The Ultimate First Time Buyers Guide for Purchasing a Box Trailer

Affordable, practical, and relatively easy to use, box trailers are still the handyman’s best friend. Whether it’s for going to and from worksites, transporting gardening materials across long distances, you’ll end up loving your box trailer like it’s part of the family.

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They’re also relatively easy to hitch up and use with your vehicle, and improved manufacturing standards have meant that they aren’t as cumbersome to maneuver by hand that perhaps they used to be many decades ago. Buying the right one for you is important, though, as one that doesn’t suit a raft of credentials can lead to problems down the track. It’s important to know what you’re talking about, what specific terms mean, as well as how you will use it and the frequence of work it will do for you. In this guide, we’re going to walk you through getting the right box trailer specific to your needs. In it, we’ll discuss all of the major talking points that determines the success of a box trailer, as well as opening up on a few choice terms, what they mean, and why they’re important. So hitch up with us, and let’s dive into the wonderful world of box trailers. We’ll be going through what to do and what not to do when looking to purchase your first box trailer in the format of a standard FAQ. It will cover all of the essentials, including some regulatory requirements that are often not really thought about by first time buyers of a box trailer. But don’t fret, we’ll cover all of the important requirements that you will need to address, on top of all the things you will need to know to make sure you’re getting value for your money. After reading this, the hope is that you will be aware of what your vehicle can handle, as well as getting a box trailer that will be easy to drive with and even easier to use. You should also have enough knowledge of what to ask for from a box trailer dealer or manufacturer to get exactly what will best suit your needs.

First off, what is a box trailer?

Box trailers are so named because they are a trailer that can conceal items, like a box. The very straightforward and obvious name actually hides just how useful a box trailer can be in a plethora of both home and work activities. For those homes with large gardens or those that live on farms or large acreage, a box trailer is almost an essential. Unlike using a wheelbarrow to maintain the garden, utilising a box trailer largely cuts out a majority of the hard labour, and makes transporting soil and rocks a sinch. In the working capacity, box trailers are a very affordable and efficient option for when transport storage options are limited. Tools, supplies, heavy equipment; these can all be moved about at ease, and the simple addition of an enclosing cage for security can also protect these tools.

Okay, I think a box trailer will be great for me. Where do I start?

Unfortunately, choosing the right box trailer is not as simple nor as easy as actually using it. Whilst hiring one for the day for any particular job will get it done, the choice to own your own brings about many, many factors that you will need to consider. Some of these include:

  • Carry load of the trailer.
  • What your vehicle is capable of in terms of towing.
  • The paint job, or coating, of the trailer.
  • The physical size of the trailer.
  • Miscellaneous little items, such as brake lights, connections, trailer brakes; the list goes on.

Don’t worry though, as we’ll be covering the above dot points and many more in this article very shortly. But the one thing on that list that is vital to purchasing the right trailer is, of course, what your vehicle can tow.

How do I find out how much my vehicle can handle?

Finding out what your vehicle is capable of, by and large, is relatively straightforward, and highly depends on what type of car you own. Most Australian model utes and large sedans can tow practically anything within reason. You’ll also get a pass mark here for having a ute or a pick-up truck that is made by a foreign car manufacturer, but built specifically for Australian conditions. The problem is now, with the larger diaspora of car manufacturers competing in Australia, towing vehicles wasn’t always at the front of the design mind. Many European cars, whether large sedans or smaller vehicles, will have a very specific towing capacity. To find this – and even if you own a ute or a large Australian made sedan it’s probably a good idea to know it anyway – you will have to consult your vehicle’s handbook. If you bought your car from a dealership, they would have either provided it to you as part of a pack, or left it for you in the glove box. Some second-hand bought cars from private sellers may have this missing. In this instance, and quoting your car’s make, year built, and model, you can get an answer by calling your state’s respective license issuer (VicRoads in Victoria, Transport for NSW in NSW etc.) or by getting in touch with your state’s car mutual body (RACV in Victoria, NRMA in NSW etc.). The numbers you will be looking for will be under a term named tow ball load. This term refers to the tow ball at the back of the vehicle, and will provide a clear view of just how much weight on the rear axle that the vehicle can support. Bear in mind that the tow ball load specification will give you the maximum weight, and that selecting a trailer that’s weight is less than this can pose other detrimental effects, such as instability whilst driving, as well as compromising your car’s handling.

