Smart Driving

Max Kvidera | November 01, 2011

Mountain High

Steep grades require patience, judicious use of brakes and proper gearing

If your truck is struggling to pull a heavy load uphill, veteran truckers advise shifting down a gear to reduce strain on the engine and fuel use.

The old trucking saying is you can go down a hill a million times too slow but you can only do it once too fast.

Speed is one key factor driving professionals say you must keep in mind to successfully pull loads up and down steep grades. Driving slowly might get you some dirty looks from motorists — but you vastly improve your chances of making your delivery every time and reducing the wear and tear on your rig.

Kurt Grote

Four truckers who have experienced wheeling through Western mountain passes offer their suggestions on staying safe when elevations rise and fall. They are Kurt Grote, an owner-operator leased to John Christner Trucking and one of the participants in Freightliner’s Trucker Slice of Life program (http://www.sliceoftruckerlife.com); Fred Jones, an owner-operator leased to Davis Transport; Nate McCarty, a driver for ABF in Denver and a captain of America’s Road Team; and Brett Tobin, an owner-operator with his own authority from Medford, Ore.

GEARING

Nate McCarty

Jones: If my truck is struggling to pull the load uphill, I’ll drop down a gear. It pulls easier and you use less fuel. You’re pulling a little slower but you’re not maxing out the engine on horsepower. You have a little leeway if you come to a steeper climb, because you have more power to pull without shifting gears.

When I top the hill, I don’t continue the power and let it coast over the top of the hill. You want to shift down a gear so that your engine brake will hold you back comfortably and you’re barely applying your brakes, if at all.

Brett Tobin

McCarty (In a slip-seat operation, McCarty drives different trucks, all 3 years old and newer.): You want to be in the right gear before you start down the grade. The rule of thumb used to be with older trucks you would descend in the same gear you ascended in. With the newer trucks, it’s a little different with the aerodynamics and the more powerful engines. Now you’ll want to use at least one lower gear going down the hill than what was required going up.

You want to be in your transmission’s sweet spot in the proper rpm range so you’re not using too much fuel. When I drop below 1,100 rpm, that’s where I want to upshift to a higher gear.

Grote: The bigger the hill, the lower the gear. When going downhill, as on Donner Pass or Cajon Pass into Los Angeles, with a 45-mph speed zone, shift it down to ninth, apply the engine brake and take it down nice and slow. You’re not going to heat up your brakes. The steepness of the hill is going to determine what gear you’re in.

Tobin: Generally speaking, if you go up in fourth gear, you’ll come down in third gear, or a difference in one gear between going up and coming down.

SPEEDS

Grote: I use cruise control whenever possible and never set it against speed limits. If the limit is 72, I’ll set my cruise control at 66 or 68 and put my foot on the accelerator a bit. If you’re just using cruise control, you’re losing momentum. By putting your foot into it, you’re loading your motor to use your horsepower and torque all the way through the hill. At the top of the hill, let your cruise control take over and throw in the engine brake instead of letting it free-roll down the hill.

Fred Jones recommends not to set your trailer brakes overnight in cold weather because they could freeze.

Tobin: My normal highway speed is 55 mph, so I tend to take things slower. The slower you go, the more weight you have on the ground. If you’re light and driving in wind, you don’t want to go too fast. In the winter, do everything slower. Speed of 35 mph is as fast as you want to go on packed powder no matter what weight you’ve got. I generally go up a hill at 25 mph.

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