BlogAugust 2022

The Proper Way to Launch a Boat From a Trailer

The Proper Way to Launch a Boat From a Trailer

By Ken Schultz

Aug 17, 2022

Here’s the proper way to launch a boat from a trailer - from arrival at an access site to backing down the ramp to driving or floating the boat off

My first advice on how to launch a boat from a trailer is to take your time, think things through, and consult a checklist if you have one. This is especially true if you’re new to launching a boat from a trailer and are (understandably) a bit nervous about it. Here’s what I consider the proper way to launch a boat.

First Things First

When you get to the site, there may be a lineup of people coming and going and too many of them are impatient and/or inconsiderate. So, it helps to have things in order before you get to the launch ramp. Once there:

  1. Make sure the drainplug is in. Everyone has launched at least once without doing this. I usually put it in before I leave home so I don’t have to climb into the boat and do it.
  2. Take stern tiedowns off. Everyone has forgotten to do this at least once, too.
  3. Load all gear into the boat before launching so you don’t have to shlep it to the dock and hand it over (where it might fall into the water or someone could trip over it).
  4. Make sure the motor is tilted up so that the skeg or propeller doesn’t hit anything as you back up.
  5. If you have an older trailer, you may want to unhook the light harness from your tow vehicle to avoid shorting out the lights. Most new trailers and newer lights are submersible, so this is unnecessary if your trailer is so equipped.

Backing Down the Ramp

  • Check it out. If you’re unfamiliar with a particular launch ramp, or haven’t used it in a while, take a quick look from the dock to check its steepness, whether there are any objects in the water or on the ramp, and where the paved ramp ends. At some sites, it’s much harder to launch certain boats when the water is low, so take this into consideration. Other ramps are steep, but harder for certain boat/trailer setups to deal with (you don’t want the stern to start floating while the bow lip hangs up on the bow support). Some ramps are very slippery and harder for certain vehicles (such as front wheel drive, or non-four-wheel drive) to negotiate as well. Also, take into consideration wind and current, if they exist, because once your boat goes off the trailer, the wind or current will impact where’s it’s going.
  • The proper way to launch a boat is to take your time backing the trailer down the ramp, using your side mirrors to guide you. I like to get close to the dock where possible; it’s easier to get in and out of the boat if it’s close to the dock.
  • Once the trailer is partway into the water, put your tow vehicle in Park, engage the emergency brake, then get out and unhook the bow safety chain and the winch strap. Do not unhook these prior to putting the trailer in the water or you risk having your boat slide off the trailer on the ramp (usually on a steep ramp and when you hit the brake). With these unhooked, get back in your vehicle, take the emergency brake off, and back down more.
  • You should have bow and stern lines ready and in the hands of your companions so they can secure the boat when it comes off the trailer.
  • If you’re alone, you need a boat line (at least as long as the trailer) tied to the trailer, so that you can float the boat off without it going away. When the boat floats off, untie the rope from the trailer, get on the dock with it, and secure the boat to the dock before you pull your trailer off the ramp.

Drive Off or Float Off?

Your type of boat and trailer, as well as steepness of the ramp, may determine whether the proper way to launch a boat is to drive or float it off the trailer. Be careful not to back your tow vehicle so far into the water that the tailpipe gets submerged, or worse, the back of your vehicle.

  • If you have a capable companion, that person can sit at the helm, and once the stern of the boat is in the water, he or she can start the engine, put it in reverse, and carefully back the boat off the trailer. This is the quickest and most efficient way to get your boat off the trailer, if there is enough depth of water to lower and run the engine.
  • Otherwise, you need to back the trailer far enough into the water that the boat floats itself off the trailer. Holding one or two ropes, one or two companions can pull the floating boat back and/or over to the dock.
  • At some access sites there is no dock to assist with putting a boat in the water. I launch a small boat into many ponds where there’s no dock, pushing the boat off the trailer and using a long bow-hooked rope to guide it past the end of the trailer and then to the nearby shore.
  • You can also float a boat off a trailer by backing down slowly into the water, then sharply hitting the brake. A nonsticking bunk (like one with skid plates rather than carpet) or rollers help with to this.
Ken Schultz
Ken Schultz
Ken Schultz was a longtime staff writer for Field & Stream magazine and is the former Fishing Editor of He’s written and photographed nineteen books on sportfishing topics, plus an annual fishing tips calendar, and his writing has appeared on various websites for more than two decades. His author website is