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How To Back Up A Trailer

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A lot of people plan to bug out if the SHTF with all of their survival gear stowed in their vehicle or pulled in a trailer. What if you have to turn around quickly? Do you know how to swing that trailer around so that you don’t get stuck? Can you execute a turn on a blocked road so that you aren’t trapped in an ambush?

This is what I was thinking as I watched my neighbor this weekend. I was mowing our yard which is my favorite twice weekly activity this time of year (not) and my neighbor was working in his yard. He had hauled a little potting soil for some plants he was planting in a small trailer attached to the back of his SUV. The trailer was one of the less substantial types, perfectly suited for small jobs like hauling a washer and dryer but as he finished I watched him drive up the street to turn around. He pulled into a driveway and attempted the first backup. It was obvious he hadn’t given himself enough room or the trailer wasn’t straight enough and it quickly was wedged at a 90 degree angle to his car.

I watched him attempt this a couple of additional times and then finally, he stopped the car, got out and unhitched the trailer. It was when he unhitched the trailer that he realized that he had stopped on a hill and he quickly started jogging down the hill all the while trying to navigate his trailer into a position where he could back up his SUV, reattach and go back home.

What if this was you and you had hundreds, maybe thousands of pounds of stored food, ammunition, tarps, generators and survival gear piled onto the trailer. Could you turn this around without getting out of your car? How many attempts would you have to make to get the trailer and your vehicle pointed in the right direction? Could you do this under duress?

Backing up a trailer isn’t hard, but it does take practice. I like to lump this into the same category as sweating pipe. The concept itself is simple, but unless you know how to finesse the materials you will probably screw it up a couple of times. This is the main reason why I go ahead and call a plumber if I decide to get my handy-man hat on and mess around with anything on the back side of the wall in our bathroom or kitchen. If I ever build a new house I swear everything will be PEX.

Backing up a trailer is easier to do if you can see your trailer in my opinion, but that is probably because I don’t have any other experience. I do know that we have some professional truck drivers who follow this blog who are probably laughing right now and I am counting on for their comments below.

The images and text come from a post on the Art of Manliness site.

The Approach

Trailer-1

Backing a trailer into a specific spot at a specific angle is mostly in the set-up. Like most things, preparation is key.

First things first: roll down your windows. Driver’s side and passenger’s, and it doesn’t matter if it is raining. If you have a passenger, it is best to kick them out before you even approach the actual boat launch, driveway, or campsite. You are probably going to want a spotter anyway, and they will either distract you or block your view if they stay in.

Forget about your rear view mirror, and don’t turn around and try to look out the back window. Chances are, you can’t see much over your trailer, and who cares what the front of that trailer is doing? You want to make sure your side mirrors are adjusted properly, because they are going to show you where the sides of your trailer are, allowing you to deduce what the back is doing. It may be more showy to do the big turn around and hug the back of the seat thing, but how much cooler to pull up and back that baby in without turning around? Appearances aside, it really is the proper way to do it. Proper mirror adjustment means when your rig is straight, your trailer is visible in about the inside third of your mirror. It is good to be able to see your trailer tires. This gives you a good view of where you are going and how you are doing.

Now you are almost ready to approach. For the sake of a consistent example, let’s say you are backing a camper into a campsite. It is coming up on your right-hand side. Stop short and get out of your truck. Go check for obvious obstacles that you will have to avoid. Don’t forget to look up. Even if you have a straight shot to the back of the site, will you clear all the tree branches? This sounds like retentive health and safety advice, but backing over a stray chunk of firewood or someone’s leftover wire roasting stick is going to be a rough start to your weekend. Try to make a mental map of where the picnic table is in relation to the fire pit and the back of the site. Pace off distances if you need to (you do know how wide your camper is, don’t you?). Have your passenger(s) stand near major obstacles so they can shout if you are too close. You may not always be able to see them, but your windows are already rolled down, right?

