Whether you’re a winter warrior, an autumn leaf-peeper, or a summer hiking addict, the mountains serve up year-round enjoyment for all you outdoorsy types. But bad habits on the road can take any mountain trip from fun to frightening in no time. How well do you know how to manage mountain passes, hillside switchbacks, and winter driving conditions? Here are a few tips to keep in mind next time you head for the hills.

Before you leave

Make sure your car’s mountain-ready

Have your mechanic top off your fluids, check your tire pressure and tread, and make sure your brake pads are in good condition.

Prepare for the unexpected

Check the weather forecast, keep an emergency kit in your trunk, and make sure your phone’s fully charged in case you get stranded.

Know where you’re going

Plan your route ahead of time. Keep in mind that cell service can be spotty in the mountains, so relying on your phone’s GPS map may be a recipe for sitcom-style spousal unrest.

On the road

Use low gears

Low gears (specifically 1 through 3) are your friends in the mountains. They give you a little extra power to maintain your speed when you’re climbing. And when you’re descending, they’ll help you slow down to reduce strain on your brakes. If you drive an automatic, look for “L” or “2,” depending on your car’s transmission (or check your owner’s manual for how to shift down to lower gears).

Turn off the AC

Climbing uphill gives your engine a serious workout. Adding air conditioning to the mix forces it to work even harder, increasing the likelihood of overheating. It’s kind of like asking a marathon runner to carry a load of bricks with them. Instead, crack the windows and enjoy the mountain air.

Take it easy on the brakes

Riding your brakes down a steep grade heats them up — and hot brakes are not happy brakes. Trust me, it’s a smoke-filled lesson I learned on a trip to Pike’s Peak (in my first brand-new car, nonetheless). Instead of applying constant pressure to the brakes, see the tip above about using lower gears to regulate your speed. If you do find yourself using your brakes a lot, pull over (as soon as you can safely do so) to let them cool down.

Don’t hog the road

If you’re winding your way down a steep 2-lane road, keep in mind that vehicles coming uphill have the right of way. That rule applies even on narrow, one-lane roads, so if a vehicle’s coming up, you’ll need to back up until the road widens enough to let them by. And even if there’s a cliff on the other side, resist the urge to hug the center line.

Stay hydrated

If you’re not used to high elevations, altitude sickness can cause headaches, lightheadedness, and some nasty nausea. Before you leave home, drink lots of water and avoid dehydrators like coffee and alcohol. And when you do begin to climb, take it slow. Pull off at that scenic overlook, enjoy the view, and give your body a little extra time to acclimate.

Weather the winter

This year’s El Niño is expected to be one of the strongest on record, with extreme weather likely in the Rockies, Appalachians, and other major ranges. At high elevations, snow can arrive in the blink of an eye, and knowing how to react is key to your safety.

Two simple tips can make all the difference: more distance, less speed. In heavy snow, leave at least 10 seconds between you and the car in front of you. If your vehicle has four-wheel-drive, keep in mind that it only helps with acceleration (not braking), so be sure keep plenty of distance in front of you to allow more stopping time.

If you start to skid, stay calm. Apply steady pressure to the brakes (if you don’t have anti-lock brakes, pump them steadily), and steer into the skid. Yes, into the skid. Finally, pay close attention to hazard signs. They’re the best way to find out if chain laws are in effect, or if there are accidents ahead.

And as always, if the visibility gets too bad (or you just get too nervous to continue), pull over at your first opportunity to do so.

Do you seasoned mountain drivers have any other tips to add? Share them in the comments below.

Related links

How to Winterize Your Car

How to Use Snow Chains

Warning: Using Kitty Litter and Salt to De-ice Could Be Harmful

11 Must-Haves for Your Winter Car Kit

The Science of Skidding (and How to Avoid It)

Safe and smart | Car safety


about Jonathan

Jonathan is a word nerd, a food freak, and a travel junkie. By day, you'll find him weaving words for Esurance as a Senior Copywriter. But in his off time, he'll likely be digging into a new restaurant in his home base of Denver, Colorado, or white-knuckling his way down a mountainside on a weekend road trip.