Launching A Boat Without A Dock Or Ramp (Step By Step)

Whether you are an angler, waterfowl hunter or pleasure boater, launching a boat without a dock and even a ramp can be a real challenge.  Add to that the already stressful experience of launching a boat at a crowded location and it’s no wonder most of us might avoid going out altogether. 

We suffered through the same learning curves during our first few fishing trips at lakes without a maintained ramp or dock.  

Eventually, we learned to develop a routine that has made launching our boat much simpler and less stressful at unmaintained spots.  The same routine will also work if you are by yourself. 

We hope to make your next boating experience more enjoyable by sharing our step by step process for launching a boat without a ramp or dock.  

Preparation and boat launch etiquette 

Launching a boat at any ramp requires preparation and a firm grasp on the unspoken rules of etiquette.  Even if your boat launch doesn’t have a dock and/or maintained ramp, common courtesy to other boaters is essential to avoid conflicts.  

Spend enough time at a busy ramp and you’ll see a scuffle or two.  Make sure you’re not part of the problem and prepare your boat out of the way before pulling down to the ramp.  

Most of the hassle is left behind when you build a mental checklist.  Every boat, trailer and truck setup has different things to consider but here is our standard checklist for getting a boat ready for launch. 

Before Launch:
  • Load all gear into the boat
  • Remove all boat straps except the bow winch and safety chain
  • Put the drain plug in
  • Trim up the motor
  • Check bow and dock lines
  • Unplug lights if needed (not usually necessary for LED lights)
  • Take a quick look for any possible launch problems
  • Use the bathroom (amazing how many people forget this step)
  • Pay launch fees if necessary
During Launch:
  • Role down your window to hear for directions or problems
  • Keep your seat belt off for safety
  • Never get out in a rush without putting the vehicle in park with the safety brake on
  • Attach bow line to truck if needed when launching alone
  • Don’t pull down the center of a two lane ramp
  • Disconnect bow winch and safety chain at the water then continue backing down the ramp 
After Launch:
  • Secure boat without impeding the launch for the next person
  • Quickly park your vehicle and immediately return to your boat

Feel free to add any additional items to your own checklist.  The more times you do this, the easier is gets.  Most of the time you’ll spend less than 5 minutes actually launching a boat if you go prepared and respect others.

Boat launch without a dock

More often than not, public waters (salt or fresh) will have some sort of established boat ramp.  However, not all have a dock.  That might not be such an issue for those with small aluminum boats but launching a large boat without a dock has the potential to cause serious damage if done wrong.  Especially, when launching alone.

Here are 4 simple steps to ensure a smooth launch without a dock.

Step 1:  Inspect the ramp and prep your boat

It’s always a good idea to have some knowledge of the boat ramp you’re using before you go but that’s not always practical.  Anytime I arrive at a new launch I first pull aside and look at the kind of ramp I’m dealing with.  When there is no dock it’s important to see if the ramp has soft sand, rocks or is concrete for the entire length.  

Ideally, you want a ramp with soft sand just beyond the waters edge.  If not, then look for soft beach space away from the ramp that you can nose the bow into without causing damage.  A few scratches on the keel are’t such a big deal for aluminum boats but fiberglass boats get dinged up on rocks or concrete ramps easily without a keel guard.

When the ramp space is narrow and your only option for beaching the boat is the concrete ramp itself, consider finding a different launch unless you have someone with you to drive the boat off the trailer.  

Launching a boat without a dock is especially risky when it’s windy and there is significant chop pounding the launch.  Beach your boat in this situation and you’ll end up will water over the transom and a banged up keel.

Once you get the green light after inspecting the ramp, prep your boat for launch as we described in the previous section.  

Step 2:  Tie a bow line to your trailer or truck

After your gear is loaded and the boat is prepped for launch, it’s time to back down the ramp.  I recommend keeping the safety chain and winch strap attached until you get to the water.  More than one boat has slid off onto the ground because it was not secured to the trailer.  This is mainly an issue for roller bed trailers.

Just before dunking the trailer, unhook the winch and safety chain.  Then, using an extra long bow line (20 ft or more), attach the rope from the bow to a secure tie down spot on your vehicle or near the hitch.  You can also tie off to the trailer.  Tie the rope using a quick release knot or a couple half hitches so you can untie it quickly. 

You can skip this step if you have a second person who can hold the bow line or drive the boat off the trailer.  

Step 3:  Back down the ramp until the boat floats

Now, back in the boat and float it off the trailer so that some of the backward momentum continues to carry the bow of the boat past the end of the trailer.  The bow line tied to your truck will keep the boat from floating away when no one is available to hold the line.  

With smaller, light weight boats, you may not need to actually float it.  Instead, it may be easier to push it off the bunk boards allowing your feet to stay dry.

Step 4:  Pull forward and gently bring the boat to shore

Once most of the slack is gone from the line, ease your truck slowly up the ramp.  The boat will follow until it makes contact with the ramp.  Be sure to pull forward at a controlled pace to prevent the boat from hitting the trailer or from hitting the ramp too hard.  

When the boat makes contact with shore, stop the truck and untie the bow line.  On calm days with no water current, your boat will stay put while you park the trailer.  Otherwise, tie the bow line to something solid nearby just incase.

