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Trailer Backing | Eliminate The Stress And Struggle Of

Trailer Backing | Eliminate The Stress And Struggle Of

By Don Cadden, Guest Contributor

Most RVers have had the painful experience of watching a fellow traveler struggle to back his or her trailer into their assigned space. More often than not, it involves one travel companion backing and one trying their best to give directions and signals. On occasions, it can almost be a home-wrecker. Here are some suggestions that might save a bumper, a standing RV hookup or even a marriage.

Straighten Up
The first rule: If at all possible, align your tow vehicle and trailer as straight as possible before starting to back up.

So many times I see the driver pull up in front of a space and prepare to back in with the rig still bent at the hitch when there is plenty of room to pull completely straight and not have to fight the trailer as you back. I not only see this with RVs, but also with goose-neck trailers. Having hauled a lot of cattle, I’ve seen many old-seasoned hands whip their cattle trailer around in front of a loading chute and not take the time to straighten it out. Then, they would fight it back and forth all the way to the chute gate. The less you have to turn the trailer while backing, the better.

Use Your Mirrors Correctly
A secret I learned a long time ago about backing any trailer is in using your side mirrors correctly so, find a place that is safe and open and practice backing your trailer. Watch the mirrors and mentally think about “driving” the trailer using the mirrors. If you can see both sides of the trailer in your mirrors, note that when you turn the steering wheel left, the back of the trailer goes slightly right. (I say slightly because the more subtle you can make your wheel movements, the better.) When you turn the wheel right, the trailer goes left. When I’m backing, I am mentally thinking about driving the trailer forward with the mirror images as my guide. It’s like I’m pushing the trailer, and my windshield is the mirrors.

Stop, Straighten, Start Again
Second rule: If you get off course, don’t try to make huge adjustments to straighten the trailer out. Just stop, pull back straight and start all over again.

Trust me; it will be much less exasperating. And don’t be afraid to step out of the tow vehicle and examine the obstacles. It’s much better to do that than to find them with the rear bumper or side of the trailer.

Tag-team Backing
Now, what about that partner giving directions? Most importantly, the director should be visible to the driver. If the driver can’t be seen in one of the side mirrors, they can’t see you. And, as the vehicle turns, the director has to move to stay in view. Glance from the driver’s eyes to the surroundings and back constantly. Judge the speed of the vehicle backing and anticipate what will happen. The biggest problem happens when the director motions for the driver to keep coming and then suddenly throws up their hands and yells STOP, not allowing enough reaction time.

From past experience, I’ve found that once the vehicle is near the destination, the director should put their hands in the air showing the approximate distance between the hitch and the ball, or trailer and stopping point. It should match the distance between their hands. They can then slowly close their hands together as the two objects meet. A good way to signal “stop” is to go from an open-raised hand to a closed fist. They should make sure it’s done in rhythm with the vehicle movement and not abruptly. If the director can unify into a rhythm with the backing vehicle, it flows nicely together.

Two-way Radios
All of this said, a marriage- or partnership-saver might be a set of inexpensive two-way radios. The director will do most of the talking since the driver should have both hands on the wheel and be paying attention to backing. Radios allow the director to give an explicit play-by-play of what’s going on. But again, it is imperative that the director get in rhythm with the process and not just say, “Come on, come on; STOP!” Judging the distance and translating it is as important verbally as it is with hand signals.

Take Your Time
The best overall advice might be to take your time. When in doubt, exit your vehicle and check the areas you can’t see. Checking is sure better than wrecking. If you are unable to align straight to begin with, due to space, don’t be afraid to back up, then pull forward several times to keep your rig from being in a jack-knife position. You can work a trailer into, or out of, a small space by going back and forth and changing the angle a little each time. Keep watching the trailer and note what it is doing in response to your actions.

Hopefully, these suggestions will be useful. Pulling, backing and negotiating a trailer in traffic are learned skills. Don’t be afraid to think out of the box and try new techniques. And don’t be afraid to take your time. It may save a repair bill—and a relationship.


Don and his wife Pam live in the mountains south of Alpine, Texas. They are mostly retired and enjoy traveling and RV camping, currently in their Lance bumper-pull trailer. Don has been involved in ranching and horseback work for many years. He has also performed his music and poetry at Cowboy Gatherings across the West for almost 30 years.

Additional Backing Tips
When preparing to back up, place your right hand on the bottom of the steering wheel (six o’clock position). Now, simply move your hand in the direction that you want the rear of the trailer to go. If you use this hand position, it will all but eliminate turning the wheels the wrong way while backing up.

When you are approaching any kind of back-in situation, the job will be a lot easier if you set yourself up to back to the driver’s side. You will be able to see the rig and the site much better in your driver’s side mirrors, and you can also glance back over your shoulder and see the rear of the RV. You may need to drive around the campground to be able to approach the spot on your left side.

Mark Nemeth #45776,
Escapees magazine Technical Advisor

Handy Distance Trick
I learned a neat trick to use when you are trying to judge distance backing up. Let’s say you’re backing up to hook your trailer to the hitch, and you’re by yourself with no one to tell you how far you are from the hitch. Go back, look at the ball and the hitch and get a mental image of the distance between them. Let’s say it’s three feet. Then, go back to the driver’s door and make a line in the dirt or place a rock on the driveway about three feet back from the hinged side of the door. Don’t look back at the trailer; look at the rock and when it’s about at the hinged side of the door, stop and check the hitch again. Maybe you need to come back three more inches. Look at the ground and note when the vehicle has rolled about three more inches. With a little practice, you can get really accurate with this method and save a lot of getting in and out of the driver’s seat.

This method works equally well when backing into any spot with your trailer. Look at the back bumper of the trailer, judge the distance and place your marker by the door. It’s much better than trying to judge distance through a mirror to the back of a trailer 20 or 30 feet behind you.

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