Mountain Driving
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Safety Tips for Mountain Driving

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 prepared to navigate through mountain ranges without worry.

Help Your Car Traverse Risky Mountain Roadways

Steep uphill and downhill grades can put an extra strain on your vehicle’s main components, from your engine to your brakes. Fortunately, you can steer smartly through mountain passes by taking certain precautions in different driving situations.

Climbing steep mountain roads can make your engine overheat, so according to the website for 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 to trek 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 can 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, which will help minimize the chance of overheating.
  • If you can’t immediately pull over to let your vehicle’s engine cool down, you can turn on your car’s heater to its highest setting — as you would on a freezing-cold morning. According to Tech-Cor Research, 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 and turn off your car.

If your car starts to run hot, find a safe place to stop so it can cool down before continuing your climb, the National Park Service suggests. Use pull-off areas whenever possible, but if stopping on the road is unavoidable, look for a straightaway or another spot where approaching motorists will be able to see you clearly. Running water over your radiator core will also help lower the engine temperature, according to the City of Colorado Springs. Never remove your radiator cap until the engine is cool, and check your owner’s manual for insights on how to cool your engine down, or what type of coolant to add if needed.

When you decide it’s time for your downhill descent, use your engine and transmission to slow the car down instead of the brakes. Shift into “2” or “L” if your vehicle has an automatic transmission, and stay in a lower gear if it’s a manual. This will allow the slowing power from your engine to slow the car down. When you do need to use your brakes, apply them firmly to slow the car quickly, since riding your brakes could cause them to overheat and fail. Once you’re on level ground, shift back into drive and use your brakes normally.

Be Prepared for Mountain Mishaps

Winding mountain roads can be narrow, with dramatic curves that make it difficult to see what’s around the next bend. As a result, it’s important to take some extra precaution:

  • 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.
  • Avoid wrecks with wildlife by keeping 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 to soak in the scenery, pull over to 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, the City of Colorado Springs’ website suggests that you use your parking brake and put rocks behind your tires to keep your car from rolling downhill.
  • If you’re heading off-road, make sure that you drive straight up (and down) hills, or avoid them altogether, Ford.com suggests. Driving over steep hills on an angle could cause the vehicle to lose traction or slip sideways.

Map It Out

While GPS is a helpful tool in most situations, small roads in remote mountain ranges may not be well-represented, which means you could end up headed in the wrong direction or toward a dead end. Take the time to map your route the old-fashioned way, with a paper map, especially if you’re piloting a big, cumbersome 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.

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