How to Reverse a Caravan

A towing course helps build reversing confidence - Pic: Tow-Ed
A towing course helps build reversing confidence

Pic: Tow-Ed

Introduction

Reversing a caravan is easy, but only with practice. Whilst this article will guide you through two key caravan reversing manoeuvres, there is no substitute for finding a large, safe open space and doing it yourself.

Reversing a trailer is tricky at first, because the rear section of an articulated vehicle will turn in the opposite direction to the steering wheel when reversing. The key to successful trailer reversing is to train your brain (and your hands) to do the right thing at the right time.

The best technique for 'brain training' when reversing in a straight line is to place your hands at the quarter to three position on the steering wheel and, looking through a wing mirror, as the caravan appears in that mirror, turn the steering wheel towards that wing mirror.

With all caravan reversing manoeuvres it's a good idea to follow these general tips:

  • Do everything slowly - a caravan amplifies every movement of the steering wheel, so move it gently and use the accelerator pedal with care and the brake pedal freely
  • Use the steering wheel gently for straight line reversing and freely for 90 degree reversing
  • If possible have a reversing partner. The partner should stand at the rear of the tow vehicle (but not in its path) and always be visible to the driver through one of the wing mirrors. Reverse with stereo off and both front windows down so you can hear instructions from your partner
  • Agree communication methods between driver and partner. They can be voice signals, hand signals or UHF or even mobile phone conversations and can be anything you like as long as you both know what they mean
  • Decide between driver and partner whether the partner should describe or interpret. By this we mean whether the partner should simply show or tell the driver distances and direction, or interpret what the driver should do with the steering wheel. Unless the partner is experienced at towing, it is generally better for the partner to describe what is happening and let the driver decide how to react
  • Stay calm and ignore any audience that your reversing activities may attract.
  • Long caravans are easier to reverse than short ones, because a longer distance between trailer axle(s) and hitch causes a trailer to turn more slowly. 

Reversing in a Straight Line

This straight reversing manoeuvre is useful if you need to get out of a space for which there is no forward exit, or if you need to reverse the caravan into a caravan park space that has plenty of space in front of it. 

  1. Align. Align tow vehicle, tow vehicle front wheels and caravan in a straight line
  2. Check. The reversing partner should check that the area to each side, behind and above the caravan is safe and indicate as such to the driver. During the reversing manoeuvre the partner should walk backwards (taking care to avoid trips and falls) in line with the rear of the caravan to make sure the area remains safe, whilst always remaining visible to the driver
  3. Hazard Lights. Because a caravan usually has no reversing lights or warning sounds, put tow vehicle hazard lights on
  4. Use Both Wing Mirrors. Watch the side of the caravan using both wing mirrors. Focus on the rear of the caravan and watch its movement carefully as you reverse
  5. Steering Wheel. Put both hands on the steering wheel and use the 'brain training' technique described above
  6. Reverse. Place tow vehicle in reverse and start moving back slowly (i.e. at walking pace)
  7. Monitor. As long as the caravan remains in alignment with the tow vehicle, do not move the steering wheel
  8. Follow. If the caravan veers to one side, turn the steering wheel gently until the caravan straightens. When you see the caravan straightening in the wing mirror, straighten the steering wheel
  9. Adjust. As you reverse, continue making slight adjustments to the steering wheel. Periodically check both wing mirrors to make sure there are no new hazards
  10. Re-start. If the caravan veers significantly or you over-compensate with the steering wheel, do not try to correct whilst reversing. Instead, stop, move forwards until both vehicles are re-aligned and start again.
  11. Stop and secure. Once you have completed the reversing manoeuvre, stop and park both vehicles and switch off hazard lights.

Reversing at 90 Degrees

Reversing at 90 degrees is the most common trailer reversing manoeuvre. It is particularly useful in caravan parks where you need to reverse on to a site which is perpendicular to an access road.

These guidelines are written for a reversing manoeuvre into a site on the driver's side.

Reversing Reference Points

Before starting this manoeuvre, it is important to establish some reference points for the site and trailer:

 The Set-up Position

This is the position, relative to the site you are reversing onto, where your trailer must commence the reversing manoeuvre. It is different for each trailer and can only be determined by trial and error. There are two reference points required to determine the set-up position, one on the ground and one on your trailer:

  • A point on the ground relative to the site you are reversing into. As a rule of thumb, mark out a position two large steps out and three large steps to the right of the right front corner of the site. The right wall of the trailer should be aligned with this mark
  •  A point along the trailer's length that should stand immediately above the point on the ground identified above. Typically this point is toward the trailer's rear, about three quarters along its length. Once you have found the set-up point for your trailer, mark this point along the trailer wall (on both sides) with coloured electrical tape or a sticky rubber dot.

The Jack-knife Point

This is the maximum angle of the trailer relative to the tow vehicle beyond which the trailer will quickly jack-knife if the steering wheel is not turned in the opposite direction. Once again, it is different for each trailer and tow vehicle combination and can only be determined by trial and error. To determine your trailer's jack-knife point:

  • In a safe area, drive your trailer slowly forward with the steering wheel on full lock and back half a turn
  • Looking into the wing mirror on the same side the trailer is turning, (i.e. if turning right, look in the right mirror). Once the vehicle has been driven in a full circle, stop the vehicle and look down the side of vehicle (using the mirror), note where the side of the vehicle appears to point to a spot on the front of the van. This is your jack-knife point and you should mark this point on the front of the trailer with tape or a rubber adhesive dot
  • Repeat the procedure with the trailer being driven in the opposite direction. 

Your trailer will now be marked with two dots on its front. These dots represent the point at which the steering wheel must be turned in the opposite direction when reversing to prevent a jack-knife.

Step One - Setup

  • Set up your trailer in the Setup position described above
  • Switch on hazard lights.

Step Two - Execute

  • Turn the steering wheel to full lock less half a turn in the opposite direction to the desired reversing direction of the trailer
  • Start reversing slowly whilst your reversing partner watches out for any hazards
  • Reverse until you see the 'jackknife' point indicator in your wing mirror
  • Stop.

Step Three - Chase

The 'chase' is where you 'unwind' the curve that you have created with tow vehicle and trailer by turning the steering wheel to the opposite lock from the original turn. The tow vehicle 'chases' the trailer in the same arc and, with enough space, eventually will re-align the tow vehicle and trailer in a straight line.

  • Turn the steering wheel to the opposite lock (fully locked)
  • Continue reversing slowly whilst your partner watches out for hazards
  • Reduce the steering wheel angle as you line up the trailer sides with the site borders
  • Reverse until your trailer sides are parallel to the site and far enough back
  • Stop, apply brakes and switch off hazard lights.

The position of the tow vehicle relative to the trailer at the end of this manoeuvre does not matter, as long as the trailer is correctly positioned. If the trailer is not in the correct position, do not try to make fine adjustments from where the trailer stands - you will just make life more difficult. Instead, drive forward 3 metres, which will tend to straighten everything and then reverse the van onsite.

Conclusion

With practice, you will be able to align your trailer to the correct position on the site allowing for awnings, car parking space and any concrete slabs on the site. You may also learn to reduce the severity and number of steering wheel movements, making the reversing process a lot smoother.

But reversing a trailer is always more stressful (and riskier) than going forwards, so practice makes perfect. You should take every opportunity to reverse your trailer so that you become proficient and relaxed about conducting the manoeuvre.


This article was written with kind assistance from Tow-Ed.


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