Mountain Driving With a Travel Trailer – A Guide for Flatlanders

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Picture is approaching Hope after leaving Langley, British Columbia, Highway 1. We then switched to Highway 3 which we took all the way to Alberta.

As a prairie girl, I find mountain driving a sheer hell. I suppose it’s largely a matter of what you are used to and knowing how to handle the driving. I have to admit with experience it has gotten easier dropping from sheer hell to maybe a 9% grade of hell. I didn’t know how when I started up the mountains. That added to the problems. I also couldn’t find a simple straight forward guide to driving the mountains with a travel trailer when you are from the prairies. All I could find was some vaguely worded advice about using lower gears. I could not find out when or how one was supposed to use low gear, how low, or why. After some near death experiences and then finally figured I may have learned the secrets, I decided to write a lowlander’s guide for myself based on what I have learned the hard way. It is also a form of therapy to help me get over the fright. Mountain driving is do-able but it requires careful planning and a few tricks no one ever teaches out on the prairies. This is my attempt to spare my fellow prairie denizens such frights. I welcome corrections and tips from mountain folk. Though I can say I have figured out getting up and down mountains without endangering myself or damaging my rig, I am still a prairie girl, or as I have heard you mountain folk so disparagingly say with your superior snickers, a “flatlander”.

The biggest problem with mountain driving is the mountains. They are really big and really tall and they get in the way of the roads. They come in giant overlapping rows like enormous jagged teeth, bare rock, and they stand should to shoulder daring you to try it. A mountain pass is just a lower spot between the shoulders of these rock and snow giants. The roads have to go up, up, up onto the shoulder and then down, down, down the other side into the next valley. Passes are often narrow and the roads have to twist and turn with sheer cliffs on both sides, one side going up, the other side going down. There are also switchbacks. The way over the passes is so steep the road goes up sideways in one directions, turns nearly one hundred and eighty degrees and goes up sideways in the other direction, so that you end up traveling four, five, six times or more further to get from point A to point B than you could if you could fly.

My trailer and pull vehicle were worked very hard on those ups and downs. Your vehicle will too. There are two systems of vehicles that are routinely destroyed by ignorant flatlanders driving in the mountains. First is the transmission which you can easily burn out going up the wrong way. I was really surprised to learn getting up can be the easy part of the trip. The second part that is even easier to destroy is the brakes on the way down. Aside from being a very expensive set of fixes, these failures could potentially leave you stranded a killer snow storm in a mountain pass even if it was t shirt weather in the nearby valley bottom. Worse than freezing to death, without stopping power on a winding switchback road with cliffs on both sides, you could end up dead very fast when you and your rig drive off some mountainside because your brakes failed and you can’t stop.

Before you go into the mountains you need to prepare. Your first preparation step is to check your weight. Less is more in the mountains. Out on the prairies weight overload is mainly a nuisance (aside from the possibility of voiding your insurance). In the mountains, you simply cannot get away with cheating on weight. Your preparations should begin by pulling out your manual and double checking the total weight your pull vehicle can safety pull and carry. Also get the exact safe weight figure for the trailer. The weight issue is also nonlinear. By that, I mean you don’t need to be a lot over your weight limit to get into really big trouble. Rigs are designed to take so much and no more. Beyond that they just fail. If you are half or less than half of the recommended maximum combined pull and carry weight, you can expect to pretty much drive at speed, or near speed with only a few adjustments. If you are over half of maximum or at the weight limit, you will have to markedly adjust your driving on steep grades. If you are overweight, you will at best have a high repair bill and at worst you will end up dead. We learned this the hard way. Before the mountains is the time to be going through the trailer and throwing out, giving away or putting into storage anything you won’t really need.

Let me give you a personal example. We went through steep mountains with 20+ miles of 9% grades on switchbacks leaving Death Valley. We were unwittingly over weight. My husband misunderstood how many books he could carry and I didn’t check his allotment for myself. I figure we were about only about 20% over that maximum weight for cargo in the trailer on that hill due to his unchecked bibliophillia. Not only did we nearly kill ourselves going down when our brakes failed, but it took $2000 on the other side to get our brakes back in proper working order. If you are over weight, either deal with it before starting out, or just skip the mountains entirely. And check and double check that all participants know what they are adding. Let me repeat this factoid because of how important it is. Many RVers are running over weight and as a result have underpowered vehicles. If you are in that group, either get the weight down or skip the mountains. Mountains are the place the manufacturer designs those maximum weights for. Don’t cheat. You will damage your rig and you might even die.

