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Backing up

Probably the most common problem I see among RV’ers is the inability to back up their trailer. We meet tons of people who camp only where they can find a “pull thru”, and will go to great lengths to avoid ever getting into a situation where they might have to back up. We usually encourage them to give it a try, but I don’t think our advice has ever been accepted.

Even among people who do back up once in a while, it can be challenging. Single-axle trailers back up differently from double-axle trailers, and longer ones are different from shorter ones. The type of hitch you have can make a small difference too. Backing up requires you to have a sense of how the trailer will react to various inputs from the tow vehicle, while simultaneously watching for signals from your assistant, and checking for obstacles in three dimensions. It can be very challenging.

We’ve been lucky enough that in all our travels we have never dinged the trailer during backing, but that’s rare. Most everyone has a scrape or dent somewhere to point to, showing the time they nudged a picnic table or didn’t see that low tree branch. It’s easy to dent the soft aluminum of an Airstream and not even know it’s happening.

But learning how to back up is a great reward. Often we come to campgrounds where we are offered a pull-thru site or a back-in site for a few dollars less. We always take the back-in and save the money. I figure it’s payback for all the practice.

My blog post yesterday got a few comments from people admiring the backing-in job we did here at Brian and Leigh’s. It was one of those great moments when, under the pressure of witnesses standing by, we just swung it in there in a single pass and ended up exactly where we wanted to be, inches from a concrete block wall and a house.   Blog reader Dirk asked if I had tips for others, or if this particular backup was a “breakthrough moment.” Actually, I hadn’t thought any further about it until we got the first blog comment this morning. It was just another parking job to us, but remember that we’ve been in our Airstream over eight hundred days. In all that time, I’ve gotten plenty of practice — and practice is the real secret.

I suppose there are a few other tips to share. The most important is to have a partner to help if possible. You could call him/her your “backing buddy”. Typically this is your spouse. You can’t see very well behind your trailer, and it’s easy to overlook obstacles. Your partner stands near or behind the rear rib of the trailer, well off to the side, and directs you in. Tell your partner that if she can’t see your face in the side mirror, you can’t see her either. The partner should stand on the inside of the turn, and in some places this means she has to tell you to stop so she can move to the other side.

hand-signals.jpgLots of people use walkie-talkies but we just use hand signals like those used at the airport. Make sure you both know the proper signals and don’t spontaneously make up new ones. The signals should use your full arms, not just hands, so the driver can see them clearly. You only need four signals: left turn, right turn, come ahead, and stop. For stop, we use crossed forearms (forming an X) because they are easier to see.   You might also want a fifth signal, “go ahead,” when the backing isn’t going well and you need to pull forward again.

The nice thing about hand signals is that they impress the hell out of people who watch us. They look very professional and it helps scare off people who like to “help” you back in.

I have only one tip regarding “help” from strangers. DON’T ACCEPT IT unless you really have to. If you have a partner, use the partner who you are accustomed to and can trust. Most people are well-meaning but since you don’t know them, you really don’t know if they are going to back you into a tree or confuse you with misleading advice. My friend Rich Charpentier has two dents on his Airstream, both courtesy of people who (on different occasions) tried to help him back into campsites. Not surprisingly, none of those people offered to pay for the damage that resulted from their bad advice.

Once in a while we have managed to insult people (unintentionally) who had a serious desire to “help” us back in. I remember a particular time when someone wouldn’t accept my standard reply of “No thanks, I have Eleanor to help me and we’re used to working together.” He continued to direct me aggressively and loudly toward an overhanging branch while I ignored him and followed Eleanor’s advice. When the parking was done, he was miffed, but we got to know each other the next day and eventually became friendly.

There’s a popular technique taught to newbie trailer owners: put your hand on the bottom of the steering wheel and turn it in the direction you want the trailer to go. This tip plays a part in the 1950s Lucy & Desi movie called “The Long Long Trailer,” when Desi Arnaz is being shouted at by dozens of well-meaning relatives while he backs down a long driveway. The technique works when there aren’t a lot of relatives around, but I don’t do it. Find a technique that works for you and stick with it.

Backing up is best done slowly. Don’t let anyone rush you, not even traffic you might be blocking. They can wait. Going slowly allows you to learn how the trailer is responding, and it gives you partner a chance to check clearances as you go. Remember to have the backing buddy check above and below the trailer as you go. Overhanging tree limbs and curbs will sneak up on you if you aren’t careful.

Finally, don’t back up at night until you are well-practiced in daytime. Even then, go extra slowly at night and check your clearances multiple times. You’ll need good flashlights too, because the backup buddy will be invisible. At dusk, like when we arrived here at Leigh and Brian’s house, I’ll get out of the truck three or four times during the backing process, to check my progress and confer with Eleanor. Even after hundreds of backing operations, we’re not immune to the possibility of running into something.

In fact, we’re far from perfect backers.   Many times I’ll get the “go forward” signal from Eleanor and have to try again, sometimes three or four times.   The keys are to stay calm, don’t fight, and go slowly.   You’ll get in there eventually.

14 Responses to “Backing up”

  1. Lois Grebowski Says:

    Backing up is a lost art.

  2. Gunnygod Says:

    It’s much easier without human help. As you know I prefer German Shepards as guides. Naichi is the best.


    PS: See you at Big Bend.

  3. Terry Rich Says:

    Hey Rich… yeah, backing up! The first time we brought our Bambi home and I backed it into the driveway (not a even a narrow one) we thoroughly entertained the neighborhood for at least 45 minutes…how humiliating. A women down the street was actually standing out in the middle of the street with her hand shading her eyes so she wouldn’t miss anything. I have gotten far better in the past months and now back it between the fence and the house with only a couple of feet on either side. Oh…one of my rules: if I can’t see Greg while backing up, I stop dead until I can see him! That’s the rule!