How to Use a Trailing Stop Loss While Day Trading

Pros and Cons of Trailing Stop Losses, and How to Use Them

A trailing stop loss order is a risk reduction tactic where the risk on a trade is reduced, or a profit is locked in, as the trade moves in the trader's favor. A trailing stop loss is not a requirement when day trading, rather, using it is a personal choice. The trailing stop loss is discussed in more detail below, as well as its pros and cons and a number of ways it can be implemented. After learning more about the basics of trailing stop loss orders, you'll be better able to determine if this risk management approach is right for you and your strategies. 

Trailing Stop Loss Order Explained

A stop loss order controls the risk of a trade. It is an offsetting order that gets a trader out of a trade if the price of the asset moves in the wrong direction and hits the price the stop loss order is placed at. Basic stop loss orders are discussed in What's a Stop Loss Order, and How to Use It.

Assume a trader buys a stock at $54.25 and places a stop loss at $54.05. They are risking $0.20 per share, because if the price drops to $54.05 the stop loss order will execute to get them out of the trade. This stop loss order doesn't move, whether the price goes up or down, it stays where it is. 

If a trailing stop loss is used, then the stop loss can be moved as the price moves — but only to reduce risk, never to increase risk. With a trailing stop loss the trader moves the stop loss up (above $54.05) as the price of the stock price moves up. This reduces the risk of the trade while the stock is moving favorably. If the stop loss is eventually moved above $54.25, then the trader will make a profit even if the stock hits the stop loss price. 

If a trader goes short in a stock at $19.37 with a stop loss at $19.42, if they opt to trail this stop loss, it can be moved down as the price drops. If the stop loss is moved below (trailed) $19.37, then the trader has a "locked in profit" because even if the stock price hits the stop loss order the trader will realize a profit on the trade. The stop loss order should not be moved up when in a short position.

Ways to Utilize a Stop Loss

how to utilize a stop loss while day trading
da-kuk/Getty Images

There are multiple ways to implement a trailing stop loss order, including setting up automatic trailing stop loss orders with the broker, or adjusting the stop loss order manually based on price movements or technical indicators

Price Based Trailing Stop Loss

Let's go back to our trader buying a stock at $54.25 and placing a stop loss at $54.05. This trader has a stop loss order of $0.20. The trader could also use a $0.20 trailing stop loss. A trailing stop loss will move the exit (stop loss) of the trade to $0.20 below the most recent high (occurring after entry) when long, or $0.20 above the most recent low when short.

For example, the stock price rises from $54.25 to $54.35, the stop loss would automatically move to $54.15, instead of $54.05. If the price moves up to $54.45, the stop loss moves to $54.25 (breakeven). If the stock continues to rise to $54.49, the stop loss will be at $54.29. If the price of the stock starts to drop, the stop loss will not move down (it only moves up if in a long position, or lower if in a short position). If the price falls to $54.29, the trade will be closed because the trailing stop loss will liquidate that position. The trailing stop loss will stay at $54.29 until the price hits it, or will move up one cent for every cent the price moves above $54.49.

If a trader goes short in a stock at $19.37 and has a stop loss at $19.42, they are risking $0.05 per share. If this is a trailing stop loss order, for each cent the price drops below $19.37 the stop loss will also drop by one cent. If the price declines to $19.20, the trailing stop loss will be at $19.25, locking in a profit for the trader. Once the trailing stop loss drops it doesn't move back up again. The price will eventually hit the trailing stop loss level, or the trader can exit via another means, such as a profit target or they can simply close the trade manually.

This is the basic and automatic version of a trailing stop loss which is available on most trading platforms. Set the stop loss type to "trailing." There are also other ways to implement a trailing stop loss.

Manual Trailing Stop Loss Method

manual trailing stop loss on AAPL intraday chart
Figure 1. AAPL 1-Minute Chart with Manual Trailing Stop Loss. thinkorswim

The manual trailing stop loss is commonly used by more experienced traders, as it provides more flexibility as to when the stop loss is moved. In this case, the stop loss order is not set as "trailing," rather, it is just a normal stop loss order. The trader determines when and where they will move the stop loss order to reduce risk.

A common tactic, if long, is to move the stop loss up only once a pullback has occurred and the price is once again rising. The stop loss is moved up to just below the swing low of the pullback.

For example, a trader enters a trade at $10. The price moves up to $10.06, drops to $10.02 and then starts to move back up again. The stop loss could be moved up to $10.01, just below the low of the pullback at $10.02.

Figure 1 shows an example of this tactic being used on a 1-minute chart. 

