RV 101 – How To Back a Travel Trailer

A problem I see at campgrounds, and I get asked about frequently, is how to back a trailer into a campsite. Backing a trailer is perhaps the most nerve-racking part of owning a travel trailer or 5th wheel trailer. For some RV owners just the thought of backing the trailer prevents them from taking RV trips and enjoying their RV. Based on my observations at campgrounds, backing a trailer has probably contributed to more than one failed marriage too.

If you tow a trailer, you more-than-likely have heard different versions of the “best” or “easiest” method for backing a trailer, like: 

1) Put your hand at the bottom of the steering wheel and turn the wheel in the direction you want the trailer to go.

2) Use walkie-talkies.

3) Look out the window, over your shoulder, and back-up.

4) Just use your mirrors.

5) Use a spotter at the rear of the trailer and watch their directions in the mirrors.

These backing techniques might work for some people, but the fact of the matter is they don’t work for most people.

To be proficient at almost anything, like backing a trailer, requires practice but all the practice in the world won’t help if you don’t have a basic understanding of how it is done in the first place.

I learned to back trailers in the military, but working for an RV dealership is where I became proficient at backing trailers. We rearranged the entire sales lot about twice a month, moving and backing trailer after trailer. Eventually I was put in charge of organizing and setting up numerous RV shows where travel trailers and fifth-wheel trailers had to be backed within inches of walls, obstacles, and other RVs.

To do this successfully, time and again, required a bulletproof backing technique and a few general guidelines.

Let’s start with the basics

My technique requires two people, and the person driving must listen to and follow all directions given by the person spotting. This is why I always say it is important to discuss who should drive and who should spot. The spotter is the eyes and ears for the driver.

Another important consideration is for the spotter to understand where the pivot-point is on the trailer. The pivot-point is a fixed point on the trailer that the trailer rotates around when making a turn. On a two-axle trailer the pivot-point is the center point between the two axles. The pivot-point is important because it lets the spotter know when to instruct the driver to start turning the steering wheel in the direction you want the trailer to go.

The next step is to discuss and agree on some basic hand signals you both understand. At a minimum this includes hand signals for a left turn, right turn, straight back, and stop.

With the preliminaries out of the way let’s get to the part that makes my backing technique so easy.

I am convinced the reason people have a difficult time backing a trailer is because the trailer turns in the opposite direction you turn the steering wheel. My technique eliminates all of the confusion.

Position the spotter towards the front of the tow vehicle where the driver can see and hear them. Roll the window down and turn the radio off. Here’s the easy part. If the spotter wants the back of the trailer to turn to the their left, they tell the driver to turn the steering wheel to the left. There is no confusion what-so-ever. If the spotter wants the back of the trailer to turn to their right, they tell the driver to turn the steering wheel to the right. The direction the spotter wants the rear of the trailer to go is the same direction they tell the driver to turn the steering wheel.

It’s that easy!

This is where the practice comes in. After this easy backing technique is understood by both the spotter and the driver you simply need to practice. It’s a good idea to go to a large empty parking lot to practice. Take some orange traffic cones with you and set up different backing scenarios. Practice as a team until you are proficient at backing the trailer.

Here are some other important backing tips to always remember:

1) Always inspect the area behind the RV prior to backing a trailer. If in doubt, use “GOALGet Out And Look – If there are small children or pets in the area ask somebody to watch behind the trailer as you back. If it is just you and the spotter stop frequently and look behind the trailer.

2) Always check for overhead obstacles and any obstacles at the campground like picnic tables and utility hook-ups prior to backing into a site.

3) Backing from the driver’s side is always preferable. Backing from the passenger side is your blind side and it makes the maneuver more difficult to do.

4) It is easier to start a backing maneuver if the tow vehicle and trailer are in a straight line. Pull up far enough to get the tow vehicle and trailer straight if possible.

5) If you need additional assistance with the backing maneuver place some orange traffic cones along the path you are backing in. Place the cones at locations where turning is required to help the spotter see when the pivot point is approaching the cone so you can start making the turn.

6) The spotter needs to watch the pivot-point in anticipation of making a turn, and then must tell the driver when to turn in the opposite direction to recover from the turn.

7) Two of the biggest mistakes made when backing a trailer are turning the steering wheel too quickly and holding it in the turned position too long. Both of these mistakes can result in the trailer starting to jack-knife

8) Do not be afraid to pull up and start the backing maneuver again. It is better to start over than it is to continue backing when the trailer if off course.

With the right technique and practice, practice, practice, you will be backing like the pros in no time.

RV 101® – New RV Driver Skills Series – RV Pivot Point – Master Your RV – The video below will explain pivot point:

RV 101® Pro Tip:

Happy & Safe Camping,
Mark J Polk

RV Education 101
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