Towing a travel trailer or fifth wheel on the highway is easier than parking and maneuvering around a campground. Anyone who says you don’t have to worry when learning how to back up a trailer is either lying, a pro, or has never done it.
Backing up a travel trailer or fifth wheel into a campsite can be stressful. However, there are steps you can take to make things easier when backing up towable RVs.
Practice Makes Perfect
Before you attempt to back up a trailer into a campsite with many watchful eyes bearing down on you, you can apply the steps below to any parking space that’s roughly as wide as a campsite.
Somewhere in your town, find a large parking lot that empties out sometime during the week. Take your trailer and spotter there to practice. Imagine that a set of two (or even four) parking spaces are your intended campsite.
Then apply the steps below to practice backing up your trailer into that site from various angles.
How To Back Up a Trailer
Here are some tips and advice to help you get your towable RV where you want it. Practice these enough, and you’ll be a pro in no time.
Step 1: Check the Space Ahead of Time
One of the best things you can do is check the campsite before backing in. Identify obstacles or issues you didn’t notice from your tow vehicle. Walk around with your spotter to examine the space you’re backing into before setting up any type of RV.
Pay close attention to overhanging branches and other obstructions to avoid safely backing up your trailer into your campsite. This helps you avoid any unfortunate surprises.
Step 2: Have a Spotter
Have a spotter when backing up a trailer. It can be your spouse, your kid, a neighboring camper—anyone. You just want an extra set of eyes looking for obstacles. This helps keep you and your trailer safe and makes backing in much easier.
Generally, you just need a window down to communicate with your spotter, but you can always get a pair of two-way radios or communicate via cellphone while backing up. These two options are a more respectful choice when pulling into campgrounds after dark, as it eliminates speaking at higher volumes and waking up your neighbors.
Keep your eye on your spotter at all times when backing in. They need to be able to signal verbally and visually to help you make steering adjustments as you’re backing up your trailer.
Speaking of those signals, verbal cues, hand signals, or a combination of the two will work. Just ensure you’re on the same page about the signals you’re using and what they mean.
Spotter Hand Signals
Here’s a quick list of hand signals we use when guiding an RV:
- Arms crossed in an X pattern or a single closed fist = STOP
- One arm pointing arm straight to one side or the other = GO RIGHT or GO LEFT
- Arms parallel and moving toward and away from the driver = STRAIGHT BACK
- Arms bent at elbows, hands moving closer together or further apart = DISTANCE TO GO
- Arms bent at elbows, palms down, hands motioning downward = SLOW DOWN
- Circles with finger to left or right = CUT WHEEL LEFT/RIGHT
Spotter Verbal Cues
And here are some tips for verbal cues that your spotter can use:
- Give distances (even if they’re approximate)
- “About five feet left” is always more helpful than “Keep coming…”
- Use your hands to provide visual distances if the driver can’t hear you
- Consider the driver’s left and right instead of your own
- Ask the driver to stop and hold if you’re unsure about clearance
Step 3: Set Up The Turn on the Driver’s Side
You don’t want to back up blind, even with a small trailer. When you park and attempt to look out the passenger side, backing up long trailers and toy haulers is much more difficult.
When you pull up to a campsite, ensure it’s on the driver’s side of the tow vehicle. Then you can use your driver’s side mirror or look over your left shoulder to monitor your camper’s progress as you back in.
Your spotter should remain visible on the driver’s side too, but they may move out of view momentarily to check clearance on the passenger side. Stop backing up when this happens to avoid injury and miscommunication with your spotter.
If you can’t back in with the campsite on the driver’s side, you’ll need to utilize your spotter even more. This is another scenario when two-way radios come in handy.
Step 4: Reverse Your Grip On The Steering Wheel
Many new trailer drivers struggle with the opposite effect – turning the wheel one way directs the back of your trailer in the opposite direction.
But you can make things easier by reversing your normal grip on the steering wheel. Normal, in this case, refers to your hands at 10 and 2, as most of us learned in our first driving lesson.
Reversing your grip means placing your hands at 8 and 4 on the bottom of the steering wheel. By doing this, when you rotate the bottom of the wheel to the left (aka clockwise), it will push your trailer to the left, and vice versa when you rotate to the right (aka counterclockwise).
Take Things Slow
No matter how you feel about backing in your RV, you need to take things slow. Going slow will allow you to readjust before it’s too late. With longer trailers, there’s a delay between your steering adjustments and your trailer’s reaction.
Going slow will let you account for that time and will also allow you to recognize steering errors before those errors become costly. This seems obvious, but it’s hard to slow down when your fellow campers are waiting to get into their own campsite.
Don’t let other people rush you! When you rush, you’re far more likely to either get the unit in the wrong spot or damage it by colliding with something. Slow and smooth is the way to go.
Step 6: Try the Z-Method
The Z-method might sound difficult, but it really isn’t. Here’s an example:
You’ve pulled your tow vehicle and travel trailer to the right side of the road with your campground on your left. You want to back into that campground over your left shoulder.
Before backing up and after checking traffic, turn your tow vehicle towards the left side of the road and pull 5-10 feet forward. This angles the rear of your trailer towards the campsite and reduces the angle you take when backing up.
From there, turn the wheel clockwise and back into your campsite while keeping an eye on your trailer and listening for your spotter’s instructions.
This principle can be reversed if backing into a campsite that’s positioned over your right shoulder when you’re in the driver’s seat.
A Cheat Code For Backing Up a Trailer
These tips will make life easier when you backup a trailer, but you can take things further by installing a backup system on your travel trailer or fifth wheel. Most modern towables are wired for a backup system if they don’t come as a standard feature.
Installing a backup system is great if you’re traveling solo full time and occasionally navigating into campsites without a spotter’s help. For help installing a backup system, consult your trailer’s owner’s manual or stop in to speak with a Camping World service center staff member.
Hopefully, those tips make your life a little easier the next time you back your travel trailer, 5th wheel, or pop-up camper into a campsite. With enough practice, this will become a seamless part of your RV setup and breakdown!
Do you have any other tips for backing up a travel trailer or fifth wheel? If so, leave a comment below.
Don’t be afraid of disconnecting the tow vehicle from the trailer to reposition the tow vehicle. In tight spots, this technique can be a huge time and frustration saver.
A tip for the spotter is to tell them that if they can’t see your mirrors then you can’t see them.
If the terrain is uneven, consider disconnecting the WDH bars.
Another tip; if the driver can’t see his spotter STOP and get out of your vehicle and check where the spotter is. He could have fallen tripping on something walking backward. No YELLING or LECTURING stay calm.
Jim, all great suggestions! I appreciate the comment.