Mountains can be one of the more intimidating driving environments that most of us will face, especially if we are not used to driving amongst mountain ranges. At the same time, mountain driving can also be some of the most rewarding driving out there.
Yes you will need to employ some techniques and forward planning, but the rewards can be truly spectacular. In this article we’re going to go over 7 essential safety tips to keep you out of any mountain road related issues, and instead let you relax and enjoy some of the best driving routes in the whole country.
1. Preparation is Key
Driving through mountain routes is going to put more strain on your vehicle – and on yourself – than most other routes. Preparation is therefore the key, especially if you and your car are not used to driving in this difficult terrain. Over the next 6 points, we’ll go more into depth on some of the things you should pack and some of the equipment your vehicle should carry.
For now though, in this first point, we’re just talking general preparation for yourself and the car. Let’s start with you first, huh? After all, you’re going to have to do most of the work. Well, the car will actually do most of the work but you know what we mean.
If you’ve never driven in mountain ranges before, there is a wealth of information on the internet to help you. This guide here is a great start (if we do say so ourselves) but there are also many other resources to check out before you set out. In this guide we’re setting out the basics. There are plenty of people out there – the AAA for example – who can provide follow up information that’s a bit more in depth, particularly when it comes to driving technique.
As far as the car goes, we’ll go into specifics a little more below, but broadly speaking try to make sure it is entering those mountain roads with a clean bill of health. That means giving it an oil change, it means giving it an all over service to tackle all those little niggling faults you ignore day to day – it even means something as simple as topping up the windshield washer fluid.
2. The Right Tires
As we mentioned above, mountain driving can put unique stresses and strains on different parts of the vehicle, especially when compared to normal driving conditions at ground level. Your tires are one of the components that will be tested more than ever, so it’s essential that you select the right ones.
Many people will simply over plan here, and go out and buy expensive, mountain specific tires. Truth is, unless you’re going off road, will be driving in the absolute depths of winter (in which case snow chains would be a better investment) or are going to be actually racing along mountain roads, you don’t need mountain specific tires.
All season tires and all terrain tires are by far the best investment instead because mountain driving actually involves a much wider range of terrains and conditions than many people will assume. For example, if you think of mountain driving, then you probably think of, well, a road meandering through the mountains, right?
That is correct, but it also only half the picture. Mountain driving involves a range of road surfaces – you can be on gravel tracks in the lower reaches, well maintained asphalts as you pass through towns, rutted, weather scarred blacktop in higher, harder to access elevations.
The weather too can change on a dime, a characteristic of mountainous zones. You could set off in sunshine, climb the elevations through fog and closing cloud, descend in pouring rain. That is why it is far better to have tires that can cope with the widest array of terrains and weathers, rather than ones with a narrow band of use.
3. Fuel the Car & Fuel Yourself
Mountain driving is quite similar to desert driving, in that you can often go for miles and miles without seeing a gas station. On the more isolated routes, it’s not unusual to not see another car for hours. You should therefore plan for mountain driving in the same way you would for desert driving and bring some extra supplies with you.
The first and key safety tip here is to ensure that the car is fully fuelled before you start the journey. Whether you take additional fuel is up to you, but if you map out the points between gas stations, you should be able to get from Point A to Point B without running on fumes.
It’s just as important to fuel yourself (and any other passengers you’re bringing) as it is the car. It’s the same case with the limited gas station opportunities, there may well be not as many cafes and stopping off points as you might assume. If it’s a longer distance drive it’s a good idea to pack some snacks and drinks – never start the journey and assume you’ll be able to pick up food on the way. Learn from our hard earned experience (read mistakes) and never assume you can get food on the way!
It’s also a good idea to pack emergency food in the trunk, along with bottles of water and also some blankets/spare dry clothes.
4. Brake Technique 1: Brake Early
In addition to the gorgeous scenery, one other thing you may notice is a lot of speed signs. Now, we can all be guilty of… lets say, looking on those signs as mere suggestions from time to time. That is (relatively) ok on flat land but up in the mountains, with their often twisting routes and sharp declines, it is no less than a recipe for disaster. It is therefore a strong safety tip that you really do keep an eye out for – and obey – these signs.
