With the many improvements in infrastructure thanks to the government’s Build, Build, Build program, going out of town is far easier these days. Easily one of the top destinations is the summer capital of Baguio City. Once a daunting 6-7 hours away, the 250-kilometer distance from Metro Manila is now easily swallowed up in just 4-5 hours, most of which are on highway roads.
While most of us lowlanders are fairly familiar with city roads, provincial roads and highways, mountain roads can be a different beast entirely. It’s not surprising that making it up and down Baguio has become a barometer for many new cars' performance. The long journey, steep inclines, sharp turns, and heavy load required for a few days’ stay truly test a car’s abilities. Take it from me. I manage an AirBNB in Baguio and frequently head up to check up on it. So to properly take the mountain on, we’ve prepared a set of tips.
Check and prepare your car
Driving up mountains will be taxing on your car, especially with a full load of family and luggage. The first thing to check are the brakes as these will be used the most. Make sure the brake fluid is topped up and check the pads themselves to make sure you have at least 5-6 mm of brake pad material between the disc and metal caliper before heading up.
Other fluids you want to check on are radiator water levels, power steering/transmission fluid, and oil. The steep and winding mountain roads will give your engine, cooling, brakes, steering and transmission a workout so you need to make sure they’re at optimum levels. Refer to our DIY guide on how to top up.
Also check your tires and tread levels. Ensure they’re at the recommended pressure and tread depth, particularly with a full load. Tires below the recommended pressure will put extra strain on your engine and transmission.
Prepare for some rain. It may be the peak of summer, but the high elevation of mountains have a tendency to trigger condensation and rain. As such, make sure all your lights are working, wiper washers filled, and tires have enough tread depth to handle some light rain.
Finally, save the number of your trusted 24/7 roadside assistance or towing service. You’ll never know when you’ll need it.
Keep your eyes focused far ahead
Mountain roads can throw up a lot of surprises thanks to the sharp and blind curves. As such, keep your focus as far down the road as possible, and not just on the car ahead. This will allow you to prepare to make any evasive maneuvers in case there’s a car parked on the side of the road, an oncoming car overshoots a turn, there’s an oil slick on the road, or a steep grade coming up.
At night, it may be difficult to tell where the road goes or if it’s clear to overtake. Thankfully, there are a lot of indicators like cat eyes and turn markers that will catch the beam of the headlight. Headlights of cars ahead will also shine through light foliage, giving you an idea of where the road will lead or if it’s clear to overtake.
Know the right of way
There may not be many intersections on mountain roads, but right of way still applies. In this case, cars going uphill always have right of way. This is because going uphill takes significantly more power and preparation. That’s also why most steep grades are typically two-lane for overtaking while downhill side is just one.
You may encounter a vehicle on your side of the road going uphill. If he is overtaking a slower vehicle, he has right of way. So slow down a bit and give him/her room to overtake.
Respect the double yellow lines
The double yellow line rule is most critical in these mountain roads, particularly because there’s not much run-off with a rock wall on one side and a sheer drop on the other. As such, follow the rules and don’t overtake on double yellow lines. These were put there by road engineers who take into account the grade, visibility, and succeeding turns to determine if it’s safe to overtake.
Manage your brakes
Using the brakes are the easiest way to slow down, particularly when going downhill, but using them too much can cause them to heat up quickly and lose effectivity. Hot brakes tend to heat up the pads, glaze the discs, and require even more pedal pressure to slow down. This can also lead to brake failure.
If driving an automatic, turn overdrive off by pressing the “Overdrive (O/D)” button on the stickshift. This allows the car to hold a lower gear longer. This feature also prevents coasting and won’t shift up as eagerly when accelerating downhill. Another option on newer cars is activating Sport mode. This works similarly to turning off overdrive, especially when your foot is off the throttle. You can turn off overdrive and activate sport mode to make it even more effective.
Another effective way to manage them is to pulse your brakes. This means pressing them repeatedly, kind of like manual ABS. Pulsing brakes gives the brake pads some time to breathe and cool down in between presses. It’s much better than continuous application which will heat the brake pads more quickly.
Downshift for steep grades
This may seem pretty basic when approaching inclines or descents, but with the growing popularity of automatic transmissions, it tends to be difficult for most drivers to do. In a manual, it’s quite easy: slow down a bit, downshift to a lower gear, give the engine a rev or two, then release the clutch. This puts you in the peak powerband to throttle with and accelerate up the hill. When going downhill, the resistance from the engine on a lower gear will also help slow down the car.
In an automatic with manual mode, simply push the transmission stick to the manual side and slot it down to the minus button to downshift.
In an automatic without a manual mode, you can either press the “Overdrive (O/D)” button to turn it off and allow it to keep the lower gear longer, or slow down a bit until you feel the transmission downshift and see/ feel the revs climb. On very steep grades, slow down and push the stickshift into “2” (only when slower than 50 km/h) if needed.
Don’t worry about breaking the car’s transmission. Most modern cars (MY2006 or later) will prevent you from downshifting if you're going too fast for the gear. This doesn’t mean you can stop using the brakes completely, but it does require less braking pressure.
Don't hug the center line
You may feel like you’re entitled to the entire lane, particularly on tight mountain roads. However, it’s actually safer to stay away from it. Some drivers have a tendency to hug the center line, but this driving technique is both unwise and irritating to other drivers. If you are hugging the center line, and another center-hugging vehicle comes around a curve from the opposite direction, it may lead to a collision.
Instead, if your lane is on the inside of a turn, hug the inside. If your lane is on the outside, stay on the outside (but try to avoid the debris on the edges). This leaves much more room for any vehicles that may slip or understeer when cornering.
If you want to take in the views, snap a few pictures, or buy fruits or souvenirs from roadside stores, pull over safely. This means making sure your entire parked vehicle is outside the white line on the edge of the road. Poorly parked cars on mountain roads are particularly annoying to other drivers, especially on sharp curves or steep grades, because there’s little room as it is and these vehicles create bottlenecks or obstructions. Don’t be that guy.
When parked, turn your front wheels to face the curb. This ensures that if your parking brakes fail and the car rolls down, it will roll into the curb and stop, rather than down the entire slope and hit someone.
Once parked properly, make sure you or your passengers check the road for passing vehicles before opening the door and alighting from the vehicle. You may be so excited to take a picture that you forget basic road safety. The view or fruits in season are not going anywhere. Take your time to look both ways and be safe.
Enjoy the drive
The best thing about these long drives is how they take you far from civilization and pollution. Enjoy it. Turn off the air conditioner, roll down the window, and take in the air and the view. This not only makes it easier on your car but easier on your soul.