Mastering the Art of Backing a Boat Trailer: Tips, Tricks and Techniques for Newbies and Intermediates

Okay, so you are here because you have done the maintenance, prepped your boat, and are ready to head out to the ramp for some fun out on the water…but wait, there is one more thing – how in the heck does a boat trailer back up?

If you are new or even semi-new to having a boat and trailer, you will quickly learn that backing up with it is not like backing up a traditional vehicle. In fact, it takes some relearning and lots of practice to get good at it. Remember, everyone was in the same spot you are once, so don’t worry about it.

Directing a boat trailer to a specific angle or spot can be a challenge. After all, you are using an articulated hinge and trying to go in reverse. It is not the best recipe for ease. If you have been to the boat ramp recently and seen people get in and out with their boat trailers quickly and flawlessly, let us just tell you that it took them a lot of practice, time, and patience to be able to do it. And guess what? They still probably don’t get it right the first time, all the time.

With that said, don’t get discouraged because you soon will be able to back your boat and trailer up like a pro champ in no time. Below, we will introduce you to some helpful tips and lessons and with practice, you will soon be the one to look up to when it comes to backing up with a boat trailer.

Let’s have a look.

Set Yourself Up to Be Good at It

There are many different situations you may find yourself in when it comes to backing up your boat trailer and it is never always just a straight line. For example, you may find yourself with a straight line one day but then trying to navigate around a tight corner the next. You may have to slide your trailer between two tight objects or you may have to navigate around some road hazards.

To set yourself up for the best success, you want to practice with a myriad of different situations. Realistically, you do not want to try doing this at the boat ramp on your first try because let’s face it, you aren’t going to be good at it. You want to practice in a situation that is as low stress as possible. This way, you do not become flustered and overwhelmed.

You should take your trailer, without the boat, to an open parking lot and create a scene with cones and all to practice. Here, you will have plenty of room to try maneuvering your trailer the way you need to. It is okay if you hit the cones or knock into them at this point. Your goal is to start getting the hang of it so that you are able to back up without hitting anything.

Of course, start yourself out easy. You don’t have to go gung-ho and attempt crazy maneuvers all at once. Start with a straight line backing up then move on to a little more complicated of turns and then complicated as you start to feel more comfortable.

Get Yourself Prepared

Prior to doing any type of backing up with your trailer, you should always make sure that your mirrors are properly adjusted and that you feel comfortable in your seat. You should adjust the mirrors and make sure that while sitting in the driver’s seat that you can clearly see your trailer as best as possible. You should dedicate around a third or a half of the mirror to showing you your trailer and the remaining outer area of the mirror to showing you any hazards that may be around or approaching.

If you feel that you are unable to adequately see, you may want to consider wide-angle mirrors, mirror extenders, or even blind spot mirror attachments. The biggest thing here is that you do not want to go into backing up with your trailer blind. You NEED to be able to see the trailer.

Once you have your mirrors ready to go, you should turn on your hazard lights and get ready to practice backing up.

Backing Up Your Boat Trailer

The first key detail that you need to know and understand is that your boat trailer is not going to react how you would expect it to when you go to back up. Knowing EXACTLY how it will react will assist you in making sure you are successful as you back up.

It is important to remember that when you have a trailer attached to your vehicle, the trailer moves in the OPPOSITE direction of your vehicle. This is such an important detail and yes, it does require you to change your thinking about backing up altogether. It will take practice and yes, you will make a mistake a time or two.

So, what exactly do we mean when we say that the trailer will go the opposite way? For example, if your tow vehicle is in reverse and you turn your steering wheel in the clockwise position, and you press down on the gas pedal, the back of your tow vehicle will go in the direction it is supposed to (right), but the back of your trailer will go to the left. So in essence, your vehicle is going right but your trailer is going left.

You want to turn your steering wheel in the OPPOSITE direction of which way you want your trailer to go.

To go left: turn the steering wheel right to make the trailer go left.

To go right: turn the steering wheel left to make the trailer go right.

Confusing, right?

Once you nail this down, you will feel like a pro, and rightfully so. You should practice, practice, practice. It does take a little bit of rewiring your driving brain to make sure that you get it every time.

However, this is such a crucial step and one that you must master and understand to be able to properly and safely back your boat trailer up at any ramp and in any situation.

