How To Drive Down Steep Hills… Without Using Your Brakes!

Tips for saving your brakes when driving down steep grades, including how to use “engine braking” instead of pressing the brake pedal to slow your vehicle down.

Winding mountain roads.We just returned from a trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee — home to the Great Smoky Mountains.

Many of the roads between tourist traps (I mean “sightseeing destinations”) are incredibly steep and winding. Some roads wind UP one entire side of the mountain, then require that you drive back DOWN a narrow winding road on the other side.

Needless to say, with the amount of traffic over the 4th of July holiday, and the sheer number of mountains which exist in the Smokies, we had several occasions to test our downhill driving skills (and our brakes!) this weekend.

Example of the very busy Gatlinburg mountain roads... This was the line of traffic coasting through Cades Cove. There must’ve been about a million cars all traveling single file down those narrow mountain roads — all attempting to spot the biggest black bear in the Smokies (well, more on that later).


“It’s An Automatic… I Don’t NEED To Downshift, Right?”


There are times — even in a vehicle with automatic transmission — that you SHOULD manually downshift. Those times are: When you are driving down steep hills.

Sure, I’d seen it done before.

On our family vacations growing up, Dad would drop the old-fashioned dashboard gear shift lever down a notch every time he went down a steep winding hill. Then kick it up a notch at times. Then, back down again.

He played this fancy game of gearshift knobbing virtually every time we drove from Indiana to Florida. (Come to find out, this was usually while traveling through the mountains of Chattanooga, Tennessee.)

Lynnette's dad and brother Mike preparing the boat for our annual trek to Florida. While Dad used the boat to fish from upon our arrival, we also used it to haul all our luggage, bikes, etc. for a 2-week stay in Florida.

Back then, I thought it had more to do with the fact that we were pulling a boat trailer than it did with actually saving our brakes.

Fast-forward some 30 years, and I find myself being properly educated about the use of “2” and “1” on my automatic gear shift. And this applies to ALL vehicles — not just those pulling trailers.
Automatic gear shift inside a 2004 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited.

This weekend, I learned firsthand the proper use of “2” and “1” on my automatic gear shift, and it made our downhill driving experience SO much more enjoyable.

And judging by the rancid smell of hot smoking brakes and brake dust which filled the air throughout most of Gatlinburg, Tennessee this weekend, I know some Smoky Mountain tourists who could learn a thing or two from today’s post…


On The Downhill

A winding mountain road somewhere around Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Instead of using your brakes to slow your vehicle down on a steep grade, use what is known as “engine braking” (big-rig drivers use something similar called “jake brake“).

This is a good idea if you want to:
a) save your brakes a lot of unnecessary wear & tear
b) actually HAVE brakes at the end of the hill!

In fact, you will increase the life of your brakes by a few months (or even years, depending on how much steep downhill driving you do) if you simply use engine braking whenever possible, rather than actually pressing the brake pedal to slow your vehicle.

In short, you are literally using the engine to break the speed of your vehicle traveling downhill.

This does NO harm to the engine itself or any of the inner working parts.

Here’s how to do it…


Shifting On The Fly

Your standard gear shift. In a vehicle with automatic transmission, you can “shift-on-the-fly” into 2nd gear (indicated as “2” on the gear shift) at any point while you are driving, so long as you are traveling under 50 mph or so.

You will hear the engine downshift into this lower gear, and the vehicle will begin to slow, naturally and safely, while you continue to drive and maintain your place in the traffic as you head on down the hill.

The result: Your need to actually use the brakes will be SIGNIFICANTLY reduced!

In fact, should you feel the need to slow down even MORE on a really steep hill, then feel free to “shift-on-the-fly” into 1st gear (indicated as “1” on the gear shift) while you are driving, so long as you are traveling under 30 mph or so.

In both 2nd and 1st gears, you can continue to give it gas AND utilize your brakes like normal, though your need to do so will greatly be reduced.

One of the many mountain road tunnels through the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee. Whenever you reach flatter land and no longer need to slow down by pressing the brakes OR using engine braking, then feel free to shift back into your normal “D” (Drive) position on the gear shift. This can be done at any point while you are driving, so long as you are going 50 mph or less (to go from 2nd to “D”) or 30 mph or less (to go from 1st to “D”) — as stated above.


