You can do it, Girlfriend: how to back up a trailer

I realize that many solo-road-tripping women would opt for a motorhome or a conversion van over a truck/trailer rig like mine. I looked into both when I was shopping for a full-time set-up. Eventually, I decided against a motorhome because even the small ones were, to my mind, too large. I wanted to navigate city streets without biting through my tongue and knocking off my mirrors.

I also looked at one tricked-out conversion van. It was equipped with an eating unit that converted to a double bed and a kitchen/storage/bath that were all jammed into the front half of the van. It was too tight; I couldn’t see myself living in that contorted space for any length of time.


I’ve since met Melissa, a full-timing woman, however, who converted her van into a very livable space. She rigged up a little sink and cooking area and had a small bed in the back. I don’t think she had a porta-potty, but that could be a self-contained and easy option. Her system was rudimentary, but it felt very comfy. She wasn’t trying to cram all the conveniences of modern living into eight feet. She had added decorative touches that softened the edges and personalized the space. After seeing her unit, I changed my thinking somewhat about living in a van.

A van has the advantage of become almost invisible for guerilla camping in urban areas, and it’s very navigable. You can go anywhere with much less headache than my SUV-trailer combo.

Yet, I’ve been happy with my rig, even though it’s not as easy to manage. Once I’m set up, the trailer feels spacious and homey to me. People always think I need a break—a bed and regular toilet—but I like living in the trailer. Weird, I know.


Campsite at Joshua Tree--My most difficult backing job. See the rocks?

The only disadvantage of hauling a trailer, one that literally kept me awake at night, was the specter of backing up. I already knew I was abysmal at it—all that “use-your-mirrors,” and “turn-in-the-opposite-direction” crap. I’d lie in bed visualizing the drill—turn the wheel this way if you want the trailer to turn that way.

It didn’t work. I’d use my mirrors and eventually peek behind to see where I was in real life—and find myself jackknifed into some impossible corner. Or, I’d turn the wheel in the opposite direction, then in the other direction, and end up all over the place. The only good part was that I was so focused on getting where I needed to go that I stopped caring whether or not anyone was watching. But I’m sure I was very entertaining. 

trees aren't as scary as rocks--guerilla campsite in Colorado

So let me share with you how I learned to back a trailer into a site with only a little embarrassment and no catastrophes.

  • Practice. Sounds obvious, and it is. I didn’t practice ahead of time; I just learned by doing it badly and by sweating a lot. Eventually, I got better. You will, too.
  • Pull farther ahead than you think you need to. I rarely do this, but a few times I had help, and the guy had me pull much farther ahead than usual. I had more room to negotiate the turn, and the whole process went smoother.
  • Remember these two tips. Of all the advice I got, I use these two tips every time. 1. When I begin the turn, I put my hand at the bottom of the steering wheel and turn it in the direction I want the back of the trailer to go. Turn upward to the right, and the trailer goes to your right. But once I’d cranked the wheel 180 or so, I’d get confused—where was the bottom of the wheel now? That’s when the second tip came in handy: 2. Whichever mirror you see most of the trailer in (i.e., the direction in which it’s turning), if you turn the wheel in THAT direction, the trailer will correct and turn the OTHER way. This is handy once I’ve begun the initial turn and need to correct the trailer a bit (or a lot).
  • Pull forward and straighten. At first I thought I’d be able to sail right into a site like the big boys do.  But small trailers jackknife easily, and I found it was a lot easier, once I’d backed or jackknifed) somewhat into position, to then pull forward and straighten out the trailer. Then I could use tip #2 to back up in a more straight line.
  • Get out and look. Especially if no one is spotting for you. I often thought I was heading for one place only to discover I had missed it completely. You’ll also avoid crunching into that picnic table or rock that you overlooked if you do a quick look-see. I credit my extreme caution and excessive checking to the fact that I’ve put NO dings, dents, and scratches on either my trailer or my truck. (One was already there, however.)

               And I’m a little proud of that.



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5 Responses to You can do it, Girlfriend: how to back up a trailer

  1. Trailers 20 February, 2012 at 4:35 pm #

    This is great! One of the things I wish everyone know coming off the lot was how to back up a trailer. Honestly, we should require a safety video. We’ll keep you in mind! Thanks for the handy post too. It was good advice and fun to read. :)

  2. Erik 9 August, 2011 at 8:04 pm #

    It does take some practice, but it’s easy to get in a groove once you do truly get it.

    • Kate 10 August, 2011 at 10:10 am #

      I can’t imagine ever getting into a groove. It did get a lot easier over the course of a year, however.

      Given the choice of pulling through or backing in–I’ll take the pull-through hands-down.

      (Thanks for the tweet, Eric)ih

  3. Cary Carlson 9 August, 2011 at 7:35 pm #

    Ed has been backing for 40 years and there’s still lots of yelling and swearing (at me) and the smaller the trailer the worse. I’m writing down your tips now.

    • Kate 10 August, 2011 at 10:07 am #

      I thought guys had some ingrained evolutionary advantage when it came to backing up things. (I have witnessed the swearing and backing into things by men, however.) Hope the tips help get you off the spot, Cary. Any port in a storm.