Boat Slip vs. Boat Dock: What is the Difference?

For those new to the boating or dock industry, the jargon used to describe equipment, actions, and locations can get confusing. Besides figuring out which is starboard and which is port, you also have to know what to call the place you store your boat. Is it a dock, a berth, a slip, a mooring, or all of the above?

Here, we clear up any confusion around the terms “dock” and “slip,” and provide some recommendations for choosing between these two ways to store your boat.

What is a Boat Dock?

A dock is a flat marine structure made of metal, plastic, wood, or concrete at which you park your boat. Boaters usually pull up parallel to the long side of a dock and tie their watercraft via lines to attached structures or hardware, such as dock cleats or pilings. When secured parallel to a dock, a boat is typically surrounded by water on three sides.

Docks can be floating, rolling, or stationary, depending on whether their owners want them to be temporary or permanent.

What is a Boat Slip?

The definition of this term varies depending on where (or who) you are in the United States, but a boat slip typically refers to a single “parking space” at a dock. Unlike an open dock, a slip is enclosed on three sides, so that when a boat “slips” in bow- or stern-first, only one end is left open to the water. The technical definition includes the volume of water displaced by a boat in a single dock space, but here, we’ll be referring more to the “parking space” comparison.

When properly moored at a slip, a boat should fit squarely between the two opposite side dock panels. Slips can sometimes feature boat lifts, or lined ramps that make it easy for a boat to slide in and out of the water, and for boaters to board or exit the boat.

Key Differences and Use Cases

Think of a slip as a part of a whole; not all docks have slips, but all slips are part of a larger dock structure. A dock system can feature slips in configurations that resemble letters; from the air, a dock with multiple slips can look like an F, L, T, E, or H.

Slips are common at marinas, where it’s necessary to keep multiple boats from bumping into each other as they bob in the water. Slips offer slightly more stability for boarding and disembarking a boat; alongside an open dock, there’s more risk of a boat rocking and destabilizing the person trying to move between the two.

Boat Slip vs. Boat Dock: Which Should You Choose?

Slips are not appropriate or necessary in all situations. Use the chart below to determine which criteria best fit your unique scenario.

 

Boat Slip vs. Boat Dock

Slip Dock
Layout Two parallel panels joined by one perpendicular panel; Encloses a boat on three sides One straight panel; Three sides of boat remain exposed to open water; Can be part of a larger dock system
Characteristics Multiple mooring points; can feature a boat lift Straightforward construction; layout and hardware can be customized
Preferred by Marinas Private residences
Best suited for Heavily trafficked areas with multiple boats Those with limited space or smaller budget
Pros
  • Allow more watercraft to be docked near each other
  • Can prevent bumping against the edge of a dock or other boats
  • Can be covered to protect boat from sun or weather damage
  • Boarding and disembarking the craft can be more secure
  • Construction is easy, simple, and more flexible than slips
  • Provides a place for relaxing and recreational activities (swimming, diving, etc.)
  • Takes up less space than a slip
  • Less expensive than a slip
Cons
  • Can be complicated and expensive to construct
  • Don’t offer as much protection from bumps and waves

How to Select the Right Boat Slip

While you may think that your waterfront property could accommodate either a straight dock or a slip, it bears considering some important factors before making any purchases.

Ease of use: Will you be able to pull your boat safely in and out of a slip, without bumping against either side? Maneuvering a boat is a skill that can be learned, but it pays to be confident in your steering abilities before you invest in additional slip components. Make sure you understand how to control your approach momentum, or the speed at which you need to approach your dock or slip to avoid a crash.

Water depth: This goes for both straight docks and slips, but make sure the water is deep enough at the spot where you want to place your slip — especially at low tide in saltwater. If you are backing into a slip whose closed end is in shallower water, make sure your boat’s propeller has enough room to turn without hitting the ground. Keep a pole on board that marks the minimum water depth your boat can handle while staying afloat; when in doubt, touch the bottom with the pole and see if the water’s surface falls below the minimum depth mark. If it does, the water is not deep enough for your propeller.

