TOWING A BOAT: How Big of a Boat Can You Trailer?

Thinking about towing a boat on a trailer? How big is Too big when trailering a boat? One of the questions I hear all of the time is, what’s the biggest boat I can trailer? To be able to provide an answer to this question, we need an understanding of what the term “trailer” means. This is because, without a certain context, the term “trailering” takes on many different meanings.

So, what is trailer boating?

The definition is brief; trailer boating is towing a boat on a trailer or a truck.
For successful trailering of a boat, there is a lot of context and details a new boater must learn.  For starters, you have to arm yourself with information about boat and truck sizes.
What is the largest boat you can tow? What truck can you use to haul the boat on the road? Next, you will need to learn about licenses required to tow a boat. Knowledge of safety considerations is also helpful.

Putting the idea of “trailering” a boat into context:

On a popular boating forum that I frequent, there was a discussion about what it means when you say you want to trailer a boat. I took a one of the comments and tried to organize it into various scenarios to consider when discussing the idea of trailering a boat.

Let’s take a look…

  • Boat Trailering Scenario 1: Some people will keep their boat stored on a trailer next to their home and “trailer their boat to the boat ramp every time they want to use it.
  • Boat Trailering Scenario 2: Other people store their boat on a trailer at a marina or storage facility along the water and then simply have to launch the boat each time the want it in the water.
  • Boat Trailering Scenario 3:  Then there are people who want to travel. They will “trailer” their boat from destination to destination throughout the boating season. You see this a lot with tournament fishermen who trailer their boats from tournament to tournament week after week during the fishing tournament season.
  • Boat Trailering Scenario 4: Another group of people who “trailer” their boat, keep their boat in the water during boating season and then put it on the trailer for offseason storage.
  • Boat Trailering Scenario 5: This is the last scenario that comes to mind, is someone who is buying a new boat and need to have it trailered or transported from one state to another. I purchased a boat out of Florida a few years ago and had it trailered to North Carolina for delivery. I now store it at a marina where they handle the launching for me, but I had it trailered to me here in NC.

Okay, maybe we got deep into the details right off the bat, but to answer your questions about trailering a boat, we have to establish what we are discussing when trailering a boat.

Now let’s get into more detail about trailering a boat…

1. How wide of a boat can you trailer?

How wide of a boat can you trailer? In most states, a boat must have a beam width of 8 feet six inches (8’6″) wide or less for trailering. However, the answer to that question can depend on many factors.

It all comes down to the terrain on which you will be hauling, the tow vehicle weight, the trailer weight, and the level of comfort you want in the process. Concerning the weight of the vehicle, the GCVW is the critical figure. GCVW refers to the gross combined weight of the vehicle.

With the right towing accessories and tow hitches, there is no limit to the size or weight of the boat you can tow.

However, your truck has to be up for the task. Also, the wider the boat, the more expenses you might have to incur in terms of towing accessories and permits. Wide boats also require a long time on the road, and so patience is a factor to consider too.

It is not impossible to tow a 30 foot long, 10-foot wide cruiser. The only challenges might be budgetary and time inconveniences. Then, of course, you will have to plan for wear and tear. The trailer has trailer brakes, brake lights, turn signals, a spare tire, axles, and other expensive parts that can break over time.

What launch ramp do you intend to use? How big is the parking area? Where will the boat be parked when out of the water? These are pertinent questions that will determine what size of boat you can trailer. The traffic on the way and road conditions also matter a great deal.

Other factors to consider include assistance from helpers. If you are solo, it would be certainly challenging to muscle a large boat on and off the trailer. Consider your physical stamina for the job. It might take you a whole day to rig a large boat on the trailer, and that is not a thing you will want to do every day.

2. What is the legal width of a boat trailer?

What is the legal width of a boat trailer? Legality demands precision. So, the short answer is; anything below 8.5 feet wide requires no permit while boats that are more than 8.5 feet wide will need special permits. When trailering boats with wider beams, acquiring wide load permits might make the experience more problematic than it’s worth. Be that as it may, many rogue boat movers seem to get away with more than 8.5 ft. beams on the road with no permits.

What about towing a boat on the interstate? The size limit varies from state to state. When trailering a boat across multiple states, it would be helpful to find out the different compliance regulations in those states. Also, beware that the stated width stipulations often include the guide post lengths of the trailer.
In 47 states the maximum width to tow without a wide load permit is 8.5 ft. The exempts are Hawaii, New York, and New Jersey all of which have an 8-foot limit. In North Carolina where I live, you have a wider legal towing limit. You can tow a boat as big as a 10ft wide without a permit.