So what am I looking for then in a trailer in terms of weight?

Whilst never forgetting that ultimately the decision is up to you and is based solely on your needs and what you want out of your box trailer, there are a few things to consider in terms of weight. Like the towing capacity of your car, the box trailer will too come with its own capacity limit, referred to as payload. This will ultimately be what and how much you can store in your new box trailer, and should be counted as party to the overall towing capacity. This overall number is referred to as aggregate trailer mass, or ATM for short, and combines both the weight of the box trailer and its maximum payload. This number should happily marry up to your vehicle’s towing capacity within a range. 10% less than your vehicle’s towing capacity is perhaps an ideal number to look to. Fair amount of information and numbers to process, eh? Most, if not all trailer manufacturers will always print out the necessities for you, however, so unlike finding out your vehicle’s towing capacity, there’s less hunting and searching for the right information. Depending on how large the ATM is of the trailer, you may have to invest in brakes for the trailer itself. These are usually done as an add on as part of the trailer manufacturers package when they sell it to you. Regardless, they seller will be the best person to ask whether brakes are needed or not, based on your requirements and needs.

That’s great, but what about the actual size and shape of the trailer?

A larger payload does not equal a huge, cumbersome trailer, neither does a small payload necessarily mean a small compact one either. So with that in mind, the shape of the trailer should be based on what you will be using it for. If it is for gardening or farm work, which will mostly be transporting materials, you would most likely prefer a more conventional rectangular shape. The size of that shape should be dependent on how much you think you would use it, with a deeper rectangle being more ideal for large quantities of materials being transported. For more conventional construction work, where tools and equipment are more likely to be transported in the trailer, a more square shape – one that you can have easy access to every part of it – should be better suited. You should think about what types of heavy equipment you may need to use on any given day, and provide allowance for that in the trailer size. Box trailers can be fitted with smaller secure tool boxes, so you shouldn’t have to worry too much about storage for these smaller items.

I’ve heard that painted trailers aren’t as good as plain ones, what gives?

Those painted trailers you might have seen whilst driving around town are not much too dissimilar to the seemingly cast iron ones that you’re talking about. They do the same thing, are made of the same materials, and largely work just as well. However, the devil is in the detail, and this might go a fair way to explain what you heard. Painted trailers largely are painted for one sole reason: marketing. In fact, it was quite common up until perhaps the last decade for all types of trailers to be painted. Remember the ones you used to be able to hire at petrol stations? If you have, then you might also note how almost all of them have the paint chipped off. Trailers undergo a tremendous amount of bumps and bruises, so it’s only natural that the paint will succumb to general wear and tear. It’s not strictly wrong or anything like that to paint a trailer, however do keep in mind that you will be stuck with a few bills along the way if you wish to keep the paint job looking fresh. It’s also the reason why painted trailers are perhaps rare in more rural settings,

Okay, what about those plain steel ones?

The plain steel ones you see are not plain at all. Much in the same way that zinc is used to reinforce iron roofing panels, the steel on these trailers is powder coated, or galvanised, to make sure the trailer structure lasts for a long time to come. This powder coating treatment works wonders in preserving the life of the trailer, and is highly recommended for those that are in rural settings, or perhaps living close to the sea, where salt in the atmosphere can cause severe corrosion and rusting very quickly. It’s also recommended for those that are using their trailer for more recreational purposes, such as being used as a spare storage unit during camping, or transporting a motocross bike. The terrain you will be most likely travelling along will punish the trailer, and this is where the powder coating will work wonders.

What about if it isn’t powder coated or painted, does that work out cheaper?

Picking up a box trailer without any form of galvanisation is rare, in fact it is almost standard right across the board in the industry. However, if you do manage to find one, it will be slightly cheaper than other alternatives, but not by much. You’ll end up paying for this modest discount in the end, too. Your trailer, despite how much care you take with it, will succumb to the rigors of the job very quickly, and will mean your investment in your box trailer will unfortunately be a very short lived one.

Are second-hand trailers a viable alternative?

