There’s a serious chill to the air and the boating season is drawing to a close across much of the nation, so we hope you've read our article on Winterizing Tips and are preparing to do those end-of-season chores. For many of us, these will culminate with shrink-wrapping the boat.

We've been told for many years now that shrink wrap is a great way to protect a boat through the winter months, but even so, only a fraction of the boats out there get such treatment. Besides, there has to be a downside to shrink wrap. So, how do you know if you should have it done, or maybe even do it yourself? To find out the scoop we spoke with a shrink-wrap expert, Dustin Hoover, VP of Atlantic Shrink Wrapping, Inc.

shrink wrapped boats

Is your boat ready for winter? The boats with shrink-wrap are better protected than the rest.

Shrink wrap is a polyethylene which has UV inhibitors, and is formulated to shrink when heated to create a seal which is much tighter than the one you or I can make with a tarp and ropes. That seal not only keeps the weather out of your boat, it also prevents the stretching and tearing tarps commonly display after a few months in the elements.

“The main reason to shrink wrap your boat, obviously, is to protect it,” Hoover said. “It’ll keep out rain, snow, ice, and UV light.”

Hold on a sec, Dustin, doesn’t that regular old blue tarp accomplish the same exact thing?

“And unlike a tarp,” he continued, “properly installed shrink wrap will not leak. Period. It won’t ice up and collapse, you don’t need to brush off snow, and you won’t have to bail out puddled water, or anything like that. When the job is done right, you can basically forget about it until spring.”

So, what’s the down-side to shrink wrap? The expense. Even a small boat can cost several hundred dollars to shrink wrap, and protecting a large boat could cost you a lot more. A tarp and some rope, on the other hand, can be bought for peanuts. “You have to ask yourself,” Hoover said, “what’s your boat worth to you?”

Even if you spring for shrink-wrapping, you have to remember that you get what you pay for. “We shrink wrap 12 months out of the year because we're mobile, and we do many projects other than boats,” Hoover said. “But there are a lot of outfits out there that only shrink wrap a couple months out of the year, when boats need to be winterized. And when you have a 1,000-degree heat gun in your hand, you’d better know what you’re doing. If the installer is inexperienced he might end up scorching the boat, or worse—and many part-time installers don’t even have the insurance needed to cover that type of damage.”

What about those do-it-yourself kits? Unless you happen to have a propane-fired heat gun sitting around—a starter model used for shrink wrap costs around $700—this isn’t as economical as you’d think. And remember, your first learning experience will be on one of your most prized possessions.

One other consideration: if you have your boat shrink wrapped, there’s no way you can use it. For 99 percent of us this isn't a problem, but for those who are willing to break ice for a winter fishing trip or to enjoy cold-water activities like recreational oyster tonging, shrink wrap will prove frustrating when the opportunity to get out on the water arises.

boating in winter

You like to go boating even when there's ice at the ramp? Then shrink wrapping probably isn't the best move for you.

The bottom line? If your boat represents a large investment and you want to protect it, a good shrink wrap job done by a real pro is the hands-down best way to safeguard your boat through the winter. But if your boat is old or inexpensive and your budget is tight, default back to that old tarp—and be ready to monitor and maintain it until spring.

Here are a few other shrink-wrapping details, to keep in mind:

  • If you plan to trailer your boat while it’s wrapped, you need a “bullet wrap”. This is an aerodynamic design which incorporates strapping and a thicker plastic, to account for the strong winds encountered when towing. Be sure to mention that you’ll be towing it, before your shrink wrapper goes to work.

  • A low-budget outfit may only wrap to the rubrail, while a first-class job goes all the way down the hull sides, to better protect the boat. Specify what you want, when getting a price quote.

  • If you’ll need to get onto the boat to work on it during the winter, be sure to ask the shrink-wrapper to install a zipper door. This will cost a bit extra, but in many cases, the zipper door can be cut out in the spring and re-used next season.

  • Make sure the shrink wrap is well vented. If it isn't, mildew is going to be a problem.

For more information, read The Right Way to Shrink Wrap A Boat.