Gone Outdoors

How to Back Up a Fifth-Wheel Trailer

by Skip Shelton
A fifth-wheel hitch in the cargo bed of a travel trailer tow vehicle is very much like the one on this semi.

A fifth-wheel hitch in the cargo bed of a travel trailer tow vehicle is very much like the one on this semi.

Fifth-wheel trailers are termed such because of the special pivot hitch that connects the trailer to the tow vehicle. A fifth-wheel hitch is usually bolted to the frame in the cargo bed of a pickup; the special hitch-ball configuration allows convenient, direct connection between tow vehicle and trailer. Because a fifth-wheel vehicle extends over the top of the tow vehicle's cargo bed, the overall length of the connected pickup and fifth-wheel trailer is less than that of a pickup pulling a bumper-mounted travel trailer with comparable living space. Maneuvering a fifth-wheel trailer in reverse requires understanding the pivot point and how the pivot affects the towed trailer.

Straight-Shot Backing

Align the vehicle and the trailer to the parking space. The rear of the trailer should be pointing into the parking area, and the nose of the tow vehicle should be pointing directly away from the parking area. Straighten the tow vehicle's wheels as though you were going to drive straight ahead (You can do this while not moving).

Put your foot on the brake, place the vehicle in reverse, and place the palm of your hand on the bottom of the steering wheel with your fingers pointed up (open handed).

Slowly back the vehicle, monitoring the mirrors (extended mirrors give better visibility). The trailer should be evenly distributed in both mirrors. If drift occurs, you will note the trailer is decreasing in visibility in one mirror and increasing in the other. The mirror the trailer is increasing in visibility in indicates which direction the rear of the trailer is drifting.

Correct the drift by moving the palm of your hand in the direction you wish the trailer to go. If you need the rear of the trailer to correct to your right (over your right shoulder), then push the palm of your hand to the right, making sure your hand is pushing from the lower part of the steering wheel. The tow vehicle's wheels will turn the direction required to correct the trailer drift. Once the trailer is nearly drifted back, swing your palm and steering wheel back to the bottom and slightly beyond. The goal is to allow your tow vehicle to chase the trailer, not correct the trailer constantly (resulting from overcorrection). Small corrections will yield necessary changes over distance. Do not attempt to correct in a short distance, if possible, as it will lead to overcorrection.

Using a friend backing system or by getting out of the vehicle, monitor the back end of the trailer until you can see when the trailer is fully in the parking place.

Angled Backing

Stage the trailer to be backed into position by driving the tow vehicle and trailer past the point of entry. If you are driving perpendicular to the point of entry, turn the tow vehicle away from the entry point as you pass and drive forward just far enough to allow the trailer to be angled toward the entry point rather than remaining at a right angle.

Put your foot on the brake, place the vehicle in reverse and place the palm of your hand on the bottom of the steering wheel with your fingers pointed up (open handed).

Push the palm of your hand in the direction the rear of the trailer should point to enter the parking space. Using your palm, continuing turning the steering wheel for some distance (once or twice around). Begin slowly backing the vehicle.

Monitor your edges. Your tow vehicle will swing in front of the trailer while the trailer jacks into the direction required. Be sure you will not hit obstacles with either the tow vehicle or trailer. Getting out often or having helpers is crucial.

Using your mirrors, monitor the entry of the rear of the trailer into the parking space. If your trailer is not turning sharply enough and you cannot turn the steering wheel further, stop the vehicle, straighten the wheel and pull forward a few feet to align the tow vehicle and the trailer, and repeat steps 3 and 4.

Chase your trailer into the parking spot. Just as a trailer follows a tow vehicle around a corner, you should have the goal of chasing your trailer into the parking spot (or whereever your are backing). By using the chase method, you will overcorrect less. As you chase the trailer while backing, allow the tow vehicle to eventually straighten as you reverse.

Items you will need
  • Extended mirrors

Tips

  • When straight-shot backing for long distances, use small corrections and monitor both mirrors. If you monitor only one mirror, you may find you are angling far more than you expect.
  • Overcorrection results in a tow vehicle that is jack-knifed in front of the trailer once the trailer is parked. If you find this is happening, attempt to better chase your trailer into the parking spot rather than focus solely on keeping the trailer pointed perfectly the whole time.

Warning

  • When using a partner or team to help communicate backing the trailer, give specific instructions that your helper tell you only which direction to point the rear of the vehicle or "Stop!" (at which point you will have a conversation). Remember, they are not allowed to tell you which way to turn the steering wheel or the tow vehicle's front wheels. The risk is that you'll turn your steering wheel in the direction that sends the rear of the trailer opposite the way you want it to go. Backward directions easily cause of confusion for individuals learning to back a trailer.

About the Author

Skip Shelton has been writing since 2001, having authored and co-authored numerous articles for "Disclose Journal." He holds a Bachelor in Science in education and a Master of Business Administration with an emphasis in management from Northwest Nazarene University. Shelton also operates a small automotive maintenance and part-replacement shop.

Photo Credits