Backing a Boat Trailer.

How to Back Up a Boat Trailer in 7 Easy Steps

Written by Charles Plueddeman
August 11, 2022

At a busy launch ramp, with boaters lined up behind you, you’ll want to ensure you’ve mastered the art of backing up your boat’s trailer. Backing up a boat trailer can be nerve-racking, but don’t let it get get in the way of your stress-free boat day!

Here at Boatsetter, our experts are here to help you hone in this important towing and launching skill, and ensure you’re feeling confident the next time you’re at the launch ramp.

Here are seven trips for backing up your boat trailer:

  1. Practice make perfect—try backing up in an empty parking lot before heading to the ramp.
  2. Review the ramp—look for potholes and drop-offs.
  3. Take it slow and align the boat and trailer so you can back straight down the ramp
  4. Remember that steering is opposite with a trailer: Steer the wheel to the left and the trailer will angle to the right.
  5. Back down the ramp with the dock driver’s side of your vehicle until you see the stern float.
  6. Now for the most important step: remember to set the parking brake!
  7. At the end of the day, repeat similar process for retrieving your boat at the ramp.

Read until the very end for a Boatsetter Pro Tip on how to steer as you back down the ramp, and be sure to check out our guide on Choosing the Best Vehicle to Tow Your Boat.

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1. Practice, practice, practice!

We place practicing number one on the list because it is the most important of all! It will be easier to get the hang of backing a trailer if you don’t have an audience. Dial in your basic backing moves privately, like at a vacant parking lot.

Use the painted lines on the lot and medians or curbs to help you practice backing in a straight line, or around a corner. When nobody is watching and there’s nothing to run into, you can focus on learning to maneuver the trailer.

Boat Trailer.

2. Review the ramp

Before you leave the launch ramp staging area, walk down to the ramp and make a quick inspection. If there are multiple ramp lanes, one may look better than another. For example, one may be free of potholes or allows you to back down with a dock on the driver’s side of your vehicle.

Watch a couple of other boat launches to see how quickly the water drops off. Be aware of an uneven lip or drop-off at the water’s edge.

3. Take it slow

When possible, align the boat and trailer so you can back straight down the ramp. If you’ve got a partner along, have them spot for you. The spotter should be positioned so you can see them in your left-hand mirror.

  • Roll down the front windows of your vehicle so you can hear your spotter or anyone else who wants to get your attention. For some reason, rolling down the windows can help make you more aware of what’s going on.
  • Back slowly. This gives you more reaction time to correct the trailer if it starts to go off course.
  • If you do find your trailer going off course, rather than try to correct a very crooked trailer, simply pull forward until the trailer is straight behind the vehicle, and start over.

Many vehicles are now equipped with a rear-view camera that can make backing down the ramp easier. But still, there are advantages to using your mirrors, combining your camera view with your outside mirrors is the best course of action.

Boat Launch.

4. Steering the trailer

When you back your vehicle without a trailer and turn the wheel to the left, the vehicle is going to steer to the left. But when backing a trailer, the trailer steers in the opposite direction of the vehicle – steer the wheel to the left and the trailer will angle to the right.

People who do a lot of backing develop muscle memory and don’t even think about this, but until then use our Pro Tip:

  • Place one hand at the bottom of the steering wheel and then watch the trailer in your mirrors. If you want the trailer to go left in your mirror, move your hand to the left. To aim the trailer to the right in your mirror, steer to the right with your hand on the bottom of the wheel.

At some smaller launch areas, you may need to back around a corner to reach the ramp. If that’s the case when possible start with the water and the ramp on your left (driver’s) side.

5. Use the dock to align your trailer

Whenever possible, it’s handy to back down the ramp with a dock to the driver’s side of your vehicle. It’s easier to see the dock in your mirror, and you can use the dock to align your trailer as you are backing down.

Launching the boat right next to the dock will also make it easy to walk the boat off the trailer and down the dock.

6. Don’t forget to set the parking brake!

Make setting the parking brake a habit—you don’t want your tow vehicle to turn into a submarine.

How far should you back your boat trailer into water?

  • Back down the ramp until the trailer tires touch the water.
  • Then, see if the stern of the boat is deep enough to start to float.
  • If not, back down a little more until that happens.
  • Finally, put the vehicle in park and set the parking brake.

We repeat—set the parking brake.

Launching a Boat.

7. Loading your boat back onto the trailer

When your day on the water is over, you’ll need to back that empty trailer down to the water for retrieval. This can sometimes be more challenging than backing the loaded trailer because you may be tired, it may be dark, and you can’t see much of the empty trailer behind your vehicle.

Go slow. Some boaters will install tall PVC tube guides or a fiberglass wand on the back of the trailer to make it easier to see if it’s staying in line with the vehicle.

If any of the tips, we strongly recommend following tip #1: practice, practice, practice! In no time you’ll be a launch ramp ace. (Pro tip: these apply to backing a trailer into your driveway too!)

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