Not only is it a good safety tip, it is also a good tip to help improve your driving style. By being able to anticipate turns, curves and descents you can really help you to control your way through them. For example, on a sharp descent into a turn, the temptation will be to brake heavily as you hit the turn itself.
Instead, it is a better to brake and downshift early before you even hit those turns. Use the upcoming speed warning signs as your guide, and don’t wait to hit the curves before preparing for them. Not only this going to be gentler on the brakes – with the downshift taking on a portion of the stopping power the vehicle must deploy – you can also get better control through the turn. By coming into it slowly and in a lower gear, you can turn into and actually accelerate into the turn. This shifts the momentum of the vehicle to the rear wheels, giving you far more control through the turn.
There is an old saying on mountain roads – you can enter a turn as slow as you like as often as you like, but you only hit it fast once. So look out for those speed signs!
5. Brake Technique 2: Pulse
This is a slightly more advanced method of controlling the vehicle during a descent, and it does take a little practice and also requires you to be able to judge safe speeds for the roads and conditions. If you can do that then you should consider employing the “Pulse” method of braking control.
As you approach your descent section of the mountain road, if you have paid attention to the point above then you will have already braked softy and down shifted through the gears if possible. Now, that’s all well and good (in fact, it’s why we told you to do it in the first place!)
On anything but the shortest section of downward road though you are still going to need to use the brakes again at some point. The weight of the vehicle plus our old friend gravity simply creates too much momentum. Many people will hang on the brakes, tapping them over and over again to create small decelerations the entire way down the road.
This is bad. It’s bad for you as it affects your control of the vehicle, and it’s terrible for your brakes, which will be a smoking mess by the time you get down the mountain. Try to use the Pulse method instead. It requires you to set a safe speed for your descent, which you have to judge for yourself based on the conditions and terrain – that’s why this method needs a little bit of practice.
Say you set the safe speed at 30mph. What you do is allow the vehicle to reach 35mph, then apply steady braking to drop the speed down to 25mph. You then allow the speed to go back up to 35mph, until which time you brake it back to 25mph. Rinse and repeat with the benefit that this keeps you in control and allows the brake pads time to cool between applications.
6. Remember The Rules
There are certain rules that, if obeyed, can really help to make mountain driving that little bit easier. In some States, some of these rules are actually written down and enforced but, broadly speaking, these are more like the unofficial rules of mountain driving.
So one good one is to avoid hugging the center of the road. This can be tempting for people who haven’t driven in the mountains much. The outside lane can often be separated from a terrifying drop by little more than a thin barrier and your own driving skill – and sometimes the little barriers isn’t even there at all!
It does therefore become tempting to hug the center of the road, but you must avoid that temptation. It will annoy drivers behind you as it prevents overtaking, and it annoys drivers approaching you as you will be too far over into their traffic lane, sometimes with fatal consequences.
Speaking of overtaking, always remember that vehicles travelling uphill should always be given the right of way. That is because uphill is harder for the car’s engine, and so overtaking can take longer, therefore the uphill driver gets right of way where possible to counter this.
By the way, always remember that engines need air to work effectively. At higher altitudes, as the air thins, the engines can struggle to reach the performance they would give at lower elevations. Just bear that in mind whilst you’re driving, and don’t rely on the car doing exactly what you would expect it to.
7. Know When to Stop
There are two parts to this point, the first of which actually carries on from the point above (isn’t that clever)? It’s an unwritten rule of mountain driving that there is nothing wrong with pulling over – provided of course, you find somewhere safe to do it. On the one hand, the views can be spectacular. There is nothing wrong with safely pulling off the road to take them in, they are one of the best things about driving over mountain routes after all.
The other reason when it’s a good idea to pull over is if you are creating a tail of vehicles. Often when you drive mountain roads, you will be sharing the asphalt with locals who drive these routes for years and years. You will almost certainly be slower than they are – which there is nothing wrong with by the way. It is polite to move over if a car is in your rear view, has been there for a while and clearly wants to get ahead of you though.
That’s it, 7 simple but effective safety tips when driving on mountain roads. So to recap, make sure the car is ready, make sure the tires are suitable, pack enough fuel for the car and for you, practice good braking, follow the unwritten rules of mountain driving and know when to stop and pull over.
Keep calm, enjoy the journey and admire the views. Mountain driving is some of the most fun driving to be had, and with these simple tips you can enjoy it safely.