Ruth, with our friend Andrei at the Orheiul Vechi Historical Complex at Trebujeni, Moldova. Photo taken December 2, 2016.
Where are Kevin and Ruth right now? Chisinau, Republic of Moldova.

Where are they going next? Transnistria. The country that doesn't exist!

Monday, May 11, 2015

Mountain driving in an RV

We did a lot of mountain driving in our motorhome this past winter. I've heard that many people don't like mountain driving, however I don't have a problem with it at all. I wonder if a lot of people don't like it partly because they're unsure of how to do it properly. And therefore it makes them nervous that they're going to end up going too fast to make the next curve, or that their brakes are going to overheat or something like that.

Of course you want to have brakes that are in good condition, however the most important part of mountain driving is the correct use of your transmission.

RVs of any kind are a lot different to drive than a normal car, pickup, or SUV. They're heavy, and cumbersome, and almost awkward feeling to anybody who's never driven one before. They accelerate slowly, and they have a lot longer braking distance than a car.

So, when you see a sign like this, you want to be confident that you know what you're doing!

Going uphill is not often a problem. Sure, we're usually a little slower than any other traffic if you're on a steep uphill, but we don't worry about that. If other people are in a rush, just let them do their own thing. It's more important that you do your own thing. Just because the speed limit is 60 mph doesn't mean that you have to try and maintain that speed all the time, and in fact you'll often want to be going much slower than the speed limit.

And the same applies when you're going downhill. In fact, going downhill is when you really don't care what other people think of your speed.

Your transmission is designed to be able to slow you down when going downhill. In fact, I've often driven very steep downhill stretches without ever touching the brakes at all. And the whole idea is to never get going too fast to begin with!

That means going slowly even at the top of the hill, because you often have no idea just how steep the hill will be, or how many curves you will encounter. 

Using the transmission properly entails some understanding of what the different gears are capable of. Most automatic transmissions on gas powered vehicles look something like this.

Park, Reverse, Neutral, Overdrive, Drive (3rd), 2nd gear, and 1st gear.

When you are in overdrive, the transmission uses the gears as efficiently as it can to make use of the engine's power depending on average driving conditions. In other words, you put in in overdrive, and you go. When going downhill with the transmission in overdrive, you are essentially coasting.

However if you're at highway speeds and going downhill, putting your transmission into drive, or 3rd gear, will use the braking power of the idling engine to actually slow you down a little bit if it's not too steep. If it doesn't slow you down enough, you'll want to drop the transmission down to second gear, or maybe even first gear.

However, to drop down to 2nd or 1st gear you need to be driving slowly enough for the transmission to engage those gears.

For Sherman, (our motorhome), we need to be going below 50 mph in order to drop to 2nd gear, and below 30 mph in order to drop to 1st gear. These speeds will be slightly different for different vehicles, but it'll be somewhere close to that.

Very often on a steep section of downhill, I will have Sherman in first gear and driving at 25-30 mph despite the fact that the speed limit might be 50 or 55 mph. If there is a lineup behind me, I don't care. If there is somewhere for me to pull over and let them by, I will. But if not, I don't care about them.

I care about the safety of us and our vehicle!

Going downhill towards Jerome, Arizona.

Sometimes driving in Mexico we end up behind a vehicle that needs to be going slower than Sherman! Perhaps a heavily loaded work truck, going down a steep hill in that vehicle's 1st gear, which might have him driving at between 5-10 mph for several miles. Oh well. Just have to be patient, and I realize that he's doing what he needs to do to get down that hill safely.

And for those of you who are towing a trailer or towed vehicle? All of these same rules apply, except even more so because whatever it is that you're towing is acting as a 2000 lb (or more!) weight that is actually pushing your vehicle down the hill. One of the reasons that it's so important to have trailer brakes or a toad braking system because it's more likely that you will have to use the brakes at some point to help the transmission do it's job.

So, what did you learn today? Slow down, and gear down!

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18 comments:

  1. Well written advice. Too often people take the "information" floating around on the Internet that you should use the same gear going down a mountain as you used coming up. Inaccurate advice because there is no way of telling if the downside is as steep or even steeper than the ascending side. I'm surprised more people don't get themselves in a bad situation following that "advice".

