Backing up a 53’ trailer (or even a 48’!) is one of the most daunting aspects of professional truck driving. Figuring out how long 53 feet actually is and understanding how that trailer will react to your tractor’s movements takes months and even years of practice. The best piece of advice for new drivers is to accept that you’re not always going to hit a hole perfectly, but that as long as you go slow, get out and look (G.O.A.L) and follow a few simple tips, backing up doesn’t have to be as intimidating as it appears.
Observe and Listen:
Watching drivers back into docks or into parking spaces can teach you a lot about what to do and, more importantly, what not to do. Sometimes, observing the movements of the tractor and trailer from a distance can help you understand how the trailer pivots and how quickly it reacts to the tractor’s maneuvers. A lot of focus is given to how a trailer pivots on its tandems, but by watching others back, you can also see how important it is to consider how the front end of your trailer moves, too. As you observe other drivers, you can think about what moves you would make, see what moves the other drivers make and examine how well they work.
One important thing to remember when you’re new to driving is that you’re a rookie, and there’s nothing to be ashamed about in asking for advice or help when backing into a tricky spot. If you’re not sure how to set-up to back into a dock, see if there are other drivers around to ask for advice. It’s important to realize that not all advice is going to be perfect, but the more drivers you can talk to, the better you will understand the approaches and techniques available to you in order to get your trailer into the spot you need. If you can, ask one or two people to help spot you, but make sure they’re in a position where you can see them and that you agree on a clear signal to stop. Remember, that the tractor and trailer are always your responsibility and spotters should never be solely relied on.
Sometimes the set-up is more important than performing the backing maneuvers themselves. When setting up your trailer for a back, you have to be aware of several things. Your available space will dictate if you set-up for a 90°, 45°, straight back or something in between. Whenever possible, you want to get the truck and trailer facing the right direction to make the back on your sight-side. Pay close attention to your forward space, the width of the hole and your proximity to other trucks/obstacles that may be in the path of your vehicle as you make your maneuvers. Remember that shorter forward space usually equates to larger angle backs. Try to look at your backing situation and relate it to the practice backs that were set up for you during school and training. It may look like a much different situation, but you can usually recognize familiar backs from your practice in the docks and parking spaces at real locations.
Recognize that, when backing with a van trailer, you can’t see over a third of the space that you are backing into. That’s why it’s especially important to get out of the truck and walk to the back of the trailer to look for any obstacles and to keep track of your available space behind, on the side and above your trailer. It’s easy to forget how big the tail swing is on the back of your trailer so when backing into especially tight spaces, it’s a good idea to slide your tandems all the way back in order to decrease your tail swing around your pivoting tandems. Remember, you can get out of the truck and look as many times as you want, but it only takes one time of saying “I think I have enough space” to back into something and damage equipment.
No one expects rookie drivers to be expert backers right out of school. It’s intimidating sometimes to have to try to back into a space in a crowded area where there are a lot of eyes watching, but remember that every veteran driver was once a rookie and remembers what it’s like to just be starting out. Just take your time, G.O.A.L often, stop to think about your maneuvers before doing them and don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s going to take time and practice, but before you know it you’ll be the one that rookie drivers are asking for advice.