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RV Nightmare: Dangerous Mountain Pass May Ruin Your Camping Trip

RV Nightmare: Dangerous Mountain Pass May Ruin Your Camping Trip

One of the best places to camp is in the mountains, but this often means dealing with a mountain pass or two. And driving through a pass can mean thousands of feet in elevation change from start to finish.

We don’t want an unexpected mountain pass to ruin your camping trip. So we’ll take a closer look to help ensure you’re ready for your next camping adventure!

Let’s jump in!

What is a Mountain Pass?

A mountain pass is a route that travels through a mountain range or over the ridge of a mountain. When driving through a pass, you’ll likely experience elevation changes of thousands of feet. 

What Makes Mountain Passes Dangerous for RVers?

A mountain pass can be dangerous for any driver, but especially for RVers. Taking an RV over a pass will test your skills and the mechanical limits of the tow vehicle. If your tow vehicle frequently has mechanical issues, the stress put on it when navigating a mountain pass could cause it to let you down.

Steep inclines that last for miles will challenge your transmission and engine.

These two critical components to your vehicle can struggle or overheat during this challenge. A breakdown is never something you want to experience, especially in the middle of a challenging pass.

An extended decline may take it easy on your engine and transmission but will test your vehicle’s brakes. If you overwork your brakes while going down the backside of a mountain pass, you’ll soon discover why the runaway ramps are there for vehicles.

Overusing your brakes will quickly wear them out. No brakes while towing is a terrifying and dangerous situation.

Mountain passes can be incredibly unpredictable in terms of weather, especially at higher elevations. Temperatures can drop with little notice, and snowstorms can dump inches, or even feet, of snow on the area.

Conditions can go from bad to dangerous very quickly. Keeping an eye on the weather conditions at various elevations is essential for a smooth mountain pass experience.

How to Make Sure You’re Prepared to Drive Over A Pass

If you’re preparing for a trip that involves a mountain pass, there are a few things you can do to prepare for the big trip. Let’s get started!

Check Your Brakes And Tires

Before every big trip, you should check your brakes and tires. However, this is especially important if your trip involves a mountain pass. You want to make sure your tires and brakes are in good working order and that there are no concerns.

Even minor issues with brakes and tires can quickly magnify when you’re pressing your tow vehicle to its limits. If there is even an ideal place for a tire or brake failure, the middle of a mountain pass is not. Save yourself the trouble and make sure both your brakes and tires are in good working order before hitting the road.

Buy Some Snow Chains

Depending on when you are traveling, some roads may require you to have snow chains or special tires. These restrictions are often common in higher elevations during the winter months, but blizzards are common in the spring months.

Just because there’s no snow at the base of a mountain doesn’t mean it’s not snowing several thousand feet higher in elevation. The weather at higher elevations can change incredibly fast. It’s best to prepare for a situation and not need the snow chains than to need snow chains and not have them.

Prep Your Provisions

Traveling through a mountain pass can be an unpredictable adventure at times. Be sure to come prepared for as many possible scenarios as you can. It doesn’t hurt to have extra food, water, warm clothes, and roadside tools. Should weather or road conditions change, you want to have provisions to help get you through a difficult situation.

You’ll want to have plenty of fuel in your fuel tank as well. A long and steep incline going into the mountain pass will eat up a lot more gas than the slow decline. Running out of fuel is never ideal, but you’ll have a more challenging time finding a gas station when navigating a mountain pass.

What If You’re Not Prepared

If you find yourself unprepared, there are a few things you can do to make it through an unexpected mountain pass safely. Let’s take a look!

Keep It Slow And Steady

When you’re coming down the backside of a mountain pass, slow is good. There are no awards for the fastest person down the mountain pass. The most important part of navigating through a mountain pass is that everyone arrives at the bottom safely.

Watch your speed when going downhill. It’s easy to take your foot off the gas or brake and let the vehicle coast down the mountain. While this is a great way to conserve fuel, the vehicle will slowly accelerate over time.

This situation can quickly lead to the driver losing control of their truck and trailer. An out-of-control truck or trailer is a dangerous situation. If you have an exhaust brake, use it.

Stay In The Right Lane

Since you’ll be going slower, stay in the right lane. The left lanes are for faster moving traffic, and if you’re towing, that should not be you. Stay slow and out of the way of faster traffic to keep not only yourself safe but other drivers as well. They can easily go around you and continue on their way.

Remember To Downshift

When you downshift, your vehicle’s drivetrain will assist in slowing the vehicle. This process helps you avoid riding your brakes down the mountain and losing your ability to stop. This braking technique is a common technique that 18-wheelers use when going down steep hills, and it will work great when towing an RV.

Many modern trucks have towing modes that make towing downhill much easier than older model trucks. You’ll have more control of the truck and trailer and barely have to touch the brake pedal.

How To Check Your Route For Mountain Passes

One of the best ways to check your route for mountain passes is to use a topographic map. When looking at your route on a topographic map, the lines closer together indicate increases in elevation. If you see these lines close together, there’s likely a mountain pass along your route.

