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As you may know, I have a trailer. It’s a really cool customized 4×4 trailer that’s been in my family for 30 years. In that time I’ve learned a thing or two about backing trailers up, or at least this one, in many different situations. Most recently, I made a bad decision to try to tow it up the Steam shovel jeep trail and had to stuff it up into a Pinyon tree to get it turned around.
Backing a trailer on a mountain road
Recently a friend asked if I would help him learn to back up a trailer, for an upcoming trip where he and his wife are renting an Airstream for a week long trip. So we hitched the trailer up to his Tacoma and headed over to Galena High School in Reno, NV. If you want to learn trailer backing, or want to practice, find yourself a big empty parking lot and follow along.

Step One: Go around

When you’re out in the real world and you have a trailer of any size hitched to your vehicle, the best option to get back is to go around. If you can just make another loop around the block, parking lot or campground, just do that. It’s going to be the easiest way, and the safest for your vehicle and people around you. Most of the time, planning is what you need not backing skills.

Step Two: Back straight

Of course, you can’t always go around. Often that alley you thought might be a loop is a dead end and now there’s no way out but to back up. Backing up straight is the easiest way to back a trailer. Here’s what you need to know about backing straight:
  1. Go Slow
  2. Ride the brake. If you’re in a manual, feather the clutch.

Manage your inputs

You’re just trying to keep the trailer in line. If it starts to deflect, use small steering inputs to bring it back. As things get farther out of hand, your inputs will need to get bigger since you’ll have to catch up with the trailer, and over correct to bring it back. Keep in mind that if you have limited space, your truck may start to get close to objects. If this happens, jump to step 4: Straighten up.

Step Two: Break the Angle

Eventually you’ll have to get that trailer into a camp site or back it off the road to make a U-Turn. To do this you will need to turn the truck so that the trailer is no longer in line with it. I call this “breaking the angle.” To do this, you need the FRONT of the truck, to move the direction you want the trailer to go.
If you want to break the trailer driver, you turn passenger. If you want the trailer to turn passenger, you turn driver.
The key to breaking the angle is that once you start the trailer diverting from center, it wants to keep going. You can turn the wheel back to center, and it will continue on that course.

Step Three: Follow the trailer

If you break the angle and keep going you’ll end up going to 90 degrees at which point the trailer and the truck will impact in what’s called a “Jackknife.” You do not want this.
You will need to turn the wheel back the opposite way so that the front of the truck swings away from the direction the trailer is going. If you broke the trailer to driver side, turn the wheel back driver to follow the trailer. If you broke the trailer to passenger, you need to turn passenger to follow it.
On short trailers, it’s hard for the truck to keep up. On longer trailers, you will be able to catch up with the angle and straighten it up. Ultimately, most back up situations, you need to break it, follow it until you’re straight and then back straight into the spot.

Step 4: Straighten up

If you have broken it too far and can’t catch up, or you’ve turned past where you need to be, turn the wheels the opposite way and pull forward. If you’ve backed it too far driver, turn passenger and creep forward. If you’ve turned the trailer too far passenger, turn driver and crawl forward.
Once you straighten up, you’ll be in a better position to back straight into the spot, or only have a small turn to make to get into the spot.

Step 5: Repeat

If you back a trailer up every day, chances are you can get it in first try, no problem. Most of us will need to repeat these steps to get it right most of the time. So take your time. If need be, pull all the way out of the turn and go right back to the beginning lining yourself up better for the turn.
So that’s all you need to know to back up a trailer. Take your time. Go slow. Don’t be afraid to start over.
What else did I miss? Let me know in the comments.
-M

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