Back when I was a long-haul truck driver, I used to love driving through the mountains. I frequently drove through the Appalachian Mountains as well as the Rocky Mountains.
However, driving through the mountains can be a very dangerous experience as well, even on major expressways.
Donner Pass, for example, is still one of the deadliest stretches of roadway in the United States, even though the well-maintained Interstate 80 is how most people navigate through that area.
Even Interstate 81 along the eastern United States can get dangerous through the mountainous areas. Once you get off the expressway or include inclement weather, the mountains can turn from beautiful to deadly in a real big hurry. In this article, I will be going over the top 7 things you need to know before driving through the mountains.
#11 – Be Extra Cautious Of Wildlife
Animal strikes are extremely common in mountainous areas. Whenever you’re in a mountain town, you can usually tell who the locals are just by their vehicles. Most of them will have push bars and re-enforced bumpers because living in the mountains, hitting an animal while driving is inevitable.
Mountains provide a great natural environment for wildlife. Unfortunately, the terrain causes this dense animal population to cross roadways in dangerous locations such as shaded valleys and around blind curves.
Let’s also not forget that mountains are home to some very large animals like elk and bears. Hitting an animal on a mountain roadway is a recipe for disaster, and there are many fatalities that occur every year because of it.
If at all possible, avoid driving at night when animals are more difficult to see and out in higher numbers. Even during the day, stay very vigilant of wildlife. You can just about guarantee an animal is always very close by.
#10 – Check The Weather Before You Ascent The Mountain
If you already live in a mountainous area, you already know how fast the weather can change with altitude. But many people in the country don’t deal with mountains on a regular basis. In fact, I know several people where I grew up in the midwest who have never driven through mountains before in their life.
But let me tell you… Mountains create some pretty crazy weather conditions. It might be perfectly blue skies as you start up the mountain, and by the time you reach the top, you’re in the middle of driving in a blizzard with roads you can’t even see.
Or you might make up up one side, only to discover it’s freezing rain with a 10% downgrade for several miles with black ice covering the road.
Whatever you do, take the time to check weather conditions along your entire route before driving in the mountains, even if it looks like it’s smooths sailing. The mountains will surprise you.
#9 – Make Sure Your Car Is Prepared
I think we’ve all ignored that check engine light, put off an oil change, or ignored that new squeak or rattle in our cars from time to time. However, when you’re driving in the mountains, you need to have those issues taken care of.
Mountain driving is hard on cars. If something is close to breaking, it will probably break while you’re climbing or ascending through mountains. The sides of roadways are usually littered with broken down vehicles.
Not only is it a huge inconvenience to get stranded in a mountainous area, but the bill for a tow truck should be enough to scare you.
If you’re going to be traveling through mountains, have your car’s maintenance up-to-date.
#8 – In Winter Bring Snow Chains Even If It’s Not Snowing
As I touched on in the point above, mountains can create some insane weather without any warning at all. This is especially true in the winter. On many mountain peaks, they don’t measure snow in inches, they measure it in feet, and it can come down in a matter of just a few hours.
Tire chains can save you from having a very bad day. Getting stuck on a mountain road, especially a highway, will cause the authorities to shut the highway down until they can safely move you off the road. The bill for that is something you don’t want to see.
Tire chains are something you don’t ever want to have to use, but you also don’t want to be caught without them if you need them. Always carry tire chains while driving in mountains during the winter. In many places, it’s the law, and the fine for not having tire chains is very high.
VIDEO: How To Put Snow Chains On Your Car’s Tires
#7 – Have A Full Tank Of Gas
In some mountainous areas, you may go 100 miles or more without passing a single gas pump. If you do see a small gas station somewhere deep in the mountains, expect to pay much more per gallon than you will anywhere else. It is not unusual for remote and mountainous gas stations to charge an extra $2 to $4 per gallon on top of the already outrageous gas prices. Running low on gas or running out of gas in the mountains can be extremely costly.
Since weather can change so quickly in the mountains, it is also essential to have a full tank of gas in case you get stranded. Sudden blizzards, ice storms, extremely dense fog, multi-vehicle crashes, and many other situations can leave you stranded for 24hrs or longer. In the winter months, a full tank of gas can provide you with many hours of heat and electricity.