The Right Set-up

Trailer-21

The moment of truth is at hand. If you do this next part wrong, it doesn’t matter much what you do after. Get it right, and you will look like a pro. It is the S-turn. You are in a forward gear with your campsite coming up on the right. Get that vehicle over to the right as far as you can without hitting something or rolling into the ditch and pull up alongside the entrance. How far along you go really depends on how long your rig is and what kind of hitch you have, but probably somewhere around when your truck bumper is coming up on the far end of the entrance, you want to swing out left. Don’t go all the way. Before you drive into the left side ditch, crank it back to the right. This will make the smaller angle between the truck and trailer be on the right-hand side. Stop with your truck somewhere around midway between road shoulders. Congratulations, your trailer is ready and begging to be backed into the sweet spot.

The Moment of Truth

Trailer-3

The next part is where everyone gets nervous. People will offer “helpful” advice here, about how the steering wheel works in reverse now, but I’ve seen people start thinking everything in their vehicle works backwards and forget which pedal does what. So, take a deep breath and imagine you are a kid playing with toy trucks. You will probably need to make your turn angle a bit sharper, especially if you have a narrow entrance or a longer trailer. To accomplish this, turn your wheels as though you were going to steer to the left if you were going forward. Don’t turn it all the way. Put the truck in reverse, and let off the brake. Stay really calm at this point and constantly ask yourself “Is the right thing happening at this instant?” If the answer is yes, don’t change anything. As soon as the answer is “No,” stop. You aren’t going fast (I hope), and hopefully you didn’t choose a busy spot for your first attempts.

Trailer-4

So, you are in reverse, with your wheels pointed left, causing your trailer to turn sharper. You won’t be able to keep that up for long before you fold your rig like a jack knife. It only takes a little distance to do what you need here. It is kind of like putting a crease in a piece of paper, where you only need that instant of pressure to kink it over. After that, you can lighten up and it will stay. So, after a couple feet (literally), start turning the wheel to the right. Think of following the trailer with the truck. My trainer always told me once I had the kink to “follow the trailer around.” Turning your wheel to the right will begin to straighten out the whole rig. I always think of it as “unsteering.” How soon you do this, and how sharply you turn depends on the relative sizes of everything. One of the biggest mistakes people make in reverse is over-correction. If the trailer starts going one way or the other, don’t crank the wheel all the way over. Unless you are in a really technical spot, needing to crank the wheel more than 180 degrees probably means you need to pull ahead and try again. Never shout when a whisper will do.

Words of Warning

Throughout this exercise, keep an eye on what the front of your truck is doing. Watch for ditches and obstacles. I once blew a steer tire on a set of stairs because I was too focused on the back end. This is another reason to back up like a man, using your mirrors, not wrapped around your seat trying to see out the back window.

Don’t be afraid of taking multiple runs to get into your spot. Obviously it is better to take a few runs and get it right than to hit something first shot. Some spots require multiple runs no matter how good you are. Also, don’t be afraid to put it in park, get out, and walk around to see what the back end is doing and how close you are to that fire pit. I did this constantly, even once I had some skill and confidence.

A word is necessary here about having someone “guide” you into a spot. Don’t. Having people to help is great, but give them specific jobs. Just like you have a limited perspective from the driver’s seat, they will have a limited perspective on what the far side of the trailer is doing. Tell your helper something like, “Stand so you can see my face in the side mirror of the truck and let me know if it looks like I’m going to hit the fire pit.” If they can’t see you, you can’t see them. Give them a specific signal that is verbal (your windows are still rolled down, right?) and visual. Inexperienced guides will usually run eagerly to the back of the trailer and start waving incomprehensibly while standing somewhere you can’t see and then yell after you’ve run over the picnic table.

Please practice this before you get to the boat launch with your new boat. Get your wife or your kids to come out and practice spotting you while you back up. How great will it be to pull up and have everyone know what to do? Don’t be that guy with the shiny new boat weaving and winding your way down the boat launch stressing everyone else out.

