How to backup a travel trailer (tips, tricks and tools)

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how to back and rv into a campsite

How to backup a travel trailer (tips, tricks and tools)

We have all seen it and many have done it. Trying time after time to back you RV into a campsite and failing. Getting more and more frustrated with each attempt. I have witnessed husband and wife screaming at each other while blocking other vehicles from traveling down the road.

This is no way to start a camping trip. You are there to relax and enjoy yourself. So, if you struggle with backing your travel trailer or 5th wheel into campsites or your driveway hopefully these tips tricks and helpful tools will get you backing your trailer like a pro in no time.

Get to know your truck and trailer

To master backing your travel trailer the first step is to know how your truck and trailer work together.
There are many things that can affect how your trailer will respond when backing up. Every truck and trailer combination will act a little bit different. Here is list of some of the things that have an effect on backing your trailer.

  • Distance between front and back wheels of your truck
  • Distance from back wheels of your truck to the hitch
  • Distance from the hitch to the trailer axle
  • Number of trailer axles
  • Turning radius of your truck

Now, as an engineer, I’m sure there is a scientific way to calculate exactly what you need to do to perfectly back any trailer combination. But, in the real world you don’t need physics and trigonometry to back a trailer. All you need is some practice and some basic principles.

Getting the right view (adjusting your mirrors for towing)

The first step is being able to see your trailer and what is around you. You probably already know that the little mirror stuck to your windshield is useless when your RV hitched up. This makes adjusting your side mirrors even more important. While having a backup camera on your RV is great for seeing behind your RV (more about those later) they aren’t necessary to get it right on your first try.

towing   mirror positions

The mirrors on your truck are probably split into 2 separate mirrors. A flat mirror and a curved mirror (convex mirror). These mirrors serve different purposes and are both crucial to seeing what is behind and around your camper.

  • Flat mirror – The purpose of the flat mirror is to give you an accurate view of what is behind and beside you. The flat mirror shows distance accurately, but doesn’t have a very wide view.
  • Convex mirror- The purpose of this mirror is to give you a wider view and cover your blind spot. The downside is because of the shape of the mirror it is hard to judge distance.

Steps to adjusting your mirrors

  • If your mirrors flip up or telescope out move them to the towing position
  • Flat mirror adjustment
    • Adjust left-right so you can see all the way down the length of your RV to the back corner. You want to see the trailer along the edge of the mirror.  Most of your view should be the lane beside your RV.
    • Adjust up-down to see the road at the back corner of your travel trailer. If ½ or more of your mirror is showing the sky adjust your mirror down lower.
  • Convex mirror adjustment
    • Adjust left-right so that you can see your trailer on the 1/3 of the mirror closed to the vehicle.
    • Adjust up-down so you can see the road along the side of the RV.
towing mirror adjustment

Finding a place to experiment

When I purchased my current RV I also made the change from a travel trailer to a 5th wheel.  I wasn’t sure how sharp I was going to be able to turn with my new Andersen Ultimate fifth wheel hitch in a short bed truck (BTW, I love that hitch).

My first trip from home was to a boat launch at a nearby lake.  I went on a weekday evening when I knew the large parking lot would be mostly empty.  This gave me a chance to really get a feel for how my trailer would respond and what it’s limits were.

Practice

If you take some time to think about it, I’m sure there is a large parking lot near you too.  I took a friend with me to act as a spotter when I went to the boat launch.

  • First, I just spent some time making left and right turns with the wheel cut as far as it would go to see if the trailer would jackknife going forward.
  • Next, I tried the same in reverse both to the left and right. Of course, my spotter was watching closely to make sure I didn’t crash the trailer into the back window of my truck.
  • Finally, after learning the limits of the combination I practiced backing the trailer into a parking spot several times.

This trip taught me several things about my truck/trailer combination.  I learned that even driving forward I could get the trailer dangerously close to the cab of the truck.  I also learned that I could safely get the trailer almost 90 degrees to the truck.  Lastly, I learned that I need to pull further forward than I initially thought when setting up to back into a parking spot.

turning practice in empty parking lot

All of these lessons could have been learned on the road or at the campground. By taking an hour to find a parking lot to practice in I was able to learn faster and safer than learning on the road. As an added bonus I didn’t have to make my first attempt at backing the 37 foot fifth wheel in a campground with the neighbors watching.

Some basic tips

Before I get to the step by step instructions here are some basic tips for how to backup a travel trailer into a campsite or driveway.  Following these tips will make backing your RV easier and could save your marriage.

Use a spotter

Using a spotter is probably the most important tip to safely and effectively back you trailer into a campsite.  With children running around and trees near the parking pad it is almost impossible for your to be aware of everything around you.  Having an extra set of eyes helping to guide you into your site is invaluable.  Here are a few tips for you and your spotter.

  • Work out a system of hand signals so you don’t have to yell back and forth. You only need a few signals, left, right, back and stop should be enough.
  • Make sure you know what left and right mean is it the front or back of the trailer? My wife always tells me the direction she wants me to move the back of the trailer.
  • Make sure your spotter knows where to stand so that you can see them. If my wife moves out of my view while I am backing I simply stop.  If this happens she knows I can’t see her and she will move.  Let you spotter know that if they can’t see you in the mirror, you can’t see them.
  • Before backing in talk about where you want to end up. This way you are both trying to get to the same place.
  • DON’T YELL AT YOUR SPOTTER!!! This should have been the first tip.  No matter how many times you have to pull forward and try again stay calm.
use a spotter when backing your RV

Let the children out

If you travel with children one of two things probably happens when you arrive. Either they are asleep from the ride, or they are stir-crazy in the back seat.  If your children are restless and old enough to be on their own for a few minutes, let them out.  I will send mine to the playground or to the back of the site.  They know to stay out of the way of the RV.  It is much easier to concentrate on backing in when they aren’t in the back seat driving me crazy.

