RV Mountain Driving: How to drive your RV safely on mountain roads

Sheep Creek Overlook Flaming Gorge Utah

It was a steep climb to get to this gorgeous spot in Flaming Gorge, Utah.

For us one of the best things about the RVing lifestyle is seeing all the spectacular scenery that North America has to offer.  But getting there often involves driving over scary mountain passes.  We are far from experts, but here are a few things we’ve learned about how to get up and over the mountains:

Get familiar with the mountain pass in advance

The book Mountain Directory West for Truckers, RV and Motorhome Drivers is a terrific resource.  Every mountain pass in the west is described in detail, including grades, turns, how many miles you will drive at each grade and whether the road has steep drop-offs or wide shoulders and other helpful info.  This book (and its companion eastern states edition) is available in a print edition or as an eBook.

Steepness is described in terms of grades: 5% grades are not bad; 10% grades are very steep.  The tightness of the switchback turns are described by the speed limit: 25 mph turns are a bit tight; 15 mph turns are very tight.

Once you’ve got a handle on the nature of the pass you’re considering, it also helps to get some first-hand feedback from drivers who’ve done it.  As we travel we often ask locals about upcoming roads that concern us.  Folks at visitors centers, chambers of commerce, local stores and libraries can give you a sense of what the drive is like, and this will help you decide whether you want to tackle the climb.

Ascending:  Keep the engine cool

At the bottom of a big pass, even if it’s a hot day, we turn off the air conditioning.  If the pass is a long one, we also turn on the heat — full blast — to draw heat off the engine. This is tough on the passengers on hot summer days but keeps the engine happy.

Overheating:  Pull over and let it idle

If you need to pull over to let the engine cool down, keep it idling so it can continue to circulate anti-freeze through the radiator.  The electric fan should kick on to circulate air through the radiator as well.  You can also turn the heater on with the fan on high to help draw more heat off the engine even faster.

Descending:  Use the exhaust brake, drop down a gear or even switch to 4×4 Low

Depressing and letting off the gas pedal will engage the exhaust brake.  If the descent is steep, dropping into 2nd gear will slow the vehicle down further.  If it is very steep, switching into 4×4 Low and driving in 1st gear can slow the rig to 5 mph and make it possible to creep down a crazy steep mountain in a controlled fashion. We’ve done it and it works!!

As I mentioned, we aren’t experts, but these few simple things have made a big difference for us.

Good luck with your mountain driving, and don’t be afraid to take the scenic route, even if it involves some steep climbs and descents!

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