#6 – Brake Early Before Turns
While you may not pay much attention to the “suggested speed” signs before turns in flat areas, you should pay much more attention to those signs in the mountains. Very sharp turns are extremely common in mountainous areas. If you’re going downhill, there is just that much more momentum to stop.
By braking early, you can actually coast or accelerate through the turns. This is very helpful for your vehicle’s stability. If you attempt to brake too hard after you have already entered the turn, all that momentum shifts forward, making it even more difficult to gain control of your vehicle.
However, if you accelerate through the turn, that momentum shifts towards the rear of your vehicle, giving you much more control. This is the same method that race car drivers use.
Brake before the turn and accelerate through. Remember, you can enter a turn too slow as many times as you want, but in the mountains, you can usually only take a turn too fast once before it’s game over.
#5 – Brake And Downshift BEFORE The Downgrade
Many drivers do not plan ahead by braking before downgrades and instead, people don’t start braking until after they are halfway down the hill and their speed has picked up. This is an incorrect braking method. All drivers, even those with lightweight vehicles, should brake before a downgrade. This not only helps on maintenance costs but is also a much safer method of speed control. Anticipate the downgrades to speed you up.
If you are driving a manual transmission vehicle or are able to shift into a lower gear, do this before the downgrade as well. Attempting to shift while on a downgrade can cause major problems. If you happen to stall the engine or get stuck in neutral, you will need to rely fully on your vehicle’s brakes to slow you down.
#4 – Use The “Pulse” Braking Method
Even if you properly brake before a downgrade and shift to a lower gear, you will still likely need to apply the brakes while on the downgrade. They key here is to never stay on the brakes for an extended period. Instead, you should use the pulse braking method – the same method used by truckers carrying 80,000lbs down steep mountain grades.
To properly use this method, find a “safe speed” as you go down the hill. Say, for example, your “safe speed” is 40mph. You should allow your vehicle to speed up to 45mph and then apply steady break pressure until your speed drops to 35mph.
At that point, let off the brakes and allow your vehicle to speed back up to 45mph, then repeat the process. By pulsing your brakes in this way, you give your brake pads time to cool off. As you apply the brakes, your brake pads will heat up. The hotter your brake pads get, the less effective they are, until they become completely ineffective at all. Using the pulse braking method can help to keep your brakes cool and functional.
#3 – Beware Of Quickly Changing Temperatures
As you’re probably aware, temperatures change with altitude. Some mountain passes can bring you up and down thousands of feet within a short distance. When I was a truck driver, I used to experience this all the time. I’d start climbing a mountain with sunny clear blue skies, and by the time I reached the top of the pass, it would be a near blizzard.
When navigating the Smoky Mountains, the fog was a huge issue, especially in the valleys. Visibility could go from being totally clear to being extremely limited literally in seconds. From temperature changes to precipitation changes to fog – it can all change on you in an instant.
#2 – Bring Food, Water, And Emergency Gear
There are a number of reasons why you might find yourself stranded while driving on a mountain road. From hitting an animal to getting stuck in a blizzard to a car accident or a breakdown, you do not have access to some of the comforts of normal roadways. Cell signal can be non-existent and in remote areas, you might not see another vehicle for hours (or days if the weather is bad). Even if you are able to get a cell phone call out, it could be many hours before anyone can reach you.
It’s important to bring at least a couple of days worth of food, water, and a fresh pair of clothes. Should your clothes get wet for whatever reason, dry clothing could literally save your life. Also, be sure to have any tools you might need for minor vehicle repairs such as changing a flat tire or replacing a belt. Roadside assistance might not be able to meet you wherever you are.
#1 – Get A CB Radio
A small handheld CB radio won’t cut it. You need to get a mobile CB radio with an external antenna on your vehicle. This might not be practical for a weekend trip, but if you’re someone who frequently drives on remote mountainous roadways, a CB radio can literally be a life-saver. In most remote and mountainous areas, there is no cell phone signal. However, a CB radio will still work – you just need to have another person with a CB in the area.
Almost every truck driver in America has a CB radio and they frequently monitor channel 19. If you’re ever in trouble, switch to channel 19 and start asking for help. Eventually, a trucker is bound to be nearby to offer assistance.