Boat Dock Basics

Every boat needs a place to call home. Out on the lake, you will see many different kinds of boat docks. Each one comes with its own distinct advantages and drawbacks. If you plan on building a dock on your lake property or buying lake property with a dock, take a look at these choices available.

Piling Dock

Photo courtesy of BuildingProductsPlus.

When most people imagine a dock on the lake, they envision a piling dock.

Piling docks are built by driving heavy wooden beams known as “pilings” (think telephone poles, but shorter) deep into the bed of the lake.

The frame is then attached to the pilings, forming a sturdy, wooden walkway.

Piling docks typically cost $20-$40 per square foot, depending on the installation. Factors such as lake depth, climate and local regulations can increase or decrease the cost of installation.

Piling docks have the advantage of stability and strength.

Homeowners can build them in high-flow areas such as rivers and streams, since piling docks are less likely to be washed away by floodwaters.

The main downside for piling docks is cost, both of installation and maintenance. Piling docks also cannot rise or fall with the level of the lake.

Piling docks work well if you have a larger boat. They can also serve as fishing piers or just a place to plant your lawn chair and catch some rays.

Floating Dock

Photo courtesy of Playstar Inc.

Floating docks cost less than piling docks, and are much more versatile.

These consist of an anchored, floating platform of large, airtight drums, onto which a wooden platform is built.

The structure floats on the water’s surface but is large and stable enough to serve as a boat dock.

Floating docks have the advantages of versatility and lower cost.

Most floating boat docks cost between $20 and $35 per square foot and typically require less square footage than a piling dock.

Floating boat docks automatically rise and fall according to the lake level. You can also tow them out of the lake in the winter, or for repairs.

On the downside, floating docks are less stable.

They shift with the current and are more likely to be washed away by floodwaters.

Floating boat docks work well for smaller boats, such as fishing boats, or for those with a limited budget.

Crib Docks

Photo courtesy of The Dock Doctors.

On the opposite end of the stability spectrum are crib docks. These are heavy, sturdy structures that can last for decades.

Crib docks are built by filling a large container or framework with rocks or stones. Decking is then built on top that connects it to the shoreline.

Crib docks are extremely sturdy, permanent structures. Those who build crib docks are essentially extending their shoreline out into the water, within the confines of the dock!

The downsides to crib docks are cost and regulation.

Crib docks can be very expensive. Furthermore, many areas limit the construction of crib docks due to their environmental impact.

They disrupt the flow of water along the shoreline, disrupt local wildlife and may cause problems in the event of a flood.

Suspension Docks

Photo courtesy of Nisswa Dock.

A modern addition to the array of dock choices is the suspension dock.

These docks are almost the diametric opposite of a crib dock. Suspension docks consist of a metal framework built to overhang the water, much like a suspension bridge.

Suspension docks work best in areas with fragile ecosystems. They inflict a minimal impact on the local flora and fauna.

Many homeowners enjoy the attractive, elegant design. Many of these docks can raise or lower according to the level of the lake, as well.

The biggest drawback to a suspension boat dock is the cost. They are one of the most expensive types of boat docks. Suspension docks often take much longer to design and construct.

Suspension docks are a good option for homeowners who can afford a more expensive dock and want to avoid disrupting the local wildlife.

Pipe Dock

Photo courtesy of The Dock Depot.

Very similar to the piling dock is the pipe dock, also known as a “pipe leg dock.”

These are very similar to wooden piling docks, but use a framework of heavy aluminum pipes instead of wooden pilings. The pipes form a metal scaffolding, with wooden planks on top.

Pipe docks are becoming increasingly popular in shallow water areas, where the depth doesn’t exceed eight feet.

They are less sturdy than traditional wooden piling docks, but this is not an issue in shallow areas.

Pipe docks do not work well on lakes that freeze over, due to the long-term effects of freezing and thawing on the pipes. Their main advantage is a much lower cost than traditional docks.

Boat Lift

Photo courtesy of Lake Norman Docks.

Many boat owners are choosing boat lifts over traditional docks. A boat lift is a removable structure that actually lifts your boat out of the water when it is not in use. Using a boat lift can help prevent wear and tear on your boat, and help preserve its hull.

Boat lifts can typically lift a boat out of the water for transportation, for repairs or to another body of water.

Depending on the size, boat lifts typically cost between $5,000 and $10,000.

Double-Decker Boat Dock

Photo courtesy of Custom Dock Systems.

Many boat owners opt for a double-decker boat dock, especially for large boats or on deep water. Read our “Why you Need a Double Decker Dock” article for an in-depth look at this unique dock option.

Read enough about docks and curious about what boat would be the best for you and your lifestyle? Take a look at our article, “Buying the Best Boat for You or read more about lake living here.

10 thoughts on “Boat Dock Basics

  1. I had no idea there were so many different styles of docks to choose from. My family is planning on investing in some lake property and want to install a new dock when we do. I will have to look into what type and what material we want to use.

  2. I’ve always been curious about boat lifts, and now that I’m looking into investing into my own watercraft, I think it would be good to learn a little bit more. You mentioned that boat lifts are able to protect and preserve the hull when it isn’t in use. If I’m going to invest in a boat, I want to make sure I keep it nice for as long as possible, so I think that a lift would be a smart investment for us as well! Thanks for the information!

  3. I’m planning on building a boat dock at our lake property as I will be buying a boat for me and my wife. This article just came at the right time as it tackles the different kinds of boat docks that I can choose from. Much appreciated!

  4. My husband has this grand plan to build a dock at our cabin this summer – all fine and good… HOWEVER, he plans to run the boards north-south – like “longways,” to “save money in materials.” In my many years of life I’ve NEVER once seen a dock with boards that run “longways,” thus, there MUST be a reason why docks aren’t built that way! I’ve tried to search this in order to show him that if it was OK to build it that way, we would be able to SEE some. Can you please tell me why people don’t put the dock boards “longways,” but rather in east-west/horizontal pieces like EVERY dock I’ve ever seen? Help!!

    1. Hi Lisa,

      There are multiple reasons that the boards are set the way they are. First, it’s because the grain of the wood will weather over time, and splinters will become an issue for your bare feet if you go lengthways. Ouch! Secondly, your feet get a better grip on the boards if they are cross-grain, especially when the boards are wet. And third, you will not save any wood by laying the boards lengthwise. Since you will be covering the same square footage of dock either way. You will use the same amount of wood to cover it, although you will cut the wood into shorter pieces. It’s kind of like a pizza…whether you cut it into 6 pieces or 8 pieces, you still have the same amount of pizza. Best wishes for a beautiful dock!

  5. They run lengthways to cut into storm surge tides on Mobile Bay
    But they give a more side to side rigidness when ran normal install.

  6. I know very well that it is extremely difficult to come up with worthwhile article subjects all the time. So I just want to say: well done! Regards,

  7. I realize that this is geared to warm/hot climates but two issues with your information: 1) pipe docks are actually perfect for lakes which freeze — but must be removed when the freeze happens. We have 7 ten-foot dock sections which take an hour or two to put in or remove. If they floated it wouldn’t be easier and if they were on piers or “cribs” those piers or cribs would not necessarily exits after a winter. Pipe docks can also be wheeled structures for ease of movement. 2) In place of those hugely expensive boat lifts (which can run $20-$50K+) a marine railway lets you tow your cradled “baby” onto your own property and onto your own dry dock. I would rather have my boat tied down securely on land rather than have it dangling on top of posts mid air.

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