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How to Back Up a Trailer Like a Boss

How to Back Up a Trailer Like a Boss Header

By Anthony St. Clair on March 19, 2021 in Safe Driving

The day you get your trailer is exciting. You can haul things! You can hit the road! You can camp! However, that excitement may turn into anxiety. Now that you have a trailer, you have to figure out how to back the thing up.

Backing a trailer is harder than towing, but you can do it. With a little understanding and a lot of practice, backing your trailer may even bring the same zing of excitement you felt when you first got it.

The Basics of Backing

Ready to get started? These tips will help you learn to reverse your trailer.

  • Understand how the trailer moves

A trailer moves the opposite of how you turn the wheel. Your trailer’s ball hitch eases how your trailer drives and turns, but it makes reversing tricky. Backing comes down to counter-intuitive steering: Turn left to make the trailer go right, and vice versa.

The shorter the trailer, the faster it responds (and the easier it is to overcorrect). Use smaller steering motions, such as quarter turns or smaller. Conversely, longer trailers respond more slowly to steering changes.

  • Practice with a simulator

Airline pilots, big-rig drivers, and military operators practice on simulators before they use real vehicles. You can too. It may sound silly, but you can even use a toy 18-wheeler, with trailer and turning wheels, to see how a trailer responds. Or go virtual and practice with truck simulator apps. Practicing on toys or apps is risk-free, and it builds your confidence to tackle the real thing.

  • Install a backup camera

Modern RVs sometimes include backup cameras, but odds are you’ll need to install an after-market model (though you may want a pro to set it up). Just as for backing your vehicle, a camera on the rear of your RV helps you see where your trailer goes and the effect your steering has. Your backup camera is also like a built-in guide or spotter, which is especially helpful if you drive solo.

  • Set up your mirrors correctly

Your side-view mirrors can improve your awareness about where the trailer is headed and if there are hazards in your path. Essentially, your side-view mirrors show the sides and back angles of your trailer. From there you can deduce where the trailer is moving.

Adjust your mirrors to give you the best viewing angle of your camper and surroundings. Standard mirrors not cutting it? Add tow mirrors designed to help with visibility when towing and hauling.

  • Place your hands at the bottom of the steering wheel

Remember that counter-intuitive steering you have to get the hang of? Luckily, a simple trick helps. Imagine the wheel as a clock face with your hands at the 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock positions, then shift to 8 o’clock and 4 o’clock instead.

Now your steering can align more with the trailer’s motions. To turn the trailer left, steer clockwise with your left hand. To turn the trailer right, steer counterclockwise with your right hand.

  • Go slow and stay calm

Backing your trailer is not a race. If you’re running late, you’re hungry, or it’s getting dark, parking can feel urgent. But you’ll be less likely to make mistakes if you stay calm and take your time.

When in doubt, check it out. Put your vehicle in park, set the emergency brake, get out, and take a look. Start over as many times as it takes. Pull forward, plan your steering, and try again. Take your time. Keep your cool. Take a breather if you need to, and trust that you’ll get it done.

  • Practice in an empty parking lot

Your first trip shouldn’t be your first time backing up. Before hitting the road, practice backing. Meanwhile, you’ll get to rehearse hitching, unhitching, and towing too.

Wherever you can find a big empty parking lot, use it to practice. Ask permission if needed. Bring traffic cones, or use features such as trees, lampposts, parking stripes, or hedges to work on sighting and direction.

  • Learn to swoop into your camping spot

If you hear RVers mention “the swoop” or “the scoop,” they’re not talking about shoe logos or breaking news. They’re talking about an S-shaped turning maneuver that aligns your trailer for backing in. Here’s how to do it.

1. Drive toward your parking target at an acute angle.

2. When the front end of your vehicle nudges into the space, turn hard right or left.

3. Drive on until the trailer’s rear is a little past the space.

4. Shift into reverse, and steer clockwise or counterclockwise so the trailer angles into the space until it’s aligned correctly.

  • Ask someone to be your lookout and help guide

It can be useful to have someone spot you. Agree on verbal cues and hand signals to communicate, discuss the specific help you need, and watch your spotter and your trailer as you slowly back in. Backing can be stressful, but consider your guide’s feelings too. If you forget, you can find T-shirts that say, “I’m sorry for what I said while we were trying to park the camper.”

Face the Challenge

Hitch up, find a parking lot, get your hands on the bottom of the steering wheel, and practice, practice, practice. Before you know it, you’ll be a trailer parking champion.

Anthony St. Clair is a consultant for Say Insurance. He's an author, globetrotter, craft beer expert, and professional writer based in the US Pacific Northwest. When he’s not writing, Anthony is with his wife and two children, usually either cooking or going on some sort of adventure.