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Improve your driving skills: How to reverse a car or caravan

Carlton Boyce / 27 January 2017 ( 25 April 2019 )

Motoring expert Carlton Boyce demonstrates that it’s always worth brushing up on your car reversing skills…

A man reverses his car

I taught myself to reverse at the age of ten, but despite thirty years’ worth of experience I’ve never been completely comfortable doing it; taking the pigs to market is a two-sleepless-nights task because the horror of reversing a single-axle, short-wheelbase livestock trailer in front of a couple of dozen farmers, almost all of whom stop whatever it is they’re doing to critique my reversing skills, brings me out in a cold sweat. 

I can get it there eventually, but it generally isn’t pretty.

Training to reverse

I finally decided that it was time to stop worrying and actually do something about it. It was time, in other words, to visit the professionals get some tuition - and as they provide training for drivers of all ages and abilities, and even run courses for the Caravan Club, few are better qualified than Towing Solutions Limited.

The training started with a general overview of the law surrounding towing as well as some practical tips on hitching and unhitching the caravan to your vehicle. 

Despite having been driving for the past four decades, I learned plenty. My impatience to start learning how to reverse properly was tempered with the realisation that while I’ve never had an accident or mishap while towing, I certainly didn’t know it all.

We then moved on to a short road section to enable my instructor to assess my on-road skills. He must have thought I did quite well because we quickly moved on to the manoeuvering element of the training. We relocated to an empty car-park to enable me to reverse in complete safety and, crucially, without anyone watching...

More tips on reversing a caravan

A few simple tips to reverse in a straight line

We started by reversing in a straight line, a straightforward proposition that was made easier by the brilliantly simple tip of using a couple of pieces of black electricians’ tape. You just fix them vertically to the front of the caravan, ensuring that they’re centred in each door mirror. This helps you to keep the car and caravan unit going in a straight line.

I had also previously reversed by turning around in my seat and laying my left arm along the top of the passenger’s seat, leaving only my right hand to steer. A gentle suggestion led me to try using only my mirrors and keeping both hands firmly on the steering wheel. 

The aim is to keep the two pieces of black tape centred in the mirrors by using only gentle steering inputs, giving each tweak of the wheel time to take effect.

The key is, I was told, to hold your hands at the bottom of the steering wheel. Then, using the mirrors, you simply work out whether you want to see more or less of the object on one side using the tape to help guide you. If you want to move the trailer or caravan to the right-hand side (offside) you raise your right hand to move the steering wheel to the left to coax the towed vehicle in the direction it needs to go.

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Practice makes perfect

Anyone that has ever reversed a trailer or caravan will be familiar with the difficulty in thinking backwards, as it were. The only solution is to practice, and then to practice some more. And then do a little bit more, until it becomes second nature – and even then you’ll also need to keep at it. 

Even deeply ingrained muscle memory can be lost and if you only ever reverse once a year during your summer holidays you’re going to have a lot of catching up to do - and you really don’t want to refresh your memory in front of half-a-dozen caravanners who’re already on their pitch and ideally placed to admire your driving with a glass of something refreshing to hand, do you?

By adopting this method I was immediately smoother and making fewer adjustments; that, and some patience, meant that the unit was moving as one, rather than as two discrete components that were intent on fighting one another.

The reversing manoeuver itself could, I was told, be likened to moving the caravan backwards around the edge of a fifty-pence piece: you turn into the corner, then straighten the wheel, then turn again, and then straighten and to keep going until you are where you need to be. 

It sounds clunky and unintuitive – especially when, like me, you’ve been aiming for one single consistent steering input when driving on the road – but it works, and it works well.

We then did a reversing slalom, which wasn’t half as bad as I thought it might be, before moving on to the sort of sharp, 90-degree reverse that you’d use to thread a caravan into a narrow pitch on a busy site. 

Using the same sort of pre-determined steering inputs that you might use to parallel park, the caravan slotted neatly into place every single time.

Self-parking cars

Much more confident in my reversing abilities

I came away from the day feeling much more confident in my ability to reverse a trailer accurately, even if I must still acknowledge that a short-wheelbase trailer is inherently more twitchy and so harder to steer than a long-wheelbase, twin-axle caravan.

I also realised that no amount of training can completely overcome my performance anxiety. I guess that that is just something I’ll need to keep working on; after all, I’ve only been doing it for forty years so far and I’m hoping that I should crack it completely at some point in the next thirty…

Towing Solutions Limited can be reached via their website, or by calling them on 01625 433251.

Next article: Safer towing >>>

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.