Given the varying state laws around trailers built before the 1990’s, it’s recommended to steer clear from second-hand trailers. In Queensland alone, trailers require a separate licensing plate which lists clearly the ATM and the payload of the trailer. Trailers built before 1989 did not have this information clearly listed at all, either in the original documentation, or in estimates afterward. Not having the right information can not only get you in trouble with your state’s regulators, but it could also cause a lot of difficulties whilst driving. In some cases, not knowing your trailer’s ATM or its payload, and unwillingly overloading it, could have disastrous results for both your trailer and your vehicle. If you are going to go down the second-hand route, make sure that it either has accurate details listed on the licensing plate, or failing that, that the original documentation of the specifications of the trailer are in hand. However, we don’t recommend this option given the rarity of those specifications either being accurate or being easily found at all.

What kind of maintenance am I look at in terms of the trailer down the track?

Your trailer by and large will not need a heap of maintenance to its overall structure over its lifetime. However, the smaller components will, and it’s important to know what to look for, and how best to identify what’s gone wrong, when performing maintenance on your trailer. Some of the common pitfalls that do occur over a trailer’s lifespan are the wheel bearings, as well as not just the tail lights, but also the connector from the trailer to the car itself. Old connectors can either severely drain your vehicle’s battery, or simply not work at all. Other things you will be looking at in the care of your box trailer are:

  • Tailgate.
  • Lights.
  • Axle springs.
  • Any hinges.
  • Changing over to a spare wheel, if equipped.

Another reason why second-hand trailers aren’t recommended is that proof of maintenance can be quite hard to discern from the naked eye, let alone finding any documentation based on it. Most box trailer manufacturers will be more than happy, and will often provide, a service for maintenance on a regular basis, in similar vein to car maintenance from a dealership.

Is it something that I can do myself?

If you’re an experienced mechanic, you will find the components of a box trailer to be similar to what you are already used to. It is still recommended however to get it taken to either your box trailer provider or a box trailer specific maintenance service, as they will also be able to keep up the state of the galvanisation of the trailer’s steel.

Are accessories, like cages, something I can ask my dealer at the point of sale?

Most box trailer dealers will possibly have a list of add-on accessories at the point of sale. So if you are looking for a cage to further protect your tools or equipment, then the point of sale would be the best time to ask. Aftermarket accessories are also easy to come across. Like many other products across a wide range of industries, however, purchasing add-ons aftermarket may jeopardise and in many cases even void any warranty that you may have from your box trailer. Also be aware that add-ons, like a stainless steel cage, could make the trailer heavier, affecting the overall ATM and thus performance. As with anything, it’s best to have the box trailer manufacturer sort these out, as they will be able to do it for you, without compromising the handling of the box trailer itself.

What about the tow bar on my actual vehicle, should I be concerned about whether it can handle my box trailer?

Tow bars were standardised after 1988 in all states across Australia, so if you own a relatively new car with a tow bar already installed then you shouldn’t need to worry. The problem, however, is that once again many tow bars are installed aftermarket on cars that weren’t initially designed for them. The chief villain in these are mostly smaller sedans, where the tow bar was more of an afterthought. Where the waters can get even murkier is if the sedan was sold on as a second hand item, hiding the aftermarket nature of the tow bar amongst all the paperwork. The tow bar, apart from keeping the trailer attached to the car, is also connected to the rear axle of the car, and as such is integrated with the suspension of your rear wheels. A weak tow bar, or one that wasn’t installed correctly with enough bearing weight, can play havoc to the rear of your car. Apart from a decreased lack of power coming from the rear wheels, it can also even jeopardise the performance of your suspension, leading to much more severe issues and even create the potential for a severe accident should the rear wheels give way. If you suspect that your tow bar maybe aftermarket, or even if you just want to double check on whether it can handle towing your box trailer, then any service mechanic can do this for you. Your car’s user guide should also have at least some information on the tow bar, and if it does not, then that can be a clear guide on whether it was meant to have one or not.

So if all of that works out, then there should be no problem in any particular box trailer I want?

The standardisation of tow bars in 1988 by law meant that issues such as electronic connections and tow ball width were all streamlined. So no, fortunately in this case a tow bar is a tow bar and can be used with any trailer at all, let alone your new box trailer. As mentioned, the only issue that could arise is that from an aftermarket tow bar.