Basics to Backing Up

Now, it is time to put it all into practice. You do NOT want to go at this with any type of speed and remember, it is a slow process, so don’t be afraid to use the brake pedal and never rush it. Slow and steady will help you direct your boat trailer the proper way.

1. To get started, pull your boat trailer up to where you feel comfortable and there is enough room on all sides of the tow vehicle and the trailer. Adjust so that your wheels are straight and that your trailer and vehicle are all in alignment with one another.

2. Check each one of your mirrors to make sure that there are no hazards or obstructions around the tow vehicle or the trailer.

3. Place your vehicle into reverse and then place your hands on the steering wheel. You will place your foot gently onto the gas pedal. You should keep the vehicle’s wheels straight and as long as they are straight, the trailer should move backward in a straight line for you. You will want to continue to look at your mirrors as the trailer reverses to observe for any hazards and obstructions.

4. If you feel that your trailer is starting to move in one direction or another, you can move your hand slightly in the opposite direction to help even out the trailer and get it back into its straight position. Once you notice a response from the trailer’s movement, you will want to return the wheels to the center position to achieve a straight line again.

Basics to Backing Up Through a Turn

Okay, so you have officially backed up in a straight line, so now, let’s give a turn a try. You will maintain the same principles as you did above, but it will take some additional concentration, patience, and practice.

1. Set up the scene and simulate a turn that you may need to make. For example, many ramps require a 90-degree turn to the right. You should set up your cones to mimic this so that you can start to practice.

2. You should pull your trailer up just as you did before so that you have enough room on the sides of it. You then need to straighten out your wheels and trailer so that they are straight. Your tow vehicle and trailer should both be aligned. The amount of space you will need to maneuver your trailer around will depend on the size of your trailer and the exact angle of the turn. Whatever you do, just make sure you give yourself enough room.

3. Look around for any obstacles or hazards and then start to back up slowly. You want to keep your hands on the wheel to keep it in the straight position at this point in time. Once you start to get going, you will want to place your hand on the steering wheel in the counterclockwise position to move the trailer to the right. You should start to see your trailer turning to the right in your side mirror.

4. Once you start to notice that the trailer arcs during the turn, you will want to turn the wheels back to the center position while continuing to press the gas lightly. You should start to notice that your vehicle starts to follow in the direction of your trailer while your trailer continues on backward.

5. Continue to move through the turn while keeping an eye on your mirrors. Once you have your vehicle and trailer in alignment, continue to back straight up until your trailer is in the spot you want it in.

Note: If you find that you oversteer your trailer, which can be easy to do, simply place your tow vehicle back into drive and move forward until you straighten out and then attempt to back up again.

Final Tips to Help You Out

Here are some final tips to assist you in the process.

Tip #1: Go Slow

We cannot say it enough – go slow. The one thing you do NOT want to do is go fast when it comes to backing up your boat trailer. Do not feel like you are ever going too slow – there is no such thing.

ALWAYS take your time. If you do not, you can damage your trailer by jack-knifing it and this can cause you to lose your boat in the process too.

Whenever you back up a trailer, always keep your foot on the brake while you are in reverse. Again, GO SLOW.

Tip #2: Stop Early and Fix Crooked

If you notice that your trailer is crooked, stop early and fix it. A crooked trailer will not fix itself by continuing to back up. You will need to pull forward and straighten it out first and then continue to back up.

Tip #3: Avoid Oversteering

Remember, a little goes a long way. Never oversteer as you will find yourself all messed up if you do and make backing up so much more difficult than it needs to be.

Simply make a small adjustment to your steering wheel if you notice that your trailer needs to go a different way.

Tip #4: Have Someone Help You

If you have someone to help you back up the trailer, this is awesome. Take advantage as the individual can be your eyes. If you do have someone to help, have them walk next to the trailer and talk to you as you back up the boat.

They will be able to guide you and let you know if you are straight, going to hit something, or need to adjust.

Get Out There and Start Practicing

Now that you have a good idea of how to back up your trailer, it is time to get out there and start practicing. Learning how to back up your boat trailer is easy if you make sure you adhere to the basic rules and always go slow and make sure to take your time. Remember, it is not a race, and it will take practice. There is nothing wrong with needing to readjust your trailer multiple times while you back up.

While it may seem nerve-racking at first, simply getting out there and doing it is what is best. We encourage you to practice as much as you can and once you are comfortable backing up in the parking lot, move on to the boat ramp to see how you do.

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