11 Tips for Backing up a Travel Trailer or 5th Wheel

Scared of trying to back up into that site? Don't limit yourself to pull-through campground sites - apply these tips instead!

Want some tips for reversing with your trailer or 5th wheel? At first blush, backing up with a trailer sounds barely any harder than reversing without one. However, anyone who has actually attempted to reverse a trailer knows it is much more complicated than it first appears. That's why we have created this list of 11 tips to follow when reversing with a trailer.

11 Tips for Backing Up a Travel Trailer or 5th WheelAs you start out on your path to reversing like a pro, follow these 11 tips: 

  • Make a Plan
  • Adjust Your Mirrors, Then Use Them
  • Grab the Bottom of the Steering Wheel
  • Make Slight Adjustments
  • Reverse Towards the Driver's Side (If Possible)
  • Use a Spotter
  • Understand Your Terminology
  • Roll Your Windows Down
  • Avoid the Jack-Knife
  • Watch Your Front End
  • Practice Makes Perfect

Think it still sounds easy? Well, keep reading as we discuss how each step is accomplished as well as why it is so helpful. Understanding the WHY behind each tip will help you remember each step when you are in the heat of the reversing moment.

11 Tips to Improve Your Trailer Reversing Skills

So, what are our goals in making this list? First and foremost, we want everyone to practice safe reversing. That means being cognizant of your surroundings and avoiding any obstacles, animals, and children in your path.

Next, we want to make sure you keep your trailer and tow vehicle safe from scrapes, bumps, and jack-knives. Protecting your (and everyone else's) property from damage will keep you loving your trailer or 5th wheel experience, so let's get started!

2006 Cardinal fifth wheel trailer.
2006 Cardinal Fifth Wheel Trailer | Photo by Larry & Teddy Page

Tip # 1: Make a Plan

Before you start your rearward journey, survey the scene. Note where your trailer is and how it needs to travel to get it where it needs to be. Then, note what moves you need to make in your tow vehicle to get the trailer to follow that path.

Having a plan in mind helps you stay calm and collected as you back up. Simply follow the course you have outlined in your head, avoiding any obstacles that lie in the way. Only once reversing a trailer becomes second-nature should you approach reversing situations without making a plan.

Tip # 2: Adjust Your Mirrors, then Use Them

Adjust your side mirrors so that you can see the sides of your vehicle and the trailer from your driving position. When you are reversing the trailer, it is best practice to use your mirrors instead of doing the old look-over-the-shoulder move. Of course, you will need to make sure your mirrors are clean enough to use, so wipe off any smudges or mud splatters before you begin.

Once your mirrors are properly adjusted, keeping the same amount of the trailer visible in each mirror as you are backing up will ensure that the trailer is going in a straight line. When turning the trailer, properly adjusted mirrors will give you the best chance of monitoring your progress as you reverse.

Tip # 3: Grab the Bottom of the Steering Wheel

This tip is all about how to turn your trailer while reversing. To turn your trailer in a certain direction, you must turn the steering wheel the opposite way. Sounds simple right now, right? It is, but even simple things can often get confusing in the heat of the moment when you are trying to get into a tight spot with someone watching or waiting for you to finish.

The problem is that most drivers already have a second-nature response when reversing a vehicle, and doing it with a trailer requires the opposite inputs. This makes it easy to turn the wrong way out of instinct.

To ease some of this confusion, grab the bottom of the steering wheel in an underhand grasp. This unorthodox way of holding the steering wheel snaps your brain out of making instinctive inputs. Once you start reversing, the only thing you have to remember is to move your steering-wheel hand in the direction you want the trailer to go. Need the trailer to start heading left? Move the bottom of the steering wheel left. And vice-versa. Easy-peasy.

Tip # 4: Make Slight Adjustments

"Uh-oh," you think as the trailer begins to veer a tad too far to the right. "I'd better crank the bottom of the wheel hard to the left to fix this." This is a very common response for inexperienced trailer drivers to have, but it can lead to some long, frustrating experiences.

It is tempting to use big steering inputs, turning the wheel as far as you would if you didn't have a trailer whenever you see that a correction is needed. This is a mistake that can easily send your trailer way off course, however. This is because these inputs send the rear of your vehicle swinging around, which in turn causes the end of the trailer to veer even more widely.

The key is to make smaller steering inputs than you think are necessary when you are first learning to reverse your trailer or 5th wheel. Minor adjustments of the steering wheel will send the trailer on a completely new path, so just remember to be judicious with those turns!

Tip # 5:  Reverse Towards the Driver's Side (If Possible)

If you have a choice, turn your camper in the same direction as you drive on. This makes it easier to see the full trailer in your side-view mirror as you reverse. Of course, you don't always get the choice of the direction you are backing up, but one place most of us get that option is the place where we park the trailer or 5th wheel when we are not using them.

