7 Safety Tips for Towing on Mountain Roads
By Alexis Chateau \
I recently drove from Arizona to Baja California. My route took me along the most terrifying mountain road I have ever towed my trailer. If you encounter steep roads along your journey, will you know how to protect yourself, your trailer, and your tow vehicle? Here are some tips for towing safely on mountain roads.
1. Know the Route Before You Go
I’m currently in a small mountain town outside the Mexican city of Ensenada. There wasn’t a lot of information about it online, so I turned to locals in Sonora while I was there. Thankfully, several of them had traveled through the area and warned me that I would encounter steep, curvy roads.
If you’re good at reading topographic maps, you can also figure that out yourself by putting those map-reading skills to use. Always know what you’ll encounter before you go and plan accordingly.
2. Prep Your Rig for the Trip
You might notice a critical trend here. Safety tips for towing on mountain roads begin long before you leave home. I promise you: the last place you want to break down is on the side of a steep mountain. Ensure your vehicle is in the best shape, and travel as lightly as possible. Here are some ways to do this:
- Bring your vehicle in for an inspection. You should do this before long trips anyway. My FJ Cruiser gets a full inspection before and after every long-term trip that involves towing for a thousand miles or more. I got an oil change, alignment, and new tires the last time.
- Check your fluids. Mechanics make mistakes, and vehicles can leak. Check your fluids yourself before you embark on your odyssey up the mountain.
- Forego groceries. I chose not to buy any groceries until I arrived in Mexico. When added together, you would be surprised how much your canned goods, milk, and laundry detergents weigh.
- Check the tires. You don’t want to get a blowout while blazing around a curb on a mountain road. RV tires tend to lose PSI when sitting for long periods. Low tire pressure increases the risk of blowouts, so make a habit of checking these.
3. Watch Out for Signs Along the Way
It wasn’t steep drop-offs to the side or narrow roads that scared me in the mountains. No, it was the street signs. When I first saw the road, I thought of the beautiful view I would have ahead. Then came the first warning sign:
Turn off your AC for the next 10 miles to avoid overheating.
That caught my attention. I’m sure people driving their sedans up the mountain road kept their AC on. When you’re towing, you might not have that luxury. Follow the cautions provided, especially the ones offered to trucks. Your vehicle operates very similarly to a semi-truck when towing, especially if you are at the upper end of your towing limits.
4. Go Slowly and Watch Your RPMs
The other thing that terrified me was that California had spent millions of dollars (maybe more!) on installing water stations for refilling radiators. I have never seen that before in all my life. I’m talking about a station every quarter of a mile in some places.
That told me everything I needed to know about how to drive up that mountain slowly. When towing with the FJ Cruiser, I usually keep my RPMs in the 2,500 to 3,000 range. I aimed for much lower this time at 2,000 to 2,500 RPMs.
Sometimes, this meant going much slower than the rest of the traffic. I put my hazards on like the truckers and cruised my way up with the windows down.
5. Gear Down on Mountain Roads
I learned to drive on a stick, so I use every gear on my automatic transmission. I move down to third when towing uphill and when going down very steep mountain roads. My instructor gave two main reasons for doing this in driving school in Jamaica:
- Lower gears have more power but less speed. Contrary to what most people think, you need power, not speed, to safely get up and over the hill.
- Lower gears brake the engine, so you don’t need to ride the brakes when going downhill. Riding the brakes can cause them to overheat. This can also cause brakes to fail if you need to make an emergency stop.
Some mountain roads are so steep you might ride the brakes anyway. This happened to me when towing down the Gila National Forest mountain roads in New Mexico. Pull over and let your brakes cool. This is one of the most important tips for towing on mountain roads.
Also, avoid waiting until your car hits crisis mode to pull off the road. I pulled over halfway up California’s crazy mountain to give the truck a breather. The engine temperature gauge had not moved, but better safe than sorry. Remember that your transmission can get hot too!
6. Travel at Cooler Times
Ambient heat will not help your overheating risks. Whenever possible, choose cooler times of the year or cooler times of the day to tow uphill. Your vehicle can still overheat, but you won’t have 100-degree weather contributing to the problem.
Ideally, you save your mountain towing for early mornings, but never assume that all locations heat up at 12 noon. I have stayed in several areas where the hottest part of the day was actually 2 PM to 6 PM. Check the weather and plan accordingly.
7. Know Your Vehicle Specs
After making it up and over the mountain pass, I had to go downhill into Tecate, CA. I barely made the first turn on the next roadway when I saw signs banning vehicles of specific lengths, types, and axle counts.
Vehicles longer than 40 feet were not allowed on the road. Having traveled it, I can see why. It was narrow, curvy, and steep. I wasn’t worried because I knew my numbers.
My truck and travel trailer together are 38 feet long.
Do you know the length and height of your rig?
Final Thoughts on Mountain Road Towing
Safety tips for towing on mountain roads can vary based on your travel setup. Even so, these guidelines provide some basics you can follow to stay safe on the road. Be sure to reach out to your mechanic for much better advice based on your vehicle and travel needs.