Learn How to Throw Your Trailer Into Reverse and Drive it Like a Pro
BY Kathryn Selinga
Trailer hitched? Check. Horses loaded up? Check. Truck running, brakes tested, and trailer lights working? Check, check, and check. Ready to back out of your parking spot and hit the road? …Not so much.
It's an inevitable part of transporting your horse, but let's face it; backing up a 20-plus-foot metal box that seems to have a mind of its own and usually has at least one "baby" on board is nerve wracking. That's why we talked to two experts in the field to get the scoop on how you can successfully back up your trailer, stress free.
What You Need to Know
According to Tony Waldron, who has many years of experience professionally operating and was formerly the Instructor of CDL (Commercial Driver's License) and Heavy Equipment Training for National Grid, the number one most important thing for drivers to remember is that backing up is always dangerous. "It should be avoided at all times when possible," he says.
At some point or another, chances are that if you have horses and you travel with them, that you will have to back up a trailer. So, keep in mind that both of our experts say the shorter the trailer, the harder it is to back, because it reacts quickly; while longer trailers move slower, and are therefore easier to back. And, when it comes to hitches, it is helpful to know the turning radius of your truck and trailer. "The gooseneck will back up and turn quicker, where with the bumper pull you'll take a wider arc because your pivot point is right on the back of the truck, not inside the truck," explains Peter Armstrong of On the Road Trailers in Warren, ME.
The second most important piece of advice, says Waldron, is to always back to the driver's side. "If you have to drive an extra mile and turn around so you can back on the driver's side, then that's what you should do," he urges. "The mirror on the right door is approximately seven feet away, and the mirror on your driver's door is less than two feet from you. So you can see a lot clearer. You can also open the window, and when the trailer turns, you can put your head out as well, so you can look with your eyes and you can look with the mirror, which gives you a great advantage."
There are also add-ons that you can utilize for help. "Use extension mirrors if yours aren't wide enough. They make some relatively inexpensive clamp on mirrors that clamp on to your existing ones, and they help a lot," advises Armstrong. "There are a lot of devices that can be put on the back of vehicles," adds Waldron. "There are cameras, sensors, and beepers. A lot of them are sound sensitive."
And, of course, keeping a level head at all times is key when backing or driving your trailer. "Calmness goes a long way," says Armstrong.
If you've never backed a trailer before or lack confidence in your skills, there are small steps and hints you can remember. "Rule number one backing up: Don't have your spouse in the vehicle while you're learning," jokes Armstrong.
While that may be something to seriously consider, Waldron does suggest you do utilize your passenger if you have one. "Use a helper when possible. If you have someone in your vehicle, they should go stand about two feet behind the trailer on the driver's side and give directions. They can see clearly behind the trailer where you can't," he says.
It is most imperative, however, for a driver to be able to back straight before they can back around a turn. "My advice for a novice would be to back straight first. What I usually do is put up a set of cones, or you can use a curb," says Waldron. "Go into a parking lot, use the curb or the cones, and back up 200 feet—and see first of all, if you can back your trailer straight.
"The system that I use [to back straight] is ‘10-12-2.' So the hand would start at 12 o'clock on the steering wheel. If the trailer comes out on the driver's side then you would go to 10 o'clock, until it gets straight. When it gets straight, go back to 12 o'clock. If you lose the trailer going on the passenger's side, you would go to 2 o'clock until the trailer is straight again, and then it's back to 12 o'clock. Using little, short movements is how you back a trailer straight. You're not going to back it around a corner if you can't back it straight."
Armstrong concurs, "Then the best thing you can do is go to a parking lot on a Sunday morning or when there's no one around, take a couple of road cones or something you can run over, and practice. With backing, practice makes perfect, it really does."
Armstrong also uses a special trick when it comes to the steering wheel. "Most people are taught to put their hands on the top of the wheel and turn it the opposite way they want the trailer to go. That just confuses people. If you put your hand on the bottom of the wheel and you want the trailer to turn to the right when you're backing up, turn your hand where you want the trailer to go. It's much easier to learn," he says.
Practice makes perfect, but it doesn't guarantee that you won't get into a tough situation. There are tips to help you, literally, out of a tight spot, too. "If you keep backing and you're going to jackknife, it can damage the electrical fittings on the trailer, the bumper of your vehicle, and the A-frame of the trailer. When you go back, you reach a certain point that you have to pull forward—you can't go back any further than the extreme," explains Waldron. "So what people should do is see how far it will go, then they can put a mark on the trailer, like a stripe, and then when they see that stripe on the trailer they know they can't go any further without doing damage."
"Plan where you're going to back up; plan what you're going to see in your mirror when you come around, especially on your blind side…if you think you're just going to make it, you're not. Put your four-ways [flashers] on and walk out there and see where you are," adds Armstrong. "Don't try to save the trouble you already got yourself in, because you're just going to get in more trouble. And if you don't think you're going to make it, pull ahead and try again before you get completely involved in it."
The Dos and Don'ts
Now that you've learned our professionals' tricks to aid you in your backing ability, here are a few more things to keep in mind that you should either always, or should never, do when it comes to putting your truck and trailer in reverse.
Do: Set up. "The most important thing is the setup when you go to back anywhere. If you can, set up straight in front of what you're backing to, and basically use the left side, and keep the trailer directly behind the vehicle," explains Waldron.
Don't: Let others get to you. "Don't let people intimidate you. That's when you see [drivers] get the most nervous, is when someone is laying on the horn and waiting for you to move…if they're making you nervous, just pull ahead and let them go by, then go back again," says Armstrong.
Do: A safety check. "It would be no harm to do something called the circle of safety. So before you back up, you should get out of your vehicle and do a 360-degree check of the vehicle just to make sure that there's nobody at the back of your trailer and no children or animals around, so that you can back safely," advises Waldron.
Also ensuring that your vehicle is the appropriate weight and size in comparison to your trailer, and that your electric braking system is working and adjusted properly, is of utmost importance, according to Waldron.
Don't: Panic. "A big mistake people make when they're backing up is that they overcompensate. When you get yourself in trouble backing up and [the trailer is] coming around too sharp, the best thing you can do is pull ahead two or four feet, get that trailer a little bit back behind you, and then you can start backing up again. Otherwise you start twisting everywhere," says Armstrong.
"Don't be afraid to pull forward. A lot of people go back—and they go back to the extreme, and then something happens—rather than get out and look at the situation. When in doubt, get out [and look] or pull forward," concurs Waldron.
The Back-Up Plan
If you're still uncomfortable with the idea of backing your trailer, Armstrong suggests you ask the dealer to walk you through the process before you drive off the lot if you're buying a new one. For those who already own a trailer but want to sharpen their backing skills, Waldron has even taught clinics to organizations like the Bay State Trail Riders Association. And finally, "Practice more than anything else—be confident with your trailer. You're going to do a better job backing up if you're confident," says Armstrong.
This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of Equine Journal, and is reprinted with their permission. For more information on the magazine, please visit www.equinejournal.com.