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Learning to Back a Trailer

IMPORTANT NOTE: The advice now given to truck and bus drivers is to back up ONLY when you have to do so — you cannot see everything behind you when backing. Especially when backing with a trailer, no matter how good you get, ALWAYS try to have someone guide you and watch to assure that no person or animal steps behind your trailer when backing. Obviously, we all have to back a vehicle or vehicle and trailer sometime, but keeping it to a minimum significantly reduces the chances you'll hit something (or worse, someone) that you can't see.

Backing a trailer may seem difficult at first, but with a little practice and proper adjustment of mirrors, it gets significantly easier. First, let's talk about mirrors: they need to be properly adjusted (see Tow Vehicles – Setting Your Truck's Mirrors). Mirrors on any vehicle are wonderful once you learn to use them. But most people don't actually learn how to back up using mirrors, they just use them to see what's beside them. My dad taught me how to drive, and about a year later, started teaching me how to back with mirrors and most important, how to "trust them". You need to do the same if you haven't already.

Trusting your mirrors means you're comfortable backing up your car or truck without having to turn your head around to actually look back. It also means your mind is comfortable associating directions that are reversed in your mirror — this takes practice. At age 18, I was also a volunteer fireman and learned how to back a long pumper into the garage at close quarters without having to stop, and more importantly, without hitting anything. Again, this was done through practice and trusting the mirrors.

Once I was comfortable backing any single vehicle, it was time to add a trailer. The distance between your truck's rear wheels and the front-most wheels of your trailer makes a huge difference as to the difficulty of backing up — the longer the distance, the easier it is — the shorter the distance, the harder it is to back up your trailer. So what did my dad do? He made me learn to back up a small trailer attached to a lawn tractor — it was murder!

The distance between the rear tractor wheels and the trailer wheels was so small that any turn that went too far happened in seconds and caused the trailer to jackknife. And he didn't want me to keep stopping, pulling forward, and starting again; he wanted me to do a controlled backup that included turns and staying on the road. To make matters worse, he hopped on and showed me that it can be done. Needless to say, it was far easier to watch him do it than to do it myself. I must have jackknifed at least fifty times. BUT, I kept getting better.

Once I was at least decent, he told me that backing up longer trailers would be much easier. That surprised me because I thought an 18 wheeler would be harder yet, but it's not. When I later helped a friend by backing up his boat trailer, I found that my dad was right and it was much easier than that stupid lawn tractor and tiny trailer. That's because a longer trailer gives you more time to react before the articulation between your vehicle and trailer has gone too far toward a jackknife.

If you really want to get good at this, there's just no substitute for practice. I think my dad did it the right way by making me learn with a lawn tractor and small trailer. It used little gas while I practiced; if I did jackknife (and I did…a lot), no real damage was done, and I could see the entire trailer and learn the cues. Of course, there were no mirrors on the tractor, but converting to mirrors which I already knew how to use because of my prior experience with them on small and big trucks was rather easy.

So, get comfortable with using and trusting your mirrors first, then get lots of practice backing a trailer. Back slowly and make your turns gradual and gentle — you cannot easily make a sharp turn while backing a trailer when first learning. Your truck and trailer should bend in a smooth, gradual turn and remind you of the way you want to make your horse bend around a turn in a ring. Pay particular attention to how overturning your truck will make the trailer turn the opposite way and jackknife — don't let your tow vehicle and truck kackknife — you could damage something! If you begin to jackknife or can tell that it's going to happen, STOP! The ONLY fix is to stop, pull forward to undo the overturn, and begin again. Once you get the "hang of it", backing with a trailer will be no more than another familiar and comfortable driving technique that you have at your disposal.

Besides being an avid trail rider, Jerry Tardif is a technology consultant and a horse and nature photographer in SE Connecticut — see his work at: www.jerrytardif.com. He is also co-founder and President of QueryHorse.

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