Do You Need 4-Wheel Drive to Pull a Boat

Go to a busy boat launch on the weekend and you won’t wait long to see how easy it is to get stuck in line for hours.  All it takes is one person with a boat that is too big matched with a truck that is too small.  If you watch a bit closer, you will see that the small truck is not under-powered, but rather lacks traction.

So, do you actually need four-wheel drive to pull a boat?  Four-wheel drive is not absolutely necessary, but experienced boat owners prefer a four-wheel drive vehicle when towing a boat to avoid loosing traction at a boat launch.  Boat ramps are steep and often coated in slick material like sand, mud and aquatic plant growth.  

That’s not to say a two-wheel drive vehicle won’t get the job done.  If you are planning on purchasing a boat, you don’t need to rush out and buy a new truck or SUV just to have four-wheel drive.  

Deciding on the right vehicle for towing is a tricky task that new boat owners often face.  Especially, since 4WD vehicles cost significantly more money.

For those of you with two-wheel drive, there are several ways to get your boat in and out of the water without getting stuck.  

Improve traction with better tires

If you only take away one piece of information from this article, make it this.  Purchase good traction tires!  

All it takes to prevent most boat launch issues with a two-wheel drive pickup is good traction tires.  The same goes for 4WD.  

Anglers shell out thousands on a new fishing boat yet overlook the importance of good tires for the vehicle that does the pulling.  Street tires may ride smooth but they will do little to pull a heavy boat up a steep and slippery ramp.  

If pulling a boat is in your future, a good set of all-season or all-terrain traction tires is an absolute must.  This will definitely give you more peace of mind when all you have is 2WD.   

Use traction mats when you get stuck

I towed a boat for years with a two-wheel drive pickup and I got stuck on a slimy boat ramp once or twice.  Luckily, I was able to avoid embarrassment because I had traction mats.  

These simple, and relatively inexpensive, traction devices slip under the drive wheels to give you that added bit of grip.  You might not use them every time but they are priceless when you need them.  

Some boat launches are little more than muddy beaches just waiting to bury your tires to the rim.  Having four-wheel drive might not save you in these instances either.  

Before you invest in a new vehicle, try traction mats.  I have four-wheel drive now but when I head out fishing, they still go along for the ride.  They are also a whole lot cheaper than a new vehicle.

Match your boat and trailer to the vehicle

Before you go out and buy the biggest boat your money can afford, make sure the rig you are towing it with can handle the weight.  

Most problems at the boat ramp are caused by mis-matched boat and truck combinations.  A 32 foot bayliner is too much for most four-wheel drive vehicles, let alone a two-wheel drive pickup.  

Launching a boat is not the only time where a heavy boat can cause you, and the rest of us at the ramp, grief.  Towing a heavy load, to and from your destination that is beyond the capacity of your vehicle, is a safety hazard.  Decreased stability and reduced control are major causes of towing accidents.

Here are the most important specifications to consider when determining the compatibility of your vehicle:

  • Boat and trailer weight:  Vehicles designed for towing all come with specifications for max load weight.  Never exceed the recommended capabilities. 
  • Weight distribution:  Essential for towing stability.  Never make a trailer back-end heavy.  Improperly balance loads are extremely dangerous on the highway.
  • Overall length:  It is difficult to launch a long trailer if space is tight at the launch. Always inspect a launch before bringing the boat.
  • Tongue weight:  Too much tongue weight can lift your front end and reduces driving and steering control.
  • Trailer tire size:  Larger tires are best for soft, undeveloped launches.  Small tires sink into mud or sand and act as anchors. 
  • Ground clearance:  Your trailer needs to be capable of going where the vehicle goes.  Match the ground clearance of the trailer to the vehicle you are using to tow it with.

Just remember the golden rule of towing, never exceed the capabilities of your vehicle!

Develop good boat ramp habits

Far too many people think the solution to climbing out of a steep boat ramp is to romp on the gas and smoke the tires.  The problem with this approach is that you break traction before you even get started.  

Always start up the ramp slow and steady.  Feel for the first bite of rubber on the ramp and gently apply throttle until you are up and out of the steepest part.  

Really steep ramps add a bit of challenge to the process.  Once you let off the brake, you role back towards the water and applying even throttle is more difficult.  It takes practice to overcome your instinct to quickly stomp on the gas.

Sometimes you may need to empty your boat of all the extra gear and put it in the back of your vehicle.  This will lighten the trailer load and add more bite for your rear wheels.

The benefits of 4WD

There are only a few scenarios in which four-wheel drive will out perform a two-wheel drive when towing a boat.

  • First, as we already discussed, some ramps are undeveloped or just too slippery for anything less than a 4WD vehicle outfitted with good traction tires.
  • Second, using low range 4WD when pulling a boat up steep ramps can save your drive train and transmission from increased wear and tear.
  • Thirdly, four-wheel drive SUVs and pickups have higher ground clearance. What is so important about ground clearance?  Off road situations or awkward ramps with sudden grade changes make dragging your under carriage a real risk.  You can avoid this with high clearance.

Many boat launches are going to have well-developed ramps made with grooved concrete.  99% of the time you will launch at these ramps without problems.  

If you are the more adventurous type, and the lakes, rivers or saltwater areas you fish have only undeveloped launches, then I highly recommend four-wheel drive.  Check out our other article to get the full scoop on how to properly launch a boat at a location without a dock or ramp.  

Before investing in a 4WD vehicle, check out the local launches that you intend to use most.  2WD will probably be sufficient if it is paved or groomed gravel.  If not, save it for the 4WD.  

Key take aways

Pulling a boat with a four-wheel drive vehicle certainly has its perks.  For most of us however, the cost of upgrading from two-wheel drive is just not feasible.  

Hopefully, I have shown you that a two-wheel drive pickup or SUV is capable of launching a boat in most situations.  

For a tiny fraction of the cost of a new 4WD rig, simply replacing your tires with a better set of all-terrain tires will make a huge difference.  Definitely consider buying traction mats for the worst launches as well.  

There may come a day when you get stuck beyond the help of good tires or even 4WD.  Carry a tow strap for just such occasions.  There are always good people who will be willing to tug you out of a slippery spot.