Another easy way to check your route for mountain passes is to look at the elevation changes between cities. A simple Google search for the name of cities and the elevation will help you see the changes in elevation along the route.

Personally, we use RV Trip Wizard to understand our route and all the potential dangers before beginning our journey.

You’ll also want to know a bit about geography. Mountain passes are not a concern in flat regions like the Midwest. However, if you venture west, you’ll likely encounter the Rocky Mountains and other massive changes in elevation. A quick geography lesson will help educate you on what to expect when traveling in various regions.

Prepare and Be Aware When Driving a Mountain Pass

Driving through a mountain pass doesn’t have to leave you with white knuckles. Doing a little bit of research and your due diligence can help you approach your next mountain pass with confidence and the appropriate skills and equipment for a smooth mountain pass experience. What’s the largest mountain pass you’ve conquered during your adventures?

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  1. Duane Roepke says:

    When tackling large long hills, be sure your trailer brakes are adjusted properly. After just one long hill they can be way out of adjustment. Before getting to those “long hills”,check the temperature of your brake drums with a laser thermometer. Any brake that is considerably cooler than the rest is not working properly. Keep your speed to no more than 5-10 mph (rule of thumb) by using the lowest gear you have. If your 4×4 vehicle has low range (and you can use low range without damage) use low range and use your only your trailer brakes to maintain your slow speed. If they start to fade, use ALL brakes to get stopped alongside road and let cool for at least 30 min. In my travels as an RVer and truck driver, I’ve seen numerous HOT brakes on RVs. I just say to myself I hope they make it to the bottom safely. IF you do lose your brakes and there is a runaway ramp…TAKE IT!!!!. The expenses involved will out weigh the other consequences.
    The above is what I do to stay slow and have not had any problems. I drove trucks before engine brakes were a thing and what I’ve described has gotten me down a LOT of steep long hills SAFELY all over the US.


  2. Valerie GRAHAM says:

    Most dangerous pass encountered and unaware is Wolf Creek Pass on hwy 160 in Colorado from Pueblo to Durango. Driving a 35 class A with a toad.
    As i climbed the mountain i commented “when am i going to get to the top?”
    Seemed like a 30 min climb at least.
    No idea the least 6.
    At the top now have to come down.
    Took it slowly..35-45..then all of a sudden a sign appears with an L shape for the curve ahead and a class A have to slow to 15mph..putting on the brakes quickly to get from 35 to 15 to negotiate the L curve safely. There were 3 L curves on the way down..
    I was the white knuckle but composed and focused..
    Never smoked the brakes and made it safely down. And then stopped to breathe. Let me add..female. RV driver of 4 years as husband unable to drive. No matter how many passes or grades i encounter, each has their own challenge. Just always stay focused and read the signs so you can keep control of your vehicles and the situation. Safe travels!

  3. Backcountry164 says:

    Or just ditch the trailer altogether. Trust me, there’s nothing in there that you need…

  4. Sally Gilbert says:

    We always try to start our descent of step gradients at the speed we want to hold all the way down. We do this by slowing as we approach the hill crest. It saves a lit if braking, and let’s the driver stay in control from the get go. We have a 37 ft class a gasser and tow a chevy Colorado truck.

  5. Edwin says:

    Don’t forget the possibility of vapor lock. I had a 32 foot RV. Going from Boulder, CO to Estes Park my Rv acted like it ran out of gas. Would not restart. Thought fuel pump went out. Unhooked towed vehicle and drove back to town to buy a fuel pump. Replaced and RV started right up. A week later going over another 10000 and 11400 foot passes, the RV did the same thing. Another RV’er stopped and told me it had vapor locked and my fuel pump was probably fine. After sitting for about an hour, both times,the RV started right. No other issues below 9000 feet.

  6. Edwin says:

    When going over a pass from California too Nevada the sign says “Vehicles over 30 feet not recommended “. Took my 32 footer with a toad over anyway. Started overheating half way up. Pulled over by a cliff. Let it cool down. Unhooked the toad for my wife to drive separately. Made it all the way up and down after that with no more trouble.

  7. Cynthia B Martina says:

    We drove our 36 ft RV with a toad from Durango to Silverton. We did maintenance to the tires and brakes beforehand. Only white-knuckle experience was when 2 does wanted to cross in front of us, but fortunately changed their minds. We were on the drop side with no guardrail. Go slow and be aware of your surroundings.

  8. I have a class C motorhome built on a Ford F-350 chassis. It has an overdrive button on the transmission control lever. When going downhill on a long grade, I turn off overdrive and back off of the accelerator pedal. This usually provides enough engine braking that I have to apply the brakes only occasionally and only in small bursts. To plan my routes, I consult a book of maps on mountain driving road conditions that was written by a former big-rig trucker. He indicates where the mountain roads have difficult grades, uphill and downhill, going each direction. He warns you about the steep grade percentages. It’s called Mountain Directory West for Truckers, RV and Motorhome Drivers.

  9. ROBERT E COBB says:

    Great article, even with out a tow/class A or C, just a car mountain passes are tough

    Eastern US continental divide and most of the smoker mountains, Ozark mountains all up and down. Rockies hopefully in springs.