You want to take your car on a skiing vacation in winter or a vacation in Spain or the south of France in summer? Then there’s a good chance you’ll also have to conquer some mountains along the way. Driving a car in the mountains is something completely different from a leisurely drive in the flatlands. You want to get across the mountains by car smoothly and safely? Then read the following tips.
Preparation is half the battle
A good preparation is of course useful before every trip, but especially when driving in the mountains it can not hurt to check the route in advance once again. Check that all roads on your route are passable and what they are made of. Weather conditions and road works can hinder or prevent driving on a road. Some roads and mountain passes may also be too narrow or too steep for your camper or caravan. In addition, some mountain passes are completely closed to traffic in spring or fall.
Not only you, but also your vehicle should be well prepared for the trip. The steep climbs and descents can put a lot of strain on your vehicle, which is why it must be in good condition. Before starting your trip, check not only the oil level and brake fluid, but also the individual parts of your brakes, clutch, timing belt and cooling system of your vehicle. It does not hurt to have the car serviced at the garage.
Pay special attention to your tires
Actually, checking your car tires is part of general travel preparation. However, since this is particularly important before a mountain journey, we list it here again separately. The safety of your journey depends largely on the quality of your tires. On narrow and steep mountain passes, which may also be snow-covered, optimal grip is even more important than when driving over flat land. Therefore, before starting your journey, make sure that your tires have sufficient tread and that the optimum tire pressure is set. Drive to winter sports and expect wintry weather along the way? Then check if you might need snow chains and pack them ready to hand in your vehicle. In some countries snow chains are even compulsory.
Familiarize yourself with the traffic rules
Before starting your journey, it is a good idea to familiarize yourself once again with the traffic regulations. This will help you avoid unpleasant surprises and dangerous driving maneuvers on steep roads. Of course, the regular traffic rules of the country you are in also apply in the mountains (don’t forget that Italy or Spain sometimes have different traffic rules than this country), but there are some additional rules as well.
The most important traffic rule when driving in the mountains is that vehicles going uphill have the right of way over vehicles going downhill. The reason for this is that vehicles driving uphill cannot start as easily on steep roads. However, do not blindly assume that all road users will follow this rule. Another traffic rule, almost as important, is to always use your common sense. A heavily loaded van going downhill will probably have difficulty braking and, even if the law is on your side, you should give it the right of way if possible.
Keep the engine working
When driving at high speed, still hear your driving instructor telling you to quickly shift up a gear? Forget this advice when you are traveling in the mountains! Going up a hill in a high gear feels to your car like riding your bike up a hill in top gear. The car engine is overloaded and the risk of engine overheating increases. Therefore, when driving in the mountains, it is better to drive in a low gear with higher revs. A speed of 3.000 is quite normal when driving in the mountains.
Follow this rule of thumb: when you step on the gas pedal, the car must accelerate immediately. If this does not happen, shift to a lower gear and drive a little slower. If you’re driving at a higher RPM, your vehicle will naturally consume more fuel, especially if you’re traveling in a caravan or motorhome. Since gas stations in the mountains are rarer than in the lowlands, you should definitely fill up before you drive into the mountains.
practice starting uphill
You have probably practiced starting on a mountain in driving school. If you don’t live in the mountains, however, you rarely practice it afterwards. So it can’t hurt to practice starting uphill before you begin your trip. Especially if you are driving in the mountains with a fully loaded car, you should have optimal control of your vehicle. Make sure that the clutch does not drag and make use of your handbrake when starting off.
Maintain the same speed uphill and downhill
You have reached the top of the mountain? If you don’t suffer from a fear of heights, you can take a short break to enjoy the view before heading downhill. The ascent was already a challenge, but now you’re in for a downhill ride on narrow roads with sharp curves next to steep slopes. Don’t emulate the Tour de France riders who race down mountain roads bent over their handlebars. Take your time. Continue at the same speed at which you drove up the hill. In this way, your vehicle also brakes with the engine, saving your brakes (see tip 8). There is also a rule of thumb here: as soon as you take your foot off the gas pedal, your car must slow down. If this doesn’t happen, slow down a bit and shift down a gear.
Have good control of curves
Most mountain roads have sharp curves, also called serpentines. These curves are often steep. Therefore, brake early and shift down a gear. In general, you can best ride through these curves in second gear at a speed of about 20 kilometers per hour. Keep an eye on the road ahead, especially when going downhill, so that you can react quickly and safely to oncoming vehicles. Do you have a motorhome whose rear end protrudes over the rear axle? Then try to drive as far out on the curves as possible to avoid your vehicle dragging the ground across the road.
Take care of your brakes
When going downhill, you will need to brake regularly to avoid going too fast. In this case, it is better to brake briefly and heavily a few times than to brake lightly all the time. If you brake briefly and hard, the brakes can cool down afterwards. On the other hand, if you brake continuously, the brakes can overheat and the braking system can be damaged.
Watch out for cyclists
Especially in summer, you are likely to encounter cyclists when driving in the mountains. Every cyclist wants to feel like a participant in the Tour de France and conquer the high mountain passes one day. When going downhill, cyclists are often faster than cars. Therefore, look regularly in the rear-view mirror. Uphill, bicyclists generally travel much slower than cars and may lurch on steep grades from sheer exhaustion. Therefore, when overtaking, use your blinker and pass cyclists with enough distance between them. This way you avoid accidents and increase safety for all road users.
If you follow these suggestions, you will be well prepared for your ride through the mountains. Remember that driving in the mountains is not an everyday experience for many other drivers and that they also feel unsafe in the mountains. Be lenient, take your time and don’t leave in a hurry. This will give you a relaxed ride and you can also enjoy the great views along the way.
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