Britain is known for tough winters and tricky driving conditions, but it’s when things get high that motorhome driving really becomes tough. That doesn’t stop the hordes of motorhome and campervan drivers who descend on the Alps, Pyrenees and Dolomites every year however, and despite the difficult driving the mountains remain a firm favourite destination for UK campers interested in skiing, mountain biking or hiking. The appeal of a trip into the mountains is obvious, but the pitfalls aren’t, so here’s our guide to alpine driving.
Mountain climates are extreme and to be taken seriously; it goes without saying that you need to wrap up warm and keep your sunglasses handy, but you should also ensure your motorhome is well prepared. Snow chains are essential for most mountain ranges and a legal requirement for many, so don’t leave home without them. It’s also vital that your motorhome has a good tyre tread; lower slopes can be a nasty mixture of ice and tarmac too rough for chains but still a challenge for ordinary tyres.
Driving to a resort like Alpe d’Huez is around 2000m of climbing over about 15km. If you then imagine cycling that, you get an indication of the amount of power it will take to pull you over the hills. Your motorhome should be in a low gear at all times and you’ll want to keep your vehicle moving slowly and smoothly. Sudden stops could make it very difficult to get started again on severe inclines; it’s best to navigate danger safely rather than just slam the brakes on.
On the mountain, breaking down can be a serious problem and you’re unlikely to find any garages to help you with anything more than a flat tyre above 1500m. Before travelling make sure you’re properly covered with a recovery service that will come and pick you up if you get into trouble. This is included on some motorhome insurance policies and often policies can be extended to facilitate these needs.
The altitude of alpine roads means you really need to be prepared for changes in the weather and even the most spectacular sunny day can very quickly turn into rain, hail or even snow. There’s nothing you can do about the weather, you just need to be prepared for it – ensure your windscreen wipers are working well, you have sufficient screen-wash and you’re prepared for the worst.
The biggest danger when travelling downhill is that your brakes will overheat, leaving you helpless and in need of an escape lane. The key is to really start off slow before a big drive down, and to use your engine as a brake as best as possible. If you do need to use the footbrake use it in short, sharp bursts and make sure to give it plenty of release. Burnout comes when you drag your brakes for an extended period of time; make sure you use what power you have wisely.
Wildlife and Nature
You’re really at the mercy of nature in the mountains so don’t assume you’re alone on the roads. Wildlife like deer, mountain goats and cattle are all common in Europe so expect to meet something and have to stop. You also can’t bank on your path not being blocked by a heavy waterfall, ice or just good old snowdrifts. Be aware of what you might meet.
In the mountains one of your biggest dangers is other drivers. Your motorhome will be slow when going uphill and may not corner particularly well going downhill so expect pressure from other drivers, particularly locals who know the roads well. All you can do is to drive at your own pace, making sure you’re comfortable with your speed; don’t let pressure change your driving style.
Alpine driving isn’t to be underestimated so make sure you acknowledge the dangers and don’t drive carelessly. All the roads in alpine passes are designed for cars but you are always travelling at your own risk. If you don’t think something is passable, turn around and find another route. Though all roads are dangerous, alpine roads present by far the biggest risk so make sure you’re comfortable and confident before going ahead.