After the weight issue is addressed you can begin planning your route. This is very important because you can’t “wing it” in the mountains. In the prairies you just point your vehicle in the right direction and you’ll get there. If you miss the best road, well the place is a big grid so you just take the next one. No big deal. It doesn’t work like that in the mountains. You must know where you will be travelling because there are special considerations due to all those big rock piles blocking the path. We love backroads. We hate interstates. Still, we have found it is better to stick to main routes in mountains taking only the roads that the big rigs use. Big trucks have to also deal with weight pulling up and going down and the roads they travel on are generally equipped to handle these special needs. The grades are generally less. There are usually runaway truck ramps and two lanes going up so big rigs that have to slow down don’t have to worry about slowing all the other traffic. Do not take side roads or back roads or short cuts unless you talk to someone who regularly travels it in a big rig. Don’t ask the locals. The infamous “Yes, just a little way down the road” city people complain about in prairie people is the same as “Yeah, it’s not too bad to drive,” from mountain folk. Such roads may look like a great way to cut off a few hundreds miles on the map, but they usually mean much steeper up and down grades, going much higher up the mountain shoulder or they end in some goat track with no place to turn around at the top no matter what the map says.

While you are planning your trip, you should try to get the names and heights of all the mountain passes you will be using. Mountain pass heights are important to know because you also always have to check the weather before going. Weather warnings, especially blizzard warnings, are provided with statements like “snow dropping to 1200 meters” (3900 feet). If your mountain pass is higher, then you will be hitting snow but if it is lower, you won’t. You need to know what the weather is going to be up on the mountain pass. If you think driving in blowing snow is hard in the prairies, think of doing it when the roads aren’t straight and you won’t just end up in the ditch if you go off the road. It’s often prudent to just stay another day at that nice valley campground rather than risk finding yourself in a mountain pass blizzard. That being said, there really is no predicting mountain pass weather because of local microclimates so you have to plan on hitting crap. Even if the forecast says it will be clear warm and sunny, have your winter coat and snow pants handy and always pack a winter survival kit. Your plans should also include where you will stop for gas. Those great bare rock piles don’t favour a lot of packing in of humanity so gas stations and restaurants are generally far apart and clustered in low spots. You do not want to run out of gas on some mountain cliff side.

Once you have your route planned and your maximum mountain pass height determined, it is time to take your pull vehicle in for a check up. Get all the fluids topped up. If your transmission fluid is even close to being ready to be changed, change it before you go. If your brake pads are getting thin, change them now. My truck also has a gear box with fluid around the thingie that switches between four wheel drive and two wheel drive. That fluid overheats and takes longer to cool than the transmission fluid so if you have such a thing, be sure to ask your mechanic to check that and change it if need be. If you are going to be up above 2700 meters (9000 feet), your mechanic may need to adjust your air intake to compensate for the thinner air way up there. We had a vehicle adjusted for Manitoba that died in an 11,000 foot pass in Colorado. It was suffocating for lack of air. We had to be towed and then have some ‘dohickie’ adjusted for the thin air after a six hour wait for a tow truck. That was not a fun experience, except for the tow truck driver and his mechanic wife who got to make lot of jokes about flatlander mechanics and make some big bucks off us. I suspect every one of those mountain passes has a local couple who make their living by rescuing flatlanders. Now is a good time to upgrade that autoclub membership so you have long distance towing coverage for the same reason you need to plan gas stops.

Check your tires. My prairie mechanic told me my tires were wearing down but they would be fine until spring. They were not. You simply can’t skimp on tires on the mountains. Running on that last 2-4mm of tread with bare spots may work in the prairies on a dry summer road but you’ll be sorry if you try it in the mountains. You need that tread for gripping the road going down steep switchbacks in slush with sharp turns while dragging your trailer behind. We found out that on steep grades, worn out tires don’t grip and they spin and slip instead making it nearly impossible to climb. That in turn causes transmissions to overheat meaning it will take even longer to get to the top. Tire type is also important. If there is even a remote possibility you may hit snow you simply must have proper snow tires. Snow tires have a mountain snowflake symbol. We prairie folks know that regular all season radials with the standard snowflake symbol are generally useless in winter on the prairies outside of the city. Quebec requires you must drive on winter tires rated with the mountain snowflake for that entire time period in the whole province and they don’t even have any real mountains in Quebec! All the more reasons that so called all season radials are definitely not good enough for mountain passes with snow. This is why British Columbia law requires you must have snow tires or carry chains before you drive mountain passes from October to April. Fortunately, manufacturers are responding to the need for winter quality tires you don’t have to change each spring and fall.

