RVing America’s back country leads to some of the most scenic vistas imaginable. Out West, those scenic back roads are often accompanied with some steep grades. The sad part is, if you’re sweating it out behind the wheel, you can’t appreciate those beautiful vistas. This month we’ll discuss some ways to ready your rig—and yourself—for dealing with steep grades.
Road Ready Rig
Getting your RV ready is the first step in dealing with steep climbs and steep downgrades. For the uphill part, making sure your cooling system is up to snuff is the first issue. Have you been keeping your engine coolant changed at the specified intervals? Is the radiator free of dirt, bugs or other obstructions? Are all belts and hoses in good shape? If you have any doubts, check them out yourself, or have your tow vehicle or motorhome checked by a reliable mechanic.
On the downhill side, brakes are the major concern. Are your brake pads (or shoes) in good shape? On a tow rig or motorhome, a quick look at the brake fluid reservoir will give a fast indicator. If the fluid is low, there’s a reason. Either you have a system leak, which needs to be addressed immediately, or your brake shoes or pads are wearing. Either way, check it out before heading off on an RV trip.
On trailers, a brake system check should include pulling the wheels and inspecting the brake shoes. It’s a good time to repack the wheel bearings too, which is a job that should be done each year. Reset the adjustment of the shoes so that your brakes will be ready to brake!
Do you know what road grade signs indicate? We mean more than the silhouette of a big truck pointing down a slant. We’re talking about grade signs that indicate percentage of grade. Really, what a grade sign indicates is how many feet of fall there is in the roadway over a given distance. For example, a 5 percent grade sign means for every 100 feet of roadway, there’s an average drop of five feet. The bigger the grade percentage, the steeper the drop, or climb. The longer the grade, the more inherent danger. A real steep hill in downtown Seattle could easily go into double digits of grade, but if it’s only a block or two in length, it’s not nearly as scary as a 6 or 7 percent grade that runs for miles.
Tackling steep grades is a matter of learning to go slow. Going up hill, you may be able to go fast, but you’re asking a lot from your engine and cooling system. Steep climbs—especially in warm weather—are better made in the cool of the morning. Pulling a steep grade in warm weather is taxing to your cooling system. Keep a close eye on your temperature gauges–engine and transmission (if you’re so equipped). If engine temps begin to climb, shut down your air conditioner. If they continue to rise, roll down your windows and turn on the heater. Yep, the additional heat put off by your heater may be enough to counter a rise in engine temperature. If that doesn’t cut it, PULL OVER. Set your parking brake; don’t shut off your engine, rather increase the engine revs above a normal idle to help cool down the engine. And be sure to pull over before you hit a “red line” temperature!
Before you hit the summit of a climb, check your brakes. Oh so much better to let the grade slow and stop you if your brakes are “gone” than to find out they’re gone when you’re headed down hill. And here’s the trucker’s rule on gearing: Whatever gear you needed to climb the hill is likely the one you’ll need to go down the other side. Engine compression is your friend—the less you need to step on the brakes, the better off you are. Diesel engines have comparatively less “compression braking” ability than a gas engine, so you may need to gear down even more. And be sure to “kick down” to the lower gear BEFORE you need it, else you might not be able to gear down later when your speed is too high.
Use your brakes if you need to, by all means, but keep “geared down” enough so that you can stay off the brakes and allow them to cool between applications. You can come down the hill “too slowly” time after time, but come down the hill “too fast” and you may do it only once! And be sure to slow BEFORE coming into a curve, rather than trying to slow IN the curve. Recommended speed signs for curves are based on a passenger car, not a big RV. So take the curve slower than the posted sign, and begin to accelerate in the curve. Why accelerate in a curve? It’s a matter of physics. Your rig will generally continue to go in the direction it’s going until an outside force acts on it. As you hit a curve, there’s a sideways force that will try and pull you one direction or the other. Giving a little acceleration will help compensate for that side pull, and keep you headed forward.
If Something Goes Wrong
What if you get into trouble? Let’s say you encounter “brake fade.” You hit the brakes, and they aren’t there. Get off the throttle, and turn off the cruise control. If you haven’t already kicked down in gear, do so immediately. PUMP the brake pedal—you may be able to get a bit of pressure built up to help you slow down. Try using your parking brake. This will likely have very slow results, but it may yield some amount of brake effect. Warn traffic ahead by blowing your horn. If there’s a “runaway truck” ramp, by all means, use it. And if all else fails, use the Jersey barrier to scuff off speed. Most are designed to rub against your tires (as opposed to your paint) to help slow you down. Scraping the side of your rig on a guardrail is better than going over the edge, so it’s a possible last resort.
With that last paragraph in mind, oh so much better to make sure of your mechanical and person condition before traveling hill country. Happy trails!
Russ and Tiña De Maris are authors of RV Boondocking Basics—A Guide to Living Without Hookups, which covers a full range of dry camping topics. They also provide great resources in their book, Camp Hosting USA—Your Guide to State Park Volunteering. Visit www.icanrv.com for more information.