As part of our DitchingSuburbia lives we often talk with people new to RVing or new to pulling trailers in general. We wanted to provide some advice on towing a fifth wheel trailer for those who haven’t done it.
The advice below is from our own experience of pulling first a 30’ fifth wheel and then our current 34’ fifth wheel since 2010, in 40 states and parking them in hundreds of different campsites.
This post doesn’t cover hitching and unhitching procedures (we found some YouTube videos when we first bought our fifth wheel) but rather just what we learned while driving with the trailer attached, and then what we learned when backing it into a campsite.
Pulling the Trailer
The biggest thing I had to learn was that the trailer wheels do not follow the truck wheels through a turn. The trailer’s arc through a turn will be inside of the trucks.
Think “deep square corners” when pulling the trailer.
Approaching an intersection, drive as deep (straight) into the intersection as you think you can go with the truck before making the turn. This will give the trailer more room as it comes through the corner.
Same idea when turning into a parking lot from a road - go as far “past” the driveway as you can before swinging into it. There will be times where you can’t get enough room for the trailer and the trailer tires will have to “bump” over a curb. Just go slow in these cases and let the tires absorb the impact.
Many campgrounds have a combination of skinny roads and tight curves. In these cases you’ll often have the outside/front tire of the truck off the pavement and the inside/rear tires of the trailer off the pavement. This is OK - you aren’t the biggest rig that’s been here so there is room for you.
Give yourself a healthy open space in front of you, but expect other drivers to jump into it. They won’t realize that you need that space to stop if need be.
Other drivers will often ignore your turn signal - so if you need the lane, have had your turn signal on, and they aren’t giving you space just start slowly making your lane change. The other cars will get out of your way.
We’ve found that being slower than traffic is less stressful. We just set the cruise and let the world go by.
In multi-lane highways we try to be in the middle favoring the mid-left. The far left lanes are for fast traffic so we stay out of those, but the right lanes often “disappear” with exits and on-ramps (which means we have to keep making lane changes to stay left). We also don’t like to have to negotiate with traffic merging from on-ramps.
Backing the Trailer into a Campsite
Your starting position is key. There are two important aspects to your starting position - side of the road and distance from your target site.
Side of the Road:
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You might think that starting with the truck and trailer on the opposite side of the road from the campsite would be easier by giving you a wider arc to push the trailer through. However the truck’s nose needs that room to swing around as it backs into the site.
By starting from the same side of the road as the campsite you’ll have more room for the truck’s nose to make the swing to get back parallel with the trailer.
You will have times where:
- You’ll need to have cars moved
- Your truck tires will roll through another site
- You’ll have trees or bushes in that “nose-space”
We have gone back and requested different campsites because there were hard obstacles like power poles or dumpsters in the nose space our truck needed.
Distance from the Target Site
You’ll want to pull the truck and trailer entirely past your target site - probably further than you think. It will take several feet for the trailer to start responding to your direction from the truck so you have to allow for that space from your starting position.
Starting your back-in from too far past the site is better than not far enough.
Your spotters will be telling you to swing the trailer one way or the other and you’ll have already made those corrections but the trailer just isn’t responding yet. It’ll take some practice to get a feel for how much lag time there is between a steering correction and the trailer responding.
By starting further away from the site you’ll have a better chance of the trailer responding in time to make the swing in to the campsite. If the trailer responds too soon it’s easy enough correct that by turning your steering wheel the opposite way.
Which Way to Turn the Wheel?
Here’s how to turn the steering wheel to get the trailer going a certain direction:
Put your hand on the bottom of the steering wheel (6:00 position). Whichever way you turn the wheel the trailer will go that direction.
Usually I’ll crank the wheel all the way while backing up just to get the trailer going where I want it to. Then I will - while rolling back - slowly return the truck’s wheels to straight - what I call “following the trailer back”.
You can’t just keep your steering wheel in one spot while backing up as the trailer will jack-knife.
Unless you like that sort of attention in a campground…
Don’t Be Afraid To’s
Remember it’s your equipment, your trip, and your money being spent at the campground or RV park. You are in charge.
Don’t be afraid to:
- Get out and do a walk through the site.
Take note any obstacles and plan your move into it. Take your time. People can wait.
- Start completely over.In the middle of a parking job not going well I’ve pulled out, gone around the loop, and reset from a better starting position.
- Do a few “pull forwards” to get the trailer where you want it in the site.
I’m still doing this. Getting it the first time happens once in a while but with sites being off level, trees/bushes/poles placements vs. slideouts, or sewer connections on the ground vs. your trailer there are a number of variables that affect final placement. We’ve often found that our sewer hose length determines where the trailer has to end up.
- Turn down “help” from neighbors.
I usually thank them for their desire but joke that we need to be able to figure this out when they aren’t there next time.
- Be crooked in the site.
I’m a bit OCD about things lining up (especially if there is a hard edge in the campsite like a concrete pad) but have learned to let that go. Mostly. No one will judge your parking job once you are all setup.
- Task your family with being extra eyes as you back into the site.
Sometimes having them stand at the ‘bounds’ can help you see where the site actually is - especially if you are trying to do this in the dark (have multiple flashlights on hand, and don’t forget your trailer exterior lights can be used here as well).
- Request a different site.
We’ve had times for whatever reason the site didn’t work for us and saw other sites that looked more favorable. Most of the time getting assigned a different site hasn’t been an issue.
Like all things you’ll get better at this with time. If you are totally new to pulling a large trailer and jumping into the RV life fulltime I’d give yourself at least 8-10 weeks practice of getting on the road, towing in traffic, and getting setup in a campsite before you’ll be doing it like a champ.
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