How Boat Towing Regulations Work

By: Jane McGrath

Although it's a favorite pastime, boating can also mean a huge pain when you have to tow your boat to the water. See more truck pictures.
Although it's a favorite pastime, boating can also mean a huge pain when you have to tow your boat to the water. See more truck pictures.
Robert W. Kelley/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

If you're like most boating enthusiasts, you'll dedicate a lot of time and care to get your baby ready for the open water. Unfortunately, in their excitement, many boaters neglect to pay attention to boat towing regulations. Towing a boat complicates the driving experience and the rules you need to obey on the road. Your boating vacation can easily be spoiled by getting slapped with hefty fines and even causing an accident. Knowing the boat towing rules in your specific state -- and all the states you plan to drive through -- is essential before setting out on the open road.

In the U.S., no cool, out-of-this-world sensation affects you as you cross over a state line, as if crossing over to another dimension in a sci-fi movie. If you do happen to notice the welcome sign of the state you've just entered, you may not give a second thought about the corresponding boat towing laws. Drivers seldom stop to think that they might have to change they way they drive and adapt to the new rules that reign over the roads.


This can be a serious mistake. As transportation gets better and cheaper, more Americans are towing their boats across states. And, although standard speed limits are posted, there are other important laws like maximum towing speeds -- and they're not written on big signs with bold letters to remind you. Nevertheless, as a driver, you're responsible for knowing them and abiding by them. Sometimes these differences seem insignificant. At other times, they can make a big difference. These laws get especially prickly when it comes to towing regulations, which can vary significantly from state to state.

We'll go over some specific differences next.


Boat Towing Laws by State

Before you head out on the open road, make sure your boat trailer adheres to all the state regulations.
Before you head out on the open road, make sure your boat trailer adheres to all the state regulations.
iStockphoto/Tim McCaig

Boat towing laws can be a heated and controversial matter in certain states. In 2008, North Carolina's governor exerted his veto power -- for the first time in the state's history -- on a bill that would've loosened boat towing laws in the state. It would have extended both the width limit of boats and the times and days of the week boats could be towed. This upset recreational boaters and those wanting the state to hold competitive fishing tournaments [source: Woodward]. Nevertheless, the governor believed such loosened rules would make the roads unsafe.

Considering how serious and stringent these laws can get, it's wise to check out the laws for towing boats in the states you'll be driving through. Here's a list of some important differences of boat towing laws by state to give you an idea of what to look for.


Maximum towing speed: Increasing your speed always increases your risk of accident, but when you're towing, high speeds are exponentially more dangerous. This is why maximum towing speed may be lower than the stated speed limit. In Alaska, for instance, it's a mere 45 mph (72 kph). However, in Idaho, New Mexico, and South Dakota, it is 75 mph (120 kph). Other states fall somewhere in between. Take note that this usually applies only to major highways in the state. For more on this, read, "How to Tow at the Maximum Controllable Speed."

Maximum boat length: Although many states don't specify this, some states do. North Carolina is the strictest, capping it at 35 feet (10.7 meters). Most, however, allow 40 feet (12.2 meters) or more. Few states don't specify a maximum boat width. Although some stipulate 8 feet, the majority are a little more liberal at 8.5 feet (2.6 meters). Any wider, and authorities worry about the boats extending over the line on two-lane roads -- which would be especially dangerous if two boats were to pass each other.

The maximum boat height in Michigan is as low as 12.5 feet (3.8 meters), but in most other states, boats can be 13.5 to 14 feet (4.1 to 4.2 meters) tall. Maximum overall length is the length of the boat and the towing vehicle from end to end. This can range from 53 feet (16.2 meters) in Mississippi to 75 feet (30 meters) in West Virginia and other states [source:].

Another thing to consider is brakes. Safe braking is especially important when towing -- sudden breaking feels vastly different with a huge load tacked on behind you. Many states require special trailer brakes if your boat weighs more than the specified threshold, which can be as low as 1,500 pounds (680 kilograms) [source:]. Read "How to Brake While Towing" for more.

Other things that you shouldn't disregard as insignificant details are required by many states when you're towing a boat, including safety chains connecting the vehicle and boat in an X below the mount. They should be short enough to not hit the ground and long enough to not restrict turning [source: CA DMV].

You'll also want breakaway brakes to protect you during an incident where the hitch mount accidentally separates. Don't forget lights including a license light, tail lights, brake lights, clearance lights, turn signals and reflectors. Finally, make sure you have tie-downs and flares [source: BoatUS].

And then there's the matter of insurance. But did you know there's more than one kind of boat insurance? There's even more than one kind of boat towing insurance. Next, we'll discuss the different kinds of policies.


Boat Towing Insurance

Another kind of boat tow­ing insurance covers situations at sea when a boater runs out of gas or has an accident and needs to be rescued.
Another kind of boat tow­ing insurance covers situations at sea when a boater runs out of gas or has an accident and needs to be rescued.
iStockphoto/James Pauls

Boat towing insurance is a general term that has a few different meanings, making it confusing for rookie boat-owners. One kind of boat towing insurance has to do with on-the-road situations -- covering you in case of an accident while you're towing your boat. The other kind has to do with on-the-water situations -- covering you in case your boat needs rescue after getting stalled or stuck while it's in the water.

First, let's discuss the road towing insurance. Some auto insurance policies also cover towing costs for accidents that happen involving your boat while it's on the road. But not all of them do. If you plan on towing a boat, look for a policy that incorporates protection for a towed vehicle. If you already have a policy but you aren't sure if it covers road towing, call your insurance company and ask. Better yet -- check the fine print of your policy yourself.


Sometimes when people talk about boat towing insurance, they're talking about the kind you use when your boat needs rescuing while it's in the water. This can be an especially expensive service because of certain laws. These laws were passed to attach a monetary incentive to encourage people to risk their lives and boats to save stranded boaters [source: BoatUS].

Because it can be pricey to get your boat rescued while it's in the water, getting the right type of boat towing insurance can be a wise choice. There are two varieties: towing and salvage. Simple towing insurance refers to more minor incidents like when a boater runs out of gas and must be towed to shore. Salvage insurance usually refers to more dangerous incidents [source: BoatUS]. Towing is charged by the hour, whereas salvage recovery can be charged as a percentage of a boat's value. Some policies may cover either towing or salvage, and some cover both.

As we've seen, knowing how to tow a boat involves more than just getting the right kind of hitch. For everything you've ever wanted to know about towing -- and some stuff you didn't think you should know --explore the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • "Boat Towing Insurance - All You Need to Know About Boat Towing Insurance!" [Oct. 15, 2008]
  • Bayliner. "Tow Guide." Bayliner, 2006. [Oct. 15, 2008]
  • BoatUS. "State Trailering Laws." BoatUS. [Oct. 15, 2008]
  • BoatUS. "Towing vs. Salvage: it really pays to know the difference." Boat/US Magazine. Bnet. March, 2006. [Oct. 15, 2008]
  • BoatUS. Towing vs. Salvage." BoatUS. [Oct. 15, 2008]
  • CA DMV. "Towing Your Trailer Safely." California Department of Motor Vehicles. [Oct. 15, 2008]
  • Smith, Bruce W. "The Complete Guide to Trailering Your Boat." McGraw-Hill Professional, 2007. [Oct. 15, 2008]
  • Woodward, Whitney. "Gov. Easley vetoes bill to ease boat towing rules." WRAL. Aug. 17, 2008. [Oct. 15, 2008]