We love RVing because we’re able to explore new destinations, go where we’ve never been, and enjoy the extent of the environment and land around us—all while bringing the comfort of home with us. But the road there is not always easy, and that’s part of the adventure, too. Here are tips for towing a trailer on mountainous or hilly terrain.
Many of the most scenic, beautiful, and adventurous destinations in the country will involve some of the more difficult driving conditions out there—including the roads up and down mountains and hills. And when traveling with an RV in tow, everything becomes a little more involved as you tackle various elevations.
Sure, you’ll gain your own insights after every trip into elevated areas—experience is an incredible teacher—but keep in mind some of these towing tips before getting started to keep everyone on the road as safe as can be.
Map The Route Ahead
Your biggest worry when traveling mountains and hills is the unexpected. Get ahead of this by knowing the coming route, turn-by-turn. Ensure you know what you’re up against in terms of terrain, your rig’s capabilities, and any aspect that might run askew. What kind of elevation will your route sustain over a certain stretch? What are the steepest grades your engine and brakes will face? What’s the traffic and weather expected to be?
A great resource for this is Mountain Directory, which provides maps, apps, and eBooks specific for trucks, RVs, and motorhomes traveling across mountainous and hilly terrain. This resource details hundreds of mountain passes and steep grade roadways with invaluable information about what you’ll face. The Garmin RV 780 Traffic provides the same service but in a visual turn-by-turn GPS monitor. Use tools like this so, coupled with fair weather and daylight driving, to be safe and smart on the road.
If you plan on towing through difficult terrain, think like an over-the-road trucker and prepare accordingly. Ensure your rig is reliable with scheduled maintenance and regular checks on brakes and fluids. Plan for the mountains and hills, starting with traction.
With elevation and potential snow/sleet/ice, your tires need to show good tread, and you will require chains in many parts of the country due to weather, as well as regulation. Watch for the iconic “Chains Required in Winter” signage before certain passes, because failure to be able to hook on chains can result in hazardous driving and potentially steep fines.
If you’ve never put on chains, don’t wait until you’re on the side of the road in freezing conditions, and there’s already inches of snow on the ground. Get familiar with this process beforehand, so it’s second nature when you’re already out on the road.
We also recommend an RV-tailored emergency road kit for mountainous travel that might include additional reflective triangles, your snow chains, a fire extinguisher, wheel chocks—anything extra you might need along the way.
Watch the Weather
Moderate to severe elevation change can impact weather quickly and drastically, and the road conditions can change just as fast. In under an hour, you can go from easy, dry, uphill driving to low-visibility, icy road conditions—and you might see this type of change several times over the course of a day!
The forecast will help, but as soon as you see distinct elevation changes, pay extra attention to the roads. And also pay attention to how commercial truck drivers start to behave. Remember the vast majority of truck drivers are connected with CB radios, and they can get real-time reports from drivers ahead of them regarding road conditions. If they’re worried, you should take precautions accordingly.
A helpful hint: many mountain passes have streaming video of the roads posted online. So, before hitting the road, take a look so you can actually see the conditions you’ll face. But remember: those conditions could change quickly, so always have the chains at the ready.
Heed Your Brakes
What goes up, must come down—and how you approach downgrades will affect the longevity of your rig and the safety of your drive. When we consider mountains and hills, our first worry is whether we have the pulling capacity for hauling a large trailer, like a long camper. But, if you’ve bought the right truck for your RV, you know you have the power under the hood. The real test of the driver’s skill level is on the downgrades. Going slow is the key.
If you pump the brakes all the way down a downgrade, it will strain your brakes. Don’t let the weight and momentum of your rig increase your speed to the point you’re dead-legging the brake pedal—within half a mile your brake pads will be shot, and you lose the ability to stop quickly in an emergency.
Instead, shift into lower gears to brake with the engine when possible. Watch for grade signs on the side of the road and be prepared to shift into a lower gear. Maintain a very low speed at all times on the downgrade. If for any reason you feel the rig start to speed out of control, look for truck run-offs that will slow you down and keep you from a dangerous situation. Keep your windows open to smell for any burning pads, and remember how much weight you have in tow and how much pressure that puts on your brakes, even when padding them intermittently.
Paying attention to these details—and knowing the risks and rewards involved—creates a sense of adventure and responsibility. This has always been the draw of exploring these areas of the country. The more you know, the greater the challenges you can tackle on the next trip and beyond.
What are your best towing tips for tackling steep grades? Tell us in the comments.