Dock height: This isn’t as much of an issue with floating slips, but a stationary slip should not be much higher or lower than the edge of your boat. If it is, it will be difficult to board or disembark, no matter how secure your boat is.

Storage: Most docks are wide enough to fit storage bins on, but the components of a slip may be too narrow to accommodate both storage and people.

Accessory needs: Do you need additional cleats at your slip? What about lights, benches, or ladders? Adding any larger accessories may encroach on walking space. A common (and recommended) slip accessory is a boat lift, which allows boats to slide easily in and out of the water into a “dry dock” position.

Rules and regulations: The number and size of residential boat slips is heavily regulated in some states. Be sure to check with relevant regulatory bodies to clear your slip.

Installation and maintenance: Slips are generally more expensive and complicated to install than straight dock systems, since they require more components. With more surface area comes more maintenance and cleaning needs, so make sure you can commit to keeping your slip clean throughout the season.

How to Select the Right Boat Dock

Many of their basic qualities are the same, but there are some subtle differences that may make a dock a better choice for you.

Ease of use: Tying a boat up to a dock is a bit like parallel parking: fairly simple if you have ample room at the dock, slightly more complicated if you have limited space. Approach momentum is also critical here, since you don’t want to approach your dock so fast that you end up damaging your boat or injuring yourself or your passengers. Tying up at a dock may require an additional set of hands (or a nimble solo boater) to grab a line and hold the boat in place from the dock.

Water depth: The same rule applies to docks as to slips: Confirm that the water is deep enough for your boat at the spot where you want to place your dock. If you’re installing a dock in a tidal body of water, make sure the low tide depth is still deep enough for your boat.

Dock height: Floating docks move with the water level, so they don’t pose as much of a concern in tidal waters. Consider floating docks in areas with fluctuating water levels so you don’t get caught off guard by height variations.

Storage: Most docks are wide enough to fit storage containers on, and provide enough room for people, storage bins, gear, and more as you load and unload your cargo.

Accessory needs: Many residential dock owners use their docks for much more than boating. Other recreational uses include swimming, kayaking, diving, or simply relaxing. Think about all the ways in which you’ll use your dock, and plan out your accessories accordingly.

Rules and regulations: Permanent dock systems require extensive permitting, especially in residential areas. Be sure to check your local and state regulations before settling on a type of dock.

Installation and maintenance: Modular dock systems allow for considerable customization, so installing them can be as simple or involved as you make it. Keep in mind that stationary docks often require pilings to be buried in the ground underwater. Cleaning and maintenance depend on the dock materials — both aluminum and plastic docks can be cleaned with mild soap, water, and a gentle scrubbing pad.

Boat Dock & Slip Solutions With FWM Docks

FWM Docks’ modular dock solutions allow you to create a slip at any dock system — even after the main dock has been installed. With the right hardware, adding a slip or several is simple; our plastic EZ Dock components even come with puzzle-like teeth and grooves, so add-on sections simply lock in to create new configurations.

If you’re still not sure which type of dock solution may be right for you, try our Dock Selector tool. Enter your waterfront’s characteristics, and we’ll generate our recommendation. Our dock specialists are on hand to answer any questions you may have or to guide you through next steps.

Try the Dock Selector

FAQs

Can you leave your boat in a slip all winter? 

Depending on where you live, it is generally safer to leave your boat in a slip full-time, as opposed to at a dock, where it’s exposed to the waves and elements. Since a slip has three sides, it can support a covering, which can help keep precipitation out of your boat. However, if you live in an area where lakes or brackish water freeze over in the winter, it’s best to dry dock your boat for the season.

Which is better for a seasonal residence? 

Singular or movable docks are recommended for a seasonal residence, since they contain fewer parts and/or are more easily maneuverable than slip configurations. Rolling or lightweight floating docks make for easy removal and DIY installation.

Can I use a boat slip for entertaining? 

Entertaining at a slip may get crowded, especially if there are multiple boats docked around it. At marinas, the arms of the slips may be narrower than the main dock, which poses a risk of people accidentally falling into the water. We recommend entertaining on an open dock platform, or even expanding your existing dock surface with additional modular panels.

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Dock Specialist
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