Nigel DonnellySee other Blog articles filed in ‘Travel and touring’ written by Nigel Donnelly
"Caravanning is all about enjoying yourself. It really shouldn’t be stressful,” said Bernie Jones, the chief instructor at L Busters Driver Training School.
I agree with the sentiment, but having found myself in one or two tricky situations in the past, I decided that a half-day course on reversing a trailer at L-Buster’s West Sussex training centre would be time well spent.
“What you really need…”. I waited for the words of wisdom. “… is a motor mover,” said Bernie with a smile.
Fair enough, but that was hardly going to improve my towing technique and wouldn’t have been much use when I had to reverse away from a broken down van on the French autoroute last year. I knew I had to improve my towing. I was fairly comfortable going forward with a van on the back; it was going backwards that made me a little twitchy. And that's what Bernie fixed.
Bernie wanted to see my towing action and even before I had begun a reversing manoeuvre he picked up on a problem. I was driving a Ford Mondeo with a manual gearbox and I was revving the engine too much.
“Take your foot off the gas,” he ordered.
But surely I need to put my foot on the accelerator to move forward or backward? Apparently not.
“It’s all about clutch control,” said Bernie. “When you rev the engine, it makes noise. No revving means no noise and you stay calm.” It hadn’t really dawned on me that I could move the car backwards and forwards by being in gear and just depressing the clutch by varying degrees. Bernie was right, just that one piece of advice made things a lot simpler.
Reversing in a straight line is relatively straightforward if you have your mirrors correctly adjusted. Ideally you should just be able to see the grab handles about centre of the nearside of the mirror and about a quarter of an inch of caravan. This gives you a good view down the side of the van and beyond.
Put the car in reverse, gently release the clutch and watch the van in the towing mirrors and not the standard car mirrors. When the caravan starts to loom large in one mirror, steer slightly towards that mirror and the caravan will straighten up. The object is to keep the van in view in both mirrors. Also keep your eye on where you want the caravan to go. I spent a bit of time mastering clutch control and building confidence reversing in a straight line before tackling the trickier manoeuvre of reversing around a corner.
Then it was time to try reversing round a corner with a trailer. Bernie set up a ‘pitch’ using traffic cones, with a barrier at the back of the pitch for me to aim for. Reversing around a corner from the right is simpler, because the driver has a better view of where he or she is going. Reversing around a corner from the left, the driver is reversing blind and will need the assistance of a second person. There is a technique: Bernie got me to draw up in a straight line on the imaginary site road and at right angles to the pitch so that I was far enough along for the caravan to make a gentle arc around the corner of the pitch.
Before I started to reverse I made one complete turn of the steering wheel away from the direction I wanted the caravan to travel. Then, using only the clutch to control the speed, I started to reverse slowly (at a slow walking pace), this turns the caravan slightly away from the pitch. Then I put the wheel on full lock towards the direction I wanted to go. When the van filled both the car and towing mirrors on one side of the rig it was going in straight. Keep an eye on the van’s tyres. When they stop moving you are potentially going into a jack-knife position and when this happens you need to move forward and start again. Any adjustments should be made with very small movements of the steering wheel.
I practised and at one point found I had put my outfit in a jack-knife position that I had no idea how I was going to get out of. “This calls for the Bernie shuffle,” said Bernie. This miracle manoeuvre got me out of a tricky situation:
- Move forward very slowly and while moving forward turn the steering wheel off the lock you are on to the other lock.
- While still moving forward return to the original lock.
- Stop. Then, without moving the steering wheel, start to reverse and then react to where the van is going from that point.
“Watch where the caravan is going,” emphasised Bernie. “You cannot tackle it as though you were driving it like a car. You’ve got to drive it like a rig. None of it is rocket science but it is different to car driving,” he said. He's not wrong.
After the half-day course, I was far more confident when reversing with a caravan. And I quickly realised that by grasping the basics and sticking to a few basic rules, getting to grips with caravan reversing is easier than you might fear.