You may have the boat of your dreams, but you need a trailer to get it there. Trailer selection doesn’t have to be complicated, but there are several key points you need to know. Fortunately, these apply to nearly all boats and trailers, whether you’ve got a fully-rigged fishing boat or the weekend party barge. Let’s go over the crucial choices you’ll make when buying a boat trailer – so you can spend more time on the water and less time worrying about getting there and back.

Boat Fit

First and foremost, boat owners need a trailer that fits correctly. The right trailer for your boat will be compatible with the length, width, and weight of the boat. Just like a vehicle, each trailer has a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) and you want to figure out the weight of the boat itself along with other equipment including motors, fuel, batteries, and other gear…then add another 15%, which provides some cushion against the trailer’s weight rating.

Regarding length, you want the boat’s transom to be even with the back of the bunks or slightly overhang. The simplest way to measure is to go from the transom to the bow eye. This means you won’t include the length of outboards, swim platforms, trolling motors, or other accessories.

The width is measured as the chine beam, which is the distance between the two points where the hull sides meet the bottom of the boat. Basically, it’s the side-to-side measurement at the bottom corners. You want this distance to be fully supported by the trailer structure so it’s stable and secure.

Vehicle Compatibility

Towing capacity varies significantly among vehicles, so you’ll want to confirm that the combined weight of the trailer and boat (including all accessories plus 15%) is less than your vehicle’s maximum towing weight. You can easily find this information in the owner’s manual or along the driver’s side door jamb of your towing vehicle.

The owner’s manual also includes suggestions or requirements for additional equipment, such as brakes. Be sure to check your state regulations to see if brakes are required for your boat trailer. Finally, make sure your hitch system is compatible with the trailer.

An adjustable hitch can be a lifesaver regardless of the vehicle – check out our article on choosing the right adjustable hitch for more information.

Type of Frame

You’ve got three types of boat trailers to choose from when it comes to the metal structure – painted steel, aluminum, or galvanized steel. The benefits of painted steel trailers are that they’re strong, affordable, and they’re painted so you can find one in a color you like. While this paint protects the steel, it doesn’t last forever. Eventually, the paint will wear off and flake as rust starts to form. For this reason, you want to go with an aluminum or galvanized steel trailer for saltwater or other corrosive environments. But painted steel trailers are an affordable, tough choice for freshwater applications.

A galvanized steel trailer is a step up from painted steel and has the same great strength but with far more corrosion resistance. You won’t get a nicely painted finish but the toughness and long-lasting value are hard to beat. Plus, they can be used in saltwater. Of course, these are going to cost more than a painted steel trailer, but they’re a phenomenal option for people with a long-term outlook.

Aluminum trailers are the most expensive of the three options and for good reason. Aluminum has even higher corrosion and rust resistance than galvanized steel. Additionally, it’s lighter than steel, which is a benefit because it reduces the towing weight. While not quite as strong as steel, most aluminum boat trailers offer more than enough strength for any common task, and they’re great for saltwater.

Bunks or Rollers

You’ll choose between bunks and rollers when it comes to the part of the trailer that supports and cradles your boat. Bunks are simply pieces of wood covered with carpet to protect the exterior surface of the boat. These are lightweight, strong, and cheaper than rollers. They have a higher degree of friction, which is a benefit for stabilizing the boat during travel, but it can make launching difficult in some situations. For example, If you regularly launch your boat in places where it’s a challenge to fully submerge the trailer, you’ll have a difficult time launching with bunks.

Rollers provide less friction, which makes it easier to launch in skinny water since you’re essentially able to roll the boat off. They also distribute weight better throughout the trailer. However, as with any moving parts, the rollers themselves are subject to maintenance so you’ll need to keep an eye on them. Though rollers are generally seen as the better option, they do cost more than the same trailer with bunks.

Lights, Brakes, and Axles

For trailer lights, you’ll choose between incandescent or LED lights. If you’re able to pick, go with LED lights because they’ll last way longer and they handle the abuse of travel better. They’re a bit more expensive upfront but well worth it in the long run. Trailer lights don’t last forever, so if you start with incandescent lights you can always upgrade to LEDs when it’s time to replace them.

Check with your state laws regarding trailer brakes. Typically, small, single-axle boat trailers won’t have breaks, but when you get into heavier boats and multiple axles, you’ll likely have a trailer with brakes to make the drive safer. If you’re wondering about single vs. dual axle trailers, just remember that single axles offer better maneuverability, less weight, and lower cost. Multiple axles can carry more weight, handle higher speeds better, and they’re safer if any trailer tires blow while you’re driving.

Axle selection is critical since they help support the boat and transfer the weight to the wheels. You’ll have two options for axles and suspension – leaf spring suspension and torsion axle suspension. Leaf springs are large metal springs stacked together and bolted either above or below the axle. They’re the more affordable option and offer easier repair, great weight distribution, and a superior ride on rough roads. On the flip side, they wear faster due to the metal-to-metal moving parts, and they generally rust quicker due to the exposed steel.

Torsion axles work by cushioning the load with stout rubber cords that go through the axle itself before connecting to the wheel. They’re more expensive and offer a better driving experience – less noise than leaf springs, fewer parts to fail and corrode, and they essentially force the wheels to operate independently.

People buy a boat for the memories and adventures, not for the problems that come with choosing the wrong trailer. If you focus on these five areas of a boat trailer, you’ll certainly come away with a great driving experience, hassle-free launching, and safe travel.