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Common Sense

If what you’re carrying is important, buy a decent trailer.

You might think a trailer is a trailer is a trailer. Uh, no. Like so many other products, the quality of a trailer varies widely, and if you closely in all the right places, you can spot the differences. As simple as it sounds, a decent rule of thumb when trailer shopping is, “you get what you pay for.”

Cheap trailers wear out much sooner than one that costs more up front. When you buy a trailer you can decide which route to take, but sometimes the decision was made for you. Let’s take the example of the person who buys a used boat.

“A lot of people look at a trailer and think, ‘I’m not going to keep my boat more than three or five years. That’s good enough for me.’ That’s they way they look at it,” said Herb Rouse, shop foreman for A1 Trailers in Clermont, Fla.

The prospective second owner thinks he’s found a great deal—and the price of the boat may be less than similar models—but he could end up pouring a ton cash into refurbishing the trailer, which might be enough to make the deal appear not as sweet as it first appeared.

So it’s the guy who buys the used boat who springs for the better trailer. It seems counterintuitive, but it happens all the time, according to Rouse. Like so many other things, the key to a better trailer lies in the details. Crucial elements—and these are all choices you must make—are materials, support systems, braking systems, suspension, construction and hardware.


Let’s begin with materials. There are two: steel and aluminum. Obviously steel is usually stronger, but because it is a ferrous metal, it will rust. Aluminum corrodes, but it won’t rust. Raw steel is a cheaper material than aluminum, but that doesn’t mean all steel trailers are cheaper than their aluminum counterparts. As a general rule, if you do all of your boating in freshwater, you can more easily get away with a steel trailer. It will rust if you leave scratches in the paint unattended, but a decent steel trailer should last the life of your boat if you maintain it properly.

Conversely, if you do your boating on the ocean or the Intracoastal Waterway, you should opt for an aluminum trailer. They’re not as pretty as a steel trailer with paint that matches your boat and tow rig—think I-beam aesthetics—but as we mentioned earlier, they don’t rust.

You also need to choose the trailer’s support system: rollers or bunks. Rollers tend to make loading and offloading a bit easier, but they don’t cradle a hull like bunks do. Four Winns boat company, which makes its own trailers, engineers them so that the bunks align with the linear stringers to provide support in places where the boat is strongest.

Also rollers, do not distribute the boat’s weight the way bunks do. As such, boats that sit unused for a long time—as in each winter—on roller trailers could develop a “hook” in the running surface at the transom or other imperfections. And as much as you spent buying a boat that goes fast and on modifications to make it go faster, the last thing you need is a tweaked bottom. Have we talked you into bunks yet?

Trailer Brakes

We’re also going to try to talk you into disc brakes for your boat trailer. Why? Disc brakes offer more surface area between the friction material on the pads and the rotors than drum brakes and large hydraulic pistons. Greater surface area and larger pistons equals more stopping power with less effort, and on today’s clogged freeways, that’s becoming more important.

Disc brakes also flush more easily and have fewer nooks and crannies for saltwater to hide, but there is also another decision you need to make: surge brakes or electrohydraulic.

Boat trailers traditionally have used surge brake systems, which use the initial “surge” of your truck’s braking power to compress the piston in the master cylinder, which actuates the calipers. Lately, electric-over-hydraulic brakes have begun to appear on boat trailers. The system works more efficiently than surge brakes, and is common on campers, car haulers and utility trailers. The jury is still out on this choice. Though they are fine for campers, utility trailers and car haulers, electric brakes haven’t been on boat trailers long enough for us to know their service history, and in such a case, we’d probably give the nod to surge brakes, which have a proven track record.

For suspensions, two types of systems are used and each has a record of reliability. Torsion-bar systems, in which a torsion bar runs inside the axle, allow for a lower ride height. The drawback is that the system is more costly than leaf springs and it can hide early signs of rust.

Leaf springs have been used for centuries and they are solid performers. Be sure to get a setup that can handle the weight of your load. “There are a lot of manufacturers putting three-leaf springs on,” said Rouse, who sells Shorelander trailers. “We put five-leaf springs on.”

Details, Details, Details

While you are crouched beneath the trailer counting leaves, also make note of the trailer’s hardware. Does it have stainless Bearing Buddy caps or chintzy stamped steel caps that leak water into your bearings? Or does it have the really slick industrial, sealed oil-bath bearings, such as those that come on Extreme Custom Trailers. How thick is the metal? Are the welds neat or do they look like a third grader laid them? Rouse has seen more than his share of cheap trailers. To avoid getting stuck with one, he offers the following advice: “Go to the end of the trailer and look at the thickness of the metal. See which one is thicker,” he said. “Same thing for the cross members. Look at the same thing. See what thickness they use. A lot of people are using thin stuff because it’s cheaper than thicker stuff.

“Same thing goes for aluminum,” he added. “When you look at aluminum, not only should you look at the thickness of the aluminum, but also look at the height and the width. See how much heavier a trailer you’re getting.”

It’s also important to look at a trailer’s hardware. Lots of manufacturers used galvanized fasteners. Sure, they won’t rust anytime soon, but they cause problems of their own.

“All our aluminum trailers have stainless steel hardware,” Rouse said. “A lot of people are not using stainless steel. They have aluminum trailers, but they’ll use galvanized bolts or zinc bolts. It causes a corrosion between the nonlike metals.”

When shopping for a trailer, you can tell a lot about them by paying attention to the details. Yes, it’s a lot to go through for a trailer, but we told you it wasn’t simple.


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