After relocating from the placid flatlands of the Midwest to the towering slopes of the Sierra Nevada, I discovered a chilling reality. The things that make mountain driving exhilarating are the same elements that require caution. So let me share a few pointers from my personal experiences that helped to soften those sharp mountain switchbacks.
Like a good boy scout heading down the trail, above all, be prepared. The steepness of the grades, the change in altitude, and the road curves that toss your vehicle from side to side like an alpine skier, all take their toll on a vehicle. Make sure your car or truck is in good working condition, paying particular attention to the brakes, tires, suspension, and radiator. The transmission, if you're driving correctly, will also be in for a new experience, so include that as well on your maintenance checklist, and bring backup fluids.
Weather conditions can change much more quickly at higher elevations, and snowfall has also been recorded every month of the year in the Western mountains. Even if you don't expect snow, carrying chains, a windshield scraper, shovel and other cold-weather items is a good idea. Eastern mountains might not have snowstorms in May, but what they have instead is fog or very intense rainstorms. So make sure your wipers actually wipe. And it can quickly get too cold for tank tops and shorts, so pack a sweatshirt.
Also, don't forget to bring bottle water. Altitude pulls all the moisture right out of your body. Plus, dehydration can bring on altitude sickness, not something you want to deal with on a road trip. Include some trail mix and other long-lasting snacks as emergency food supplies, in case you're stranded.
A cell phone is a fairly obvious accessory as well, but often mountain areas have limited service, if any—which is part of the reason you're driving there. Don't get too worked up if you end up in a mountain monsoon; they are usually short-lived and the metallic smells afterwards are marvelous. Whatever form of precipitation you encounter, turn on your driving lights, not your brights, and proceed with caution, just like on the flatland.
Bring detailed maps of the area, especially if you are prone to exploration. Taking that road less traveled can be great, just make sure you can get back to where you need to be.
Now, how about the actual driving? You actually have more control going up steep grades rather than down. In this case, gravity is your friend, scrubbing off speed on tight turns (assuming you stay on the pavement).
Maintain a gear that the vehicle sounds comfortable in, not lugging, not over-revving. Automatics may want to switch up and down, annoyingly. If you have the option of locking in a gear, do it. It's better to just slow down to maintain a comfortable gear in a stick shift when the grade levels out, temporarily, rather than continuous shifting.
Keep an eye on your engine temperature gauge. If it starts to overheat, turn off the air-conditioning and/or turn on the heater. Better to sweat for a few miles with the windows open than blow the engine. If none of this works, pull off where it's safe and keep the car at a fast idle. Don't shut off the engine and never remove a hot radiator cap.
As for heading downhill, use your transmission to hold your speed going downhill. That technique gives you much more control over both speed and vehicle than freewheeling in high gear and hitting the brakes, or worse, riding your brakes, which quickly leads to no brakes at all.
If your driving experience, instincts and muscle memory are all based on flat, straight streets and highways, be over-cautious on sharp curves. Vehicles behave very differently snaking around mountain roads.
Part of the appeal of mountain driving is discovering unpaved detours. If that's your bent, make sure your vehicle is equipped for dirt, either AWD or 4WD, especially if you have no idea the condition of that enticing side road. Slow down, even if the road is smooth and wide. Dirt does not provide the kind of traction that asphalt does and you never know what's around the next corner. If this is an all-day exploration, make sure someone knows where you are and when you expect to return.
Whatever routes you chose, maintain a critter alert. Deer have a way of wandering onto the roadway right as you're passing. If you see a deer, slow way down. If it does dart out, better the deer than you. Sorry PETA. Swerving to avoid a deer could send you over the side of the mountain. Bear-sightings often cause traffic jams of tourists on mountains. No matter how harmless they might seem, don't feed them.
A few other common-courtesy, commonsense tips include staying in your lane, giving right-of-way to uphill traffic, and allowing extra time for passing (or allowing others to pass you). Also, when the view demands a good, long, wondrous look, pull over.
Don't forget to top off your tank, even though fuel prices are usually higher at higher elevations. The station you're planning on gassing up at might be just a few miles beyond the point at which the road is closed. Plus, your car will probably not get the same mileage in the highlands, as you're accustomed to on your daily commute.
Keep these suggestions in mind, and your mountain excursion should be both trouble-free and a welcome escape to a whole new level of touring.