times.

Rule Number Two

Use your hazard lights. You should never attempt to back up your boat trailer unless your hazard lights are on. Other drivers need to be able to know that you’re trying to move the boat trailer so they can be cautious and avoid you. Make sure the lights work before the attempt to back up your boat trailer. This is one of the backing basics that applies to any towing vehicle.

Rule Number Three

Go slow. The only way you’ll be able to get your boat trailer to go where you want it to is by keeping it at a reasonable pace. Better to go slow and take a long time to get it done right then to go too fast and cause an accident. The back of the trailer can get out of your control very easily at high speeds.

Rule Number Four

Trailer steering is backwards. Remember how the boat trailer reacts to your steering. If you need to take some time practicing in the open, you should do so. The trailer will move in the opposite direction of your vehicle. If you put your vehicle in reverse and turn the steering wheel clockwise, your vehicle will back up to the right. At the same time, it will get the trailer to go to the left. This is the hardest part for many drivers to remember. You have to turn the wheel of your vehicle in the opposite direction.

Another way to remember this is that the way you move the wheel is the way the trailer will move. Turn the wheel to the left, your trailer is going to move left. We think the opposite way normally since the rear of your vehicle will go right when you turn the vehicle left. That’s why this is such a confusing process the first time you do it.

Rule Number Five

Practice. You should practice this a few times before you actually try to back your boat into a garage or parking space. Or wherever you plan to store it. Like we said, try it in an open, empty parking lot. See if you can get the boat into an empty parking space between the yellow lines. Because the steering is counterintuitive, it can take some time to get it right. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about if you need to take some time to do it. Better to learn somewhere safe then cause damage.

Rule Number Six

Make sure your boat is ready. Check to see if the boat bung is in. Check to make sure the ratchet straps are where they need to be as well. You don’t want to back your boat into the water and realize too late it’s not prepared. It happens more often than you’d think.

Rule Number Seven

Take hold of the wheel. You are likely to see many directions on how to turn the wheel. One of the most common is to put your hand on the bottom of the wheel at the 6 o’clock position with your left hand. Shift your vehicle into reverse. Gently give the vehicle some gas and keep the wheel straight. Make sure you’re doing this very slowly. Keep an eye on the direction the trailer is going in both of your mirrors. Slowly turn the wheel in the direction you need to go. Watch to see how your trailer responds. Some kinds of trailers can respond much more sharply than others. That’s why this needs to be done so carefully, especially for the first time. Move your hand to the left to see how the side of the trailer responds.

Rule Number Eight

Keep an eye on things. Once your trailer has moved in the direction, turn the wheel and continue backing up. Remember, keep going slowly. There could still be some unexpected deviations. You have to watch how the trailer is moving and compensate if necessary.

Rule Number Nine

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you’re not used to backing up a boat trailer, it can be daunting. If you have a friend or family member to help, why not use them? They can stand behind you and give you hand signals to let you know how you’re doing. Someone behind your boat trailer has a better vantage point. They can let you know how much room you have to back up. And whether you need to turn your steering wheel left or right to get yourself centered. If you have to do it alone, that’s fine. But if you can get help, it’s always a good idea.

Rule Number 10

Straighten out and try again. Of course, it can get frustrating if things aren’t working the way you need them to. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be fixed. If you need to pull forward and start the process over again, do so. There’s no reason that you can’t just give it a second try, or a third try if you need to. Better to take a couple of times to get launching your boat right, then to do it once and get it wrong.

Tips to Remember

You can back up your boat trailer like a pro as long as you remember the rules. There are also a few tips to make things easier. If you’re back in your boat into the water for the first time, try not to be intimidated if there are people around. Just focus on the boat ramp and getting your boat on to it.

Plan Ahead: It never hurts to know what you’re going to do before you do it. Know the road from where your boat’s going to start to where you’re going to launch it. Get a look at that boat ramp before you get to it. Watch other boaters back their boat up and see how they do it.

Do a Dry Run: As much as you might hate to admit it, it can be embarrassing if you’ve never backed up a boat trailer before. There are a lot of people around, you don’t want to look foolish. So why not try when no one is around? Take your boat trailer to the launch ramp during off hours when there’s no crowd. Back up to the ramp and see how difficult or easy it is to get the job done. The physics of backing up aren’t too hard to master once you get the hang of it. It will give you practice with how to move the steering wheel as well.

Make Your Own Obstacle Course: If you’re going to be backing up your boat trailer into a garage or driveway, you can practice in a wider space. Invest in some parking cones and set them up in a parking lot for practice purposes. Try your hand at maneuvering your vehicle around them. Do it as though you were backing into your own driveway. Once you’ve mastered getting past the cones you’ll be able to park your boat or launch it off the boat ramp. Getting a feel for the connection between the steering wheel and the boat trailer is key. You want the trailer to go left and go right smoothly and simply.

Be Safe: This cannot be overstated. Make sure you’re looking from one mirror to the other all the time. Keep a slow, steady, cautious pace in your vehicle. Watch out for pedestrians and obstacles in the side mirrors. Take as many tries as you need to adjust your boat trailer. The less rushed you are, the more likely you are to succeed. You want your boat on the ramp and in the water with no dents or scrapes.

About Ian

My grandfather first took me fishing when I was too young to actually hold up a rod on my own. As an avid camper, hiker, and nature enthusiast I'm always looking for a new adventure.

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