How Fifth Wheel Towing Works

Fifth Wheel Towing Techniques
Maneuvering a fifth wheel trailer is tricky -- especially in reverse.
Maneuvering a fifth wheel trailer is tricky -- especially in reverse.
Juan Monino/istockphoto

Towing a trailer can be difficult, even downright intimidating, especially for beginners. These tips should start to put you at ease. It's important not to fear towing a trailer when driving a vehicle with a fifth wheel. Even if you have no towing experience at all, remember that you are in control.

When you're driving a vehicle with a fifth wheel, chances are you're driving a rather long truck-and-trailer combination. That means turning can be a bear. You can't turn left at a four-way intersection in a tractor trailer like you can in a Honda Civic. Fortunately, a fifth wheel gives you a tremendous amount of turning angle. A good rule of thumb when turning a fifth-wheeled vehicle is to wait and drive the tractor or towing vehicle in deep before you make your turn. "Deep" means that you actually want to drive past the lane you are attempting to turn into. Instructors will often tell you to wait until you can't see your lane anymore if you're looking out the side window. When you make that late turn, you're allowing the rear axel to travel farther. Because trailers are so long, they need the extra distance so you won't cut off the front of a vehicle sitting in the opposite lane. The beauty of the fifth wheel is you can make that turn because there is no hindrance between the tractor and trailer -- at least not until you're near a 90 degree angle. Now let's kick it in reverse.

Mirrors are essential to towing, especially when you have a long trailer. If you're uncomfortable with using your mirrors, you better find a way to fix that. When it comes time to drive a trailer in reverse, you will absolutely rely on your mirrors. Don't waste time hanging out an open door and trying to look around your trailer -- it's unsafe and downright unpractical.

Whether you're backing into a loading dock or a parking spot, always position your truck and trailer perpendicular to the space. A good rule of thumb is to pull up a good 20 feet, if possible, so you have your trailer perfectly straight. Now here's what can make a fifth wheel so tricky -- but beneficial at the same time. The greater the distance from the fifth wheel to the trailer, the slower the rear will turn. This means the trailer will respond more slowly to the steering input -- but once it starts turning, it will turn very quickly.

If you have a shorter wheelbase on the tractor, the steering will be sharper. With a fifth wheel, you can really crank the tractor from side to side in order to maneuver the trailer. But we don't want to do that. We want to enter in the slightest steering actions possible. The more you turn the steering wheel, the easier it is to lose the back end of the trailer. Keep in mind that a reversing trailer moves in the opposite direction as the tractor or towing vehicle. If you want to turn the trailer left, you'll need to turn the steering wheel to the right. You'll want to pick a target on the driver's side that you want the trailer's wheel to touch, and always keep both wheels visible in your mirrors. If you can't see one side, you're turning too much. A fifth wheel gives you the flexibility to recover, but take it slow and don't get off the target with that tire.

Towing a trailer takes patience, confidence and plenty of practice. To read more towing tips on other aspects -- including shifting and braking -- visit the links below.

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More Great Links


  • Job, Ann. "Towing Tutorial." MSN Autos. (Sept. 16, 2008)
  • RV Basics. "RV Fifth Wheel & Travel Trailer Towing Safety Tips." (Sept. 16, 2008)
  • Will, Oscar H. III. "A No-More-Tears Approach to Backing Up." Nov./Dec. 2006. (Oct. 12, 2008)

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