We currently drive on Nokia all season radials rated M&S (mud and snow) and bearing the Mountain Snowflake symbol for severe weather. These all season tires can take winter conditions and they cost us no more than regular good quality all season radials. They are sweet to drive on. I found out about them by researching on line after skidding while going up a 9% grade on dry pavement in California on my balding tires. I was just sick imagining what it would have been like on snow. I had to hunt around to find a dealer who would special order them just for me. I was really glad we had those new tires in a mountain pass on April 27th in British Columbia. We hit six inches of slush in pouring rain with two centimetres of water running down the 6% grade road we going up on. My new tires handled it without a single slip or slide. I can’t overemphasize how important good snow tires with lots of tread are in the mountains.

Check your trailer brakes. My trailer control box in the truck allows me to set the amount of braking the trailer brakes do compared to the truck brakes. When I am going into the mountains I increase the amount of braking the trailer does. This wears the brakes on the trailer more but you will need that extra stopping power. I also practiced leaning forward and hitting the lever that puts the trailer brakes on full without having to think about it or take my eyes off the road. That practice was what saved us going down that hill in Death Valley. When my truck brakes failed, I was able to reach down and hit the trailer brake lever to full and use the trailer brakes to slow us down enough to get around the last two switchbacks. I couldn’t stop, but I could slow. If I had not practiced that maneuver we would likely be dead now, fallen off a switchback cliff. You should avoid having to do that maneuver of braking only on trailer brakes, but if you should need to, there will be no time for looking down and figuring out where that little lever is. Practice putting your trailer brakes on full well before you start down a mountain.

Once your vehicle is in good working order, with good tires, and the weather report is favourable you can actually start driving up a mountain. Now is where you need to think about gears. As you travel up, listen to your engine. In my truck I have a temperature gauge for the transmission and an rpm gauge. I keep an eye on both as I climb. If the rpms go above comfortable driving range for flat prairie (on my gauge that’s between 1.5 and 2) I slow down. If I sense any straining I switch into the next lower gear. In my rig, I can do 6% grades in third gear at about 60km/hour (40mph) while pulling. I can so 7-8% grades while in second gear at 15km/hr (10mph) and I will need to go in first gear at less than 5km/hr (3mph) for any grade higher than that. I adjust my speed to keep the truck from working too hard not adjust the work the truck is doing to keep up to speed. This prevents the transmission from being destroyed. This is why it is very nice to take bigger roads truckers use because such roads normally have a two lane hill climb so folks who can go faster can easily pass me.

While I climb, I carefully monitor the transmission temperature. As soon as it begins to go up or I hear that special noise the extra cooling fan makes, I either drop to the next gear, slow down, or I pull over and stop to let it cool. (Well if I am very near the top or it isn’t safe I will go just a wee bit further but I will stop at the absolute very next place.) I found that the transmission cools faster with the motor running than if I shut the motor off because that keeps the coolant circulating. Do not let that transmission overheat. It is very very expensive to replace and its really hard to find the right transmission in remote mountain towns and they will charge you a lot for shipping up there. If it bothers you to go so slow and have the locals whiz by at top speeds laughing at the flatlander, try pretending you are stopping to take pictures of the pretty mountains. That made me feel better about it. I have found that as I practiced mountain driving, and learned the sounds my truck made, I did not start to overheat the transmission even on the steepest hills so I no longer needed to keep stopping to cool it down.

