Rolling in reverse
“You should always look as you approach where you’re going to back in, so you get a good idea of what you’re backing into,” Cullison says. Is the space wide and deep enough? Is the pavement smooth or rough? In a tight spot, if the trailer tandems fall into a pothole, the entire trailer might lurch over into another next door. With a flashlight if necessary, look for debris that might flat a tire or tools and equipment, like chocks from the last driver, left in the way. Is there room in the lot in front of the spot to get set up to park?
“The most important thing you can do when backing in is get your set up right,” Eastman says. “You put the truck where it’s going to be easiest to back in.”
Some customers invite big trucks in but don’t seem ready for them. They have curbs, fences, walls and ditches barely a truck length from the dock, and backing in seems impossible. But other drivers have done it, and so can you.
Positioning the truck correctly before backing in makes all the difference. Eastman drives a 1978 Peterbilt 379 with an extended hood. “My tractor has a 265-inch wheelbase, and I pull a 53-foot van, so some places are hard to back into,” he says. “But the Pete backs in easier than some shorter trucks because the drivers don’t set up right.”
One good setup method is to approach in a straight line with the parking spaces on your left and your truck about three feet from the row of parked vehicles. The closer your trailer tandems, the better. As you pass your empty spot, stop and check it out; then look right and find a landmark directly in front of your spot. Idle forward past one more spot.
As you do, turn your four-way flashers on and check your right-side mirrors to make sure no trucks are coming up behind you. As soon as the driver’s window reaches the second parking spot after yours, quickly turn the steering wheel all the way to the right. Stay at idle – slower on slick surfaces – so the truck’s forward momentum won’t push the steering tires into a wider arc.
If space will allow, let the truck idle hard about to the right. Find the landmark, and when your truck’s front end seems even with it, crank the wheel hard left, idle back about and go straight at the landmark until your empty spot is in both mirrors. Your back-up should be straight or nearly so.
Usually there’s not enough space to set up for a straight back in, so after you’ve checked your spot, idled past one more, cranked the wheel hard right and are coming about, your judgment comes into play. Consider weather, light, road surface, truck weight, length and maneuverability, the empty spot’s width, the amount of space you have to work in and your limitations. You’ll either take your best guess or simply know when to come hard about back left. Slow down; it’s easy to go too fast and too far at this point. As the truck comes back about left, find the empty parking spot and the trailer’s back end or left rear marker light in the driver’s mirror or from the driver’s window, and stop, keeping the trailer tandems as close to your empty spot as possible.
Now your setup is good. If not, fine-tune it by pulling forward slowly and realigning the trailer until your gut instinct says you can back it in.
Once you have the setup right, get ready to back in. If your four-way flashers aren’t on, turn them on. Give the air horn a short toot to announce your intentions. Eliminate distractions: turn off music, and turn off the CB radio.
“If I listen to the CB while I’m backing, I’ll lose my train of thought, and it will mess me up,” Cullison says.
Those coaching you over the CB might mean well, but can they even see what you’re doing? “If they’re not standing at the back of the trailer, how do you know they’re even watching? They might be driving by or sitting across the truckstop telling you, ‘come on back, come on back,’ and then crunch! And then they’ll laugh at you.”