Expert Tips for Backing a Trailer

Three experienced trailer boaters offer their top tip for backing a trailer.
Trailer Boating in Alaska
If possible, back to the driver’s side when you need to back into a hard turn. Doing so allows you to see the trailer for the entire duration of the maneuver. Back through a 90-degree turn to the passenger side, and you will lose sight of the trailer for much of the turn. Peter Robson and David Seidman

Advice about how to back up a trailer is right there with “docking advice” and “how much power do I need” as the most common reader questions of all time.

Boating’s experts agree that practice is the biggest key. Find an empty parking lot or ­visit a launch ramp on a chilly, ­midweek day. Then, back up to “­targets” such as cones, sawhorses, beach chairs, cardboard boxes, or whatever you’ve got that you won’t mind hitting.

Naturally, we want to give you more than just general advice, even if it is very good. So, I asked our most ­experienced trailer boaters—John Tiger, Randy Vance and Jim ­Hendricks—to each offer their top tip for backing a trailer. Their approaches are ­similar. But, because the sciences of logic and linguistics tell us that tautology—repeating an idea in a ­different way—can make for effective communication, we present these three voices. Don’t take this tautological trio for granted!

Mount Rushmore of trailering
Our editors —Jim Hendricks, John Tiger and Randy Vance—provide you rock solid trailering tips. Colin Hayes

John Tiger

“My ‘tip’ is to use whatever works best, makes you the most comfortable, and gives your best result,” says John Tiger, longtime Boating contributing editor and ­proprietor of Tiger Outboards, ­Virginia Beach, Virginia. “I use a ­combination of techniques.

“First, when possible, I look over my right shoulder through the rear window when backing, guiding the trailer using the steering wheel to move it into position. I revert to this method most often because that’s how I was taught by my father so many years ago. When that’s not feasible, I use the rearview and side mirrors in combination with my left hand at the bottom of the steering wheel, moving my hand and the wheel to the right or left depending on which way I want the trailer to go.

“In extreme cases where the area is tight and visibility very limited, I will open the driver’s side door and back the trailer while looking over my left shoulder (not recommended unless you’re very aware of your ­surroundings and your ability to back confidently).”

Randy Vance

Boating’s BoatingLab ­Director, Editor-at-Large for parent company Bonnier LLC, and host of hundreds of Boating videos, Randy Vance knows how to handle a boat on a trailer. ­Besides his professional resume, which includes towing boats cross-country, across mountain ranges and across deserts, Vance is a longtime owner of trailerable boats (though he now lives on the water).

The tip he offers is simple: “I keep my hands on the bottom of the steering wheel. If you do that, the trailer will move in the direction you push the wheel. “Naturally, multiple small corrections work better than large swings of the wheel.”

Vance prefers not to look through his rear window, instead relying on the view provided by the tow vehicle’s side-view mirrors.

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Jim Hendricks

“When backing a trailer, I never look through the rear window,” says Boating’s West Coast and Electronics Editor, who trailers his own boat, Split Decision, and other vessels, all over ­California and the American West. “It can make for confusion as your perspective changes from forward to back. Instead, I rely on my side-view mirrors and have a technique that I find helpful.

“I advise keeping the ­trailer in view in both side-view ­mirrors at the same time. This can’t be done all the time. But it is worth striving for because doing so essentially means you are backing up straight. So, when backing up with the boat on the trailer, hands on top of the steering wheel, turn the wheel toward the mirror in which the trailer is showing. Doing so will move the trailer to the ‘empty’ mirror.”