Safe mountain driving: Brush up on these safety tips
Last updated: January 1
Coming 'round the mountain sure sounds like fun, but the fact is that traveling steep slopes on narrow mountain roads can be challenging for motorists and their vehicles. However, with some sure-footed driving skills, you'll be better prepared to drive through mountain ranges safely.
Steep uphill and downhill grades may put an extra strain on your vehicle's main components, from your engine to your brakes. Fortunately, you can take certain precautions to help your vehicle, whether you're going up or down a mountain road.
Climbing steep mountain roads may make your engine overheat, so according to the City of Colorado Springs, which is in the southern region of the Rockies, it's important to take steps to make sure your engine stays cool:
- If your car is struggling while heading up toward the summit, shift into a lower gear so that you can maintain a consistent speed.
- Turn off your air conditioning and roll your windows down if you're traveling up a particularly steep grade, since running the AC puts an additional strain on your engine that may cause it to overheat.
- When you've reached that scenic mountain overlook, give your car a chance to cool down by letting the engine idle for a few minutes.
- If you can't immediately pull over, you can turn on your car's heater to its highest setting — as you would on a freezing-cold morning. According to Jalopnik, this can help to "bleed off" some of the engine's extra heat, which might buy you some time until you can safely pull over.
If your car starts to run hot, find a safe place to stop so it can cool down before continuing your climb, says the National Park Service. Use pull-off areas whenever possible, but if stopping on the road is unavoidable, the City of Colorado Springs says to look for a straightaway or another spot where approaching motorists will be able to see you clearly. Check your owner's manual for information on how to cool your engine down and what type of coolant to add if needed. Also, do not remove the radiator cap until the engine is cool.
Use lower gears to go downhill
When you start to head back downhill, use your engine and transmission to slow the car down instead of the brakes. Shift to a lower gear before you start heading downhill, as this will help slow down the car without you having to ride the brakes, says the National Park Service. If your vehicle has an automatic transmission, use "L" or "2." However, if you do need to brake frequently, pull over if you start to smell the brakes burning. (According to the National Park Service, this will be a pungent burning smell.) Let them cool off before you start driving again, but do not continue if you think there may be an issue with your brakes.
Once you're on level ground again, shift back into drive and use your brakes as you would normally.
Be prepared for mountain roads
Winding mountain roads can be narrow, with dramatic curves that make it difficult to see what's around the next bend. As a result, the National Park Service and the City of Colorado Springs recommend taking the following precautions:
- Stay on your side of the road, and give some extra space between your vehicle and others that you're following, since sudden stops can strike at any time.
- Mind the posted speed limits, and look for signs that warn you about the steep grades that may lie ahead.
- Keep an eye out for animals, especially at night.
- Make sure that you have enough gas if you're traveling through remote areas.
- If you're driving slowly, pull into a turnout or on a straightway let faster-moving traffic pass.
- Only pass slower-moving traffic when you've got a clear view of the road ahead. Never pass another car on a blind curve or when your visibility is compromised.
- If you're stopping to take in the view, use your parking brake and put rocks behind your tires to help keep your car from rolling downhill.
Map it out
While cellphones, vehicle navigation systems and GPS are helpful tools, in many situations, the National Park Service notes they may note work well (or at all) in the mountains. Take the time to map your route the old-fashioned way, with a paper map, especially if you're piloting an RV or towing a trailer. Most maps will show which roads are steeply graded, which will allow you to chart out the least difficult path.
Whether you're trekking through the Rockies or headed to the Appalachian Trail, using some common sense and knowing your vehicle's limits will help keep you safe on our nation's majestic mountain motorways.