Backing up a tractor trailer is usually very difficult for new truck drivers or drivers in training. Heck, even experienced truck drivers will have those days where for some reason backing up their trailer is just not working for them. Everyone is going to have days like that sooner or later.
Of all the tractor trailer maneuvers you will have to do backing up is sure to be one of the most difficult to master. Actually, you will never master backing. Tractor trailer drivers rarely do. The best you can do is practice (a lot) and get more confident as you gain experience backing up so you are more comfortable doing it.
Whether you are in training and worried about taking the CDL basic control driving skills test, just starting your first truck driving job, or you have been driving for several years it doesn’t hurt to get a different perspective.
In this article I’m going to give you 22 of the most useful tips for backing up a tractor trailer. One of them (especially #4) is bound to make you better (and more confident) at backing up.
1. Pull Up
There is not a truck driver alive that perfectly backs his/her semi trailer every single time. It just doesn’t work that way. Take it slow and don’t let anyone rush you.
If you see that you messed up just pull up or pull around to set up your back in again. Take as many pull ups as you need until you get it right. Again, take your time and eventually you will get it right. In time you will get better at backing up.
2. Practice. A lot
Get a feel for how your trailer moves and reacts to your driving and you will be able to back up much better. This takes practice though. No two drivers are the same, what works for you doesn’t necessarily work for someone else. If there was one universal way to back up a trailer then this article wouldn’t exist.
Go through the rest of these tips and see which one works best for you. Once you find the one that you like the only way to get better is to practice, practice, practice.
3. Find An Empty Lot
Find yourself an empty lot or empty truck stop and take the time to practice your back up. Do it as many times as you need to and as often as you need to until you feel confident. You may need to check with the management of the lot to see if they mind you practicing your backing in their lot, you don’t want to make enemies out there.
4. Look At Your Steering Wheel
Something to remember is that when backing up your tractor trailer you can look at your steering wheel for some help. This tip is considered one of the most useful ones that all drivers should learn during training. If you haven’t heard about this steering wheel trick here it is:
The top of the steering wheel (toward your wind shield) is the truck and the bottom of the steering wheel (by your lap) is the trailer. Here is how the steering wheel can help you:
While backing, when you turn the steering wheel to the right the top goes right and the bottom goes left. This means your trailer will go left.
If you turn your steering wheel to the left the bottom of the steering wheel will go to the right. This means your trailer will go to the right.
Scroll down to the YouTube video for a great video demonstrating this concept.
5. Get Out And Look! (G.O.A.L.)
This is the one tip that drivers overlook because they don’t want to look like they can’t drive. Don’t be afraid to get out of your truck and look at what you are doing. If someone does have something to say because you are trying to back up without hitting something just ignore them. It’s not worth your time to worry about what other drivers think. Even experienced drivers at some point didn’t know how to back up either.
Do yourself and the other people around you a favor and get out of your truck to make sure you are doing things right. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. The only thing to be ashamed of is if you hit someones truck because you are too lazy to get out and take a look at your tractor trailers position while backing up.
6. Look At Your Tandems
Look at the your tandems too, don’t just focus on the trailer. If there are lines on the pavement you can use them to help you judge your angles.
7. Turn Off Distractions
The world is not going to end if you turn off your CB, phone, and stereo for several minutes as you are backing up. Please, limit as many distractions as you can so that you can focus on backing up and not hitting anything.
8. Get Help From A Truck Driver Only
If you do get help from a spotter you better be sure that they are a trucker. Someone that has never driven a tractor trailer has no idea how to back up a trailer and can do more harm than good. If someone offers to help but are not a truck driver just tell them no thanks.
9. Avoid Backing Up!
It makes sense. If backing up isn’t your driving strength then you should avoid doing it. A word to the wise is to just avoid backing up by planning and parking in spaces that you can pull through. It will save you time and minimize the risk of hitting something.
10. Use Your Mirrors
While backing up you have to use both mirrors. The mirrors are there for a reason, to help you back up! Take your time and check those mirrors often. One more thing regarding mirrors, keep your eyes moving and don’t fixate on one mirror.
