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Understanding the Turning Radius of Your RV

“Are RVs hard to drive?” It’s one of the first questions many potential owners ask when they step onto RV sales lots for the first time. The answer? Yes, they are, at first. Just as you weren’t a pro at driving a car the first time you got behind the wheel, driving an RV takes practice. With a little understanding of what makes driving an RV different, you’ll get the hang of it the same way you did with driving a car. Here’s what you need to know.

Turning With a Motorhome 

Keep Track of Off-Tracking

When driving your RV down the highway in a straight line, the rear wheels will follow the exact same path as the front wheels. When you begin making a turn, however, off-tracking occurs, meaning the wheels are no longer in a straight line. 

The amount of off-tracking that occurs on your RV is a direct result of two things: the wheelbase of your vehicle (the length between your front axle and the drive axle) and the wheel cut of your vehicle (how sharply your front wheels can turn). 

This illustration shows the different paths of the front and rear tires:

Diagram showing tire paths

Off-tracking also occurs in a car every time you make a turn. However, it occurs in a much smaller fashion, so you don’t notice it as much.

You can’t turn the front of your motorhome as sharply as you do a car, so you may have to turn the front of your RV like you’re taking up two lanes, whereas the rear of your RV will probably only take up one lane.

If you understand off-tracking and adjust for it, practicing skills such as good lane positioning and observational habits will make successfully navigating a turn second nature.

Don’t Underestimate Rear Overhang

The drive axle (or front rear axle, if you have two axles in the rear) on Class A, B, and C motorhomes is also known as the pivot point because your RV pivots around this point whenever you take a turn. Everything behind the rear drive axle is known as the rear overhang.

The rear overhang is important to understand because everything behind the pivot point will go in the opposite direction of where you’re turning your RV. This is known as tail swing. When you turn to the left, the rear overhang will swing to the right and vice versa. 

The diagram below shows where the pivot point is on a typical motorhome:

Diagram showing pivot point and rear overhang

Why is this important? Consider this situation: Let’s say you’re at the truck stop and have just finished filling up your RV. When leaving, if you turn your RV too quickly (before your rear overhang has cleared the pump), you stand a chance that the rear part of your RV will hit the gas pump.

That’s just one instance where your RV’s rear overhang could get you into trouble. Always keep in mind that even if the front part of your RV seems to be in the clear, the back part might not be.

Turning With Fifth Wheels

As with motorhomes, fifth wheels also have a pivot point and a rear overhang. They operate in much the same way discussed above, with a couple of important differences.

A truck towing a fifth-wheel making a turn

In some cases, fifth wheels turn much more sharply than their motorhome counterparts. This can lead to jackknifing the unit when reversing if you turn too sharply. To remedy, pull forward and try backing up again.

You’re also going to be towing. One of the more popular pickup trucks for hauling fifth wheels is a short bed extended cab pickup, thanks to its additional seating and ease of parking (when not towing). If this is the pickup truck you’re towing with, you’ll need a slider hitch to help with the turning radius. With the shorter bed, these pickups have less distance between the cab and the front of the fifth wheel. When there’s not as much room between the cab of the truck and the trailer, the front corner of the trailer can hit the cab of the truck when attempting to make a sharp turn.

Turning With Travel Trailers

Travel trailers also have off-tracking, pivot points, and tail swing, so much of the above information applies to them as well. Travel trailers—especially longer ones—require a larger turning radius than fifth wheels since all of the weight and length of the trailer is behind the tow vehicle’s bumper. Fifth wheels also have a hitch located higher than a travel trailer hitch, which reduces the turning radius.

Steering Clear of Roadside Obstacles

To practice turning, find a large, open parking lot and put out some orange cones. You’ll probably run them over while you get the hang of your turning radius, but it’s better to hit the cones than a curb or a light pole. 

As you practice, try putting a cone near the center of your rear wheels. This shows you the approximate pivot point. Look on your rig for a marker to help you identify this point without the cone. Now, whenever you’re driving, you’ll be able to find your pivot point in your mirrors.

Understanding how to properly turn your travel trailer, motorhome, or fifth wheel will save you from potential damage and give you more confidence when driving your rig. Take the time to learn more about your rig’s turning radius and tail swing before your next trip.