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How to Back up a Trailer

How to Back Up a Trailer (Confidently, Like a Boss)

There are things we overlook until we actually have to do them ourselves. Backing up a trailer is one of them. The first time I towed a trailer, I confidently hopped behind the wheel of my dad's pickup, put the truck in reverse, and stopped. Why? Well, I suddenly realized I didn't actually know how to back it up, and there was probably more to it than backing up a car. Sure enough, when I let off the brake and tried turning the steering wheel, the trailer turned too—the wrong way.So, I asked my dad for advice on how to back up the trailer. His exact words: "Just be careful."While this is certainly applicable advice, it's not the most helpful when you first find yourself behind the wheel. And honestly, the only way to get super great at backing up a trailer is to do it. A lot. Like with anything, practice makes perfect, and there's no substitute for experience.That said, if you're new to towing a trailer, we can offer you some tips and tricks for making the job easier (and I promise we'll be a bit more specific than my dad). Below, check out our video to see me back up a 30' 5th-wheel for the first time with some help from our resident expert, Jake, then read on for more tips! NOTE: Some weight distribution systems and sway bars require you to disconnect the system prior to backing up. Make sure to do this prior to reversing if your system calls for it!

Tip 1: Have a Spotter

I really can't overstate this one enough. Backing up a camper is MUCH easier with two or more people. Your spotter(s) can stand in front of (or behind) the trailer and provide visual cues to help you stay aligned and not accidentally run over the curb, back into a pole, or hit any other barrier.This is especially helpful if you're backing up a larger trailer or camper, since your spotter can help you keep an eye on barriers on the ground and in the air, like low-hanging branches, that you don't want to back into.I'd go so far as to say in this situation, the spotter is more important than the driver. The spotter can help direct which way you should turn your wheels, when you should straighten up, and when to hit the brakes. It may be more helpful to get a set of walkie-talkies or have your cell phones on in order to communicate, if the visual cues aren't enough or you have a particularly massive trailer. If you don't have a spotter, don't be afraid to get out of the trailer two or three (or four, five...) times to check your progress.
Truck Pulling Trailer

Tip 2: Grip the Bottom of the Wheel

The hardest thing about backing up a trailer (besides not being able to see) is that it's counter-intuitive. When you back up a truck, you're used to turning the wheel clockwise and having your truck's back wheels go to the right. This still happens when you're backing up a trailer, only now when the truck wheels go right, your trailer goes left. This is something you'll get used to over time (and your spotter can help make sure you're always pointed the right way). But you can also make it a bit easier on yourself by changing up your hand placement on the wheel. Yes, we're all told to keep our hands at "ten and two" on the steering wheel when we're learning to drive. But when you're backing up a trailer, it's actually easier if you keep your hands at the bottom of the wheel. With your hands at the bottom, you just have to remember that when your hands go left, the trailer goes left. When your hands go right, the trailer goes right. Boom.
Back Up Trailer - No Hands on Top
Backing up with hands on top: your hands go left, the trailer goes right
Back Up Trailer - Hands on Bottom
Backing up with hands on bottom: your hands go left, the trailer goes left

Tip 3: Don't Jacknife!

One thing you DON'T want to do is turn so sharply that the rear of your tow vehicle collides with the front of your trailer. This can cause a lot of damage to your camper or truck. Try to keep your trailer and vehicle lined up, and don't turn your wheel too sharply. Your vehicle should push your trailer (think of it like a wheelbarrow or shopping cart), so you want to make sure your vehicle stays in front of it. If you or your spotter notice a jacknife situation occurring, drive forward again to correct the trailer position and try again. It's better just to start over than risk making the situation worse.
Trailer Jacknife

Tip 4: Pick Up Some Towing Mirrors

There's a lot of advice out there about using your mirrors (or not using them) when backing up at an angle. Some trailer-towing folks swear by using their side mirrors; others hate using mirrors and prefer to look over their shoulder at the trailer. And it's true that a good pair of towing mirrors can make a world of difference. I definitely recommend picking up a pair of these. That said, your mirrors are only going to be useful to a point. There will be times when you just can't see anything helpful out of them, and that's when you want to rely on your spotter. Using your mirrors is a little more straightforward when you're backing straight up. Pick reference points on your vehicle, on your trailer, and in your surroundings; make sure these points line up in your mirrors as you reverse. For instance, make sure your vehicle and trailer fenders remain parallel to a fence, light post, or other object in your mirror.If you can't see your trailer because it's narrower than your vehicle, watch your mirrors to make sure your trailer doesn't start to veer into view. If it does, correct your steering. If you have short trailer walls, it may also help to temporarily attach a two-by-four or other guide to the side of your trailer so that you can see it in your mirrors.If you'll be towing often and are comfortable relying on your mirrors, you might also consider upgrading to trailer backup camera system.
Back Up Trailer with Mirrors

Tip 5: Make Small Adjustments

Given the total size of your vehicle and trailer setup, it may seem like you need to make dramatic adjustments to steer your trailer. This might be more applicable to longer trailers, but short trailers especially will respond to pretty much every slight adjustment of your steering wheel. It doesn't take much to change their course of direction, which actually makes shorter trailers more difficult to back up.
Truck Pulling Trailer

Tip 6: Slow and Steady Wins the Race

Just kidding. It's not a race. No one is standing outside with a stopwatch counting how long it takes you to back into place. This isn't The Fast and the Furious.My old coach used to have a favorite saying: Slow makes smooth, smooth makes fast. He may not have intended for this to apply to backing up a trailer, but it does. With a little practice, you'll get more comfortable behind the wheel, and as you get more comfortable, the whole process will become quick, smooth, and effortless. Take your time, make adjustments as necessary, and don't stress!
Hitched Up Trailer

Tip 7: Keep Calm and Camp On

If you're bad at backing up a trailer, the only thing that says about you is that you haven't had to frequently back up trailers. No one does it perfectly right out of the gate. (If someone tells you otherwise, demand pictures or it didn't happen.)Most importantly, don't get frustrated if you don't get it right away, and don't get frustrated if you're the spotter and your driver just can't get the hang of it. That's not a fun way to start your camping trip, and it doesn't make backing up any easier. There's something about getting behind the wheel with a HUGE camper attached; even though you've probably been driving for years, it's a whole different ball game when you can't see and there's a very expensive 20'+ mini-house attached. It takes some getting used to, and that's okay. You WILL get the hang of it. It just takes time and practice.
Truck Pulling Trailer
Amber S.
About Amber S.As a content writer for etrailer, I might spend my morning loading and unloading a bike on five different bike racks to figure out which is easiest to use. I might be in the parking lot, taking pictures of an impressive RV battery setup our techs came across in the shop and discussing the benefits of the setup with the owner. I might spend an afternoon in a manufacturer training classes for some hands-on experience with new products, and then sit down to assemble all this information into a coherent article.At etrailer, one of our core values is that we are always learning, and I learn something new every day. I start each morning with the goal in mind of taking all of this information and figuring out the best way to answer the questions people ask us (and the ones they don’t know to ask yet), and helping people get the solutions they need to make their lives easier, safer, and more fun. I’m a DIYer at heart, so it brings me great joy to help a fellow DIYer find what they’re looking for, whether that’s a product, an answer, or a community.
Related ArticlesRelated ProductsWritten by: Amber S.Updated: 9/11/20


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