Basic Trailer Handling
(You’ve Got to Back It Up Sometime)
By Warren Petkovsek
Nothing strikes fear in the heart of an RVer like backing the rig into a campsite or other parking spot when you’ve got an audience. This is right up there with public speaking for many of us and this is true for novice and veteran alike. It seems as though everyone in camp has gathered around with their lawn chairs and refreshments to watch the show. You almost feel like they are going to hold up Olympic-like scorecards when you are finished and rate your performance. “And here come the judge’s scores now”: 9.0, 9.5, 10.0 and 6.2 (that must have been the Russian judge). ‘Talk about stress! I’ve been handling trailers of various kinds for over forty years now and an audience always seems to get to me. Actually, I never seem to mess up unless someone is there to see me do it. Let’s talk about basic trailer handling and how to improve your skills. Here we go.
Let’s make this short and sweet. There is only one thing that will make you a proficient trailer handler and that is experience. The way to get that experience is to practice. ‘No short cuts and no magic. You’ve got to practice and get experience if you expect to ever get good at this. I can’t really tell you how to back a trailer any more than I can tell a child how to ride a bicycle. You just have to get out there and get a feel for it and, yes, you need to make a few mistakes in order to learn. Let’s just be sure that these learning mistakes don’t cause any injury, damage or marital problems. The rest of the article contains a few hints and examples so if you just want to cut to the chase then stop reading now, go out, hitch up and find somewhere to practice. If you are a glutton for punishment then read on. I hope you find it informative and entertaining.
After my little brother’s third divorce my mom was a little down in the dumps so I thought I would try to cheer her up. I said, “Don’t worry, Mom. Myra will never leave me.” “How can you be so sure?” “Because she really loves her travel trailer and she doesn’t know how to back it up.” That’s when my dad jumped in to help. He said, “That just means that she’ll probably run off with some old trucker.”
My dad understood the experience thing pretty good. By the way – Myra has since learned how to back the trailer really well and she hasn’t left me yet. ‘So far, so good.
If you have never learned how to back a trailer or if it’s been a long time, then you need to borrow some kind of a trailer – boat trailer, utility trailer, low boy or even an RV. Go to an empty parking lot and get busy. If you are buying an RV, your first stop on the way home should be a parking lot where you can get a feel for the new rig. For starters, practice backing in a straight line. It’s harder than it looks. After that, practice turning a corner while backing. This is what you will have to do to get into a campsite or driveway. You have probably heard this trick; hold the steering wheel at the bottom and move your hand in the direction that you want the trailer to go. In effect, that tells you to move the steering wheel in the opposite direction of the trailer’s intended path. ‘Sounds confusing, doesn’t it? Not really. You’ll get the feel for making the trailer turn in no time. The trick now is making the thing straighten back up. This is just as important as initiating the turn and I’ll give you a hint; most folks mess up by not straightening up soon enough. I’ll tell you how to figure out when to start straightening up. Watch it happen in reverse order. When you pull out of a campsite or parking spot, just watch the trailer wheels on the inside of your turn. Notice when they fall in line straight behind the tow vehicle. Stop right there, get out and see how far the trailer wheels have gone since they left the parking spot and that is where you will begin your turn in order to back in. Now would be a good time to back into the spot again and pull back out a few times for practice. If possible, do this pulling out and backing into the spot in both directions. That means approaching the parking spot in both directions. You will find that there is an easy side and a hard side. It’s much easier if you can make your turn toward the driver’s side because you can see what’s going on without having to use the mirrors. Making the turn toward the passenger’s side is more difficult, but it is certainly possible. In fact, that’s the way I have to do it at home because of the layout of the neighborhood. Trust me. With enough practice it’s no big deal.
Did you know that a fifth-wheel will back up differently than a tag along or standard travel trailer? It’s true. The hitch point for a fifth-wheel is nearly exactly over the trucks rear axle when a travel trailer’s coupling (hitch ball) is several feet behind the axle near the rear bumper. Those few feet act like a lever which acts on the trailer making it turn in either direction according to driver input. The absence of this “lever” in a fifth-wheel causes the rig to take a long time to begin turning after the driver cranks on the wheel, but look out. When it does start to turn it will turn a lot. This just takes some getting used to and, of course, practice (where have we heard this before?).
Here are a few other hints that will make trailer backing easier. Get help. It is always best to have someone watching behind you to make sure that you don’t back into anything or miss your driveway and fall into a ditch. I’ve always said that I don’t really back up our fifth-wheel. Myra does that. I just operate the controls. It took us a while to get our signals straight. For us “left” means toward the street side of the trailer and “right” means toward the curb or door side. “Straighten up means just that; begin coming out of the turn. The driver and the spotter need to communicate with as few words as possible. An entire backing and parking operation could be done with only “left”, “right”, “straighten up”, “stop” and “pull up”. Speaking of the “pull up” command – there is no shame in pulling up and straightening up the rig when you have turned too much and are starting to jack knife. It’s much worse to force a bad turn. Besides, your audience needs some entertainment as well as something on which to grade you.
The enemy of even the most experienced trailer handler is darkness. Oh, sometimes we have to back into a spot at night, but now that my wife and I have retired we schedule our trips so that we arrive during daylight hours and we don’t have to back up blind. Even if you have lots of help and everyone has a flashlight, the tail lights, brake lights and back-up lights on the back of your truck will cause a bad glare on the front of your trailer. It’s just best to do all this in the daylight.
Finally, every couple that backs and parks an RV needs a set of small battery powered two-way radios. I call them “marriage savers” and for good reason. As a spectator, some of the most entertaining shows I’ve seen are those where the couples are yelling nonsense words and using weird hand signals that are probably made up on the spot. These events are usually pretty loud and I’ve heard more than one from inside my RV. However, when using two-way radios no one else knows exactly what you are saying to each other and you may even get extra points from the judges for stealth.
Trailer handling involves more than just backing up. There are other factors to consider. Obviously, the first precautions take place before the towing even begins. You’ve got to have an adequate tow vehicle that is rated by the manufacturer to tow the load you will hook to it and the trailer and tow vehicle both have to be sound and in good mechanical condition. These topics have been covered in other articles and I would be glad to send you my articles on RV safety and tow vehicles if you contact me and ask for it. Also be aware that the added weight of the trailer and its load will greatly increase stopping distances so your following distance should be adjusted accordingly. Remember – it will also take you longer to overtake and pass another vehicle and you must wait much longer to pull back into your lane because of the extra length that is now under your control. Remember also that trailers require more space to make turns. The trailer wheels don’t ever track directly behind the wheels of the tow vehicle during turns and fifth-wheels are even worse. The trailer will turn inside the truck every time so make your turns much wider and watch the inside trailer wheels in your mirrors to make sure you don’t hit any curbs, light poles or people.
All of this should become second nature to most trailerists, but be careful. Human nature dictates that we generally revert back to our old habits and forget the trailer is back there. Remember – you are responsible for any damage or injury caused by the rig you are towing.
Have fun and practice when you can. If you practice enough you will have a more enjoyable trailering experience, a lot less stress and possibly better scores from your audience.
Warren Petkovesk has been an avid RVer for over several decades.
He lives in Lumberton, Texas with his wife, Myra. A former teacher,
band director and professional musician, Warren is now retired from the
petrochemical industry. In addition to being a freelance writer he is
also a school volunteer, a Texas State Park volunteer and has been a
Boy Scout Leader for many years. Warren would be delighted to
answer any RV related questions that you may have and would be
delighted to send you some or all of his other articles. He can be
contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org .