Trailer Choices

By Lenny Rudow

Choosing properly will make your life easier and safer — every time you roll down the road.

Photo of the underneath of a boat trailerDrop axles allow your boat to ride closer to the ground, lowering its center of gravity, making it safer on the road.

When I proudly pulled into the driveway with my first boat in tow, my father walked out of the house and ignored what I had coveted: the boat. Instead he walked around the secondhand rig, scowling with his head tilted down, looking at what I had ignored: the trailer. It was my first step in learning a hard lesson; steps yet to come would include failing the trailer inspection twice, getting stuck on the side of the road on my second trip with the rig, and almost losing the boat off the trailer at 60 mph on the third trip. Luckily, on the fourth trip the outboard's power-head blew, turning the entire rig into junkyard scrap and saving me from further misadventures. The experience taught me one thing I'll never forget: Your trailer is every bit as important as your boat.

In today's market, of course, many boats and trailers are sold together as a package. The manufacturer has hopefully put together a well-matched rig, and if you select the right trailer options, it will serve your needs quite well. If you get a custom-matched trailer, you'll have even more choices to deal with. We put this trailer-shopping primer together to help you better understand what each of those options will mean.


The big question here is, how many do you need? Different-sized axles can be used to support different amounts of weight, so there's no one-size-fits-all answer. But when tandem (multiple) axles are an option, most people feel it's advantageous to get them. Sure, both initial and maintenance costs are higher. But tandems track better, ride more smoothly, and if you have a wheel come off or a tire pop at high speed, the risk of catastrophic disaster is much lower. Another axle consideration is whether to get straight axles or drop axles. Drop axles reduce ground clearance, which makes for better stability and easier launching. But if you ever pull down a rutted or rough road, you'll wish you had that extra clearance.


Most rigs beyond the smallest and most basic will require some form of brakes. Minimum sizes and weights vary quite a bit depending on what state you live in and which expert you talk to, but there's an easy way to make sure your rig is up to snuff: Verify that it's National Marine Manufacturers Association certified. You wouldn't buy a boat that wasn't NMMA-certified; well, the same goes for the trailer it's riding on. That said, you still have a few decisions to make.

Assuming you need brakes, you'll have to choose between disc and drum. Disc brakes are usually considered superior on large loads because they're easier to freshwater-flush and have more friction area. But on relatively light loads (about 3,500 pounds or less), drum brakes may be preferred because they require lower hydraulic pressures to activate and in some cases may provide more stopping power when less mass is pushing on the hydraulic actuator. Of course, that only matters if you have a hydraulic actuator in the first place, which leads to ...

Hydraulic Surge vs. Electric

Hydraulic surge brakes have traditionally been the most common on boat trailers. But in recent years, electric brakes have been growing in popularity. What's the difference? Hydraulic surge brakes have an actuator in the front of the trailer; when you slow down, the mass of the trailer and boat pushes against it, creating a hydraulic output that triggers the commensurate braking response. Electric brakes, on the other hand, are activated by the electrical output when you step on your brakes.

Technically speaking, electric brakes are superior because they're activated in real time as you step on the brake pedal. With surge brakes, there's a time lag between when you hit your brakes and when the force of the trailer activates the actuator. Unfortunately, water and electricity generally don't play nice — big surprise! — and plenty of electric trailer-brake failures have been traced back to dunking at the boat ramp. The key is to make sure that if electric brakes are an option on a trailer you're considering, the system is rated for marine use and designed for saltwater submersion (and, of course, that you maintain it properly, including consistent freshwater flushes after every use).

Frame Material

Naturally, what your trailer is constructed of is important. Today, you have two choices: aluminum and galvanized steel. Most boat trailers are aluminum because it's lighter and less prone to corrosion than steel. But it's also more expensive than steel. Still, unless you'll be using it in fresh water only, aluminum is the better choice by far.

Hardware Material

Most aluminum trailers are bolted together, but as we all know, all hardware is not created equal. Stainless steel is best, especially when it comes to regular saltwater use, with galvanized hardware generally being considered acceptable. Cheaper materials (like zinc) should be avoided.


As anyone who's ever owned a trailer boat knows, trailer lights are a constant source of aggravation. In a nutshell, buying a trailer with top-quality lights, wiring, plugs, and connections will ease the pain. And although LED trailer lights aren't quite the panacea they're sometimes promoted to be, they do help cut down on failure. The bottom line: When it comes to lights, take every opportunity to upgrade, but don't expect that doing so will end all of your problems for good.

Photo of multiple trailer lightsExtra rear tail lights are required on wider trailers, but they're a good idea on any size trailer.

Photo of water-tight trailer light connectionsProper routing, support, and water-tight connections on all wires will pay off in the form of reliable trailer lights.

Bunks + Rollers

Choosing between these two support systems depends on where and how you do your boating. Generally, bunks offer better hull support, but they can also make launching and loading a lot tougher. If you regularly use ramps with a steep angle, this isn't a problem, but at ramps with a shallow angle, rollers will make life a lot easier. If, however, you expect your boat to sit on the trailer for extended periods of time, those rollers can cause a boat's hull to deform slightly, and bunks are a safer choice.

Photo of trailer-bed rollersRollers make it easier to load and unload your boat, but can subject your boat to point-loading that stresses the hull.

Photo of trailer bunksBunks offer greater support and are recommended for heavier boats, but require deeper water at the ramp to allow the boat to float free.

Tongues + Jackstands

The type of tongue and jackstand you need depends on boat storage, more than anything else. If you plan to put a 22-foot-long rig into a 20-foot-long garage, then obviously, a swing-away tongue that takes three feet off LOA is a must-have. If you need to be able to make minor adjustments in a trailer's location or position on a regular basis, get a jackstand with a wheel. Beyond these two specific situations, as long as the parts fulfill the weight requirements, you don't need to spend anything extra in upgrading tongues and jackstands.


Winches are pretty straightforward as they're rated for specific loads, but you may wonder if you need an electric winch instead of a hand-crank. Unless you're regularly launching and retrieving a very large boat, or you have a physical disability, an electric winch probably won't be necessary. Think of it this way: If you can do 10 push-ups, cranking up a boat with a winch that's properly matched to the load should be no problem. One caveat: It can get a lot tougher when using a shallow ramp and a bunk trailer. 

BoatUS electronics editor Lenny Rudow is a fishing and trailering expert, and editor.

— Published: Spring 2014


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