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Using Your RV : Driving or towing

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How to back up a trailer
By Mark J. Polk

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A reader wrote to ask what is one of the most frequently asked question I get from RVers? I didnít hesitate long before replying it is about towing and backing. Here, summed up, is how I reply.

Backing Up, the Big Dilemma
If youíre going to tow a trailer the day will come when you have to back it up. From the time we are children weíre programmed to do everything forward. You learn to crawl, walk and run going forwards not backwards. For the most part when we drive a vehicle we are going forward, and when we did learn to back a vehicle it was not that difficult. Itís like if some one tells you to turn left or turn right, you know if you turn left the vehicle will go to the left. Even when youíre backing the vehicle, if you want it to back to the left you turn the steering wheel to the left. Itís almost natural; you look over your shoulder, turn the steering wheel and back the direction you want to go.

Not so with a trailer. First of all you canít look over your shoulder, all you will see is the front of the trailer. Second of all, if you turn the steering wheel to the left the trailer is going to go to the right. The secret to backing a trailer is to learn a technique that does not require you to go against your natural instincts. When youíre not confused about turning in the opposite direction you want to go it is much easier to back a trailer.

I want to offer a couple of different options on how to back a trailer and I feel confident that youíll find one that will work for you. But, regardless of how good the method is for learning to back a trailer, the only way you will become proficient at it is to practice, practice and practice some more. Itís like learning to ride a bicycle, almost everybody falls a few times but with practice you quickly get proficient at it.

Can I Learn to Back a Trailer?
I am convinced that anybody can learn to back a trailer. I will admit that some people just have a knack for it. It just seems to be easy. But for other people it is much more difficult. I feel that it is all about learning a technique that works for you. Take for example a natural born artist. They can paint a beautiful picture as though it were nothing. But somebody without that natural ability is embarrassed to even try. Now what if we went to the store and bought a paint by the numbers painting. If you follow the directions you end up with a beautiful painting. You simply found a technique to accomplish something you didnít think you could do.

Backing Techniques
I personally have two techniques that I prefer. I call them assisted and unassisted. The assisted technique should be used whenever possible. This is the technique I used when I was the sale manager at an RV dealership. I have total and complete faith in this technique when it is followed properly. If you ever attended an RV show you know what I mean. You are allocated a certain amount of space and in an effort to show as many units as possible you had to back the trailers in within inches of the walls, campers and other obstacles. I have organized many RV shows and never so much as scratched a bumper.

Assisted Technique
The assisted technique implies what it says, that you have a spotter to assist you. It is quite simple. The golden rule is for the driver to do exactly what the spotter tells you to. You may want to discuss who will drive and who will spot, because with this technique the spotter is responsible for putting the trailer where you want it. The first step is to establish hand signals that you both understand and agree on. Once this is done do a thorough inspection of the area you are backing into. It is important that you check the area immediately behind the trailer because for this technique to work effectively the spotter has to stand in front of the tow vehicle. Now you place an object (small orange traffic cones work well) on both sides of the site where you want the back of the trailer to stop at. The spotter will stand in front of the tow vehicle, in clear view of the driver, and can slowly walk from right to left checking blind spots and watching for the back of the trailer to reach the cones. You need to stop occasionally and look behind the trailer.

Small children and pets can wander behind the trailer without you seeing them. The reason this technique is so effective is because neither the spotter nor the driver has to think about doing the opposite when backing the trailer. The first step is for the driver to roll the windows down and turn the radio off. The driver leaves their hand on the top of the steering wheel like youíre accustomed to and because the spotter is in front of the vehicle they simply tell the driver to turn the steering wheel in the direction they want the back of the trailer to go. So, if the spotter wants the trailer to go to the right they tell the driver to turn to the right. The driver slowly turns and backs in the direction the spotter tells them to. Nobody has to think about it the driver just does what the spotter says to do.  The key to driving is slowly turning and backing in the direction the spotter tells you to.

The two biggest mistakes made are turning the steering wheel too much and holding it in the turned position to long. If either of these mistakes occurs the result is that it will require greater correction to get straightened out, and if you continue to back while holding the wheel in that position too long the tow vehicle and trailer can jackknife. It will require some practice. The spotter will have to learn that once the trailer is into the turn its time to go the opposite direction to bring the tow vehicle and trailer back in line.  

Do not be concerned if you have to stop, pull forward and start again. This will happen more than once during the early stages. Try it, and with practice I guarantee that before you know it youíll be backing like pros.

Unassisted Technique
The assisted technique is the preferred method. I do not recommend backing a trailer without a spotter. Young children and pets can wander behind the trailer without you seeing them. However, you need to be prepared in the event that you have to back a trailer without assistance. If the backing maneuver is more than just backing in a straight line, and a turn is required, try to always back from the left side (drivers side). Backing from the left will allow you to see where the trailer is going. Backing from the right side (passengerís side) is your blind side and it is nearly impossible to tell where the trailer is going.

Earlier we discussed that the reason itís difficult to back a trailer is because it is the opposite of everything we have been taught. Fortunately there is a way to back a trailer unassisted without having to work against our natural instincts. This may sound a bit confusing at first, but if you think about it, it makes sense and the good thing is it works.

It is extremely important that you inspect the area behind and around where you will be backing. Look for any obstacles that may be in the way to include low hanging tree branches, picnic tables and utility hook-ups. You need to stop occasionally and inspect the area immediately behind the trailer. If children are present in the area ask somebody to watch behind the trailer. It is a good idea to place some orange traffic cones along the path you want the trailer to follow when youíre backing. If you decide itís not necessary to mark a path you do need to place some type of object in your view where you want the back of the trailer to stop at.

In the assisted method we kept our hand on the top of the steering wheel and did exactly what the spotter told us to do. In the unassisted method we place our hand on the bottom of the steering wheel in the center. Now if you want the back of the trailer to go to your left you slowly turn the wheel to your left as you back. To go to your right slowly turn the wheel to your right as you back. Itís that easy. By placing your hand at the bottom of the steering wheel you donít have to confuse yourself with turning it in the opposite direction. Remember the two biggest mistakes are turning the steering wheel too much and holding it in the turned position too long. If either of these mistakes happen it may be necessary to pull forward and start over. It may also be necessary to stop, get out and check your progress, especially if youíre backing from the right. Take your trailer to a large open area where you can practice and before long youíll be showing off at the campground.

Mark Polk is the producer and host of RV Education 101, a series of DVDss and eBooks about how to use all types of RVs. Learn more.

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