Why is it so difficult to back up a trailer?

Backing up a trailer can be a nightmare.
Backing up a trailer can be a nightmare. See more truck pictures.
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Backing up a trailer: The concept strikes terror in the heart of anyone who's tried it. With all of the things that can possibly be hit in the world -- other cars, fire hydrants, pedestrians, buildings -- backing up a vehicle alone can be nerve-wracking. Adding a trailer to the mix only intensifies the nightmare.

But why is it that a trailer is so difficult to back up? The answer lies in the design of a trailer hitch. Most trailers are attached to a vehicle with a ball hitch. The ball-and-socket connection allows for a trailer to turn along with the vehicle that it's towing. Without this feature, a vehicle towing a trailer would be like an extremely long single vehicle, and making a turn would require a couple lanes of traffic. The ball hitch provides the joint that eliminates this need.


But that same joint can also make backing up a trailer a really difficult task. It provides the straight line you're trying to achieve in reverse a place to break. Suddenly, the trailer you're towing has a mind of its own and juts off at an angle. At its worst point, the trailer can actually double back around until it and the car are touching sides, a situation known as a jackknife.

Fortunately, scenarios like these can be avoided with a bit of practice. A driver of a towed vehicle merely needs to train his or her mind to steer in a counterintuitive direction. Ultimately, when you turn the wheel, you're turning your car in the opposite direction you normally would. Usually, if you want it to go to the right, you turn the wheel to the left. With a trailer, this is just the opposite; if you want the trailer to go to the right, you turn the wheel to the right. It's mind boggling.

Again, it all comes down to the ball hitch joint that attaches your trailer to your vehicle. When your vehicle cuts to the left, the trailer usually pivots in the opposite direction. Because of this, the best way to back up a trailer (in addition to slowly) is to place your hand at the bottom of the steering wheel (the six o'clock position), and gently turn it in the direction you want the trailer to end up. If it pivots in the wrong direction, turn the wheel gently in that direction. So if a trailer is going to the left as you're reversing and you want it to go to the right, turn the steering wheel counterclockwise.

Backing up a trailer doesn't come naturally. Your greatest advantage is the buddy system; it's a good idea to have a person you trust outside of the vehicle to help direct you and alert you when you're approaching an object or obstacle. And remember, practice makes perfect. Or at least practice makes it easier. Before you begin using your trailer in real-world situations, take it to an open area, like a large parking lot (preferably one you only have to drive in a forward direction to get to). Practice backing up until you have a feel for the procedure. You might also bring some orange cones or other markers to challenge yourself. You'll find that, as with all things in life, backing up a trailer gets less difficult the more you practice.

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  • Peterson, Brent. "The Complete Idiot's Guide to RVing." http://books.google.com/books?id=tB3nLHfa1yQC&pg=PA259&lpg=PA259&dq=backing+up+a+trailer+mistake&source=web&ots=EqsJUDCsxM&sig=or6csjC-c_GaOyTA5_C_lNXbjQk#­PPA259,M1
  • "25 skills every man should know." Popular Mechanics. October 2007. http://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/upgrade/4223337.html?page=1