Top Speeds In 2nd and 1st Gears

In 2nd gear, you can safely travel at virtually ANY speed (which the terrain and the degree of incline permit).

If you ever take it down to 1st gear however, you will notice that you can’t go much faster than 35 mph in 1st. If you give it gas, the engine will simply rev louder, but you won’t really go any faster. You’ve topped out 1st gear, speed-wise.

If you need to go faster when you’re in 1st, then simply switch to 2nd gear — “on-the-fly”. You can safely switch between 2nd and 1st gears anywhere in the 30-mph-or-less range.

Again, once you reach flat land and no longer need to slow your vehicle in such a way, then simply shift back into “D” for normal driving and use your brakes again for routine slowing and stopping.


“What If I Use My Brakes INSTEAD of Engine Braking?”

A well-forested mountain road. There could be any one of 4 hazardous outcomes should you choose to give your brakes a workout, as opposed to taking advantage of “engine braking”:

  • Hazardous Outcome #1:
    You could significantly wear our your brakes. 

    We’re talking… you could actually reduce the life of your brakes by months or even years, depending on the degree to which you “ride the brake” on such steep grades.

  • Hazardous Outcome #2:
    You could lose your brakes altogether! No joke. 

    That stench of brake dust (that goes hand-in-hand with squealing brakes) is a sign that your brakes are too hot. If you overheat your brakes and don’t take enough time in between to let them cool off a bit, then you can actually fry your brakes — leaving you with virtually NO stopping power at the bottom of the hill.

    You may even begin to see SMOKE coming from your overheated brakes. Everyone knows, where there’s smoke there’s fire, so you’re really taking your chances at this point.

  • Hazardous Outcome #3:
    You’re polluting the ozone. And in a place like beautiful Gatlinburg, Tennessee that’s full of all sorts of natural beauty… now, why would you want to do this? 

    You think I’m kidding about the smell of brake dust. I’m not! I actually wonder how those working in the souvenir shops and stores which are perched on the downhill side of the main roads can even HANDLE the stench.

  • Hazardous Outcome #4:
    Pickup truck pulling a camper trailer and scooter through the Smokey Mountains near Gatlinburg, Tennessee. You run the risk of being humiliated via photographs and video footage showing you, behind the wheel, driving like an imbecile with hot, smoking brakes down a steep hill… if WE are stuck behind you, that is! 

    Now THAT’s a price you don’t wanna pay, trust me. :o)

  • Lynnette Walczak

    Lynnette Walczak

    I like to help people find unique ways to do things in order to save time & money -- so I frequently write about "outside the box" ideas that most wouldn't think of. As a lifelong dog owner, I often share my best tips for living with and training dogs. I worked in Higher Ed several years until switching gears to pursue things I was more passionate about. I've worked at a vet, in a photo lab, and at a zoo -- to name a few. I enjoy the outdoors via bicycle, motorcycle, Jeep, or RV. You can always find me at the corner of Good News & Fun Times as publisher of The Fun Times Guide (32 fun websites).

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    • Camper Trailers

      These are wonderful pics

    • Kempis

      Very great info and a pleasure to read! Yes, lol! I do remember seeing Dad shifting gears in our old family Dodge Dart, yep, going down the Rocky Mts/Great Divide on vacations to Canada.

      I will remember (now) to downshift when needed. A few times a year I do take a few hills, Thanks! And thanks for the memories

    • David

      Very good article, I am from Europe where having an automatic transmission is very unusual, I plan on going to Hawaii´s Mauna Kea summit this summer so this information really helps.

    • Pati

      Awesome. Pix are great. And we are in gatlinburg as we speak. ThAnks for the info.

      • FunTimesGuide

        Thx Pati. Glad you found the info helpful. Hope you have a blast in Gatlinburg! 😀

    • Ronnie27

      I am going to Jerusalem this weekend and there are very steep hills there. Up and and down. Your advice has been a real eye opener for me.

      Many thanks for the advice


      • FunTimesGuide

        Oh good – so glad you found the info helpful, Ronnie!

    • Ruth Cummings

      thanx , i live in a hilly town, was always leary when to switch back into driving,so i just never bothered to use those other gears. luv ya you’re a big help to women.