If short, the stop loss is moved down once a pullback has occurred and the price is falling again. The stop loss is moved to just above the swing high of the pullback.

Indicator Based Trailing Stop Loss Method

trailing stop loss indicator for trading
Figure 2. ATRTrailingStop Indicator Applied to EURUSD 1-Minute Chart. thinkorswim

Indicators can be used to create a trailing stop loss, and some indicators are actually designed for this function. If using an indicator-based trailing stop loss, manually move the stop loss to reflect the information shown on the indicator. 

Many trailing stop loss indicators are based on Average True Range (ATR), which measure how much an asset typically moves over a given time frame. If a forex pair typically moves seven pips every 10 minutes (the ATR would show this reading on the chart, if using 10-minute price bars), the stop loss could be trailed at a multiple of the ATR.

For example, assume you buy this forex pair at 1.1520 and place an initial stop loss at 1.1506. This is a risk of 14 pips, or 2 x ATR. If the price moves in your favor, continue to trail the stop loss 14 pips behind the highest price witnessed since entry. If the price rises to 1.1530 the stop loss is moved up to 1.1516 (which is 1.1530 - 0.0014). Continue to do this until the price eventually hits the stop loss and closes the trade. 

There are several indicators that will plot a trailing stop loss on your chart. ATRTrailingStop is one such indicator. Figure 2 shows the indicator applied to a EURUSD 1-minute chart. If you initiate a short trade, stay in the trade as long as the price bars are below the dots. If in a long trade, stay in the trade while the price bars are above the dots.

The ATRTrailingStop indicator, or other indicators like it, shouldn't necessarily be used for trade entry signals. The indicator does a good job of keeping a trader in trend trade once a trend begins, but using it to enter trades can result in a substantial number of whipsaws (going long then short over and over again, losing each time, when the price isn't trending).

The settings can be changed on the indicator to suit your preferences. The figure 2 chart example uses a 5-period ATR with a 3.5x multiplier on the ATR.

Chandelier Exits are another common ATR trailing stop loss indicator that can be applied to price charts. The Parabolic SAR is another popular trailing stop loss indicator, although it is not based on ATR. A moving average can also function as a trailing stop loss.

Indicators can be effective in highlighting where to place a stop loss, but no method is perfect. The indicator may get you out of trades too early or too late on some occasions. Test out any indicator you use and be aware of its pros and cons before attempting to use it with real capital.

Pros and Cons of Trailing Stop Loss Orders.

The positives of a trailing stop loss are that if a big trend develops, much of that trend will be captured for profit. Assuming the trailing stop loss is not hit during that trend. In other words, allowing trades to run until they hit the trailing stop loss can result in big gains. 

A trailing stop loss is also beneficial if the price initially moves favorable, but then reverses. The trailing stop loss helps prevent a winning trade from turning into a loser, or at least reduces the amount of the loss if a trade doesn't work out.

The downside of using a trailing stop loss is that markets don't always move in perfect flow. Sometimes the price will make a brief sharp move, which hits your trailing stop loss, but then keeps going in the intended direction without you. Had you not adjusted the original stop loss you could still be in the trade and benefiting from favorable price moves.

During periods of time when the price isn't trending well, trailing stop losses can result in numerous losing trades, because the price is constantly reversing and hitting the trailing the stop loss. If this is occurring, either don't trade or use the set-and-forget approach. The set-and-forget approach is when you place a stop and target — based on current conditions — and then just let the price hit one order or the other (no adjustments). 

Final Word on Using Trailing Stop Loss Orders

Trading is not easy. There is no perfect solution to the problems mentioned above. Sometimes a trailing stop loss works great in capturing large moves...when those moves occur. If the market isn't making large moves, then a trailing stop loss can significantly hamper performance as small losses widdle away capital.

There are multiple ways to use a trailing stop loss, including trailing the stop loss based on a fixed dollar amount. Do this automatically by setting the stop loss order type to "trailing." Other trailing stop loss tactics require that you manually adjust the stop loss order. These tactics include adjusting the stop loss based on chart analysis or based on an indicator. 

No matter what trailing stop loss approach you use, test it in a demo account before utilizing real capital. Spend several months practicing and making sure that your trailing stop loss strategy is effective.

Trailing stop losses are a tool you may choose to use, but it is not required. Other exit techniques include the set-and-forget approach (setting a stop loss and target at the outset of the trade and then not adjusting those orders) or manually closing trades (not letting price hit a stop loss or target, but rather closing trades based on real-time price analysis). Traders can also use a combination of all these techniques.