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To Trailer or Not To Trailer- That is the Question

By: Richard Crowder

Launching a boat at a marina
Ready for Water

Many buyers of smaller boats up to twenty-three or so feet, plus buyers of almost any pontoon boat, seem to automatically think they need a trailer to go with their boat. But before you rush out and buy one, or accept that used trailer as part of the used boat package you are considering, carefully weigh the pros and cons of trailering and trailer ownership.

First off, if the gross weight of the boat and trailer exceeds approximately 4,500 kg (roughly 10,000 pounds), then you are on your own as you will probably know the regulations that apply in your province or territory and you probably already own a tow vehicle capable of towing that amount of weight with experience to boot.

Each province and territory in Canada has different regulations, but suffice to say that above the approximate 4,500 kg towed weight you may require an advanced driver’s licence or certain certification. Check with your province or territory licensing office prior to purchasing a trailer to ensure you comply with the appropriate regulations. Ontario, home of the largest boating ownership in Canada, also has the most complicated and onerous trailer towing regulations.

Aside from weight compliance, there are many considerations related to your decision to tow or not to tow. Many boaters simply need to tow in order to maximize their boating enjoyment. First among these are the ardent fishermen who seek out different bodies of water according to time of year and species in season. The majority of the fishing boats you see on trailers are well below the 4,500 kg weight limit, and by far the majority are towed by pickup trucks capable of towing that weight. So we will eliminate these ardent fishermen from these discussions.

Who we are addressing are the typical, regular pleasure boaters who own or want to own a smaller runabout, mini-cruiser, or pontoon boat for all-round family recreational enjoyment including cruising, exploring, relaxing, entertaining, plus watersports activities like swimming, waterskiing, tubing, or wakeboarding. Do you want or need a trailer? That is the question.

First, a practical discussion. Most modern sedans, minivans, small and medium SUV’s are comprised of a uni-body construction as opposed to a body-on-frame construction typical among full-size SUV’s and most full-size pickup trucks. Most compact sedans and some minivans and some small SUV’s do not recommend towing of any trailer of any weight.

To generalize, small to medium size SUV’s today are rated to tow roughly up to 2,000 to 3,000 pounds. Medium to large SUV’s are rated to tow roughly up to 5,000 to 7,000 pounds. Full size SUV’s are rated to tow roughly up to around 9,000 pounds and base pickup trucks roughly from around 5,000 to 9,000 pounds. Upscale pickups are of course rated to tow much, much heavier loads.

Family-oriented aluminum boats with outboard power from sixteen to twenty-three feet, once you add trailer weight plus fuel and gear, will range in the neighbourhood of 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of towed weight. Aluminum pontoon boats with outboard power of the same size range plus trailer, fuel and gear will range in roughly the same neighbourhood of towed weight. Fibreglass runabouts of the same size range with outboard or sterndrive power plus trailer, fuel and gear will range in the neighbourhood of 2,000 to five or even six thousand pounds of towed weight, depending on configuration.

If you want to safely and legally trailer your boat and don’t want to purchase a vehicle with increased towing capacity in order to do so, you need to know and respect the towing capacity of the vehicle you have. Choose a boat that weighs within that towing capacity and yet can still provide the type of pleasure boating and on-water enjoyment you’re after.

Bear in mind that if your tow vehicle is still under warranty, you risk voiding part or all of the warranty by towing a boat of a weight that exceeds the rated towing capacity. Confirm this carefully prior to towing. Also check with your vehicle insurance provider that your vehicle is insured to tow the intended weight and if there are any restrictions in your policy with regard to towing.

The critical point to the discussion is that you are spending a lot of discretionary income on the purchase of a boat, and the purpose of spending this money is to enjoy a leisure activity that will provide you with immeasurable pleasure. It is so important the boat you choose allows you to realize those pleasures and doesn’t leave you frustrated with trailer problems.

Don’t buy a boat simply because it meets certain trailering capacities. Buy the boat for the water – not for the trailer.

So let’s say you have found the right boat but it doesn’t come with a trailer. Do you buy a trailer for it or not? Let’s consider some possible scenarios:

1. If you buy a trailer, do you have a tow vehicle that has the rating to tow it? You can obviously buy a tow vehicle that has the tow rating you need and, a) include the added expense of this tow vehicle into your boat budget, or b) rationalize that this larger vehicle can be used for all sorts of other purposes and therefore should not be part of your boating budget.

2. If you buy a trailer, do you have a place to park it? If you do not have a driveway or lot convenient for parking it, perhaps a friend, local storage compound, or your chosen marina does. If you select any of these, will you have access to the facility when you need it?

3. If you buy a trailer, are you prepared to take care of it? There is not just the upfront capital cost of purchasing a trailer (and those costs have been increasing dramatically in recent years), but there is also the cost of financing, insuring, storing, and maintaining it. Maintaining a trailer can be a chore if you are not prepared for it. A trailer lives in a terrible environment of dampness and temperature variations. It needs regular maintenance and attention to the brakes, wheel bearings, tires, and electrical lighting.

4. If you buy a trailer, are you prepared to do the towing when required? Assuming you have a tow vehicle with sufficient tow rating, then consider the following: a) I f the towing is only a couple of times a year to launch the boat in the spring and take it out in the fall, in other words to transport your boat to and from winter storage, then you may want to compare the costs of ownership against having your local marina or boat hauler do it for you. They can put your boat onto blocks in your winter storage location. And b) if that towing includes the above plus another couple trips a season to explore other waterways you may want to explore outside trailering options if there’s a service available.

5. If you choose not to buy a trailer for any one of the above reasons, you are not necessarily restricted to one body of water. Today’s boat haulers (and check that whoever you use is properly insured as a commercial hauler) with their hydraulic trailers can take almost any size or weight of boat absolutely anywhere you please.

Having a boat on a trailer can add immeasurable flexibility to your boating lifestyle. Please ensure for your own safety and enjoyment, as well as that of others sharing our roads and waterways, that you respect and adhere to all the requirements for trailer use. Always confirm tow vehicle, trailer loading, tongue loading, and hitch ratings. Double check your brakes, lights, tires, proper tie-downs and restraints both before leaving and shortly after starting to ensure a safe journey. Keep up with proper maintenance and annual certification) of the tow vehicle as well as the trailer. If you follow these basic guidelines not only will you be confident that your highway travel is safe (and legal), but you won’t waste any additional time on land when you’d rather be looking at open water from the helm.

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