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Learning to drive in the mountains

Tuesday, July 8, 2014by  Jon Osterberg

By Ben Corwin
Summer intern

In high school, I didn’t really want or need a car in Seattle. I rode my bike or ran to school every day, and my family never used the car except for long trips, hiking excursions, and big grocery store runs.
   But as a skier, hiker, and climber, I wanted to drive anywhere, anytime. And somewhere on the highways and streets, traditional drivers’ education ended. But I still wanted to know how to get out of the city, off the highway, and into the mountains like many urban teens. The question of how to drive snowy mountain passes, muddy Forest Service roads, Montana gravel highways, and rocky approaches to trailheads was left unanswered.
   I started observing how my parents and grandparents drove, but they were reluctant to let me drive off the pavement without practice. So I identified specific mountain driving skills I wanted to learn, and ways to practice them. Here are five basics that I’ve focused on.

1. Get to know your vehicle’s clearance. Some cars appear high, but have low-hanging parts that rocks can hit. So before you venture onto gravel or snow, make sure you know your low spots and learn to judge whether you can drive without bottoming out, banging an exhaust pipe, or getting stuck on a low trailer hitch. Ruts, snow drifts, and rocks are plentiful off the highway, so take a look under your car.

2. Learn to back a long distance. Backing around a corner is common practice, but what about backing down a single-lane gravel road to the next pullout to let a car go by? Or backing up because the turnaround is snowed in or blocked by parked cars? I try to feel as well as see the road, because looking behind your shoulder doesn’t afford the best visibility of the road surface.

3. Look where you want to go. Common sense, but when there are steep drop-offs with no guardrail, this is not one to mess with. Big potholes, logs, and rocks are also easy to hit if you’re focused on how scary they would be to run into.

4. Practice getting traction, safely. Tires, vehicle weight distribution, steering, and road surface all matter, and different cars will perform differently in sand, snow, mud, and rock. Learn what speeds you can safely handle, what’s needed to correct a loss of traction, and what surfaces or inclines to avoid at all costs. And if you get stuck, remember to think about how you got there in the first place. Often it will get you out (or you can build your way out with logs or rocks).

5. Don’t swerve for small animals. They may be cute and innocent, but a small swerve can deliver big consequences. And in the forest, there are often too many animals to make room for each one you see. Trust their judgment to avoid your car, and slow down if you can safely do so.  Also, treat small potholes like small animals. Slow down, but don’t unnecessarily change your path for every one.

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