Remember, this process is best for soft edged ramps.  With concrete ramps, untie the boat from the truck and pull it to a softer area along the shore before moving the truck.

Take a look at this video for the complete process in action.

Other considerations

There are some situations where launching at a ramp without a dock just isn’t a good idea.  Below are a couple things to keep in mind before attempting to launch without a dock available.

  • Some boats are too big for this to work.  It’s unwise to launch a boat pushing 30 feet or more without having a dock handy.  Not only is it difficult to get in from shore without getting soaked, the draft on larger boats is too much to beach them effectively and can potentially cause major damage in rough conditions.
  • Windy conditions spell trouble for boats if they are not free floating or tied to a dock.  Planting the bow on shore with waves present takes its toll on the keel or worse if the wind pushes your boat sideways into shore.  You either need a second person to help or use a different ramp.

Bonus tip:  Keep a pair of knee high boots in the truck.  Launching a boat without a dock often involves wet feet. 

Launch without a ramp

Even trickier than launching without a dock is launching without an actual ramp.  Obviously, the main risk in this situation is getting stuck.  

Most of us don’t have to worry about launching without a ramp but it is common in some regions.  Reservoirs often have significant draw downs that leave boat ramps high and dry and some coastal launches are nothing more than designated areas of the beach.  Some of the most difficult areas to launch are on muddy river banks as many waterfowl hunters can attest to.

Whatever situation you are in, don’t attempt launching a boat without a ramp unless you have 4 wheel drive.  

Get more tips and learn about the benefits of using 4 wheel drive to launch a boat from our other popular article.

The steps to launch a boat without a ramp are the same as using a paved ramp so we won’t repeat the steps here.  Please refer to the detailed steps above.  However, there are a few additional steps to include in your launch routine anytime you launch without a ramp.

Step 1:  Inspect shoreline firmness

Blindly backing down to the water without first checking what you’re driving on is a recipe for disaster.  Ask me how I know.  The ground looks firm until it’s not.  

Take a quick walk down the same path you plan to launch your boat.  Is it sand, rock or mud?  Take note of any problem spots and avoid areas with sudden drops along the bank. 

Also, look to see if the launch area is used often.  Sometimes excessive use leads to tire grabbing soft spots.  Consider shifting your launch area outside of those ruts.

Rocky areas generally provide the best boat launch areas and provide your vehicle with added traction.  Just make sure the rocks don’t pose a threat to your boat during the launch.

Hard packed sand it fine too but watch for sand-mud transitions at the waters edge.  That’s where you’ll get stuck since sand immediately adjacent to water is usually softer than it is higher up the bank.

Soft sand and mud are the trickiest shorelines to launch a boat on.  

Step 2:  Adjust your vehicle tire pressure if necessary

When you are faced with launching on soft sand or mud it helps to lower your vehicle’s tire pressure.  I find that lowering it just a few psi is plenty but sometimes going down to 20 psi keeps you out of a bind with really soft shoreline launches.

Lowering the pressure increase the surface area of the tires for better traction.  It is not necessary to lower the tire pressure on the boat trailer since there is no torque on those wheels.

Make sure to re-inflate the vehicle tires before driving home.

Step 3:  Keep some helpful tools in your vehicle

It won’t always be possible to ask for help if you get stuck (and it can be embarrassing too) so here are some essential items to have on hand when launching a boat without a ramp.

  • Shovel
  • Board or traction mats
  • Tow strap (just in case)
  • Pump to re-inflate your tires

You may never need these tools but you’ll appreciate having them if the situation arises.  

Ground clearance is limited by the height of your trailer axels.  One of the worst things is burying your trailer axels in mud or catching a stump or branch on them.

If you notice the trailer tires sinking when you are launching or retrieving the boat, dig out the sand or mud in front of the wheel and wedge the board under the tire to provide better traction.  It’s better to be proactive and avoid getting stuck.  Otherwise, you’ll be pulling out the tow strap of shame.

What about retrieving the boat

Retrieving a boat after your fun on the water is essentially the reverse of launching with a few exceptions.  It also may take a bit more time.  

When a dock or ramp aren’t available you’ll need to get close enough to shore for your buddy to drop you off or you can beach the boat if you are alone.  Then, back the trailer into the water so you can drive the boat up onto the bunks.  Only use the motor to drive until you hit the bunks.  Use the winch strap to get it the rest of the way up. Trim up the motor to prevent prop damage in shallow water.

If you are alone or can’t drive the boat onto the trailer, grab the bow line and shove the boat out from shore in such a way that you can control the direction of the bow and slowly pull in line until you can reach the bow hook with the winch.  Fully winch the boat in place and hook on the safety chain.

Don’t unload your gear until you pull out of the ramp area.  Now, just secure your boat, unpack any gear and give the boat a quick check before hitting the road.  Also, remember to wash off the boat and trailer before launching in another lake to prevent the spread of invasive species.

Parting words

Preparation and a bit of knowledge can turn the stressful ordeal of launching a boat into an easy routine.  Even without a dock or ramp, some simple steps can help make the experience better for everyone.  Hopefully our advice will help get you on the water quickly, safely and with more confidence.