11. Rent A Trailer From U-Haul
If you have a car or pickup truck with a hitch on it go to your nearest U-Haul and rent the longest trailer they have. Hitch it to your car or pickup and get your self to an empty parking lot and spend the day backing it up into parking spots. I know, it’s not the same as a 53 foot trailer but the technique is exactly the same.
The point is to become more comfortable with the backing up technique. Once you are comfortable with your technique you can transfer it to a tractor trailer.
This is a great way to learn how to back up a tractor trailer without worrying about damaging anything. Practice will make perfect.
12. Go Slow
Going slow seems like common sense when backing up but not everyone does it. Take your time, check your mirrors, and get out of the truck to see how you are doing. It’s much better to take a long time backing up than going fast and hitting another tractor trailer. If you do hit someone else be prepared to deal with an angry driver.
13. Watch Other Drivers Back Up
The next time you have a chance to watch someone else back up a trailer pay close attention. You can learn a lot about what to do and what not to do.
Watching someone else back up helps you understand how the trailer pivots. While you are watching the other driver you should be thinking about what moves you would make if you were backing it up. It’s like watching from the sidelines of a football game as a reserve quarterback and then applying what you learned when you are put into the game. Consider asking the driver for some advice when they finish backing. See #14.
14. Ask For Advice
Ask some other drivers that you know are experienced what they do to help them back up. Everyone has their tricks of the trade that they are usually willing to share with you. Don’t be ashamed or embarrassed to ask for help. After all, at some point everyone was a rookie driver too. Those experienced drivers that have been driving for 20+ plus years have a wealth of information to pass on to you. Make it worth their time by offering to buy lunch or dinner.
15. Imagine An Aerial View
This one works great for a lot of truck drivers learning to back up. Pretend you are looking down at a toy truck. Now look at the way your trailer sits. What do you have to do in order to square up with the space? It will also help to get out of your truck and take a look at your trailer and where you want your trailer to go.
16. Watch Your Tires And Axles
Don’t focus on the back of your trailer. Sure, you have to check the trailer to make sure you aren’t going to hit anything but try focusing on your axles and where they are going. It sounds easy to do but new drivers tend to focus on the rear of the trailer too much.
Try this tip and backing up will get a lot easier.
Watch some truck backing videos on Youtube, there are hundreds of them. Some are better than others but a simple search like, “how to back up a tractor trailer” will yield you a ton of results. Go through the videos and see which one you think will help you out the most.
The video below by Jimmy Cox is the first in a series of four and is one that is highly recommended by professional truck drivers. His videos have a lot of views for a reason; they are really good! If you are a visual learner and need to see someone explain backing then these are the videos for you.
18. Say No!
There will be times when you will arrive to pick up or deliver a load somewhere where you know your tractor trailer won’t fit or there will be too many obstructions in your way. This is a problem because the obstructions can prevent you from being able to properly set up. Don’t be afraid to ask someone to move what ever is blocking your path.
I know some drivers are going to give me grief for this but there is no shame in admitting when a backup is just not possible. Your safety should be your top priority.
19. Keep Your Foot On The Brake
When you start rolling backwards you should be going really slow. Be sure to keep your foot covering the brake pedal so that you are always ready to slow down or stop. A good precaution in case you start rolling too fast.
20. Get The Attention Of Others
Make yourself visible to other drivers by turning on your hazards when backing and hit the horn so get the attention of people around. You want the people around you to know you are about to start backing up.
21. Every Backup Is Different
No two backups are exactly the same. You might deliver to the same location several times and each time your backup could be different. Don’t assume that once you do a few good backups that you are an expert. No one is an expert. Backing up is something that does get easier with experience but it’s definitely one of the more difficult maneuvers when driving a tractor trailer.
22. Preview The Area
Before you start backing make sure to look around for cars, garbage dumpsters, people, other trucks, lot lizards, power lines, wires, nails, broken glass and just about anything else that could make the backup more difficult. Do this before you even begin your setup.