I also found a pretty decent video that shows this from a different perspective.

Illustrations by Ted Slampyak


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12 Comments

  1. Geoff Gariepy

    April 30, 2013 at 12:33 am

    Couple of things. The distance between the hitch and the trailer axle has a major impact on how the trailer will react to steering when you back up. The shorter that distance is, the more quickly the trailer will pivot, and the more quickly you will oversteer and jackknife. That means smaller trailers are usually harder to back up than longer ones. Longer trailers do require more room to maneuver, but they react more gradually to steering input, so ultimately it’s easier to control.

    Another thing: what I keep in mind is that I’m “pushing” the tongue of the trailer. If I want the trailer to steer towards the driver’s side, I push the tongue toward the passenger side, and vice versa. If I need a small turn, I make a small push, and then I try to get the vehicle and trailer back into a straight line as fast as possible. Likewise, if I need a big turn I make a big push, and then I gradually try to return to a straight vehicle/trailer line. Personally, I find it easier to hang my head out the driver’s side window and watch what’s happening that way, rather than trying to look through the vehicle or use the mirrors, but that’s just me. I also favor backing up alongside things that are on the driver’s side. It is much easier to see what’s going on that way.

    Your advice about even the pros having to stop and take a second cut, and getting out to see what the situation looks like before even attempting to back up into an area are spot on! Sometimes you just can’t make a sharp turn with a long trailer in one cut. And sometimes it helps if you set up your “S” turn by jogging the tow vehicle over to the left while still moving forward.

    Thanks for the post.

    • prepperjournal

      April 30, 2013 at 8:47 am

      Thanks for the comments and advice Geoff!

  2. Practical Parsimony

    May 1, 2013 at 10:18 pm

    My friend had a trailer to back into my driveway. Neither of us had ever backed up a trailer. However, I know how the backing is done to guide someone and have given directions successfully before. She tried but could not follow my instructions. This went on for an hour. Finally, we got into my car and I went to ask someone I knew. He came and backed it in without hesitation on the first try. My friend and I have about 20+ years university between us–PhD and MA. The guy I asked is severely retarded and was a student in a school where I worked. He did not realize he was in special ed until he “graduated” from high school. He can barely add. BUT, he could back that trailer. One try was all it took him!!! We two women felt thoroughly ashamed of ourselves.
    The point? Never underestimate the skills of others, no matter what you know of them.

    • prepperjournal

      May 2, 2013 at 8:08 pm

      Very true! Thanks for the comments!

      Pat

  3. Larry Black

    May 2, 2013 at 6:10 pm

    Now, Pat. I would never laugh at someone attempting to back any trailer (at least, not until they succeeded. At that point, I’m laughing WITH them, no?) I’m a little late to this discussion, so Geoff pretty much said what I had in mind. His comments were spot on.

    I’ll confirm that it’s sometimes more difficult to back a small Uhaul trailer (provided space isn’t an issue) than it is for me to back my 53 footer. In fact, the most difficult rig to back, other than a 4 wheel hay trailer with a steerable tongue (don’t even try) is the little 3′ utility trailer you pull behind your riding mower. The shorter tongue reacts to input from the tractor (or truck in the example here) so much quicker that it’s much more difficult to keep everything under control. As you pointed out, speed is key. Most vehicles have enough low end torque that you should be able to roll in reverse slowly while idling. Never try to apply the accelerator while backing!

    One piece of advice I can give, from more than 20 years and 2M miles: Forget the “OK, the steering works in reverse when backing up. That means I need to turn right to go left, or turn left to go right…..or is it the other way around?” There’s an easy solution: Steer from the bottom. Instead of steering the way you are used to, from the top 3rd of the steering wheel, place your hands at compass points SSE and SSW at the bottom of the wheel. If you want the trailer to bear right, move the bottom of the wheel to the right. If you want the trailer to bear to the left, move the bottom of the wheel to the left. This simple exercise will keep you from getting crossed up trying to keep track of too much information when attempting a task you’re unfamiliar with.

