Learn how to back up your boat trailer with confidence and skill. Learn what to do, and what not to do at a busy boat ramp. Learn how to backup a boat trailer and take out your boat like a pro.
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 boating experience.
Nobody is born with the innate skill of backing up a boat trailer. It takes practice. If 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 #1 – Go slow.
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 vehicle. 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.
Rule #2 – Don’t oversteer.
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 corner back 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 the driver’s side 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 passenger side.
The movements of the steering wheel are subtle. If twelve o’clock is straight, you are steering between 11 and 1 o’clock.
Rule #3 – 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 fully initiates 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 corrections.
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. Ask yourself:
- 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 backup 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 wheel base trailer, even the tiniest movement of the steering wheel makes a big change in the direction of the trailer.
Putting your Boat into the Water
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.
- 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 the trailer.
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 tighten 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 trim 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.
Pulling the Boat Out
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 boat 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, follow these steps:
- 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 trim. Often times, there is a secondary safety line to clip to the bow hook, so incase 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 to back up a boat trailer. Go out and practice until you are proficient. Backing a boat trailer is a learned technique, so be patient with yourself. In very little time, you’ll figure it out. If you need help with boat maintenance and repair. contact us.
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.