How to Drive a Motorhome in the Mountains

May 12, 2023 in Tips for Travellers, Tips for Owners, Driving rules & Tips for the road

Going on holiday in a motorhome? Whether you stay in the UK or go abroad, you’ll likely be driving it over hills or even through the mountains. For first-timers, going uphill in a campervan or driving a motorhome down steep slopes can be a little stressful or even scary. Luckily these tips for driving a motorhome in the mountains will have you heading for the hills without a worry. We bet you’ll even enjoy it!

First things first, the adventure starts with proper preparation before setting off on your trip. How do you prepare for driving a motorhome in the mountains? 

Campervan driving on mountain road
Make sure your motorhome is suitable for driving in the mountains 

This starts with the basic requirements to be safe and legal on the road. All campervans available for hire on Goboony hold an in-date MOT, are in good condition and meet standard safety requirements. To find a motorhome that’s specifically up for the job of driving in the mountains, simply select ‘mountains allowed’ in the filter option when browsing for your perfect adventure vehicle. Are you planning on driving through particularly difficult terrain? Don’t forget to check with the advertiser if they’re comfortable with your route. 

Pack the fundamental safety equipment 

This way you’re ready to handle anything that goes wrong. Absolute essentials are a first aid kit, a warning triangle and high-visibility vests. When driving uphill in a campervan your engine is more likely to overheat, so also bring extra engine oil and coolant. For a detailed list of all motorhome essentials check out our ultimate campervan packing list

Campervan parked in Scottish mountains
Research your route 

Do the necessary research on the route that you’ll be driving. Especially when driving in the mountains this can spare you a lot of unexpected trouble. Mountain roads are remote, making it more difficult to receive assistance when things go south. Are you planning to drive a particular mountain pass at a high altitude? Make sure to (double) check the weather forecast and opening times. Most passes are closed during winter or only open a couple of months out of the year, due to dangerous circumstances such as bad weather, heavy snow- or rockfall. 

It’s also wise to find out exactly how many petrol stations there are on your route. If you're hiring an electric campervan, apps like PlugShare and A Better Routeplanner will guide you to public charging stations around the world, or even optimise your planned route to a charging schedule. 

Are you and your campervan all set, packed and ready to go? Time for action! These tips for driving a motorhome in the mountains are everything you need to know to have you feeling confident when driving on those steep slopes. 

Campervan driving up hilly road in the mountains
Take your time!

When driving your campervan uphill or downhill it’s important to take your time. Make sure you’re on high alert and fully concentrate on the road, as driving on an incline requires a quick ability to react to sudden encounters. So put away the distractions and keep your eyes on the road at all times. Are the gorgeous views drawing away your attention? Don’t get your camera out until you’ve safely parked your campervan in a lay-by so you can snap away and soak them up properly. 

In some cases, your motorhome will even slow down for you. In other words: when driving up a steep hill you’ll be losing momentum anyway. This of course depends on the power of your engine and the angle of the incline, but the first time you drive up a proper steep hill in too high a gear you’ll likely experience what it’s like to be forced to shift down, despite having your pedal to the metal. 

Campervan parked in a lay by in the mountains
Driving priority in the mountains

The rule regarding driving priority on a hill or mountain is very simple: ascending traffic always has priority over descending traffic. There is one exception, which is that buses always have priority, whether they’re ascending or descending. It also doesn’t hurt to keep in mind that it’s harder to manoeuvre larger motorhomes than smaller campervans or cars. If you're driving uphill, and is it easy for you to stop and let a larger descending vehicle go by, then why not do so? Don’t forget to flash your lights to signal them in, and you’ll likely be rewarded with an appreciative nod or hand raise. When driving uphill in a campervan on very narrow roads, it can also be helpful to honk your horn before going into a bend. This way you can let potential approaching vehicles know you’re coming if you’re out of their sight.

Campervan driving on a windy road

How to drive uphill 

When going uphill your driving speed will automatically decrease. Instead of accelerating to adjust for the loss of speed, shift down to a lower gear and then accelerate. Once you’re back at your desired speed, shift back up. Keep an eye on your tachometer when deciding to shift down or up. Ideally, the gauge should stay between 3000 and 4000 revolutions per minute (RPM). When going uphill you’ll notice your feet have to be a little quicker on the pedals. Keep the time between pressing down the clutch and the accelerator as short as possible. Try and make shifting up or down one smooth motion to avoid losing momentum. 

How to drive downhill 

When going downhill your driving speed will automatically increase. Rather than keeping your foot on the brake continuously to try and adjust for the extra speed, shift down to a lower gear to brake using the engine. On a steep decline, this will sometimes require you to shift down at a higher RPM than you’re used to. Therefore, it’s important to not release the clutch too abruptly after shifting down. Braking with your engine is crucial because it allows you to take your foot off the brake. This decreases the risk of you overusing and damaging the brake pads, which is the last thing you want when driving in the mountains. 

A rule of thumb when driving downhill is to try and drive down in the same gear as you did driving uphill. 

Campervan driving on a windy road next to a lake in the mountains

How to take tight turns 

Mountain roads are known for their hairpin bends and tight turns. Take extra care when driving through them and make sure you’re in the right gear before driving into the bend. If you’re driving a large motorhome and the approaching turn is very steep, try and take the outer bend. Bigger vehicles often have a longer overhang from the rear wheels, which is at risk of scraping against the road surface if you take the steeper inner bend. Are you not sure your motorhome can handle the turn at all? We recommend asking a fellow passenger to help assess the situation and guide you through. 

How to do a hill start on a steep incline

The best thing to do when driving on a hill or mountain is to avoid stopping at all, so try to anticipate and keep plenty of distance from the vehicle in front of you. When you do have to stop on a very steep incline, perform a hill start by using your handbrake. Start with your handbrake firmly pulled. Press down the clutch and put your motorhome in first gear. Then push down gently on the accelerator whilst simultaneously slowly bringing up the clutch. When you reach the biting point, release the handbrake to let the vehicle move forward whilst further releasing the clutch and accelerating.

How to park on an incline 

There are a couple of things you can do to safely park a motorhome on an incline. 

If the front of your vehicle is facing up: 

  • Turn the steering wheel until your front wheels are facing away from the curb or mountainside
  • Leave your vehicle in first gear
  • Firmly pull the handbrake
  • Optional: place a heavy object behind the back wheels 

If the front of your vehicle is facing down: 

  • Turn the steering wheel until your front wheels are facing towards the curb or mountainside 
  • Leave your vehicle in reverse gear 
  • Firmly pull the handbrake
  • Optional: place a heavy object in front of your front wheels 

Campervan parked in the middle of a road on a hill
How to avoid your engine from overheating in the mountains 

If you drive up an incline for long periods, your engine is more likely to overheat. Always keep a close eye on your temperature gauge when driving a motorhome through the mountains. If the temperature goes above average and continues to rise, the first thing you can do is turn on the cab heating. This lets hot air escape from the engine and helps it to cool down. If the temperature gauge continues to rise, it’s wise to stop and turn off the engine for a while to let it cool down. If the gauge reaches red, if the temperature warning light comes on or if steam is coming out of the bonnet, immediately pull over, turn off the engine and let it cool down for at least 30 minutes. Not sure what to do next? Here’s what the RAC advises you to do when your engine overheats.  

Feeling empowered and ready to rock those hills? Check out our listings to find a motorhome to take you on your first — of many! — mountain adventures.   

Couple enjoying a picknick outside a campervan in the mountains