    I liked your drawings of the backing process. One thing I would add, though. Whenever possible, try to set up your backing maneuver so that you are backing the trailer to your left, the driver’s side, also known as the “sight side”. For one thing, you can more easily keep track of the trailer by simply turning your head a little to the left, for the other, on most vehicles the passenger side mirror is slightly convex, to allow for a wider field of vision in your blind spot. That’s handy when you’re driving forward and want to check the lane to the right before moving over but the distortion of distance “Caution: objects in mirror are closer than they appear.” is likely to cause problems when attempting to judge distances while backing (Hello, Mr. Tree).

    One thing I would advise anyone who currently has no experience backing a trailer of any type would be to head to the nearest rental place and rent a reasonable sized trailer (about 14′-16′) then get a bunch of orange plastic road cones (plastic 5 gallon buckets will do) and head to a vacant parking lot and spend a Saturday afternoon practicing. Approach your backing area from as many different angles as you can imagine and just back, back, back until you get tired of backing. Then let your wife have a turn. When she gets tired of backing, it’s your turn again. If you spend an afternoon dedicated to learning this new skill, it’ll stay with you. Believe me, even if it’s years before you ever have to back anything, all this practice will come rushing back and pay dividends.

    I hope this over-long comment is helpful. Thanks again for a great site!
    Larry

    • prepperjournal

      May 2, 2013 at 8:07 pm

      Thanks for the comments as always Larry! I like your tip about putting your hands at the bottom of the steering wheel.

      Pat

  4. Jump3

    May 5, 2013 at 5:05 pm

    On big trailers remove the weight distribution part of the hitch prior to backing up. This reduces the stress on these parts. Also there will be less noise, which is always disturbing when backing up.

  5. Brinda

    May 19, 2013 at 12:45 pm

    I have to say that I had one of the best laugh ever. Not over his delima but over my own learning skills. I am a farm gal and when I learned to back, park, and maneurva a trailer it was done the old
    fashion way. My brother threw a 4 x 8 board on the grass yard and told me to back up to it, like a parking place. I learned the old fashion way. Your article was a reminder of necessity is the mother of invention (or learning).
    I am curious . . . I did not read that you helped him? :)

    • prepperjournal

      May 19, 2013 at 10:29 pm

      Thanks Brinda!

      I was wondering if anyone would notice that and I did seriously consider helping, but he had that trailer down and turned around pretty quick. Gravity is funny like that.

      I was just about to offer to back it up on one of my passes back and forth across the yard and the just stopped, got out and UN-hitched it. I just watched him jog the 15 feet or so until he got it turned around.

      I guess I need to move sooner next time.

      Pat

  6. Cheryl McGill

    May 21, 2013 at 3:41 pm

    Well here goes the truck driver talk. the longer the trailer the easier it is to back. The shorter the trailer the quicker it is to get away from you. Saying that , most have trouble as to which way to turn the steering wheel. easy fix once you have set yourself up for the back . Always keep your hand at the bottom of the steering wheel , always use your side view mirrors . It don’t take much of a turn with the steering wheel and which ever direction you want the back end of the trailer to go take the bottom of the steering wheel that same direction . Remember use the mirrors stop get out & look if need be . If you set yourself up straight & practice with your hand at the bottom of the steering wheel you will see how much better control you have. If your hand gets to the side one way or another then move it back down to the bottom. This works well my daughters have always heard me teach this to many people & at times they ended up having to back a few trailers up for their husbands . I am proud they listen to me at times. LOL lots of luck to each who takes a try at it !

    • prepperjournal

      May 21, 2013 at 10:55 pm

      Thank you very much for your comments Cheryl!

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