    I'm with you, slow and easy gets the job done safely. :c)

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    1. Thank you Paul and Marti! Yes, it is unbelievable how many people don't understand how to drive on mountainous roads, putting their lives in possible danger and damage to their vehicle.

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  2. When we were going down the Oregon Coast (101) I remember a motorcycle that pulled up beside us at a town and waived his middle finger at me and called me a brick (I'm sure he said BRICK) for going SO SLOW down the hills. I think MOST of those types of people NEVER have driven a large vehicle that doesn't slow down as easily as they are used to.
    Too bad most people don't have patience to understand this.
    I'm with you though, GO at your OWN speed, others will just adjust around you.
    If they hate you for being slow, who cares? Not like you need to be their friend.
    You DO need to get to your destination safely.

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    1. Don't even think about him, he isn't worth the time. As you said they probably have no idea what it is like to drive a big vehicle down a steep mountain road. We do try to pull over and let people pass whenever possible but other than that, they will just have to be patient and wait until it is safe to pass because we aren't about to speed up for them!

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  3. I'm always happy that Bill is doing the driving in the rig. I prefer my little Scion with a manual transmission ;-)

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    1. I am also quite happy to let Kevin do the driving while I admire the view and take the pictures!

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  4. Good tips that is exactly the way we drive our coach, we are in our house so need to get there safely

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    1. Yep, slow and easy wins the race!

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  5. Yep, on our way back from Mazatlan we took the Espinazo del Diablo (the dreaded Devil's Backbone). Great road and scenery, but we drove 20 mph or less in first gear almost all the way, no need to use the brakes. I don't think people take advantage of their transmissions and use a lot of brake pads. I wish they had a heavy SUV like our Durango with manual trans. I like those better. Good post.

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    1. Yes, that is a twisty windy road and it takes a slow and steady pace to do it. We aren't in any rush and it is nice now that there isn't as much traffic on that road anymore now that the toll road is open. Having said that, the road between La cascada de Basaseachi going to Hermosillo seemed even worse.

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  6. Our brakes are as good as new as when we bought the RV in 2001. Knowing how to drive is important and can save you money.

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    1. Yes, it is important to know how to drive properly even when you aren't driving in mountains. Stopping slowly rather than quickly saves on your brakes lots and the less the brakes wear.

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  7. Your advice in this post is spot on. Back when I routinely drove the Siskiyou's, I never saw a big rig in the runaway ramp but I did see a couple of motor-homes and 5th wheels when they lost their brakes. Not a pretty site but a little bit of caution and common sense go a long way.

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    1. There is a definitely learning curve when you aren't used to driving a large vehicle and that you can't just drive them the same way you drive a normal car and then expect them to react in the same manner. I hope those rigs you saw in the runway weren't badly damaged, that would certainly be a scary thing to happen.

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  8. It’s true; no matter how big a vehicle is, it’s all a matter of knowing how to handle things properly. Though mountain driving can be intimidating at first, it can be unavoidable sometimes, especially if you plan to explore all that a life on the road has to offer. Hopefully, these tips will help those people who are willing to try it, but not quite sure how to approach the matter. Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts on the matter. Cheers!

    Liza Pilon @ Prairie City RV

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    1. You are right Liza, it doesn't matter what vehicle you drive you need to know how to handle them in every situation but certainly more so with a large, heavy vehicle. I think people who avoid the mountains are sure missing out on some fantastic scenery, which is a real shame.

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  9. Have had our class c for 15 years and until recently just camped in our surrounding area (not many inclines)nut now the kids are older and we want to travel more so i am sure we will encounter hills. So how do we determine what the speeds are to switch to the lower gears? Do you just let off the accelator and then switch or do you switch while the accelator is in use?

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    1. Hi Amy. Your chassis owners manual should tell you what at what speeds you need to be going to downshift into lower gears. If you don't have one, just experiment a little. If you are going too fast for the engine to downshift, it won't downshift even though you have geared down. A built in mechanism to prevent transmission or engine damage.

      Let off the accelerator, and then switch.

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