If I Had a Hammer

A woman driving a fairly new Dodge Ram 3500 dually pick up pulled into Mission Bay RV Resort with an Airstream travel trailer a couple of days ago. She drove slowly past our site. Her trailer was about 25 feet long. It didn’t take long for me to realize she was new to this and didn’t understand how to maneuver a trailer while reversing.

If you’ve never backed a trailer into a space, it would be a good idea to practice first. The best way I can think of is to find a large parking lot with an empty area. You can back the trailer into a marked parking stall and practice putting it between the lines without fear of hitting something. Here are a few tips before I get back to the woman’s story.

First, go slowly. When I worked as a deputy with the sheriff’s office I attended the emergency vehicle operators course (EVOC). The EVOC instructors had a mantra – always travel in reverse as if you’re about to hit something. What they meant was, if you have the mindset that you may back into something, you’ll always be vigilant and probably won’t hit anything. When you are backing a trailer, you have to be mindful of two vehicles – the trailer and the tow vehicle. If you’re cutting the wheel sharply to position the trailer, the front of the tow vehicle will swing to the side.

When you are backing up a trailer, think about the direction that the bottom of your steering wheel is moving. When you turn the steering wheel to crank the front wheels to the left, the bottom of the steering wheel moves to the right – towards the passenger side. This is the direction the back of the trailer will go.

Once the trailer starts to turn behind the tow vehicle, it will continue to turn in that direction until you correct it. For example, if we turned the front tires to the left as in the example above, the bottom of the steering wheel moved to the right and the rear of the trailer starts turning to the right. If we keep moving backwards the front of the trailer will continue to pivot around the hitch ball and the trailer will turn at an increasingly sharp angle. This will happen even if we straighten the front wheels. To stop the turn of the trailer and get the vehicle and trailer back in line, we need to turn the wheel in the opposite direction and move back slowly until the tow vehicle and trailer align, then straighten the wheels.

If we don’t apply a correction, the trailer will turn at such an acute angle that it’s possible for the front corner of the trailer to make contact with the rear corner of the tow vehicle – this is called jack knifing. A jack knifed trailer is not a good thing – damage occurs to both vehicles.

Be patient. Sometimes it might take a few attempts to get things lined up the way you want them. So be it. Don’t get flustered or concerned that others may think you are inept – everyone had to learn at some point – and some circumstances make it difficult to position the trailer the way you want it. Practicing in an empty lot will help you understand the dynamics and you’ll be able to back your trailer into a space with confidence.

The woman with the Airstream drove past our site. Several minutes later she stopped in front of us again, facing the opposite direction. She had her window down and a man was standing next to her truck talking to her. Donna noticed damage on the right front of her trailer which looked new otherwise. After a few minutes, she starting backing into her site across from us and down a couple of spaces. The man was directing her, but I could see he wasn’t giving her very good instructions. She was all over the place. I was hesitant at first, but then I couldn’t stand by and watch any longer.

I went out to her truck and asked the man to watch the rear so she wouldn’t hit the picnic table. Then I started telling her which way to turn her wheels. Once we had the Airstream in her site, I had her pull forward then back in slowly so we could get it lined up straight. She got out of her truck and said she wished she would’ve stopped and asked for help before trying to back in. What I didn’t know was she first attempted to enter her site from the east before she pulled down to the end of the row and turned around. She jack knifed the trailer and damaged her Airstream and new Dodge dually. This was her second time out – someone helped her get into a site at Campland before she came here.

I came back to our coach and set about doing what I was doing before she came along. About half an hour later, I was getting ready to go to the store. Donna told me the woman hadn’t disconnected her trailer from the truck and seemed to be having a problem. I saw another neighbor go over there with a large hammer. This didn’t look good to me.

I walked over and asked what was up. The guy with the hammer was beating on the release lever for the coupler lock on the trailer tongue. I asked him to stop before he did any more damage so we could figure out what was hanging it up. First of all, I could see she had put the trailer jack down and the tongue of the trailer was actually lifting the rear of her truck. This put a lot of pressure on the coupler lock. While I was explaining how this works to her, the other guy knocked the retaining pin out of the lock lever, removed the lever and started pounding on the linkage.

Example of a trailer tongue with coupler lock lever

I stopped him and explained that beating the linkage down will damage it, the lever lifts the linkage so he was doing the opposite of what needed to be done. With the trailer jack lowered, I was able to grab the linkage with pliers and pull it up, releasing the coupler lock. We put the lever back on. The woman insisted something was wrong with the coupler lock. I explained again how it operates and showed her how to release it. I released it several times, demonstrating that it worked fine.

I wanted to take photos to illustrate what I’m talking about, but it didn’t seem appropriate at the time. I hope this post makes sense to those reading it. The lessons learned are – practice with your trailer – ask for assistance – and beware of a neighbor offering help with a hammer.

We’ve had very warm weather – temperatures have reached the mid 90s. The Santa Ana winds have stayed well north of us though, it’s been fairly calm here in San Diego. The hot spell will continue tomorrow before we cool down to the low 80s by the weekend. Good times in San Diego.

Edit to post – I added a photo of the jack knife damaged Airstream.

Jack knife damage

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