If you are proficient at backing a trailer this article is not for you. But if the thought of driving your trailer in reverse causes you stress read on — this was written for you!
Over the years I have pulled my fair share of trailers. As a teenager I worked 4 years for a landscape company and my last year I was promoted to a foreman. This meant driving a large truck and pulling a large dump or flatbed trailer hauling heavy machinery.
I should be a pro at backing up a trailer. But I’m not. During my landscape days I either let one of my crew backup the trailer or would jimmy it back-and-forth until it was good enough. Not much has changed over the years. To be honest up until a few months ago I dreaded reversing the Land Yacht (Airstream). It’s like my brain would switch off and I would lose all sense of direction then the trailer would go everywhere except where I wanted it to. People would be gawking or I would be holding up traffic and get totally stressed out!
I have had several people try and give me coaching and some of their suggestions have been really helpful and others not so much. I am more of an experiential, hands-on learner so I set off to learn to improve my backing up a skills – independently. Here is what I have learned:
ADJUST YOUR MIRRORS
Adjust your mirrors out so you can clearly see the rear of the trailer. Our truck has telescoping mirrors that allow you to slide the entire mirror further away from the truck so you can increase the visibility of your trailer. If your tow vehicle does not have this feature you can get aftermarket attachments. While this is helpful it’s not essential.
In the moment it can be super confusing which way to turn your steering wheel to move the trailer the direction you want. One bit of feedback I received that was super helpful was to place your hand on the bottom of the steering wheel then turn the steering wheel in the direction you want the trailer to go. So if you want the trailer to go left, push the steering wheel left (with your hand on the bottom of the steering wheel.)
SCOUT THE SPOT
I like to scope out the spot before I attempt to backup. It’s helpful to see any potential hazards plan your approach and see what you’re aiming for. After I scout out the spot I’ll visually go through my plan of attack in my mind.
If possible use a spotter. Not necessarily to tell you what to do but to make sure you don’t run over anything. When I do not have a spotter I frequently get out of the truck and take a lap around my rig. (I sometimes even do this with a spotter to just know exactly where I am.)
I have used spotters that really know what they’re doing and they have guided me perfectly into VERY narrow spots. And I have used spotters that have attempted to guide me and really messed me up. It’s best to use spotters just to make sure you don’t whack something or if you have one that knows what they are doing follow their guidance.
Position your spotter where they can see obstacles (that aren’t visible to you) and still see you. Roll down your windows for easy communication and keep eye contact.
Shae was spotting for me once and I forgot to have her keep and eye on how close the trailer was getting to the bumper of the truck. While she did a great job keeping me from the pole, I ended up jackknifing and busting our propane rack. Have you spotter keep an eye on the distance of the trailer and your tow vehicle too.
The S-Turn is the basic technique to best get your trailer in the turning motion. Here is an awesome diagram of the s-turn in action:
The swoop is particularly helpful with larger trailers and in tighter spots. It gets the backend of the trailer in the turning position quicker. Here is a great video detailing the swoop:
You cannot master any skill without practice! Find an open field, parking lot or street and practice your orientation, the s-turn, scoop and fine tuning your backing up skills.
Here’s a few other tips that may be helpful:
- Small Movements – When backing up you want to make slow, small, intentional movements.
- Try Again – Don’t be afraid to scratch a mis-approach, take a lap and try again. If you didn’t get your initial approach and S-turn correct it’s perfectly fine to try again. It may be easier to try another approach than to try to mess with bad positioning.
- Ask for help – Feel free to ask for help. I can think of a few situations that I had to ask someone to give me a hand. Many people struggle and people are generally glad to lend a hand.