Trailering shouldn’t be a drag: A Pro’s solution to trailering problems

By: John Campbell


Did you ever have to sit in on one of those traffic classes that are supposed to make you better drivers, but you didn’t even come close to learning something you didn’t already know. We pretty much all understand that Mr. Driving instructor says hands at 10 and 2 and signal to pass. Well, I’m here to give you some practical advise on trailering a boat, that can be the difference between a disastrous wreck or an uneventful trip. You see, there is no common sense when it comes to trailering, because trailering is not a common thing. There are however, some great tips and guidelines that can help us. Some of these are preventive and others are for handling the emergency situation that may arise one day, with a whole lot of fiberglass or aluminum behind us, trying to ruin our day.

I can remember the first time I thought my life was in peril as a result of a towing experience. I was cruising along a two lane road in somewhat rural Wisconsin on a morning that had produced quite a bit of dew, enough to make the road slightly moist. The sun was in my eyes a bit as I rounded a corner, and I missed the sign that said stop ahead. I was driving a small Blazer, and towing my Ranger 690VS, a fairly big craft. Well, by the time I saw the stop sign and put the hooks on to try and stop the truck, I realized that there was no way this small truck was going to be able to stop that big boat that was pushing it from behind. What happened is that I rolled right across the intersection, barely missing two speeding cars traveling across my path. It was simply a matter of physics that this lightweight vehicle couldn’t stop with that heavy a load behind it. It really taught me a lot about how valuable the right vehicle could be.

On that note, let’s start by talking about the vehicle we’re going to tow with. Just because your car says it can tow a certain capacity, and you get the hitch to match, don’t be mislead into thinking that it would be a very good idea. You see, everything about stability and ride has to do with 2 things, wheelbase and weight. Wheelbase is simply the distance between the front and rear wheels, the more the better. Weight has a couple of different functions, but they all relate to physics 101. Basically, to stop straighter, faster, and with more control, the heavier the vehicle, the better off you are. When you put a big rig like my new Ranger 620 behind my GMC Suburban, you have enough vehicle to basically push that boat to a stop. If you tried to do the same thing with one of those little clown cars they call a Sports Utility Vehicle, that big Ranger would push you down the road a heck of a lot farther. Another vehicle style that actually fits our mold quite well are full sized vans. The only downside to vans is that they tend to catch more wind when it comes crossways to the vehicle, making for a bit more potential sway.

When it comes to sway, there are some valuable tips that may keep you out of the ditch and on the road. I remember driving home one evening with a friend of mine, towing an 18-foot boat with a mini-van. A gust of wind came up and pushed the minivan sideways slightly and the boat began to sway behind the vehicle. My friend sped up and the problem worsened, with the minivan now swaying across two lanes on the expressway. At my urging, he slowly decelerated and the problem went away by the time we got down to 30 mph. What my friend didn’t realize, is that slow deceleration is almost always the answer, with one great exception. That is if the boat begins to sway as you are traveling downhill. This is a situation where the boat actually begins pushing the tow vehicle and in order to correct, the tow vehicle needs to speed up to begin pulling the load again. In most other circumstances however, you can hardly go wrong with slowing the vehicle gradually until the problem corrects itself.

Moving back on the vehicle, our next link in the system is the actual hitch. Most importantly, don’t ever opt for a hitch that either is part of the bumper or clamps on it. Hitches that bolt to your frame are the style needed for safe hauling. Hitches are classified by roman numeral ratings of class I, II, III, and IV. The highest number having the greatest capacity. With not towing big Lake Michigan boats, I opt for class III hitches on all my vehicles. This style will tow all the boats up to that Great Lakes cruiser class, and doesn’t really cost that much more than a class I or II.

Now, lets actually get into the heart and soul of the operation, the trailer itself. The one facet that can make a trailering experience more enjoyable and relaxed, more than any other, is a quality trailer. One of the features that you can get in a quality trailer, that adds safety, stability, enhances driving and ride characteristics, more than any other, is getting a tandem axle trailer versus a single axle. The tandem distributes the load differently and also prevents that dreaded trailer sway much more than a single axle. If you have a bigger boat, anything over 17 feet, you should seriously consider a tandem axle for comfort and safety.

A few trailer do’s and don’ts before we hit the road. Check that electrical system. Carry a couple of spare fuses and some connectors in case you need to re wire somewhere on a trip. One of the surest ways to prevent an accident is to have your trailer properly lit up. Secondly, use a hitch that has a lock pin in the latch so that your latch can’t pop open while running over rough roads or heavy terrain. That means that you should always use your safety chains also, because if you should ever need them, it’s the difference between a major disaster or a slight inconvenience.

On the trailer itself, there are several items that we can have to increase our stability and performance. The most obvious is the use of surge brakes. These brakes are activated by the force of the trailer pushing against the trailer ball as brakes are applied in our vehicle. My Ranger Trail trailer is equipped with disk brakes as a standard feature, and there have been more times than not that I’ve been happy to have a quality braking system behind me. The second thing we need to do to stabilize our load, is to actually tie it down to the trailer. This is a very overlooked feature, and one that can cause instant disaster if not considered. If we happen to travel across a large bump or pothole, the trailer is going to bounce as it comes out or over the hazard. If the load is not secured to the trailer, it will shift its position on the trailer and cause something to change quite instantly. Besides the potential for extreme hull damage to our boat, the boat can literally wind up on the highway next to our trailer and cause a huge accident. Believe me when I tell you that I’ve seen this happen, and more than once! For these reasons, I use the style of tie down straps that permanently affix to the trailer and are quick and easy to put on.

The last thing we should cover about trailering, is the motor position. My big Mercury 225 Optimax needs to be tilted up so that the skeg doesn’t drag on the cement. However, if I just tilt my Merc up, it places too much stress on the transom of my Ranger 620. For this reason, I use a support bar that fits on the last roller of my trailer and I can trim my motor down slightly to rest the shaft of the motor onto this support bar. Now the load is being distributed to the trailer and relieving the stress on the transom. I also have a 15hp Mercury 4-stroke kicker motor on my Ranger 620, and this needs a different treatment for trailering. This motor should be tilted down, as the skeg is not endangered by contact with the ground. This vertical towing position is ideal for relieving stress on the transom that the heavier 4 strokes can potentially exert if left in a tilted position.

This should answer a bulk of questions that you may have had about towing. Here’s to a happy and safe trailering future for you and your family, and I’ll see you on the water!