Don’t be afraid to try again (and again, and again….)

Don’t be ashamed to pull forward and try again!  Sometimes you will need to pull forward to get a better angle to back in.  In some cases, there may be trees or other obstacles in your way that even the best driver can’t get around in one attempt.

If you’re not sure stop and get out

Even with a spotter there are sometimes that you just aren’t sure.  If you aren’t 100% sure with what you are doing put it in park and get out.  Would you rather take a few extra minutes to back in, or spend you trip wondering how much the repair is going to cost for hitting that tree or power post.

Once you’re in it’s not over

After you get backed into your camp site don’t jump out and unhitch right away.  Walk around your RV and make sure you can setup.  I unhitched, leveled, hooked up my shore cable and was putting my slide out a few weeks ago and realized the slide was going to hit the power post.  A quick walk around before unhitching would have saved 15 minutes of getting hitched back up to move the camper over about a foot.  Here are a few things to check

  • Are all slide out rooms clear of trees, and utility posts?
  • Will you shore power, water and sewer connections reach?
  • Are there any trees or other obstacles in the way of extending your awning?
  • Will moving forward or backward put you on more level ground making it easier to level your RV and extend your stabilizer jacks?

6 o’clock rule

If you have trouble knowing which way to turn the wheel when backing up this tip will help.  Place your hand at the bottom of the steering wheel.  If you move your hand to the left the back of the trailer will move left.  If you move you hand to the right the back of the trailer will move right.

6-o'clock rule when backing a trailer

Imaginary line

Another trick to help you back in is to draw and imaginary curve from where your trailer’s tires are to where you want them to end up.  While you are backing up try to keep the tires on that imaginary line all the way to your parking spot.

Long and slow, or short and fast?

If you have a long RV it will be slow to react.  When you back up this means you need to make bigger corrections and it will take longer to straighten back out.  If you have a shorter RV it will react much quicker when backing.  You should make smaller corrections and be ready to straighten out sooner.  In my opinion longer trailers are easier to back than shorter ones.

Step by step: How to back your RV into a campsite

Now for the fun part.  Your mirrors are adjusted, you know all the tips.  Let’s get that camper into your site and enjoy your weekend adventure.

Step 1: The approach

The first step to successfully backup your travel trailer is to have the right approach to your site. This means getting as close as possible to the side of the road your site is on. By getting close to the edge you will have more room when you make the cut.

Step 1: the approach

Step 2: The drive by

Now you should drive past the site stopping with the rear bumper of your RV just past the pad or driveway. This step is where knowing how your trailer responds comes into play. Some trailers may need to pull a little farther forward, some back a little bit. Practice is the only way to know for sure where you need to be.

Step 2: The drive by

Step 3: The cut

We are ready to put it in reverse. At this point you need to cut the wheel as far as possible to the opposite side of the road from your site. This will start the trailer swinging into the site and your tow vehicle will be moving across the road.

Step 3: The cut

Step 4: The S-turn

Once the trailer is swinging into the site you are almost there.  All that is left is to start turning the wheel back towards your site to follow the trailer around and straighten everything back out. 

This is also the point where you are most likely to run into a problem.

  • If you start turning back too early you will end up on the far side of the pad.
  • If you start turning back too late you could jack-knife or end up on the near side of the pad.

If you aren’t happy with your position this is the time to pull forward, straighten things out a little bit and try again.

Step 4: The S-turn

Step 5: Guiding it in

In the last step you just have to line the trailer up the way you want.  This is where the 6 O’clock rule can come in handy.  Again, if you aren’t happy with your position pull forward and make an adjustment.

Step 5: Guiding it in

Backing Video

If you still aren’t sure checkout this video for more tips on backing your travel trailer.

Gadgets and tools to help you backup

If you’re like me (and most men are) you like gadgets.  Here are a few gadgets and tools that can make your life even easier when backing a trailer.  They are range from simple to high tech, but all of them can be a great help.

Rope

I know, how can a piece of rope help you back your RV right?  The rope takes the imaginary line tip one step further and gives you an actual line to follow.  I have tried this when parking my 5th wheel beside my barn and it does help.  Simply take a piece of rope and lay it out along the path you want your RV’s wheels to follow.  As long as you keep the wheels on the rope while backing up your trailer will end up exactly where you want it.

If you want a rope you can even see at night this reflective, glow-in-the-dark Guyline on Amazon will help guide you day or night.

2-way radios

Use a set of short range radios so you can easily communicate with your spotter.  If hand signals aren’t working out.  Or if you just have a hard time seeing your spotter in the mirrors this is a great solution.  The radios also come in handy for communicating around the campground, or when hiking.  Especially when you don’t have good cell phone coverage. 

This set of Motorola radios advertise a 23 mile range don’t expect to get that in the real world, but this set is great to use when backing your RV and when hiking.  The set comes with 2 radios with belt clips, batteries and a dual charger that can keep both radios charged and ready to go.

RV backup cameras

If you are looking for the safest way to back you trailer especially if you won’t always have a spotter an RV backup camera is the way to go.  There are many great options out there like this TadiBrothers wireless system available on Amazon.

If you want more information on RV backup cameras checkout my comparison of the best wireless rear view cameras for travel trailers.

Wrap-up

Backing your camper doesn’t have to be a nerve racking experience.  With A little practice, and by following the tips and steps above, pretty soon you will look like a pro when pulling into the campground.

If you have your own tips for backing a travel trailer please share them by leaving a comment below.

Also, if you found this helpful please use the buttons below to share on Pinterest or Facebook.

Thanks and enjoy your next weekend RV adventure.

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