I’m frequently on a large worksite, how easy it is to move the trailer by hand? Can I ask for a lighter one?

Taking the payload that your box trailer can handle out of the equation, a standard, empty trailer isn’t much harder to move around than a wheelbarrow full of materials. The box trailer has been refined over and over to provide maximum convenience to you and your working routine on any given day. Connecting your new box trailer to your vehicle will also prove to be much easier than with older trailers of the same type. One advantage having your own box trailer has over hire trailers that you can get from service stations is that the connectors are all state-of-the-art, and will minimise the threat of the trailer falling off from the back whilst towing.

I’m working in rural areas mostly, will I require fenders to be installed on my box trailer?

Most box trailers when bought new will have fenders either as a relatively affordable add-on or as a standard as part of the package. For rural areas, it is advisable to have some form of stoneguard or fender set up to not just protect the tyres and the undercarry of the box trailer, but also to ease the feeling of bumps along the way. Second-hand box trailers may have added fenders as an aftermarket feature, but it is important to make sure that this does not push over either your payload support or ATM limit. Aftermarket fenders may not be made out of the same material as the box trailer structure, and can add a huge amount of weight. The issue here too is that the added weight, or in some cases the lack of weight if made from a lighter material, can have serious complications for the handling of your box trailer.

I need a drop down tailgate for my box trailer for carrying small vehicles that help me with my work, is that doable?

Drop down tailgates may add to the overall price of your box trailer, but yes, they are an accessory that can be incorporated with a new box trailer. Depending on the payload of the box trailer that you have selected, your box trailer should be able to handle small motorcycles or small tractors. This, however, will be purely up to the choice that you made initially on the size of the trailer that you require. It’s always ideal, if you believe that you may need to transport small vehicles in your box trailer, to always go over the maximum of the payload that you feel will be necessary. This is also something that you can talk to your box trailer seller about as well, as they will be able to advise you on which type of box trailer will be best suited to transport.

What about insuring my box trailer?

Insuring your box trailer, if bought new, will be a fairly easy process. The box trailer when bought will come with all of the documentation required to cover it under many standard policies for trailers and vehicle accessories. If you’ve opted for a cage to be installed around your box trailer, then the price of insuring your box trailer will come down quite significantly if its being insured for damage or theft of items found in the trailer. Don’t just opt for a cage to do this, however, as cages depending on their material quality can be quite pricey. Second-hand box trailers will be harder to insure, and insurance companies will require a lot of documentation that can be often hard to come by. This is just the nature of second-hand selling, and the risks that come with it.

I’ve heard that for some box trailers there are speed restrictions. I often travel long distances to and from work, is this real?

In some states, and under certain circumstances, there are speed restrictions that will need to be abided by when towing over a certain weight. These limits in all states are no more than 80 kph, and the weight that imposes the restriction will differ from state to state. In some states, having an enclosing cage will make you exempt from these speed restrictions. It is advisable to contact your local license issuer regarding the laws that are associated with towing, and what is required in this regard. Those with a larger towing capacity that comes with their box trailer may also be exempt, again depending on which state you are in. However, be warned against buying a larger box trailer for the sake of it, and only focus on what you need and what you require for the benefit of keeping the price down.

In the future when I will need to maintain the box trailer, how will I know what to do to keep it in check with all of these varied regulations?

If you buy your box trailer from a manufacturer, they will often provide some form of long standing warranty or guarantee on the durability of the parts and components involved. This will allow you to get the box trailer serviced without fear of infringing on any of the many regulations that you will require to adhere to. If you are keen on doing it yourself in terms of maintaining your box trailer, this guide from the Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities provides an all-state covering rulebook to the lighting, wiring, breaking, and general standards that you will need in the future.

Is there anything else I should need to know about purchasing my first box trailer?

Your box trailer will be your best friend on the worksite for the duration of its life. Thus, you should always keep in mind to only buy what you need, rather than what might be more desirable. This will help to keep the box trailer purchase in budget, as well as allowing you to get the most out of your investment. Your box trailer will also last you for a long time to come if bought new, but it is always a great idea to get into the habit of general maintenance to prolong its longevity. Box trailers will undoubtedly take a lot of strain during their lifetime as you use them, and looking after your box trailer can often minimise the threat of serious damage occurring, no matter how well made it is.