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Boat Trailer Brakes for Safe Transport: A Guide to Understanding Your Options

Between purchasing a boat, looking at new trailers, and thinking about a day out on the water, you probably have not given much thought to the brakes on your boat trailer. That’s okay because you are like most people.

With that said, while they may come as an afterthought, you do not want them to. In fact, your brakes are what stops your trailer in the event you need to stop it and without brakes, you could find yourself involved in an accident or you could find yourself losing your boat altogether.

Most states have some type of brake requirements for trailers, so it helps to familiarize yourself with your own state laws and what is required. For example, some states do not require brakes if your trailer weighs less than a certain amount. However, it is always still recommended that your trailer have brakes as they add an additional level of safety to your trailer.

Below, this guide will help you better understand brakes for your boat trailer and the options you have to choose from.

When Exactly Are Brakes Necessary on My Boat Trailer?

Besides adhering to local laws in your state, brakes on a boat trailer are necessary when your trailer needs assistance to stop. Boats are heavy and because of the additional weight, your tow vehicle can struggle to stop as the extra weight causes strain on the brakes themselves.

Heading down a slope or hill with a boat on your trailer can present a problem, especially if you are relying only on your tow vehicle’s brakes. You may find that your tow vehicle’s brakes are completely overpowered and you are left in an unsafe situation.

In addition, adding this additional weight can mean a larger stopping distance for your tow vehicle or too much heat generation from the tow vehicle’s brakes causing issues with braking in general.

It is best to simply consider trailer brakes in any and all situations. While the brakes may not be deemed necessary, they are almost always necessary to have because they will provide you with the peace of mind and safety you need.

Can Brakes Be Added to My Boat Trailer?

The short answer is yes. Brakes can be added to your boat trailer even if they were not originally there. As long as the axle has brake flanges, they can be added. The flanges will come in either a set of four holes or five holes and the number of flanges you have will tell you the size of the brakes the trailer needs. For example, four flanges are made for 10-inch brakes and five flanges are made for 12-inch brakes.

You do NOT want to weld the flanges on yourself as it is NOT recommended. The reason for this is if the flanges are not welded on correctly, the brakes will not work properly and can cause more problems.

Brake Lift Systems

Understanding your options means understanding what is out there. Before you choose a type of brake for your boat trailer, you want to first understand what type of brake lift system you have or which one you want to choose.

The first type is front-mounted trailer brakes. These trailer brakes are positioned in the front of the trailer hitch receiver. They work to provide you with an all-wheel system for braking and are generally less expensive than brakes that are mounted on the rear. You will need to provide space between the trailer and the vehicle.

The second type is rear-mounted trailer brakes. These trailer brakes are present at the rear of the trailer and also provide you with an all-wheel system for braking. They are more expensive than other options, but they do not require you to have any additional space behind the vehicle.

The third and final option is drum brakes. These trailer brakes are attached to the vehicle’s frame. They provide some freedom as you can choose to replace them once they have become worn down or if they are damaged. (People enjoy the flexibility to switch to a different braking system entirely too, as they are not fully integrated into the trailer, so it is possible to do.)

Types of Brakes Available for Your Boat Trailer

Below, we will discuss the different available types of brakes for your boat trailer. The type of brakes you choose will depend on what your needs are along with your budget.

Option 1: Drum Brakes

You have likely heard of drum brakes. They have been used as a standard on vehicles and trailers for many years and were very popular quite some time ago. They are very affordable, which is one of the reasons they were used so often.

Overall, they cost less to install and are not expensive to maintain. You also do not have to worry about any difficulty in replacing them as they tend to be easy to do.

The biggest downside to drum brakes is that they do not last very long. Their longevity is often the reason why people opt for a more expensive version of brakes for their trailers.

Over time, water can pool up inside of the drum brake and cause issues with corrosion and lead to problems when it comes to utilizing the brakes themselves. If you do back your trailer into salt water, you should utilize a flush kit on the brakes after each encounter with salt water to ensure their lifetime.

With drum brakes, you will need to perform manual adjustments every 3,000 to 5,000 miles. So, if you drive your trailer a lot, this can add up to quite a bit of manual adjustments over the years.

Option 2: Disc Brakes

When looking at disc brakes, you will find a number of options that fall under this category. In general, disc brakes come in a wide variety of materials including silver cadmium, e-coating, standard automotive, and stainless steel.

Stainless steel is the best choice for longevity, but it can still succumb to corrosion if you are not careful.

Disc brakes come with a single moving part, which is the caliper. Drum brakes have around 9 to 12 moving parts, which means more can go wrong or break on them.

When it comes to disc brakes, the pads and calipers are easily seen for inspection and maintenance and can be cleaned with minimal effort. They are self-adjusting, so you do not have to worry about any type of manual adjustments on them.

These brakes can cost almost twice as much as drum brakes, which can be an issue for individuals who may need to stick to a budget.

