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How to Maintain a Trailer

Trailers aren’t sexy. They don’t look pretty and they don’t smell pretty. But if you have a boat or an outdoor hobby, it’s almost a given that you need a trailer—and trailers need maintenance.

In addition to their distinct lack of sexiness, trailers aren’t all that complex, so maintenance is correspondingly simple. We can break down the maintenance into systems, in much the same way we did for the section on choosing a trailer. The systems that need regular maintenance are, in order of importance: brakes and bearings, electrical components, couplers and jacks and bunks. Let’s take them one at a time.

If you go boating in saltwater, you need to flush the brakes every time you go out. In fact, you need to rinse off the whole trailer with freshwater, but brakes, particularly drums, have lots of places for saltwater to hide, fester and rot. If you have drum brakes, you should already have a flush kit. If not, West Marine sells them for less than $50. Get one. If you really want to clean them out well, flush them with the garden hose attachment after you pull it out of the water, then find a freshwater ramp on the way home from the ocean and dip your trailer.

“I tell customers when they get through running in saltwater, when they’re coming back in, go to a fresh lake, back it in there and rock it back and forth a little bit,” said Herb Rouse, shop foreman for A1 Trailers in Clermont, Fla. “It’ll last a little bit longer, but you’ll never get all the salt out. You’ll get most of it out, but you’ll never get it all.”

Even with fastidious flushing, a year and a half is about the average lifespan for a set of drum brakes used in saltwater, Rouse said. Discs last longer, about three times as long. When you replace drum brakes, it’s cost effective to replace the whole backing plate assembly, which includes shoes, hardware and wheel cylinders. Also be sure to top off the fluid in the master cylinder after you have bled the system.

Maintaining Trailer Components

Next come bearings, which can be the biggest headache of all, if you don’t service them. Just ask any parts guy who comes to work Saturday morning only to be greeted by a guy with a shop towel full of filthy, stinking trailer bearings that imploded on the way to the lake. It isn’t pretty. Don’t be that guy—either of them for that matter.

Most likely you have cone and cup bearings. If that’s the case, be sure you have a set of stainless steel Bearing Buddy caps installed. A Bearing Buddy will keep water out, but it also will tell you immediately when your bearings are low on grease. If the outer spring is compressed, they’re full. If the spring is extended, add grease till the spring compresses fully. Regardless of how often you top them off, pull them apart at least once a year and clean, inspect and repack them with fresh grease. Synthetic is better, but at least be sure you get wheel bearing grease, which is formulated to withstand the heat generated by rotation.

You won’t need to grease a trailer’s electrical components, but you will need to inspect them to ensure they work properly. First, check to see if all your lights are working. With the trailer hooked to your truck, turn the lights on. Walk around to the trailer to see if the running and clearance lights are working. Then, have someone step on the brake pedal and actuate the turn signals to see that they work. As you can see, much of the maintenance involved in electrical systems is a mere matter of inspecting them. Also, be sure to inspect the rubber grommets where wiring enters and exits the frame. If they’ve fallen out or rotted away, your wires can chafe and ground out.

For your coupler, jacks and bunks on boat trailers, it’s also largely a matter of inspection. Check your coupler for proper function. Be sure the coupler latch moves the collar that locks under the hitch ball. Also, look up into the coupler to inspect wear. Though it is rare, hitch balls have actually worn through the top of the coupler, so it’s a good idea to grease inside the coupler so the ball has some lubrication. Shoot some penetrating lubricant, such as Prolong or WD-40, into the moving parts.

The tongue jack also needs lubrication and many of them have a grease fitting for the rack and pinion inside. If your jack has a lock pin with a spring-loaded ball, shoot some penetrating lubricant on it, too.

Urban legend has it that some people have lubricated their bunks with Pam cooking spray, and ended up losing their boat off the trailer as they backed down the ramp. We don’t know whether it’s true, but it’s a good idea to leave winch strap attached to the bow eye until you have the boat in the water. As for lubricating the bunks, it’s largely unnecessary. You do need to be sure the carpeting that covers them is in good shape and that the wood the carpeting is stapled to is sound. Inspect the carpet to see if there are any tears in it that would expose the wooden bunks. If so, replace the carpet. Bunk carpeting can tear a bit more frequently on trailers that carry stepped-bottom boats, because the steps rub the material as the boat slides up and over the forward edges of the bunks.

            A lot of maintaining a trailer is paying attention to it on the days you use it. When launching, look at the bunks. When hooking it up, check the coupler, and check the lights each time you go out. As we said, maintaining a trailer isn’t sexy, but having one that works means you’re out having fun, not in the shop.

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