Backing up a semi-trailer can be one of the most important and challenging skills drivers and owner-operators must learn and master. Initially, drivers must pass certain tests to qualify for a commercial driver’s license (CDL) before they can transport.
However, these tests simply assess your ability to operate a truck. Passing the test does not necessarily mean that you have mastered the required skills. Most drivers still make mistakes such as using incorrect reversing techniques, or accidentally colliding with objects and vehicles, especially while backing up with a semi-trailer.
Fortunately, there are tips drivers can follow to improve reversing, such as learning to utilize mirrors effectively, understanding the steering wheel’s degree of rotation, carefully checking their surrounding regularly, and a lot of practice.
Whether you’re a beginner or a veteran in the industry, there’s always room for improvement, especially when backing up a trailer. In this article, we’ll share 15 valuable tips that can improve your reversing skills and help you become a better truck driver.
1. Visualize Your Path
The first and most important tip for truck drivers backing up a semi-trailer is to visualize the path they need to take. Doing so will help you plan your movements and minimize the risk of collisions.
Moreover, you should also go through various reversing approaches in your head to give you a better idea of the optimal approach. This can help to prevent errors and do-overs, saving time and fuel in the process.
2. Check Your Surroundings Thoroughly
Before backing up, you should always check your surroundings for any obstacles, such as walls, grills, decks, pallets, and other objects. You also need to ensure no pedestrians or other vehicles are in your way.
By following this tip consistently, you can make extra vigilance a habit and ensure the area is clear and safe to maneuver your truck. If there are any obstacles in your path, you should wait for them to pass or ask someone to remove them accordingly.
3. Watch Your Trailer’s Swing
Another important thing to remember when backing up is that your trailer can swing out to the side. This can be dangerous, especially if other trucks, vehicles, pedestrians, or obstacles are nearby.
Therefore, you need to ensure you have clearance for your truck’s pathing. Fortunately, accounting for your trailer’s swing is an easy task. You simply need to keep your movements slow and deliberate.
Check your mirrors and the truck’s surroundings regularly and stop if you notice any vehicles or pedestrians passing by. More importantly, you need to learn about the trailer’s pivot point and use it to control the truck’s movement.
4. Utilize Your Mirrors
Side mirrors are among the most important aids truckers have at their disposal to improve their overall driving. However, they need to be adjusted correctly so you can use them to guide your movements. Regardless of your trailer’s size (28 ft to 53 ft), you should be able to see its back in your mirrors.
5. Get a Spotter to Help
Getting assistance is one of the best ways to improve your reversing speed and accuracy. Fortunately, most facilities have personnel who can play the role of a spotter to help you avoid obstacles and ensure you stay on the right path.
From security guards to warehouse staff and even other truckers, anyone can help if you ask them. However, you should still ask them beforehand and explain your approach so they understand how to guide or warn you.
6. Remain Patient & Calm Throughout the Process
Patience is one of the most important attributes you can have as a truck driver. After all, you have to be on the road for hours, deal with traffic, and even wait at a client’s facility for loading and unloading.
Likewise, patience is a good virtue to have when backing up. Many drivers often rush into the process and get frustrated after failed attempts. Ask any veteran, and they’ll say backing up requires slow and deliberate movements.
Hastely reversing into loading docks or parking spaces often leads to mistakes. Drivers should remain calm and reverse steadily. They can always get back on the right track by assessing the situation and making small corrections.
7. Avoid Accelerating
When reversing, the last thing you want to do is hit the accelerator. This would significantly increase the risks of you hitting or crashing into an obstacle with the rear end of your trailer. Avoid stepping on the accelerator and reverse while maintaining the idle speed. The slower you back up, the fewer the safety risks.
8. Pay Attention to Your Steering Wheel
As mentioned earlier, learning about your steering wheel’s rotation is an excellent step in improving your handling skills. When backing up, you should use the direction of rotation to guide your trailer.
Use the bottom of your steering wheel as a reference point to the direction you want the trailer to go. However, make sure the truck’s wheels aren’t rotated before you begin. This way, when the bottom of your steering wheel goes right, your trailer will move right as well, and vice versa.
9. Look Out For Tire Marks
Another tip to improve your reversing skills is to look for tire marks on the ground. Chances are other trucks have already reversed at the same spot, so you should be able to see a pattern you can follow.
Ideally, you should be doing this before deciding on your approach. However, make sure you assess the patterns before taking them. Other drivers are also capable of making mistakes.
10. Avoid Jackknifing
Jackknifing occurs when a trailer and tractor fold into one another. It can happen to any driver who turns too sharply or too quickly. Hence, the only way to avoid it is to make slow and deliberate movements with small corrections as you go. Increase the turning radius or make multiple-point turns if necessary.
Another tip to remember is to avoid over-braking, as this can twist the trailer in the other direction due to the instant shift in momentum.
11. Communicate With Others
If you’re backing up near other vehicles or pedestrians, you should communicate with all parties and let them know what you’re doing. This way, you can avoid unnecessary incidents, such as collisions or angry confrontations.
Some of the best methods of communication we recommend are using your hazard lights, turn signals, or hands to indicate your movements. In hazardous scenarios, you may want to use your horn or step out of the truck to communicate urgent matters more effectively.
12. Avoid Blindside Backing If Possible
Unless you have no choice, you should avoid blindside backing whenever possible. This happens when drivers have to back towards the opposite side of the driver’s seat (right side of the trailer), meaning they can only see through the rear-view mirror.
Depending on the circumstances, blindside backing can put you at risk of causing an accident since your best view is taken away during the process. If you have to do it, check the area around and behind the truck and determine where you need to position the truck.
Finally, back up as slowly as possible, ideally with a spotter guiding you. If your job requires you to reverse the blindside regularly, you can install a rear camera and use it to guide you.
13. Stop to Take Breaks
Research shows tired or frustrated truck drivers have slower reaction times and can potentially show more aggressive driving behavior, especially towards the end of their shifts. If you’re fatigued or angry, take a moment to calm down and relax.
The last thing you want to do is back up a trailer when you’re stressed. Doing so can lead to unnecessary collisions that can worsen the matter. With a small break, you can refocus and better visualize your path.
14. Leverage on Technology
Fortunately, we live in a golden age of technology in which truckers can access a wide array of solutions to simplify and improve operations. Popular solutions include backup cameras and sensors to help you see your surroundings and avoid obstacles. If your truck has these features, you should practice using them to your advantage.
15. Practice Whenever Possible
As the saying goes, practice makes perfect! So, the best way to improve your reversing skills is to use your spare time to practice all the tips above. All you need for this is some gas in the tank and an empty parking or similar safe area to practice.
You can also use cones and markers to simulate obstacles and slowly improve your backing capabilities. There are also various truck simulators that you can take advantage of to further hone your driving and reversing skills.
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Co-Founder & Writer
About the Author
Andrew is a multi-business owner with over 12 years of experience in the fields of logistics, trucking, manufacturing, operations, training, and education.
Being the co-founder of freightcourse has given him the ability to pursue his desire to educate others on manufacturing and supply chain topics.