How to safely—and calmly—drive on steep mountain roads – Roadtrippers Magazine

How to avoid cooking your brakes, and other helpful tips for getting through the mountains safely
By Karuna Eberl & Steve Alberts
The most scenic mountain drives are also sometimes the most harrowing. Steep grades with hairpin curves, drop-offs, and little or no guardrails are pretty common, especially out west. Here are some tips on how to safely and tranquilly get to the top of the world—and back down. 
Mountain driving is demanding on vehicles, so before you head for the hills, give your vehicle a mechanical once-over to make sure of the following:
Mountains are remote and unpredictable. A sudden storm or accident that blocks a narrow road can leave you stranded for extended periods. Prepare for emergencies by bringing supplies such as food, water, warm clothing, tools, first-aid, and other safety gear. Also let someone know where you’re going, so they can notify authorities to look for you if you don’t check in. 
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It’s common to lose cell and even GPS service in the mountains, so have an atlas with you and familiarize yourself with your route before you leave. If you map directions out on your smartphone, they’ll probably still work even if you lose service, but if you accidentally close your app, or need to adjust the route, you might lose them. Also, if you’re in an RV or towing a trailer, make sure your route doesn’t include length- and width-restricted roads, or grades that are too steep for your driving comfort level. 
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This is at the top of the list because it’s vital to safety, but usually only gets a quick mention. If you’re not used to driving in the mountains, chances are you’ll be going slower than others on the road. So when you get two or three cars behind you, find a safe, legal place to pull over and let traffic pass by. This is important because:
Conversely, if you happen to be behind someone driving slower than you, wait until you have clear visibility and plenty of room to safely pass them. 
Brakes can heat up and fail in any vehicle, but especially if you are in an RV or towing a trailer. This is a terrifying situation to be in, but there are several ways to prevent this:
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High altitudes and steep uphill grades diminish your engine’s power, so you might not have the acceleration that you’re used to. Another common problem heading uphill is overheating. Here’s how to prevent it:
In the mountains, road signs are your friends. Small yellow signs show recommended speeds heading into curves, helping you gauge how slow to go. Others give you a clue to steep grades ahead. 
Assume you will encounter wildlife on the road, especially deer at night. Don’t swerve to miss animals, as that could lead to a more serious accident.
Small rockfalls are also likely, especially after rains and freeze-thaw events. If another driver is flashing their headlights at you, it’s probably because of wildlife or rocks in the road, or an accident or speed trap ahead. 
If it’s snowing or otherwise inclement outside, wait until the roads are clear to embark on your journey. Also, remember that weather can change rapidly in the mountains, especially in places like the Rockies, where it can snow any month of the year.
On curvy roads, it only takes a moment of inattention before you’re out of your lane. It’s best to not fidget with phones and radios, and leave plenty of room between you and the car in front of you. Expect the unexpected around every corner, and use pullouts to enjoy the view.
When you do pull over, choose a location on a straightaway so approaching drivers can see you from both directions. Use your parking brake and turn your wheels just in case, so your car would roll into the hill and not down it.
In rural areas, gas stations can be few and far between, and not all towns offer services. Try to keep your tank at least half full, and remember that climbing hills drains the tank faster.
On narrow roads, remember that uphill traffic has the right of way. 
Use your headlights in inclement weather to help other drivers see you. If you’re on a lightly-used road at night, your high beams will help you see wildlife (but make sure to promptly turn them off when you see approaching headlights, or it will create a dangerous situation by blinding the other driver). Don’t use your brights in bad weather, because they reflect off of heavy fog, snow, and rain, lessening your visibility. 
Karuna and Steve write about and photograph wildlife, sustainability, nature, history, and travel for magazines, newspapers and websites. Their most recent work, about a Zuni conservation crew at Bears Ears, can be found on the cover of National Parks magazine. They also co-wrote an award-winning guidebook to the Florida Keys and are currently completely renovating an abandoned house in a ghost town.
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