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There are many scenarios where RV drivers need a spotter’s help. Whether you’re backing up a trailer or navigating a Class A RV in a crowded parking lot, your spotter needs to know how to guide an RV effectively.
Without a spotter, you risk running into obstacles, denting your RV, or damaging critical components like your AC unit because you couldn’t see overhanging branches or other unforgiving items in your way.
Spotters and drivers yelling back and forth in any campground can be a daily occurrence. Effective communication is critical when navigating your RV and goes a long way toward protecting your investment.
So let’s discuss some tips to help spotters more effectively guide both motorized and towable RVs.
How To Guide a Towable RV
There’s a difference between guiding a fifth wheel driver and someone maneuvering a class C RV. For starters, there’s the opposite effect when backing up a trailer – cutting the wheels to the left will push the back end of the trailer to the right, and vice versa.
Towable campers also respond more slowly to steering changes, so you’ll need to give verbal cues and hand signals earlier as a spotter. This will take a little practice, but you can always ask the driver to pull forward again to straighten out.
This is easier than attempting micro-adjustments to get the towable camper positioned perfectly straight in a campsite or parking spot. More care must be taken when guiding someone driving a towable RV to avoid jackknifing.
What is Jackknifing?
Jackknifing occurs when you attempt to turn your trailer at too tight of an angle. It happens when your trailer tongue contacts the back corner of your tow vehicle.
If you attempt to turn your trailer too sharply, it will contact and damage your tow vehicle. Once it makes contact, it becomes incredibly difficult to fix the angle without uncoupling your trailer and repositioning your tow vehicle before hooking up again.
In severe cases, the angle between your tow vehicle will become acute (less than 90°), but this is typically the result of your trailer skidding at high speeds. It’s less likely when backing up a trailer, but it’s still possible if you attempt to turn too sharply. DON’T DO THAT!
How To Guide A Motorhome
In general, motorized RVs are easier to maneuver than towables. They respond to steering changes more like smaller passenger vehicles, and most modern RVs are equipped with backup cameras to help you see objects directly behind you.
But that’s not to say that they don’t require the help of a skilled spotter. When guiding someone driving an RV, remember that backup cameras are typically mounted at the top of an RV’s back wall and directed down towards the ground.
That means you’ll still need to watch for overhead clearance to make sure nothing contacts the top of your motorhome. Plus, distance can be hard to judge in even the best RV backup systems, so you’ll need the hand signals and verbal cues we’ll outline below to guide a motorhome effectively.
How To Guide All RVs
There are some principles that all spotters can use, regardless of whether you’re guiding a towable RV or driveable motorhome. Here’s what you should do when working as a spotter to guide an RV driver:
Step 1: Use a Spotter Whenever Possible
If you’re traveling with a spouse, friend, or family member, designate a spotter to be ready whenever you need it. But if you’re traveling solo, it might not be as easy. You can always ask a fellow camper at a neighboring site for help or the campground staff.
However, people with the best intentions sometimes try to help and do more harm than good. That’s why the spotter and driver must be on the same page, so you should…
Step 2: Establish Hand Signals and Verbal Cues
When you’re guiding an RV, the driver must know what your hand signals and verbal cues mean. The system you use is less important than the driver and spotter being on the same page.
Hand Signals for Guiding an RV
But here are some basic hand signals you can employ:
- 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
That final hand signal is especially useful for beginners driving towable RVs, as it will help them master the opposite effect we mentioned earlier (i.e., the back of the trailer will move in the opposite direction of how you’re cutting the wheel).
Verbal Cues for Guiding an RV
In addition to hand signals, verbal cues can help the driver maneuver their RV. If you’re guiding someone driving an exceptionally large coach, two-way radios can be helpful to facilitate clearer driver-spotter communication.
This is also more respectful to fellow campers than shouting back and forth, especially if you’re pulling into a campground late at night. Of course, you’ll need to know how to use them efficiently, so here are a few basic verbal cues for guiding an RV:
- 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: Do an Initial Survey of the Campsite
Once you’ve established your driver-spotter communication system, survey the campsite or parking space you’re navigating. Have the driver pull over, put their RV in park, and get out to walk the area with you.
During this RV walkaround, identify any obstacles or challenges you both need to look out for. Also, discuss what the driver might be able to see from his or her vantage point versus what they’ll need to you monitor more closely.
Pay special attention to overhead clearance to ensure your RV doesn’t run into branches instead of focusing only on your RV’s tires or lower parts.
Step 4: Remain Visible to the Driver
Position yourself so the driver can always see you in one of their side-view mirrors. If you need to walk behind the RV and out of view to check clearance, ask the driver to stop completely before doing so.
This is a point for your safety, more than anything else. If the driver can’t see you, you’re at great risk of being injured and won’t be able to do your job as an effective RV spotter.
When you pull into a campsite in the dark, the spotter should consider wearing a safety vest for added visibility.
Step 5: Go Slow
Pay careful attention to passenger-side obstacles that are harder for the driver to see, and don’t hesitate to signal the driver to stop to give you a chance to check clearance around any obstacles. If you’re unsure about anything, you can ask the driver to put the RV or tow vehicle in park and get out to assess clearance with you.
It may seem straightforward, but guiding an RV driver is important. Effective hand signals and verbal cues will help the driver position their RV without contacting obstacles, scraping trees, or getting out and checking their clearance a half-dozen times before they’re in the right position.
If you find yourself in the driver’s seat, check out our tips for backing up a travel trailer!
Do you have any other tips that you and your RV partner use to guide your RV into place? Please share them with your fellow RVers in the comments below!
One trick I learned from a TV show several decades ago about backing up a trailer is to take your hands off the top of the steering wheel and put them on the bottom. Now when backing up, the trailer will go the same direction you move the BOTTOM of the steering wheel. Doesn’t require quite as much thinking as trying to remember that it is going to go the opposite direction.
This is a great tip and one that we actually included in our guide to backing a towable RV into a campsite: https://blog.campingworld.com/at-the-campsite/tips-tricks/tips-for-backing-your-towable-rv-into-your-campsite/
If both of you have cell phones, use them to communicate.
we always use cellphones to communicate when backing, ear buds also keep your hands free for hand signals
This is a great alternative to two-way radios!