One of the trickier aspects of the Manly Art of Driving involves backing a trailer. Every man will profess to have expertise in this area, but when it comes right down to it, only those who spend money and time at one of the many truck driving schools have a fair chance at backing a trailer where it needs to go on the first try. Even some of those people have to take more than one run at it sometimes. After great shows of confidence and declarations of ability, the man who tries to back a trailer without a clue as how it is done is one of the most pitiful figures on Earth.
Experience is the only way to gain trailer backing skills. The aspiring backer should find the largest unobstructed area possible and start out with small goals or he will quickly give up before he has even started. Under no circumstances should initial efforts be undertaken on narrow driveways with forty-foot boat trailers. Entire landscapes have been taken out this way and the frustration of the moment could lead to harsh things that are not truly meant being said. Mall parking lots at six o’clock on Sunday morning are good places to start. The lines marking off the parking spaces are good targets for judging the straightness of the backing effort. Leave the wife and kiddies at home. Lord knows they already have enough ammunition.
Mirror alignment is critical to the successful backing effort. Turning sideways and looking out the rear window of the towing vehicle almost never works. If the trailer is small and does not actually block the view out the back, then it is probably also true that the trailer itself is not entirely visible and its progress during the backing process will not be discernible until jack-knifing has occurred. Jack-knifing will be addressed in a moment. Adjust your mirrors, trust your mirrors. I stop short of saying be One with your mirrors. The only objects not visible to you will be those directly behind the trailer, so slow speeds are suggested so a minimum of damage will be inflicted when you find out something’s back there.
After checking your mirrors and verifying that the sides of the trailer are parallel to the lines of a parking space behind you, engage the reverse gear of the towing vehicle and slowly begin going backward. Say the trailer begins going awry. Don’t panic. That doesn’t help anything. Turn the steering wheel gently in one direction or the other. Does the trailer correct its wayward behavior? If the answer to this question is no, turn the wheel in the other direction. Gently. Not too much. Okay. Once you have the trailer going straight again, stop. Take some deep breaths. Rest assured that the trailer will not continue going straight back just because you do not turn the steering wheel any more. Minor adjustments are going to be necessary so go ahead and practice these as you continue in your backwardly direction. Always remember that one complete rotation of the steering wheel is probably too much to get you where you want to go, so just imagine what two or three rotations will get you.
As I mentioned earlier, jack-knifing is the worst thing that can happen in the course of backing a trailer. It is usually the result of wildly turning the steering wheel to its limit in an effort to make a course correction. Once it has happened, give it up, put the towing vehicle in a forward gear, and start over. There is no other way around it. Better men than you have had to do it, so get over it, pull up, and try again. This time, stay calm and do not turn the steering wheel with such abandon when the trailer gets just a little bit crooked.
Very few backing efforts are perfect on the first try. To err is human, after all. When the trailer gets close to where you meant to have it, there is no shame in letting it go at that (unless we are dealing with launching a boat off a ramp, but that is a whole ‘nother can of worms). It is entirely up to you as to whether the gumption is there to pull up a little and try getting closer to the ideal spot.
A final element of the trailer backing experience involves by-standers. Under the guise of being helpful, they will shout and wave, succeding only in bringing chaos to a confusing situation. Do not let by-standers influence your behavior against your better instincts. When they begin admonishing you to “Cut it left” or whatever, your only reply should be, “Cut it out.” Directions from by-standers are almost never helpful, unless they are hollering at you to stop before you crash into something.
The ability to back a trailer is a valuable skill that can be learned with much repitition. However, even upon completion of the training set out herein, in a crowd of men who need something backed, do not volunteer right away. Let some other fool jump into the driver’s seat. Why open yourself up to unnecessary stress?