Pulling a travel trailer may seem like a nightmare for first-timers. In reality, towing a trailer behind you is really quite easy. Your trailer just follows you wherever you go! But, backing up a trailer is not so easy.
Backing up a trailer can bend your mind, break your nerve, and leave you sweating bullets. It is not the least bit intuitive until you have done it enough times that it becomes second nature. That doesn’t come quickly for most people.
I’m proud to say, that while I’ve sweated plenty of bullets, I’ve managed to get the job done under difficult circumstances without damaging our trailer, ourselves, or anyone else’s property. Correction: without damaging anyone else’s property very much. There are a few bushes and shrubs between Washington State and Washington DC that may beg to differ with my technique. None the less, I’ve garnered a few compliments on my technique from fellow RVers watching me navigate some tricky parks.
Hopefully, these tips will help you learn to back up like a pro and have the confidence to avoid a heart attack in the process.
Backing Up a Trailer
To give you a little preview of what’s to come, here are a few basic tips:
- Study the basics: Before getting behind the wheel, understand the theory behind backing up a trailer.
- Go slow and don’t panic: Quick reactions in moments of panic can lead to disaster. Stay calm and make a plan if you find yourself in a pickle.
- Practice makes perfect: Don’t wait until you’re at a busy campground to learn your skills. Practice in an empty area before you leave home.
- Try the swoop: “The swoop” is a popular technique that RVers use to back their trailers into a campsite. Familiarize yourself with this.
- Use a guide if you can: Have someone else traveling with you? Get them to help by by being your lookout and guide.
- Invest in a backup camera: It can be hard to see behind your rig. Having a backup camera will help you understand your angle and where obstacles are in relation to your trailer.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these!
Study the Basics
The first key to successfully backing up is to simply know the basics. This video from BW Trailer Hitches is a great intro. Though they are towing a boat in the video, the rules apply to other types of trailers, including RVs.
With your hand on the bottom of your steering wheel, the direction you move your hand in the direction the butt end of your trailer will go as you back up.
When you turn and back up, the trailer and tow vehicle will form a V shape pointing away from the direction you are turning. As you go, the V will get sharper and sharper if you hold the wheel steady. The more dramatic the turn of your wheel, the faster it will grow sharper. Go too sharp and you can get jack-knifed, aka locked up. You want to avoid this.
If you need to straighten out, the best way to do that is to go forward, not backward. It is very difficult, often impossible to straighten out going backward. Don’t try that, just pull forward, then start backing up after you are straight. Ideally, aim your wheels at the axis you want the trailer on, and go that way until you are lined up. Also, any time you feel stuck, going forward and trying to re-set is almost always your best move.
Go Slow, Don’t Panic
Hasty moves and fearful driving will get you in trouble. Go slowly, and if you get yourself into a difficult situation, do the following.
- Stop moving
- Get calm
- Make a plan
- Then act on the plan
Trying to figure out what you need to do while you are moving is a bad idea and will stress you out. Breathing deliberately for a few moments is a good way to relieve stress. Focus on your breathing for 10 seconds, then turn your attention back to the situation at hand.
Don’t let other people who are waiting on you make you hurry. Most other RV owners understand the challenges you are up against and will patiently wait for you to get things taken care of. If you are in a less RV-centered place, folks may get testy. Better they are testy than for you to wreck your rig. Keep cool, and try not to worry about those folks.
Get Some Practice
The best kind of practice is usually hands-on practice. If you have your trailer already, drive it out to a large open parking lot in your area when it is likely to be empty. There you can practice backing up while turning to get a real-life feel for how it works. If you want to get really serious, bring some traffic cones or other obstacles that won’t hurt your trailer to simulate backing into a camp space.
If you don’t have a camper yet, then there are still some good options. They may seem a little silly but they can definitely help you prepare.
- Get a decent-sized toy semi-truck with working wheels and play with it by “driving” it.
- Buy a Truck Simulator video game and practice backing up in it (I did this with Euro Truck Simulator 2 and it helped me a lot.)
- Try out the top-down simulator on this UKCampsite. Warning: It’s actually harder than the real thing! But it shows you how a trailer moves very nicely.
Try the Swoop
The swoop is a technique that can help you get lined up nicely to back into a parking space. Essentially, when approaching your spot, drive towards it from as acute an angle as you can. As the nose of your vehicle is at the parking spot, swoop away from it until the back end of your trailer is just past the parking space. It gets the butt of your trailer in the right spot and at a superior angle. From there, you will be turning your wheel clockwise to back up into your spot.
Having a Guide
Many RV parks will provide a friendly guide to get you settled into your site, but not all do. Many of us rely on a companion traveler to help make sure we can get parked without wreaking havoc. As my wife can attest, this can be a stressful experience for everyone. Fortunately, there are ways to make it easier all around.
- Get a good set of Walkie Talkies. This is much more effective and less stressful than yelling through an open window. They will also come in handy in other travel situations when cell service is spotty.
- Don’t say “right or “left.” Instead, use “Drivers Side” and “Passengers Side.” This makes things much clearer for everyone involved.
- Trust your guide. If you are ever in doubt as to your guide’s advice, just ask “Are you sure?” Generally, they can see the situation you are in better than you can.
- If they get you in safe and sound, be sure to thank your guide!
Technology is a wonderful thing. If you have a backup camera on your trailer, it can make life much easier. They are not a panacea, but they let you see where the back of your trailer is going and that can help a lot in figuring out if you are at a good angle. A camera is nearly essential if you don’t have a spotter or guide to help you.
More and more modern trailers are being made with backup cameras as standard equipment, but if you have a newer model or a lower-cost trailer, you will have to buy one. You can get a decent setup like this RSV model for just under $200. Keep in mind that installation is not typically a simple process. Buying a camera through a dealer that will do the installation might be best if you are not especially handy.
Ready to ride?
Now that you’ve got the basics to backing up a trailer down, you’re ready to RV!