Driving on the Hills

Driving on hills and mountains isn't for the faint of heart. There are steep inclines, sharp drop-offs, tight corners, and low visibility in a lot of spots. If you're braving the hilly roads of San Francisco or going on a summer road trip up one of Colorado's peaks, buckle up. These nine driving tips will keep you and your vehicle safe.

9 Things New Drivers Should Know About Driving on Hills

First time conquering a mountain behind the wheel? Start here to master hilly driving.

1. Parking Downhill and Uphill

Always engage your handbrake when parking on a hill. If parking uphill, turn the front wheels away from the curb. If parking downhill, turn them toward the curb. When there's no curb, turn the wheels to the right to avoid rolling into traffic if the brakes fail.

2. Keep a Safe Following Distance

Maintaining a safe following distance is a must on flat prairies and mountain roads alike. It gives you and other drivers more time to respond to dangers up ahead. Leave at least three seconds (or more, in harsher conditions) between you and the vehicles in front of you.

3. Never Pass Around a Bend

Visibility isn't good before sharp turns and bends, so passing is a big no-no. You'll often find no-passing signs in these spots, but play it safe even when there is no signage.

4. Manual vs. Automatic Transmission

Manual transmission vehicles are better adapted for hilly driving. As a driver, you have more control when driving a stick shift. Fortunately, many modern automatic vehicles also let you change gears manually at will. This ability to shift to a higher or lower gear is key when driving on hilly roads, so study your vehicle before setting off. If you've learned how to shift gears, practice in a parking lot before trying it on the road.

5. Keep Your Engine from Overheating

Driving up steep roads can quickly overheat the engine, which you don't want. Avoid it by:

  • Turning off the air conditioning and rolling down the windows instead.

  • Shifting to a lower gear to maintain speed and reduce stress on the engine.

  • Letting the engine run idle for a few minutes until the temperature goes down.

  • Having your vehicle serviced before a mountain trip.

6. Brake with the Engine

It might be tempting to press on the brakes as you go downhill. This is called dragging your brakes, and it's one of the worst things you can do. If you have miles of hilly roads to go, the brakes will likely overheat and may even fail. Instead, shift to a lower gear (whether on a manual or automatic transmission vehicle) and apply pressure to the pedal brakes sporadically and firmly.

7. Uphill Traffic Has Right of Way

If two vehicles meet on a narrow road where only one of them can fit at a time, the driver going uphill has the right of way. Slow down and let them go first if you're coming down the hill.

8. Be Very Careful in Winter

Hilly roads in winter can be particularly dangerous. Avoid driving altogether in torrential rains, during a blizzard, or after an ice storm. If you must brave the roads in inclement weather, slow down, leave a greater safe following distance, and use winter tires.

9. Remember to Fuel Up

Driving on a hill isn't just hard for you: it's also a challenge for your vehicle. It'll likely use up more fuel than it would on flat roads. Be sure to fill up the tank or plan extra stops to fuel up.

Learn More Safe Driving Strategies

Don't let fear stop you from getting around or traveling to a beautiful destination! The more practice you get driving on hills, the more comfortable you'll feel.

If you need an extra boost of confidence in your driving skills, consider enrolling in a driver's ed course. Online programs like the one offered by DriversEd lets you learn from home at your own pace. You'll learn all kinds of tips to keep you safe on the road, especially if you're new to driving!

Get Started with your Online Drivers Ed Course Today

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Updated 6/27/23