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How to Launch a Boat from a Trailer - Header

How to Launch a Boat from a Trailer (And Load it Back Up)

If your heart's sinking at the idea of launching your boat for the first time, allow us to assure you: everyone feels this way. You've got this big watercraft you need to get in the water and a vehicle you need to keep out of the water. Even if you've done it before, maybe you've recently made the switch between a bunk and roller trailer, or it's your first time launching your boat alone, so you've got to learn a few new tricks. Whatever the case, a day on the water essentially consist of 3 steps:
  • Preparing your boat for launch
  • Launching your boat from the trailer
  • Loading your boat on the trailer
Check out our detailed instructions for each of these steps below. Whether you have bunks, rollers, a helper, or a solo job, we'll give you the know-how you need to get on the water in no time.

1. How to Prepare Your Boat for Launch

Part of good boating etiquette is not taking too long at a public dock, where everyone is trying to launch their boat at essentially the same time. Out of courtesy, you should always prepare your boat for launch in what's called the "staging area," which is located away from the launching area to give those ready to launch the room to do so. It's like when you're in a long line at the grocery store, and then the person in front of you reaches the cashier, waits for their total, then spends another five minutes digging out their wallet or checkbook—there's a time and a place to prepare, and it's before you step up to the plate!So what do you need to do to prepare your boat? Basically, just make sure your boat is ready to hit the water. It can be helpful to make a checklist (mental or physical, whatever works for you) to go through each time you prepare your boat for launch.
Boat Staging Checklist:
  • Put your drain plug in
  • Load up your gear in the boat ( coolers, fishing rods, paddles, etc.—basically, if you want it with you on the water, you should put it in your boat now).
  • Remove all your straps and tie-downs (transom straps, gunwale straps, etc.) securing your boat to your trailer EXCEPT for your winch strap. Keeping the winch strap on is especially crucial if you have a roller trailer. Without it, your boat will belly-flop onto the concrete.
  • If you have a transom saver, remove it now.
  • Disconnect your trailer lights before you submerge them.
  • Put on your boat bumpers/fenders.
  • If you have guests that will be riding in the boat, they can climb aboard now.
  • Check your battery
  • Put your drain plug in (yes, we already said this, but it bears repeating—you don't want your boat filling up with water!
Preparing Your Boat
Tie dock line around winch post
Some Additional Tips:
  • If you're launching your boat alone:If you're launching your boat alone, you're going to need some method to control the boat once it's off your trailer. Tie one end of a bow line around your bow loop and the other around your winch post. You'll use this later to keep your boat from drifting off without you (see Image A).
  • If you're launching your boat with a helper:Have your helper climb aboard the boat. He or she will sit in the boat and steer it while you launch the vessel and park your vehicle. Teamwork makes the dream work!To be on the safe side, you can use the bow line method of securing your boat mentioned above under the "launching your boat alone" section. You'll appreciate the extra control if for some reason your boat doesn't start in the water!
  • If you're using a bunk trailer:Some people with bunk trailers choose to loosen their winch straps in the staging area IF they trust that their boat won't slide off until they get into the water. However, you should NEVER do this with a roller trailer (your boat will slam right into the ground), and it's not necessary with a bunk trailer either. You can disconnect your winch strap later when you're ready to launch.

2. How to Launch Your Boat from the Trailer

It's time to take your boat to the docks and get your feet wet (not literally—that's why you have a boat).

Backing Up Your Boat Trailer

If you don't have much experience backing up a trailer, you may want to practice in an uncrowded parking lot before you get down to the launching area. Things can get tense if you feel under pressure and you've never backed up your boat trailer before. You probably don't want your first time to be at the ramp on a busy holiday weekend!(For tips on backing up a trailer, check out our article here.)Once you're on the launch ramp, put your vehicle in neutral and allow your trailer to pull you backward down the ramp.
Back up boat trailer

How Far to Back Boat Trailer into Water

This is one of the most common questions first-timers have. How far is far enough?Well, it depends. How steep is the ramp? Do you have a bunk trailer or roller trailer? Generally, you want the boat to float off the trailer, but you don't want to go so deep that your tow vehicle tires end up in the water. (You can chock your wheels if you want for added safety.) Usually getting your trailer's rear fenders just under the water level is usually sufficient. You may have to go further into the water with a bunk trailer than you would a roller trailer, since gravity will help take care of a boat on rollers. If the tide is low or the wind is working against you, you may also have to back in farther than usual to get your boat to float.
Back Boat Trailer Into Water

Releasing Your Boat into the Water

Once your boat is starting to float, get out and unhook the winch strap. If you have a small boat, you can often push the boat off the trailer here. Otherwise, get back in your vehicle and back up again, tapping your vehicle's brakes every few seconds until the boat slides off the trailer. Make sure the boat clears the trailer before you pull forward in your vehicle. If you have a helper, he or she can control the boat while you park your vehicle and come back. PRO TIP: Make sure you always have a paddle in your boat, just in case the boat doesn't start once you're in the water.
Undo boat winch strap
Unhook winch strap

