How To Back Up a Trailer

Jackknives are cool in the pool, not when pulling trailers.

All-new F-150
Ford Motor Co.

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So you want to back up a trailer? Whether that be taking the jet ski to the lake or snaking a trailer full of paver bricks to the backyard for landscaping, you’re gearing up for an adventure that’ll put your driving skills to the test. 

The know-how needed to back up a trailer uses the same simple techniques despite vehicle size, steering ratios, and the size of the trailer. Ultimately, the goal is to prevent hitting anything with the trailer or the vehicle and to avoid jackknifing, when the trailer and vehicle end up in a v-shaped position that could result in damage. That said, the task at hand will also present different challenges based on the space and surroundings.

Regardless of the mission, having the dexterity to place a trailer while in reverse is useful knowledge that can be tackled with a little guidance and a pocket full of patience. To aid in getting you backing up a trailer like a pro, The Drive’s crack How-To team is here to help. Ready? 

Backup a Trailer Basics

Estimated Time Needed: Less than a half-hour

Skill Level: Beginner-Intermediate

Vehicle System: Dynamics

What Is Backing Up a Trailer?

Although a trailer will be pulled forward for 90 percent of its life, it’s the 10 percent when it’s pushed back that causes issues and frustration for inexperienced towers. This skill becomes valuable when launching a watercraft, stowing something away in a barn or garage, delivering supplies for a house remodel, or placing a pop-up camper at a state park. Even when you pull forward into a driveway, somebody’s gotta back it out!

Trailers operate somewhat counterintuitively as turning the steering wheel left will push the trailer right. Turning the wheel right will kick the truck’s rear end right and push the trailer left. Essentially, the direction the wheel is turned will be the opposite of the direction the trailer will go.

One major factor in backing up a trailer is speed. Take it slow. The quicker you drive, the quicker something can go wrong, and you’ll have to correct it by starting over. 

Ford

2021 Ford F-150

What Are Some Common Trailer Hitch Variants?

A trailer’s hitch is where it and the vehicle towing it couple together and commonly features a ball-in-socket design, along with chains and an adapter for brake and indicator lights. However, there is a variety of hitches available. Here’s a rundown of the most common trailer hitches. 

  • Weight-carrying: The most common hitch that does not feature add-on accessories for a weight-distribution system. Thus, the weight is loaded on the hitch.
  • Weight-distributing: Using add-ons such as a spring bar, a weight-distributing hitch system distributes trailer tongue loads to the vehicle’s front axle and the trailer axle(s).
  • Fixed Tongue: Features with a permanent ball that cannot be removed.
  • Receiver: Features a hollow square tube where a variety of tongues or inserts, such as a bike rack, can be attached.
  • Gooseneck: A ball at the center of a truck bed is paired with a coupling on the trailer.
  • Fifth-Wheel: These hitches are typically used for heavier recreational vehicles. Similar to a gooseneck, it uses an attachment in a truck bed, but instead of a ball, there is a C- or U-shaped coupling that is mounted to the bed on a large plate. The trailer connects with a large pin and a plate of its own.
  • Pintle: This type of hitch pairs what is known as a pintle hook to a lunette eye. Basically, a hook connects to a circle. Typically used for heavy-duty commercial, military or farming settings.

What Are the Trailer Hitch Classes?

Overstressing any component involved in towing, whether that’s the vehicle, the trailer or the hitch, could be disastrous, so it’s important to know the differences between hitch classes. 

  • Class 1: Also known as Light Duty, Class 1 hitches can handle Up to 2,000 pounds gross trailer weight and up to 200 pounds tongue weight. These are typically found on cars and crossovers and feature 1.25-inch receivers.
  • Class 2: Also known as Regular Duty, Class 2 hitches can handle up to 3,500 pounds gross trailer weight and up to 350 pounds tongue weight. These are typically found on cars, crossovers, and minivans and feature 1.25-inch receivers.
  • Class 3: Also known as Heavy Duty, Class 3 hitches can handle up to 8,000 pounds gross trailer weight and up to 800 pounds tongue weight. These are typically found on crossovers, minivans, SUVs, and light trucks and feature 2-inch receivers.
  • Class 4: Also known as Super Duty, Class 4 hitches can handle up to 10,000 pounds gross trailer weight and up to 1,000 pounds tongue weight. These are typically found on trucks and SUVs and feature 2-inch receivers.
  • Class 5: Also known as Extra Duty, Class 5 hitches can handle between 16,000-17,000 pounds gross trailer weight and up to 2,550 pounds tongue weight. These are typically found on trucks and SUVs and feature 2-inch receivers.
  • Class 5: Also known as Commercial Duty, Class 5 hitches can handle between 18,000-20,000 pounds gross trailer weight and up to 2,700 pounds tongue weight. These are typically found on dually and chassis cab trucks and feature 2.5-inch receivers.
Ram

2020 Ram 1500

Trailer Backup Safety

Backing up a trailer could quickly go south, so preparation is paramount. Here’s what you’ll need to do to ensure you don’t destroy property, injure yourself and others or crumple your trailer and vehicle. 

