Before you can go boating, you have to get the boat into the water. The last step in that process often involves backing a trailered boat down a launch ramp, an endeavor that can be sometimes be stressful or intimidating for many boat owners.
Check out our Boat Towing and Trailing Guide for information on all aspects of towing and launching, but read on here for some tips on successfully backing down that ramp, with minimal anxiety. These tips also apply to backing the trailer away from the ramp, into your driveway, for example.
8 Steps for Backing Up a Boat Trailer
- Before you leave the staging area, always walk down and inspect the ramp.
- When possible, align the boat and trailer so you can back straight down the ramp.
- When possible, it’s handy to back down the ramp with a dock to the left, or driver’s side.
- Slow is pro! Back up slowly, so you have more time to correct the trailer if needed.
- Remember, with a trailer, steering is backwards: steer the wheel to the left and the trailer will steer to the right—and vice versa.
- When it doubt, pull forwards to straighten out and start again.
- Consult your rear-view back-up camera, if applicable, but also consult your exterior mirrors.
- Finally, once backed down the ramp and the stern of your boat is floating, don't forget to set the parking brake before exiting your vehicle!
Practice Makes Perfect
Much of the stress of backing the boat trailer at the ramp is caused by having an audience, often made up of other boat owners waiting behind you to launch and get on the water. At home, you may be blocking traffic while backing into the driveway. So rather than learning in this environment, consider dialing in your basic backing moves in private.
An empty parking lot provides a great venue for practice. 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 getting the hang of maneuvering the trailer.
Inspecting 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 if it’s 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 boats launch to see how quickly the water drops off. Sometimes there’s an uneven lip or drop-off at the water’s edge that might surprise you if you are not aware of it.
Slow is Pro - Back Up Slowly
Now you are ready to back down the ramp and launch. When possible you want to align the boat and trailer so you can back straight down the ramp.
If you’ve got a helper along have them spot for you. The helper 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—trying to back up too fast is the most common mistake made by beginning boat-launchers. This gives you more reaction time to correct the trailer if it starts to go off course, and you’ll make that correction before things get too far out of whack. If that does happen, 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, especially if you are launching a smaller boat or PWC that’s hard to see behind the vehicle. However, many cameras will not show you a wide enough view to be your only guide, or the boat may block much of your view aft. If you become fixated on the camera you could get off course or miss some trouble behind you, especially if you don’t have a spotter. Better to combine the camera view with your outside mirrors.
Turning the Wheel When Backing Up a 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 reaction is just the opposite: steer the wheel to the left and the trailer will steer to the right.
People who do a lot of backing develop muscle memory and don’t even think about this, but until you reach that stage try this trick:
- 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.
Whenever possible, it’s handy to back down the ramp with a dock to the left, or driver’s side, of your vehicle. It will be easy 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 make it easy to walk the boat off the trailer and down the dock.
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. This way you can look out your vehicle window and see the trailer. If you back with the water and ramp on your right side, you’ll only have the view in your mirror to guide you.
Don't Forget to Set the Parking Brake!
Back down the ramp until the trailer tires touch the water and 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.
Put the vehicle in Park and set the parking brake. We repeat – set the parking brake.
Absolutely make setting that brake a habit, and the one time that your are rushed and forget to shift to Park, or don’t completely shift to Park, you won’t step out of the vehicle and helplessly watch your entire rig roll into the lake, or even worse, the salty ocean. This really does happen, more often than you might think.
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 that backing the loaded trailer because you may be tired, it may be dark, and because you can’t see much of the empty trailer behind your vehicle. So again, take it slowly. 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.
Practice and take it slow, and in no time you’ll be a launch ramp ace.
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