For people that aren’t practiced at backing up their boat trailer, launching their boat
or pulling it out at a busy ramp can be stressful and take some of the fun out of their
Nobody is born with the innate skill of backing a trailer. It takes practice. If you’ve
ever seen anyone flailing at the boat ramp trying to back up their trailer, that should
be enough motivation for you to practice ahead of time. Once you get the feel for
backing a trailer, it’s like riding a bike, and when you get the hang of it, you’ll have
the skill forever.
One important side note is to make sure you can see the rear corners of your trailer
when your trailer is empty. Without these points of reference, you are going to have
a tough time. Install flexible vertical rods as markers on the rear corners of the boat
trailer if you can’t already easily see the rear corners.
To learn how to back up a trailer, practice in a wide-open spot without traffic or
hazards. Your own driveway, a quiet street, or an empty parking lot are all great
places to learn. Most people will agree, the most difficult thing about backing up a
trailer is to go straight. However, this is the most essential skill.
When you back up the trailer, don’t use your mirrors unless you are already skilled.
It will add another element of complexity. Hook your right arm behind the
passenger headrest and turn your body around so you can see what you’re doing.
Rule number one of backing up a trailer. Go slow! I mean, really slow. Creep along in
reverse and you’ll look like a pro. If you try to back up at your normal reverse speed
you will jack-knife the trailer. That is what it’s called when the trailer ends up at a
very sharp angle to the back of your vehicle. If you don’t stop in time, you’ll damage
both your vehicle and your trailer. There is a simple solution to a jack-knifed trailer.
Pull forward until your trailer is perfectly straightened out behind your car.
That is also the starting point for all trailer backing. Start with the trailer perfectly
straight behind your car. Now, here’s the technique to keep it simple for your brain.
Put your vehicle in reverse. Keep your foot on the brake. Hook your arm around the
passenger side headrest and look over your shoulder so you can see what you’re
doing. Use the back corners of your boat or trailer as your reference points. Your
goal is to drive straight in reverse. Drive with your left hand at the top of the wheel.
Recall rule number one, go slow. Rule number two is, a tiny bit of steering makes a
big change, so don’t over-steer, or you’ll make it more difficult than it needs to be.
With that said, your trailer is perfectly straight behind the car, because you drove
forward until it was lined up. Now slowly let off the brake. It won’t take long before
the trailer will drift from straight. Recognize the back corner that is leading and with
your left hand at the top of the wheel imagine you are knocking that cornerback
into alignment with a little “bap”. In other words, if the rear corner is drifting to the
driver’s side, make a slight movement with your left hand to knock it back to the
passenger side. If the trailer drifts to the passenger side, knock it back with a slight
turn of the wheel to the driver’s side. The movements of the steering wheel are
subtle. If twelve o’clock is straight, you are steering between 11 and 1 o’clock.
If the trailer gets crooked, stop early. Pull forward just enough to straighten it out,
and then proceed slowly and patiently in reverse again, using your left hand at the
top of the wheel to knock the rear corners back into alignment.
Once you have mastered driving your trailer straight in reverse, you may ask
yourself what if you want to make a turn in reverse? In this case, the logic is to
initiate the trailer into the turn by turning the steering wheel in the opposite
direction you normally would when reversing your car. Once the trailer starts into
the turn, reverse the direction of your steering wheel as if you were backing up your
vehicle normally and it will follow the trailer. As always, go slow, and make tiny
Ok, now let’s imagine you are at the ramp and you’re going to launch the boat. Let’s
imagine you are the only one in the parking lot so there’s no pressure. Take your
time, and pull forward and straighten out as many times as you have to in order to
back down the ramp straight. First, get out of your vehicle and get a lay of the land.
What are the hazards you could hit? What reference points do you have for the ramp
and dock location? How far will you back down the ramp?
Every boat ramp is designed for you to pull in and make a U-turn to line you up to
back straight down the ramp. Often there are two ramps, so have an idea how far
you’ll want to be from the dock on the driver’s side so that you are centered. If you
have someone to assist you, roll down the window and have them walk along beside
the boat. That person’s job is really to say, Stop! In case you are going to jack-knife
or hit something. Otherwise, the driver will proceed in a very slow and methodical
backing up of the trailer.
Remember, the slower you go, the better you’ll do. Even the most experienced
drivers back up a trailer slowly because the direction of the trailer can change very
quickly. Another thing to keep in mind is the longer the trailer, the easier it is to
back up. That’s because things happen slower. With a very short wheelbase trailer,
even the tiniest movement of the steering wheel makes a big change in the direction
of the trailer.
Ok, so now it’s the real deal. You are going to put your boat into the water, and the
ramp is kind of busy. People waiting to use the ramp can get real antsy, so try to be
organized before you put your boat into the water. Get all of your gear loaded on
board, and remove any tie-down straps, etc. Make sure your motor is tilted up.
Ideally, if you have a few people with you, put a qualified driver in the boat, and a
qualified person to hold the bowline and to crank to winch to lower the boat off of
Ok, it’s your turn in the queue. Pull your vehicle around and pull forward until your
trailer is lined up perfectly straight with the ramp. Your boat driver is on board and
your bowline is set up. You have the person walking along with the boat as you’re
backing up to call out if there’s an issue. Remember rule number one… go slow.
Patiently back up in reverse using subtle steering wheel movements. Remember, if
the trailer goes crooked, stop right away, don’t get rattled, and pull forward just
enough to fully straighten it out. Proceed slowly and cautiously in reverse and you’ll
look like a pro.
Once the trailer is in position on the ramp and it’s time to lower the boat into the
water, put your vehicle into park, and put on your parking brake. Have your
assistant hold the bowline, while you lower the boat with the winch. A hint with the
winch is you’ll need to crank the handle slightly in the tightening direction to get the
release lever to flip. Then crank the handle in reverse to lower the boat.
Once the boat is afloat and the tension is off of the winch cable, unclip the boat, and
reel the cable back in. Your assistant will direct the boat with the bowline to get it
out of the way of the ramp and other users. The boat driver will lower the tilt
enough to get the motor into the water and start the engine to get things warmed
up. Go park your trailer in a pull-through spot so you’re lined up to take out at the
end of the day.
After a great day of boating, it’s time to pull the boat out at the day’s end. There’s a
queue again, but you’ve got a competent crew. It is likely you got dropped at the
dock, and your driver is standing by somewhere out of the way of the other ramp
users. Get in the queue with your vehicle and relax knowing that you have the
skillset to back the trailer in like a pro.
When it’s your turn, pull forward with your vehicle until you are lined up perfectly
straight. Slowly and surely back up to your ramp. If the trailer gets a little crooked,
stop and pull forward just enough to straighten it out perfectly. Proceed with
confidence. Once your trailer is backed down the ramp to the proper depth, put your
vehicle into park and set the parking brake. Have your boat driver and assistant help
direct the boat to the sweet spot on the trailer, and crank the boat up onto the trailer
with the winch. The boat driver raises the power tilt. Oftentimes, there is a
secondary safety line to clip to the bow hook, so in case the winch lets go, the boat
still remains on the trailer.
Ok, pull forward and get out of the way of others. Make sure all gear like life jackets,
floaty toys, ropes, etc. are secured so they won’t blow out of the boat when going
down the road.
Congratulations, now you know how it should be done. Go out and practice until you
are proficient. Backing a boat trailer is a learned technique, so be patient with your
self. In very little time, you’ll figure it out. Remember the two most important rules.
Go slow, and use subtle steering movements. If you follow these rules, you’ll be
backing up your trailer and launching your boat like a pro in no time.