Saturday, May 22, 2010

Learning to Back Up a 5th Wheel

We felt pretty competent at backing up boat trailers and travel trailers.  Terri would normally direct and I would normally drive.  We could fit into most tight spots, though not as tight as others claim.  (I have seen stories on the web about people able to back things into garages with only inches of clearance.)  We understood that the process for backing up a 5th wheel is a little different since the pivot point is over the rear axle instead of extended behind the rear bumper.  This makes sharp changes in direction much harder as the vehicle looses "leverage" on the trailer.  The maximum turning angle of the RV is higher since the truck can be at a 90 degree angle to the RV.  We very much underestimated the differences.

We picked up the new trailer on a Saturday morning.  There was a Cabela's store across the highway from the RV distributor and they have a large empty parking lot so we headed there to practice.  The lot had semi truck style long, 45 degree angled slots, much like you might find in an RV park.  I started by doing what I used to do with a travel trailer, pull the truck and RV straight on the left side of the road to back to a spot on the right.  I pulled past the target spot, then started backing to turn the trailer toward the spot.  Once the rear of the RV was pointed at the entrance to the spot I started reducing the angle between the truck and the RV, but the RV kept turning!  Terri kept saying to cut it the other way, and I "communicated" back to her that it was cut all the way the other direction, yet the RV kept going in the wrong direction.  We tried over and over with absolutely no success and quite a bit of relationship stress.

The problem, we agreed, was that I was "over steering" and given the difference in reaction of the RV due to the pivot point being over the axle, we needed to do "something" different.  I was quite concerned, because the lot where we intended to store the RV had much less space to maneuver and had 90 degree parking with 12' spots filled on both sides.  We knew we had some time to learn, as we were planning to pull the RV to a monthly RV spot instead of parking it right away, but we had no plan on how to learn what to do.  And we still had no idea what "something" we needed to do differently.

I researched on the internet and there was very little information of any real use.  The best information I found was on this web site. about semi truck backing.  After reading, closing my eyes and imagining me doing the process, I thought I finally understood (better).  After two months at the RV park, it was time to bring the new RV home and put it away.  Before I began practicing, I made a small wood scrap scale replica of the truck and RV with the pivot point joined by a nail.  I went through the planned sequence in my mind, positioning the replica to help visualize which way I was turning the truck steering wheel to achieve what effect.  We went to a local high school, set up cones to mark where the target parking spot was, and went about practicing.  On the 1st try, we did pretty good backing into a 90 degree spot to the right.  2nd try was better.  3rd try went 90 degrees to the left.  All were "acceptable" as there were no obstructions to worry about hitting.  We tried other various approaches with less success.

Here is my simple process (summarized in step 5 below).  Others may have different methods that make sense to you.
  1. Approach the spot in the street with the RV and truck on the same side as the target spot.  
  2. When the truck axle is a little past the target spot (this will vary with the wheel base and turn radius of the truck and length of trailer), cut the truck wheels sharply to cross to the other side of the street.  This creates an angle between the RV and the target spot.
  3. When the nose of the truck reaches the opposite side (see note), cut the wheels sharply to straighten THE TRUCK ONLY to be parallel to the street.  This creates an angle between the truck and the RV. (NOTE:  room must be available to turn the truck back to straight with the RV.  If there are "objects" (cars, fences, etc.) then you may only be able to go the the middle of the road in creating this initial angle.  You can also not go parallel to the street.)
  4. Examine the angle between the truck and RV and where the tail of the RV is now aimed.  Decide if you need more or less angle to hit the entrance of the spot before you begin backing.
  5. As you back, control the angles between the RV and the spot and between the truck and the RV considering these three manditory steps.
    - Create an angle to turn
    - Follow the RV to the spot
    - Undo the angle.  You can not change the direction of the rear of the RV until the truck is lined up straight with the RV.
  6. On each maneuver, it is better to end by setting up for the next maneuver than it is to start the next maneuver with the truck and RV in the wrong orientation (angle).  (The truck is more agile than the RV.)  For example, if you are pulling forward to turn the RV clockwise (you will have the truck front wheels turned to the left), finish by turning the truck wheels to the right to create an angle to the RV that allows more clockwise RV rotation at the start of the backing up process.  This allows you to choose to increase the RV turn angle or follow the RV along its path to the target spot. This is exactly what step number 3 does above.
  7. Always remember you can pull forward to adjust.  Always remember you can start over.  In radical situations you can unhitch, change the angle of the truck, and rehitch.  So what if someone else can do it better.  You CAN do it.
So we went to the storage lot to put the RV away.  The promised spot was filled by something else.  We left and started looking for a storage lot with numbered and more "friendly" spaces.  Found one that was acceptably close and we are much happier with the process.

We are still novice 5th wheel backers, but we plan to have many scenic RV spaces that will require backing in on our vacation, and we are not afraid to try.



  1. Nice write up Tom. Will be trying this tomorrow to get my fifth wheel into my 150' driveway from the street. Tired of packing everything into the car and then driving it down the driveway to re-pack in the trailer :0

  2. It's actually a great and helpful piece of information. I am satisfied that you simply shared this helpful info with us. Please stay us informed like this. Thank you for sharing.

    Here is my page :: phen375 review :: ::

  3. Thank you for the wonderful blog. It is indeed informative and useful We are into the same business. For know more about us, please visit Caravans and Camper Trailers today.