Option 3: Surge Brakes

Hydraulic surge brakes are another option for braking systems for your trailer and are activated at the front end of the trailer tongue. The way these work is that when your tow vehicle stops, the trailer pushes into the tow vehicle, which in return compresses the master cylinder that is found in the actuator. Once this has happened, the actuator forces fluid into the disc or drum brakes, which then causes the trailer to start stopping.

Regular surge brakes are a self-contained braking system of the trailer and do not require you to have any hydraulic or electrical connections to the vehicle. These are a passive option, and they only engage once the tow vehicle has started to slow down. This option does require a longer and greater stopping distance.

Option 4: Electric-Over-Hydraulic Brakes

This option is still relatively new to the market but is an option. These brakes work by utilizing an electric pump that transmits pressurized fluid to either your disc or drum brakes. They are easy to install and understand, which makes them a good option.

You will find that these brakes are easy to adjust as well and do not take away from your time on the boat. Most people with higher-end trailers choose these types of brakes. They are also ideal for individuals who plan to travel long distances with their boat trailers or those who operate their trailers on steep grades and hills.

Option 5: Breakaway Brakes

Breakaway brakes are designed to help stop your trailer should something happen to it and it becomes detached from your tow vehicle. You want to be able to tow your boat as safely as possible and breakaway brakes are a second line of defense.

For any number of reasons, it is possible for your trailer to become disconnected from your tow vehicle whether due to an error, the tow hitch, or safety chains, it can happen. While you never want it to, it is best to be prepared in the event that it does.

If your trailer breaks from the tow vehicle, it could crash into another vehicle or any other objects around it thus putting the safety of others at risk. On top of that, if it were to flip, it would cause damage to your boat.

This is where your breakaway brakes come in handy. If your trailer is equipped with them and the system is ready and charged, you can avoid a safety hazard and disaster while on the road should your trailer become disconnected for any reason.

The breakaway system must be charged to operate, which means you will need a 12-volt battery that is charged and the switch cable attached to the vehicle. Without this, the system will not engage.

If your trailer does detach or the safety chains fail, the system will bring your boat trailer to a stop as safely as possible. This system is an all-around emergency system.

Boat Trailer Brakes Maintenance Tips

No matter the type of brakes you have on your boat trailer, you want to make sure that you are properly maintaining them to ensure they last a long time and do not need to be replaced too often. Your brakes allow you to stop and the last thing you need is to have them fail on you due to improper maintenance.

After you launch your boat, you want to make sure that you rinse your brakes off. ALWAYS use fresh water to do this (can be done with a garden hose). You can use specialized cleaning products should you find you need to remove salt better than what can be done with just fresh water.

Not rinsing off your brakes can lead to serious corrosion and cause issues with the operation of the brakes.

Here are some tips to help you keep your brakes in tip-top condition:

  • Check the brake fluid before each trip
  • Look for any leaks in the wheel cylinders, master cylinder, or wheel connections
  • Adjust drum brakes every 3,000 to 5,000 miles
  • Lubricate all caliper pins regularly
  • Lubricate all moving parts of the brakes such as the brake coupler yearly
  • Check the wear on pads and shoes every 3,000 to 5,000 miles
  • Check the connection between the tow vehicle and trailer for electric brakes

Warning Signs to Look Out For

We keep saying it because it really is that important – your brakes stop your trailer and they must be in good condition to keep you safe.

Unlike automotive brakes, trailer brakes do not have any lights or audio warnings to help point you to a problem that may be going on. They cannot sense when there is an issue. Also, you tend to drive your tow vehicle daily or often, so your brakes and rotors naturally stay clean.

If you are like most boat owners, during boating months, you take the trailer out and into the water, come home, and then repeat for several weeks or months, and then let the trailer wait it out until the next season rolls around. This can allow corrosion to build up on the brakes and thus cause issues for you.

One of the red flags you want to look for is visible wear and corrosion on the brakes themselves. You can simply look at the brakes and quickly identify if they look like they are in good condition or if they need some assistance and attention.

Corrosion that is present will cause your brakes to squeak or squeal as you use them. If you do hear these noises, this should alert you right away. However, if your brakes were just changed out, some squeaking and squealing are normal. Excessive noises are not.

When driving your trailer, pay attention to how the brakes operate. Brakes that lock up or grab can indicate there is a serious issue going on with them.

In most cases, you will need new brakes. It is best to be on the safe side should you notice any issues or signs of corrosion, problems, or wear.

Inspecting your brakes often will allow you to catch any and all issues quickly, so that they can be rectified without taking away from your time on the water or costing you a bunch of money due to an accident or safety issue on the road.

Get Your Brakes in Check

Now you know the different options of brakes available for your boat trailer. It can be quite confusing at first to hear them all at once, but with some time and research, you should be able to narrow down your choices easily.

Ultimately, your goal is to be safe on the road. With properly installed and functioning brakes, you will feel better as you drive your boat trailer to and from your destinations.

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