How to Back up a Trailer, the Easy Way
October 04, 2017
Just about anyone can tow a boat or travel trailer in a straight line down an open highway. It's negotiating the exit ramps, narrow roads, traffic, gas stations and parking lots that require attention and experience. And no task seems more daunting to towing newbies than backing up with a trailer. Yet it's a rite of passage that everyone who tows will encounter at some point, especially if you tow a boat and use a ramp to launch it.
Backing up a trailer becomes a lot easier in a new 2018 Ford F-150 that's equipped with Ford's available class-exclusive Pro Trailer Backup Assist. But before we examine that electronic aid, let's explore the reasons why backing a trailer is so challenging, and some low-tech tips you can use — or show your less fortunate friends who don't have Ford's latest trailering feature.
Push & Pivot
Two factors contribute to the difficulty in controlling a trailer in reverse. One is the fact that the truck is now pushing, not pulling, the trailer, and the wheels that are steering the truck/trailer combo are at the rear. This makes just about any steering input counterintuitive.
The second factor is the hitch. The typical ball hitch found on most light-duty pickup trucks acts as a ball joint when the truck and trailer are attached. This helps to reduce the rig's turning radius when moving forward. But when the truck is going backward, the hitch becomes a pivot point, allowing the trailer to go in a direction different than the truck's. In a worst-case scenario, the trailer pivots all the way around in a jackknife, which can damage the trailer, boat, truck, or all three.
No matter what technique you use, backing a trailer takes practice. If you're new to towing, or your boat and trailer are new to you, it's a good idea to find a large, open, flat space to practice precision maneuvers both forward and backward. An empty parking lot is ideal, as the painted lines can represent a launch ramp dock that you'll need to back alongside. Bring a friend to act as a spotter both during practice and when executing the real thing. Boat launch and recovery are a lot easier when the driver doesn't also have to mind the boat.
Because getting a trailer to go the direction you want it to in reverse is so counterintuitive when behind the steering wheel, it's really best not to try to think it through. Instead, hold the steering wheel at the bottom with one hand at the six o'clock position and then move your hand in the direction you want the trailer to go as the truck rolls backward. Make small steering inputs, as a slight movement of the steering wheel translates to a bigger movement at the rear of the trailer.
In an F-150 with Ford's Pro Trailer Backup Assist you don't touch the steering wheel at all while in reverse. The Pro Trailer Backup Assist uses the F-150's backup camera mounted in the tailgate to track the trailer's location, while the driver changes the trailer's direction via a knob on the instrument panel. After inputting the trailer dimensions into the system, push the button to engage the feature, and while slowly backing the trailer, turn the knob in the direction you want the trailer to go. Release the knob and the trailer will gradually return to straight. It's a bit strange at first to see the steering wheel moving of its own accord, but the system really works.
You can monitor the trailer's progress two ways: by using the truck's optional extended trailer tow mirrors and also with the view from the backup camera in the LCD touchscreen in the center stack.
The Pro Trailer Backup Assist limits the speed the truck can travel in reverse by making the accelerator pedal less responsive.
Hitch Without a Hitch
The backup camera on the F-150 is home to another Ford feature, Dynamic Hitch Assist, which helps align the truck's hitch and trailer's tongue without needing a spotter (or getting out yourself). When the truck is in Reverse, the camera display on the instrument panel's touchscreen includes a black dotted line extending from the hitch ball. That dotted line moves when you turn the steering wheel, so lining up truck and trailer becomes a simple matter of following the dotted line to the tongue. A zoom button on the screen gives you a closer view of the hitch and its position relative to the trailer, so as the two get closer you can make the small adjustments needed to drop the tongue right on the ball.
Other components on the new 2018 Ford F-150 will help you master the sometimes tricky task of launching and retrieving a boat at a ramp.
Hill Start Assist works with the antilock brake system on the F-150 to hold the truck in place on an incline while your foot moves from the brake pedal to the accelerator. This feature was designed to keep the truck from rolling backward while starting on a steep hill, but it's also effective in keeping a truck and trailer from slipping backward into deeper water as you start to pull up the ramp.
If you frequent boat ramps that are unpaved, or extra slick due to moss buildup on the concrete, a tow rig with four-wheel drive will be more sure-footed than a two-by. There's added traction thanks to the driven front wheels (which are usually on a drier surface than the rear wheels). Plus the gear reduction available with the transfer case in Low range multiplies the torque available from the engine, making that uphill climb out of the water — even with a fully loaded boat — much easier. (Keep in mind, though, that a 4WD system can lower a truck's towing capacity, so be sure that your trailer and boat's combined weight does not exceed the truck's tow capacity.)
To see the new 2018 Ford F-150 in the field on action-packed fishing and hunting adventures, visit The Ford Outfitters.