      • FunTimesGuide

        Thanks for the kind words, Ruth. I’m glad the info was helpful 😀

    • Heide Tautphaeus-Rumble

      Thanks Lynnette. I am going to drive for the first time in the mountains in a few weeks, and frankly I was slightly terrified. Not anymore. :)

      • FunTimesGuide

        Great! So glad to hear that, Heide. Have fun in the mountains!

    • Carter

      Engine braking is a must, but many vehicles can suffer damage to the transmission from trying to downshift at speeds which are too high, sometimes including speeds under 50 for switching into 2nd. The degree of the incline also has an effect. Starting in a low gear is best when approaching your downgrade. If you still need to slow down at some point, gently apply your brakes for a few seconds and then downshift at a controlled speed to allow for a smooth change of gears. You will know if you’re going too fast on a downshift if you feel a quick violent slow down as opposed to a smooth gradual one. Hope my two cents also help. Thank you for this article! Lots of people can benefit from this!

      • kirsten

        Hi Carter, I go up and down a steep hill every day: about an hour to an hour and a half total driving time. I tried engine breaking and it worked great, but when I got to the bottom of the hill, I noticed a lot of white smoke coming out of the exhaust. The exhaust seemed white and smelly for the rest of the day. I didn’t use my breaks at all going down the hill and I think stayed at about 20 to 35 mph in 2nd the whole time. Any ideas about why this would happen? I would like to use the second gear again, but I’m afraid I’ll damage the engine. Also, I have been turning “overdrive” off while going up the hill–is this correct?
        Thanks, Kirsten

        • Carter

          Hi Kirsten. Sorry for the late response. Usually having overdrive turned off on mountainous roads is your best bet. For any normal driving on flat roads it’s almost always best to leave it on. When you are going downhill are you turning overdrive off or leaving it on? When it’s necessary to operate in lower gears, such as when you are engine braking, overdrive should probably be left off.

    • Francesco

      very useful thanks! here in Italy we have manual shifting as “standard”, with that no proplem at all… but now I’ve a 1990 Camaro (childhood dream 😀 ) and I was little bit worried about down and up shifting… so if I’ve understood well, I’m on the top of the hill in “D” when the slope starts brake under 50mph then I can shift in “2” when the hill is over put back in “D”
      if I go up the hill I can leave in “D” and if the hill is going too steep just shift in 2 or 1 to climb up..

      you just answered my questions on auto shifting!!!!

    • William Burke Jr

      This is an excellent article, giving invaluable advice on getting down a long, steep hill safely and without
      ruining your brakes. I’m surprised how many people think that an automatic transmission is always just
      kept in Drive (or OVERDRIVE, the top gear in my car), even when going down a steep hill. I have a 2007
      Buick Lucerne, and my manual says that I can shift down into 2nd gear (from Drive or Overdrive) at speeds of 65 mph or less without hurting the engine or transmission if I’m going that fast on a long, steep
      downhill stretch, perhaps on an interstate. On a local road where there’s a very steep hill and I’m doing
      40 mph or so, I also shift down into second, especially when the steep downhill goes around a sharp
      curve, you have much better control of the car, and you really save your brakes.

    • Tyler

      Looked this up after going to Glacier Park. Brakes were about ready to ignite. Living in plain states you never really understand the reason for the 1 and 2 gear options in cars. great article

      • FunTimesGuide

        We used these tips while driving through Glacier Park too, Tyler. Glad you found the info helpful!

    • Skye B.

      I’m driving to Gatlinburg, TN for the first time next week, and I have never driven in the mountains with an automatic transmission. Years ago, I managed just fine with a stick shift, but I was looking for advice on how to downshift with an automatic, and your article answered all my questions. Thank you, and just so you know, I also enjoyed the pictures. I’m excited to drive to this beautiful area of our country.

    • William Burke Jr

      Excellent article. I’ve been manually downshifting on steep hills for years. I tried to get one of my brothers to do it, and he simply answered “that’s just the way I drive” (??!!). My car (2007 Buick Lucerne) manual says that I can downshift into second to get engine braking “as long as I’m not going over 65 mph.” My car can do 90 in second. The few times I’ve had to downshift into first I always first slow to about 25 MPH, so as not to strain the transmission.

    • Black Knight

      This is bullsh*t! If you drive a big American V8 you don’t have to downshift at all! It’s got great power all the time!