Most trailer manufacturers seem to be installing disc brakes rather than drum brakes. Disc brakes flush more easily and are simpler and less expensive to maintain, and their braking life generally exceeds that of drum brakes, Melone says.
Whether disc or drum, most trailer brakes function based on a "surge" system. As you apply the brake pedal in your vehicle, it begins to slow. The trailer moves forward on the hitch, activating a switch that engages the trailer brakes.
A few companies make electric brakes that engage the moment you touch your vehicle's brake pedal. But corrosion issues still plague development of most electric-brake mechanisms, so only a few manufacturers use the technology.
Tires and suspension systems keep your trailer and boat level and on the road where they belong. Most importantly with tires, make sure your tires and spares are specifically rated for trailers and not automobiles. Trailer tires carry the lettering "ST" on the sidewall; passenger-car tires are marked "P."
Trailer tires come in bias-ply or radial styles. Bias-ply tires cost less, but some boaters say radials provide a smoother ride over greater distances and time. Use one style or the other; don't combine them. Check for proper inflation as you would your vehicle tires, and try to protect trailer tires from UV rays when in storage.
Suspension systems, like brakes, seem to be evolving. The traditional leaf-spring design is beginning to give way to torsion-axle systems. Leaf springs involve an assembly of curved metal pieces that ride over the axle and help smooth out bumps.
Torsion axles provide independent suspension among the wheels, which tends to absorb road bumps better. Torsion axles come as totally self-contained units that can be easily replaced, but cost more than leaf springs. And if you blow out a torsion-axle system on the road, you may wait days for a replacement.
Believe it or not, trailer lights are regulated by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Trailer manufacturers are, of course, aware of the standards, so you can generally expect that a trailer coming directly from a builder will be properly equipped. But what if you're buying a used boat and trailer?
You could look up the laws online if you can sort through the Code of Federal Regulations Title 49. You can also look near the trailer's tongue for an NMMA-certification label, showing the trailer passed that organization's program. You may also consult the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators at www.nasbla.org or call the trailer's manufacturer.
Smaller-boat trailers involve much-less-complicated lighting requirements. About the most difficult decision you'll make is choosing between LED or incandescent bulbs. LED lights burn brighter and last five times longer than incandescent bulbs, but obviously cost more.
You may also choose to improve your trailer's visibility by adding auxiliary lights above the traditional lights mounted on the trailer's I-beams. These secondary lights may be incorporated onto metal or PVC trailer guides.
In the Details
A proper winch to haul your boat onto the trailer, safety chains and tie-downs to secure the load, a wiring harness and a license plate round out the necessity list for any small-boat trailer.
By learning a little more about your trailer and making sure you comply with regulations, you can enjoy stress-free boating this summer - whether you travel on the highways or simply make repeated visits to the local ramp.