Once you get to the top of the pass, you can breath a sigh of relief and relax until it’s time to go down. Going down is much more tricky than going up. You have to worry about going down slowly enough to avoid going off a cliff even though you have a huge amount of weight which makes for a whole lot of momentum. If you simply keep hitting the brakes on the way down, you will burn out the brake pads and end up scraping metal on metal. The brake fluid will begin to boil. The connecting hoses will melt from the heat. Your brakes will then stop working altogether. You really need to avoid this. Use the transmission that worked so hard going up to slow your vehicle while going down. In my truck, I will switch to third gear going down if the road ahead can sustain speeds of about 80km/hr (50mp/hr). You need to listen to the motor revving but you keep it going faster down than when you were going up because it isn’t working as hard. Even so, you can’t let it get insanely fast. In my rig, the rpm gauge reads about 3 when I have it right going downhill. You will need to do some braking occasionally to keep the motor from revving too high but it should be rarely that you actually need to use the brakes. You should be slowly descending at a constant speed with little to no braking if you have it in the right gear. When you do have to brake, I have found one good braking to drop the revving to under 3 on my rpm gauge works better than several light tapping type brakings. If you find you are braking a lot or the engine is racing really fast, drop to the next lowest gear and slow down even more. If the road has a 6% grade requires speed not exceeding 60km/hour, then I have to take my truck down to second gear to go slowly enough without using the brakes. Really wild hair pins or grades down over 6% mean I am creeping slowly down in first gear at less than 30 km/hr (20 mph). If while descending you smell burning, pull over and let the brakes cool. They are cool enough to continue when you can bend over and sniff near the wheels and smell nothing. If I had stopped and let the brakes cool as soon as I smelled something in death valley, I might have avoided that $2000 fix after Death Valley.

While you are going down there is generally no passing lane as there usually is when going up. Mountain drivers behind you will get insanely impatient. They may whiz by at high speeds and swear at you and give you the finger. Impatient drivers passing you at high speeds can cause head on collisions with traffic coming the other way. Chances are they will swerve into your lane when that happens making it a three or four vehicle pile up and then the other lunatic who is tail gating you will crunch your rear end making it a five car pile up. You should always stop and wait at the top of the mountain and pull over and let everyone else go by first. This is common courtesy but it is also good safety practice. As you descend, be aware of turnouts and viewing platforms where you can pull over and let the speed demons pass without killing themselves and taking you with them. Mountains are difficult to drive but they are also very pretty and fresh to the eye when you are flatlander. Take the time to enjoy them. I installed a rear view camera and that made life a lot easier on this point.

Finally, you will have made it out of the mountains and find yourself back in the open plains. The roads are flat and level and you can see the whole sky. Take your rig in and get it checked for damage. I mentioned that fluid around the gear box that changes back and forth from four wheel drive to two wheel drive. We stopped in to get things checked out after a hard drive with some overheating of the transmission. The mechanic told us the transmission fluid was fine but the fluid around the gear box had turned brown and was full of lumps. It did its job, but if we hadn’t changed it when we did, we would have had a another big expensive repair bill.

We survived the mountains. We have some very pretty pictures. We had a nice stay in the valleys of British Columbia. Death valley was wonderful. Oregon and Washington state were lovely. I finally got to see Mount St Helen’s. It was worth the hell of mountain driving. We drove through them and we got out alive, even if it was by the skin of our teeth and with a lot less money in our pocket. We will try it again too. Hopefully your experience will be even better than ours.

Looking out from the top of the mountain pass called Paulson Summit on Highway 3.SAM_2509

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About tumbleweedstumbling

I have three blogs, embryogenesis explained, tumbleweed tumbling AND fulltimetumbleweed. I am a scientist, and my husband and I have written a book which will be published soon by World Scientific Publishing called Embryogensis Explained. Full time tumbleweed was my first blog which I worked on during five years of living full time in a travel trailer. I have now retired that blog in favour of Tumbleweeds Tumbling since we bought a stick house in April 2015 and are no longer full-time. I have a blended family of five sons and one daughter, all grown up now. I am (step)grandmother to nine boys and one girl. My husband and I have two dogs and a cat. We spend summers in Manitoba, Canada, in a 480 square foot house on a half acre of land in the tiny town of Alonsa. We spend winters in the USA. My husband is retired and being a US citizen, he does volunteer work in winters for Gulf Specimen Marine Lab in Panacea Florida as their emeritus. I retired in Sept 2013 and so far I am loving it.
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2 Responses to Mountain Driving With a Travel Trailer – A Guide for Flatlanders

  1. rlogan1155 says:

    Wish we’d read this before our near disastrous trip to Cloudcroft New Mexico. Read here for our experience.
    http://rlogan1155.wordpress.com/2012/07/19/cloudcroft-new-mexico-part-2/

    Ruth from At Home on the Road

    • I know, eh? Your adventure sounds about equivalent to our going down the hill leaving Death Valley with 9% grade for 22 miles with no place to stop. Since you were already in low gear I don’t think my advice would have helped much either. When we went to see Mount St Helens we parked the trailer at a KOA at the bottom of the hill and took just our pickup truck up. Anything else would have been insane.

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