You will need a wide load permit to tow your boat through a state that has narrower width restrictions than your home state. The law doesn’t matter whether you will be stopping or just passing through; it applies either way. These regulations are in place to enhance user safety and for others using the road as well. Any load that is bigger than 10 feet would take up more lanes- posing a risk to other road users.

3. Do I need a license to tow a boat?

Some states are restrictive on the towing load you can handle on the road. Others are liberal. Just remember that when towing that boat on your trailer, you need to follow set rules. If you are not sure, you can talk to the licensing department in your state.

Noncommercial licenses for towing

You need a full driver’s license to tow any substantial vehicle, boats included. A full car license will let you trailer boats weighing more than 750kg. You can use a non-commercial class license along with the state permit to trailer the boat in your state.

      • Non-commercial class A license: You can trailer other vehicles including boats not exceeding 10,000 lbs. on a truck that weighs 4000lbs or more.
      • Non Commercial class B license: You may haul other vehicles including boats not exceeding 9000 lbs. on a truck that weighs 4000lbs or more.

Commercial licenses for towing

Yow will generally need a CDL (commercial driver’s license) endorsement in all states for boat towing. The CDL endorsement includes heavy vehicles with a GVW score of not more than 10,000 lbs. The GVW rating varies from state to state. For instance, in Alabama, the GVW stipulated in the license is 10,000 lbs. but in Alaska, it is 26000 lbs.

Each state has different stipulations for towing a boat behind your truck. The good news is that you only need to worry about the licensing in your state. The question of the day is how do you obtain a CDL endorsement?

It’s easy. The process for getting a CDL endorsement is the same in all states. You will be required to sit for endorsement tests, and each test requires a small fee usually not exceeding $20.00 for any given test. You must also have a straight driving record and a valid DMV license.

There is no specific time to take the tests. You can do it any time you are ready at your local DMV office. Nonetheless, it would help if you took the time to prepare for the test. Right after you pass the test, the endorsement will be marked on your license. You will also need an interstate endorsement on your DMV license for towing between states. This endorsement requires you to be at least 21 years old.

Another popular question on boating forums is…

4. Can you ride in a boat being towed?

As I write these words I can already foresee the comments about what we did growing up. Yes, we used to do stuff like this all the time as a kid, and yes we lived to tell about it later (most of us did anyway) — but times have changed!

Here’s the correct answer to the question.

Can you ride in a boat being towed? No. It’s not safe, and it’s illegal. You cannot ride in anything that is being trailered, boats included. The only exempt cases from this rule include emergencies or when the towing is being done very slowly, below 15mph. In that case, the passenger has to be more than 18 years old.

Generally, this rule helps to prevent imminent danger to personal safety when towing a boat. The biggest safety threats are road navigation and weather. In clear cases, you are required to buckle up when riding in a boat that is being towed.

Towing a boat requires expert driving skills. When you see it done by pros, you might be tempted to think that it is an easy undertaking. It is not. The trailer behind you will be swaying when you change lanes. Hauling is much trickier with wider boats than with small ones. Breaking, reversing, parking and navigating underneath power/ TV lines is a part of the job you will need to master,

Other Safety Considerations

  • Inspection: Before towing carry out a full safety inspection of the rig
  • Trailer Tongue Weight: The tongue weight on the hitch should be about 15 % of the boat. If it falls below that, there will be a lot of swaying. Always stop and adjust the load if it is swaying.
  • Trailer Load Balance: To prevent swaying, ensure that the boat sits level and square on the trailer. If a strong wind causes the swaying, try reducing speed. Do not brake. When trailering your boat on the highway, always make full turns to avoid obstructions.
  • Proper Driving Distance: Allow sufficient room between your truck and the car in front of you. That is because you will likely need more braking distance because of the heavy load.
  • Use your Mirrors: Work with the side view mirror. The bow of your boat will majorly obstruct the rear view.
  • Boat Straps: Do not loosen the winch strap or safety chain before backing the boar into the water. This helps to prevent the boat from sliding off and crashing into the ramp.
  • Practice Makes Perfect: Before you hit the road, get enough practice on an open field. Test to see which maneuvers you can make comfortably.

The Bottom Line

By now you know that towing a boat is not simple like driving a truck with a boat and trailer connected to the back. Trailering a boat brings up many considerations before you hit the road with a boat in tow.

Remember these restrictions are for your safety, the safety of others on the road and the safety of your investment. And watch out for potholes!