  • Check your tires for adequate air pressure for proper towing capability, stability and traction.
  • Check the security of the pin connector that links the truck to the trailer's brake and indicator lights and double-check that they function properly.
  • Balance between a vehicle and its trailer is crucial. If the vehicle is squatting, meaning the rear is lower than the front, there’s a chance the trailer is too heavy near the trailer’s tongue. If the rear of the vehicle is lifting, the trailer is likely too heavy near the rear.
  • The primary connection between the vehicle and the trailer is the hitch ball and coupling. Check to make sure the hitch ball is the proper size for the coupling and double-check that the coupling is locked in place. 
  • Make sure the pin or a padlock on the coupling latch adds the final layer of protection from disconnection.
  • Large-link, cross-linked safety chains act as the last wall of defense and resemble an “X” when set correctly.
  • Angle the vehicle’s side-view mirrors so that the vehicle, the trailer, the destination and the surroundings are all in view. 
  • Keep the windows down. You never know when somebody shouting to stop will save you thousands of dollars.
Ram

2020 Ram 1500

Organizing your tools and gear so everything is easily reachable will save precious minutes waiting for your handy-dandy child or four-legged helper to bring you the sandpaper or blowtorch. (You still won't need a blowtorch for this job. Please don’t have your kid hand you a blowtorch—Ed.)

You’ll also need a wide, flat piece of pavement, such as a parking lot or nice quiet street. A parking lot is a great place to start, as there is more open area and the parking spaces can be used as guidelines. Once comfortable in a lot, try backing up into your driveway. This will allow you to practice backing into a spot at a 90-degree angle.

Everything You’ll Need To Backup a Trailer

If you have a stylish speckled-floor garage that has wrenches, hammers, saws, nuts, and bolts neatly organized in black and red Craftsmen chests, nice work. That’s beautiful, but you won’t need any of it, save for a couple things. The items below will prove useful in preparing for towing, forward or reverse.

Tool List

Nissan

2020 Nissan Titan XD

Here’s How To Backup a Trailer

Let’s do this! 

  1. Check the trailer’s hitch, chains, and brake and indicator lights.
  2. Get into your vehicle, put your foot on the brake, start the car, and move the shifter into reverse.
  3. Check your surroundings.
  4. Try to line up as straight as possible, with the desired destination aligned with the outside edges of the vehicle and trailer.
  5. Be aware of obstacles and try not to fixate on them as you’re sure to do exactly what you didn’t want to do; hit them.
  6. With a foot on the brake, slowly release to allow the idle to begin reversing the vehicle.
  7. Use the side mirrors to maintain your view of the intended destination. (In some cases, the driver will need to look over his or her shoulder.)
  8. Countersteer when necessary and continue to reverse until the trailer is in the desired position. 
  9. Hit the brakes and shift the vehicle into park. 
  10. If this is the final position, turn the car off and you’re set. If this is a drop-off, release the cargo and pull away.

You did it, congratulations!

It’s important to understand that there is a point where the backup is a failed mission and will need to be reset. If you notice your steering is a Mortal Kombat combo of left-right-left-right-left-right, it might be worth driving forward, returning to the starting point and trying again (there’s no shame in that!). The goal is to steer the trailer with a few smooth, continuous inputs.

Nissan

2020 Nissan Titan XD

Pro Tips to Backup a Trailer

Here are The Drive’s pro tips for how to backup a trailer. 

  • Shift your hand position to the bottom of the steering wheel. With your grip on the lower part of the wheel, moving your hands left will result in the trailer angling left because the wheel is turning right. Move your hands right, and the trailer will angle right because the wheel is turning left. This might be more difficult for some, but many might find the direct correlation of movement to be helpful.
  • Use a spotter! No matter the experience level, safety nets are tremendously helpful. There are often blind spots when backing up a trailer, and extra eyes will make the process smoother and quicker.
Ford

2021 Ford F-150

How Often Do You Need To Backup a Trailer?

  • Every time a boat needs to be launched, a camper needs to be parked in a site, or a flatbed needs to be backed up a driveway.

How Much Does It Cost To Set Up a Trailer?

  • Depending on the hitch type, needed accessories and labor, setting up your truck or SUV to towa trailer can cost anywhere between $10 and a couple thousand dollars.

Life Hacks To Backup a Trailer

Even with the right tools, the proper equipment and a high-tech truck, backing up a trailer can be a frustrating process. Take some of the guesswork out of the process with this simple and cheap hack.

  • Pick up four wooden dowel rods, or any type of long straight stick, and put one at each corner. This will ease and aid trailer visibility and help the driver keep track of its size at all times. This is particularly helpful when a small trailer is obscured from view behind the large vehicle it’s attached to.