Loading a Boat on a Trailer By Yourself

If you're a lone wolf, park your vehicle and activate the emergency brake. Remember that dock line we tied to the winch post earlier? Head back to the boat and untie it now, then secure it to the dock cleat instead. This will keep your boat from drifting off while you park your vehicle. If possible, walk your boat to the end of the dock as a courtesy to others trying to launch at the ramp.
Secure boat to dock cleat
Secure boat to dock cleat
Boat trailer with guide lines
Pictured: boat trailer with guides
Some Additional Tips:
  • Maximize Your VisibilityIf you're doing the job solo, it may help to lower your tailgate or open your vehicle's rear hatch for more visibility.
  • Don't Be Afraid to Use GuidesGuides are a great way to make launching and retrieving your boat easier. These guides attach to the end of your trailer and extend out of the water, so you can easily center your boat and make sure it's properly positioned on the trailer as you load or unload.

3. How to Load Your Boat on the Trailer

Once you've had your fun on the water and it's time to pack up for the day, you'll have to retrieve your boat and load it back on your trailer for the ride home. Make sure your vehicle and trailer are ready and waiting when you pull your boat up to the ramp. Boating etiquette applies to the end of the day, too! Back your trailer into the water until your bunks or rollers are about 2/3 of the way submerged. Trailer depth is important here. If anything it's better to be a bit too shallow than too deep, but if you don't have the trailer submerged deeply enough, you'll have trouble getting your boat all the way up the trailer. If you're too deep, you'll have trouble positioning your boat over the trailer.
Load boat on trailer
Once you're at a good depth, put your vehicle in park and set the parking brake. Pull your boat up to your trailer slowly and on center. How? Alternate between putting your boat in gear and shifting into neutral as you approach the trailer. If you're not on center, back up and start again. Your boat should be far enough out of the water to see whether or not it's aligned. (Again, guides can help you with this process.)You should be able to float your boat most of the way onto the trailer or "walk it up" from the dock, using dock lines tied to the bow and stern cleat. Once you're close enough, reattach the winch strap to your boat. When your boat is about 1/3 of the way out of the water, you can typically crank it the rest of the way onto the trailer using your winch. (Check out our array of boat winches if you don't already have one or need an upgrade.) For bunk trailers, you can spray a bit of silicone on each bunk to ease loading. Loading Your Boat in a Strong Current or Wind If the wind or current is pushing you in one direction, it may be difficult to maneuver your boat onto your trailer.Try to back your trailer in at an angle toward the down-current, or back straight up into the water. In your boat, approach the trailer from downstream, keeping the bow pointed forward against the wind or current. When you just barely pass the centerline of your trailer, turn your bow and allow the current to nudge it onto the trailer. Going into the current causes your boat to slip past the trailer without giving you time to steer into it. If you go against the current, the water will push the bow into the trailer. This may take a few tries to get right!
Load Boat on Trailer in Current or Wind
WARNING: Power loading (driving your boat up onto your trailer using your motor) is generally considered bad practice and in some locations is strictly prohibited. When you power load, propellers can erode sediment at the ramp, creating large holes with mounds of sediment behind them and even undermining the integrity of ramps in some cases. When the water is low, trailers are susceptible to getting their tires stuck in these holes, and boats risk dragging on the sediment mounds behind them.
Prepare boat for road
Back in the staging area, get your boat ready to hit the road again:
  • Pull the drain plug and drain any livewells (do this first to give your boat time to drain)
  • Strap the boat down (transom straps, bow straps, gunwale straps, safety strap)
  • Put the transom saver back in place, if you have one
  • Unload the boat and put any gear back in your vehicle
  • Plug your trailer lights back in
Once your boat is put back together and your gear is packed, you're ready to hit the road again.
Amber S.
About Amber S.As a content writer for etrailer, I might spend my morning loading and unloading a bike on five different bike racks to figure out which is easiest to use. I might be in the parking lot, taking pictures of an impressive RV battery setup our techs came across in the shop and discussing the benefits of the setup with the owner. I might spend an afternoon in a manufacturer training classes for some hands-on experience with new products, and then sit down to assemble all this information into a coherent article.At etrailer, one of our core values is that we are always learning, and I learn something new every day. I start each morning with the goal in mind of taking all of this information and figuring out the best way to answer the questions people ask us (and the ones they don’t know to ask yet), and helping people get the solutions they need to make their lives easier, safer, and more fun. I’m a DIYer at heart, so it brings me great joy to help a fellow DIYer find what they’re looking for, whether that’s a product, an answer, or a community.
Related ArticlesRelated ProductsWritten by: Amber S.Updated on: 4/30/20


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