Yesterday as I was driving to Whistler British Columbia to do a job for the Canadian Military, I stopped in a town called Squamish for a Starbucks coffee.
As I was adding cream and sugar to my coffee I noticed someone walk into the coffee shop who really looked familiar. As she got closer I realized that this was Rae, who writes the Travels With Miranda Blog. I met Rae at the RV park where we have been spending most of our time for the last few years. Rae is a young Canadian lady who travels full time in an RV alone, except for two cats.
As I started to talk to Rae she told me about her very recent near escape from tragedy when the brakes on her rig failed on a very steep hill north of Whistler. From her description, she did everything right, including gearing down. As it turned out there was a run a way lane on the hill, but a vehicle was blocking it. She had to go on to the next run away lane where she finally managed to stop. With the result that her brakes where so hot that a tire caught fire and was destroyed. She describes the incident very well in her blog.
In my book I write about learning to gear down, and how to use the brakes when you are driving a larger vehicle. This incident underscores the importance of this information. An RV is not a get in and drive vehicle like a new or rental car would be. There are some things that have to be learned.
When you follow a large truck down a hill, you will notice that they are going slow, and that their brake lights rarely come on. This is because they have geared down, and are letting the engine do the braking for them. Very large trucks also have some thing we know as engine brakes, or exhaust brakes, but even if we do not have those, we can still use the engine for very effective braking.
To use the engine as a brake, first use the regular brakes to slow down to about 40 mph or 60 km. Then shift the automatic transmission into 2nd gear. You will notice the engine starting to hold you back. If this still is not enough, use the regular brakes to slow you down to about 20 mph or 30 km and then shift into 1st or low, depending on how your shifter is marked. If you are driving with a standard transmission, you probably already understand how to do this. You will have to do a bit of experimenting with your vehicle to determine the best speed for downshifting. You want to make sure that you do not over rev the engine. If you have a tachometer this will be easy. For effective engine braking you will want to run the engine fairly fast. Usually about 20% below red line. So if your red line is 5000 rpm, about 4000 rpm would be a good engine speed.
Once you are down in 1st or low you may find that you still have to use the regular brakes to some extent if the hill is very steep. But at this point it should not be a problem since the engine will now be doing most of the breaking, and the brakes will not heat up near as much.
But then there are hills such as Rae descended. In cases such as this sometimes the only option is to stop occasionally, and let the brakes cool off. The problem is that many times you are into brake failure, before you even realize what is happening.
Sometimes it takes having an incident like this shown to you to make you aware of just how dangerous it can be to take a large RV down a steep hill. Now that you are aware you will think of it the next time you start to decend that hill, and you will make it safely to the bottom.
An RV especially the size of RV that most Full Time RV’ers use can be very heavy. If you have one of these large units, or are considering buying one, it is really in you own best interest to take the time to really learn to drive it properly. The live you save may be your own.