10 tips to back up trailers like a pro

Avatar photo

As much as truckers focus on the road ahead, plenty of damage is caused when trucks collide with things that sit behind their trailers. Tom Boehler, the Erb Group’s senior director of safety and compliance, offers several tips that can help eliminate backing accidents.

1. Get out and look

The process begins with a central GOAL, which Boehler describes as “Get Out And Look”. This is vital every time you back up, especially when it’s a new location.

Truck driver Bruce Harnock
Erb driver Bruce Harnock keeps a close eye on his surroundings as he backs a trailer into a parking spot. (Photo: Leo Barros)

2. Use technology to study the setting

Tap into a smartphone or computer and Google Maps to survey an area before you arrive. Checking routes and the ways to enter and exit will help relieve a lot of stress before you arrive.

3. Check your surroundings when you arrive

Keep your head on a swivel. You can’t concentrate on the left side of the tractor-trailer alone. People will try and sneak by you on the right. Before you actually begin backing, look to see if anyone is moving near you. This includes shunt trucks, other vehicles, forklifts and pedestrians. Wait for them to clear the way.

4. Look for the tread marks

If someone has already been in and out of the dock on a hot day, you’ll be able to see the tread marks they left behind. Those will offer a marker to follow into the dock door. Similar markings are created in gravel and snow.

drive axle position when backing
Tom Boehler, senior director of safety and compliance, The Erb Group of Companies, points out where the drive axles should be when a driver should start turning right using the 12 and 9 setup to back into a spot. (Photo: Leo Barros)

5. Set up in the ’12 and 9′ position

Boehler recommends a “12 and 9” setup to help with backing. Think as if you are backing up on the face of a clock. If your loading dock sits between two trailers for example, at the 6 o’clock position, approach with your tractor-trailer perpendicular to the loading dock. Once the drive tires line up with the edge of the parking spot, crank the steering wheel to the right, aiming for 12 o’clock. Once you see your trailer wheels in the mirror, crank the steering wheel to the left toward 9 o’clock. Once you reach 9 o’clock and your drive tires are straight, the trailer should be about 15 to 20 feet from the hole. Square up the trailer and then back straight into the spot.

6. Don’t be afraid to reset

Yes, everyone wants to back into place on the first try. But don’t be afraid to go around and reset if it looks like the trailer hasn’t been lined up properly. All too many drivers try to back in using an S-curve in these situations and run into problems.

7. Avoid blindside backing wherever possible

The best way to establish a clear view is to avoid blindside backing wherever possible. If it can’t be avoided, remember once again to get out and look. Check your position. See where you are going. Stop, get out, and double check. Don’t assume that you are aligned with your spot. And take advantage of people who can serve as your spotter. Just discuss what they’ll watch for, where they should stand, and the signals they should use.

Erb truck backing into position
Erb driver Bruce Harnock backs his trailer into a parking spot. (Photo: Leo Barros)

8. Take your time when backing from a street into a dock

If backing from your left side is only possible by going around the block, do it. Monitor the mirrors, and don’t feel pressured to rush as the process begins. Ignore the honking or exasperated looks from the four-wheelers.

9. Listen up

Roll down your windows throughout the entire backing process. Turn off the radio and listen. Your ears help monitor the surroundings, and might offer the first signs of an oncoming or backing vehicle.

10. Know when to say no

Ultimately, if you can’t back into a spot, ask for another dock door. The shipper or receiver might also have a shunt service that will help. And don’t listen to dismissive comments that suggest another driver just did it. Use your own judgement. The successful drivers may have had the benefit of a day cab or single-axle tractor while you’re working with a highway tractor.

Avatar photo

Leo Barros is the associate editor of Today’s Trucking. He has been a journalist for more than two decades, holds a CDL and has worked as a longhaul truck driver. Reach him at leo@newcom.ca

Have your say

This is a moderated forum. Comments will no longer be published unless they are accompanied by a first and last name and a verifiable email address. (Today's Trucking will not publish or share the email address.) Profane language and content deemed to be libelous, racist, or threatening in nature will not be published under any circumstances.


      • Get out and look..and get out and look again if needed. Look at your trailer angles. Reposition if needed. Take all the time you need to get into the dock without damage to you or another. It is more embarrassing to have to report damage than it is to take the time you need. Eventually, you will know how to pull into a customer or terminal and be able to back right in. If you have 40 acres and you need it, use it!

  • All great tips – “Stop, before it sounds expensive”
    Tip # 11 – Practice – practice – practice (incl. blindsides, sometimes you have to) The best people in anything, practice.

  • Technology is great in some cases. Some GPS Program are not feasible for a 18 wheeler , Many drivers reli on the GPS guidance to get to there destination! I would study the truckers atlas while loading on the best route to my destination. If I was never been to that city The best bet was to call the receiver and ask for directions to them 99% of the time they will tell you the best way to get there.

  • I also found that if you put your right hand at 6:o’clock and steer the trailer to the right and left that is the way that your trailer will turn!Practice makes perfect and be sure not to hit anything at all!

  • I think backing is more important going forward, My saying the slower the better, and yes use G.O.A.L. they don’t reach backing in schools these days, but get out and help a fellow driver instead of getting your phones video them we are all in this together, great advice you given.