If you reverse into a spot off of a residential road, it is usually possible to choose the way you approach the parking spot. If that's the case for you, you will need to approach the spot or RV pad with your driver's side closest to the spot.

Now, don't worry if you are not able to follow this tip every time. After all, nearly every trailer driver will eventually need to become confident backing the trailer in both ways, so practicing each way is a good thing too!

Tip # 6: Use a Spotter

If at all possible, have someone spot you as you reverse. To do this, that person will need to exit the vehicle and stand in a place where they can be of the most help. This is usually in a place where they can monitor a certain obstacle you are worried about, or in an area that is hard to see from the driver's seat.

Spotters can serve several purposes:

  • A lookout for any pets or children who might run behind the trailer.
  • A blind-spot monitor, standing on the side of the trailer that is not visible in your mirrors.
  • A guide to tell you what minor corrections needs to be made to get into your spot.
  • And, of course, to tell you when to stop once the trailer is in the perfect spot.

Tip # 7: Understand Your Terminology

If your spotter is a novice, they will likely start out by using general terms such as "left" and "right." Well, that's all fine and dandy until you aren't both facing the same direction. Then, who's left and right are they talking about‽

That's why it's so important to use precise language. This could mean using "passenger/driver" side, "towards/away from me," or even the cardinal directions as long as you are both clear on just where those are! Another good method of communication is the hand signal. For instance, as long as the driver can see the spotter, holding your hands apart and then slowly closing them together can be a highly effective way to tell the driver how much more he or she needs to back up.

So, come to an understanding of just what terminology you will use before you begin. After all, there is no use in sending a spotter out there if you are just going to get your directions mixed up — that makes an already stressful situation even worse!

Tip #8: Roll Your Windows Down

Before you start reversing, roll the windows down on both sides of your vehicle. This way, you can hear everything that is going on with your trailer as well as your spotter, if you have one. That's because you will not always be able to see your spotter, so verbal signals are much more reliable than using hand signals.

Aside from your spotter, there are many other things to keep your ears open for. For example, if you hear any crunching or creaking sounds, stop the trailer immediately and get out to see what caused it. These sounds can indicate any number of problems, from scraping the trailer to contact between the trailer and the vehicle. And if your windows are up, you will either not hear these sounds at all, or you will hear them much later than with your windows down. This one is so important that it doesn't even matter if it's raining cats and dogs; roll those windows down!

To go along with this tip is another small one: turn your stereo off. Even if your new Kenny G album helps you concentrate, the noise coming out of your speakers will make it harder to hear what's going on with the trailer.

Tip #9: Avoiding the Jack-Knife

Jack-knifing refers to that unpleasant phenomenon where the trailer and your tow vehicle bind up at an extreme angle. This is a highly dangerous phenomenon when it occurs at speed on the highway - much less so while reversing. Still, any contact between your vehicle and the trailer is bad news. It can damage your tow vehicle and/or trailer, so it should be avoided at all costs.

Two things you can do to avoid a jack-knife situation are:

  • Don't make sudden or sharp steering inputs, and
  • Drive slowly

Turning the steering wheel quickly and/or sharply will cause the trailer to turn equally fast, and can quickly lead to a jack-knife. (Now, if you are piloting a 5th wheel trailer, the reaction of the trailer will not be quite as immediate, but it is still important to avoid jack-knifing.) If you feel the trailer is getting too close for comfort, stop the vehicle and drive forward for another go. If you are backing up too quickly, however, it might be too late by the time you realize there is a problem.

Tip # 10: Watch Your Front End

There are a lot of things you need to focus on as you are reversing your trailer. That's why it is so easy to forget to watch what the front of your vehicle is doing. It's a very unpleasant surprise to find that, after working so hard to get your trailer just right, your front tire has splintered your favorite camping chair.

So, do yourself a favor: periodically check what's going on up front so you can avoid running into obstacles such as rocks, camping equipment, or even ditches. Spotters should also beware of this rule and help drivers watch what's going on in front of the driver in addition to everything behind them.

Tip # 11: Practice Makes Perfect

Nobody becomes a trailer-reversing pro on their first try. Just like any difficult task, the more you practice, the better you will be. Use an empty parking lot to rehearse the various types of reversing you will encounter in the real world, including straight-lines and turns. The more you are able to practice prior to making your next trailer trip, the more confident you will be when the time comes to back into a spot.

Don't Be Scared, Be Prepared!

Alright, there they are. Hopefully, having learned these tips, you will be confident and competent when the time comes to reverse your trailer or 5th wheel. Don't get discouraged if your first attempts don't go smoothly. This is a learning process, and even if you aren't great at it immediately, you will be after some practice!

Be sure to check out some of our other guides like How to Prevent Trailer Sway and How to Park a Travel Trailer on a Hill.

As always, please leave us a comment and share!

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