Article - Steering From The Bottom to Backup Your Trailer Doesn’t Work
If you’ve ever had trouble backing up with your trailer, someone has probably told you to just put your hand on the bottom of the steering wheel. This, they explain, lets you move your hand in the direction you want your trailer to go. If you want the trailer to head to the right, move your hand to the right. If you want the trailer to go left, move your hand to the left.
But, when you gave it a try, it didn’t work. Why?
There are many things at play when backing up a trailer. Putting your hand at the bottom of the steering wheel fails because it only addresses one of them.
Yes, knowing which way to turn the wheel is important and the bottom of the wheel trick may help with that. But, you must also master how far to rotate the wheel, when to reverse your steering, and how much to back off your steering as a turn progresses.
Consider the case of backing up straight. To backup straight, you must do two simple things. You must steer your truck in the same direction as your trailer and you must steer more sharply than your trailer is turning.
If your trailer is turning toward the right side of the road as you backup, you must turn your truck to the right side of the road and you must do so more sharply in order to catch up with and get ahead of your trailer’s turning. This will cause your trailer to turn towards the left side of the road. You then need to reverse your turning to the left side of the road, and so on.
Here is another way to think of this. If the trailer is heading toward the right side of the road, you must steer more sharply to the right to get ahead of the trailer. When steering to the right, you rotate the steering wheel clockwise – the top of the wheel moves to the right, but the bottom of the wheel moves to the left. With the trailer heading to the right, you want to “push” your trailer back to the left. Holding the steering wheel at the bottom is a gimmick whereby you move your hand in the direction of the push you want.
However, holding the wheel at the bottom to “steer your trailer” only helps with the direction of the steering. It does not help with how sharply to turn.
Here is a chart that shows how sharply you must turn your truck. The scale along the bottom is the trailer angle at your hitch ball. The scale along the left edge is the size of the circle to which you must steer your truck. The more you rotate your steering wheel, the sharper your turn and the smaller the circle you will be steering. The plotted curve shows the biggest circle you can turn on and still keep the trailer from jackknifing given how much your trailer is turned. You must steer to a smaller circle than is indicated by the plotted curve to keep your trailer from jackknifing — you must steer to a circle size that is under the plotted curve.
What is clear from the chart is that if the angle of your trailer is less than ½ of a degree, steering on even a very large circle will keep you from jackknifing, as long as you are steering to the correct side. Almost any amount of steering will achieve a circle size that is below the plotted curve. This is when steering from the bottom of the steering wheel works. Above an angle of just a few degrees, you must steer your truck to a very small circle which requires significant steering wheel rotation. But, many things can complicate your ability to stay within this range where steering from the bottom of the steering wheel is effective:
Alignment – You must be able to recognize the moment when your trailer passes from one side to the other (in other words, when it passes through being aligned with your truck). Many things can contribute to the illusion of alignment when it doesn’t exist. These include sitting in the driver’s seat which is off-center in your truck, being twisted around to look over your shoulder, a trailer with an asymmetric appearance, and even using opposite side view mirrors having different magnification.
Angle – You must allow your trailer to turn enough to cross-over to the opposite side of your truck, but not go much beyond that. How hard is it to see when your trailer is within an angle of 1 degree? If you are in a 14 foot long truck and are towing a 16 foot long trailer, your trailer’s tires will be about 30 feet away. To be within 1 degree, from 30 feet away while looking in a mirror, you need to perceive when the trailer’s tires have moved about three inches to the side.
Visibility – A flatbed trailer or an empty boat trailer might be too low to see over the back of your vehicle. If using your side view mirrors, the trailer must turn far enough to one side or the other to be in view. In some cases, by the time the trailer comes into view, it has already turned too far for you to easily adjust your steering – if you have a narrow trailer, such as for a single jet-ski, your trailer may have to turn several degrees before you can even see it in your mirrors.
Timing – If you are watching your surroundings for people, animals or obstacles – as you must do – you might be looking away at the moment when the trailer passes through alignment. Even when you can accurately recognize when the trailer passes through alignment, you also must react quickly with a steering correction.
Holding the steering wheel at the bottom does not help with any of these issues.
The bottom line is that if you can overcome these complications and can tell when the hitch angle is between zero and 1 degree, holding the steering wheel at the bottom may be quite effective when backing up straight. For an easier solution, TowGo manufactures a system that notifies you when to reverse your steering so that you can keep the trailer hitch angle within the range where holding the steering wheel at the bottom works well. With their patent pending Flash and Beep™ technology, you will know exactly when to adjust your steering. The TowGo system will also enable you to follow a curved road, make a right angle turn into your driveway, and even go all the way around in a circle or backup a U-turn into that perfect campsite. And, you will be able to do all of that while holding onto the steering wheel anywhere you like.
Dan Shepard is the Founder and CEO of TowGo, LLC, manufacturer of the Trailer Backup Navigation Aid, and is an expert on trailer backup technology.