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I'm working on the arrangements to move my household. I will need to drive a large moving truck from Kansas to Oregon in early June. I'm concerned that driving such a large truck through the mountains may be difficult because of the mountainous terrain (which we don't have in Kansas).

What is the easiest place to cross the Rocky Mountains in a large moving truck?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – JonathanReez Mar 13 '18 at 22:44
  • Ogden or Coeur D Alene are great spots to cross, with CDA being the more scenic option by far if you go a little more north than necessary. – self.name Mar 16 '18 at 17:21
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    Not an answer, but if you're not feeling comfortable with this driving, get a professional to do it and save yourself the stress. Plus you have an extra body for the loading and unloading, albeit at additional cost. Or get a shipping container moved by truck or truck/rail/truck. – Criggie Mar 17 '18 at 23:09
  • @Criggie -- an intermodal move requires extra care in packing (both the boxes and the container) though -- intermodal handling can exert some different forces on a load than a straight-up truck move does, and the suspensions on freight rail trucks are not great either :P – UnrecognizedFallingObject Mar 18 '18 at 0:29
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    @UnrecognizedFallingObject yes all true, but my point was answering "how do I drive big truck unfamiliar roads" was "pay a pro to do it". All the other differences are valid true, I'm showing that OP doesn't have to do the driving themselves. – Criggie Mar 18 '18 at 6:12

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Downshifting - you gotta know it

Avoiding hills is simply not an option.

Mountain driving is a lot like a roller coaster. The truck works really hard going up a long, long uphill, and then on the long downhill, gravity takes it and it goes like a rocket. Mountain driving is all about controlling this.

On mountain driving, especially with trucks, you will often find yourself needing brakes just to avoid exceeding the speed limit. This is a huge problem.

"Why?", you say. "I can push the brake all day." Maybe, but it won't work for long. Brakes are made for stopping at red lights, not descending long grades, and they will overheat, warp (which means a $400 bill on a car replacing them), fade (meaning they will lose braking power) and stop working, and you're a juggernaut. Happens all the time with trucks, and that's why they have runaway ramps.

If a cop catches you smoking a truck's brakes down a grade, he'll pull you over and find a way to stop you from driving further. For him, it's easier than spending all night at a fatal accident.

Enter the gears you never use on your shifter - P R N D 3 2 1, those. You have noticed when you lift off the gas on your car, the car "feels a little bit draggy", like it's actively being slowed down. If you select a lower gear (and you can select them while moving), it will become more draggy. Quite a lot more draggy the lower you go. That is for descending long hills.

The way I explain this is to downshift enough that you don't need to use your brakes at all. When you need to use a little bit of accelerator pedal to keep the vehicle at desired speed, you're in the zone. That keeps you safe.

Since you're trying to spin the engine to slow the car, this is a great time to blast the A/C on full, as this is "free" and won't overheat the engine.

Going uphill also has a trick

With modern automatic transmissions, it's easy - just put it in top gear and push the gas until you're at the top of the hill. (then downshift.)

However, there's a different gotcha -- this will make the engine much warmer than you're used to. Running this and air conditioning too can overheat your car/truck.

So you have to keep a close eye on your "Engine temp" gauge. First, you must know what "normal" looks like, so you must learn to watch it ordinarily. Then, on up-hill sections, keep an eye on it. If it climbs a little bit, no big deal, but if it climbs any more, turn off the A/C immediately -- most likely the overheat will cure itself.

In a pinch, it also helps to blast the heater and open windows (thanks Saaru). This heat comes from the engine and gives it a small bit of additional cooling. Don't get heatstroke!

Don't drive drowsy

Utah is the loudest about this, but other states agree: they really don't want you driving drowsy, and they hate cleaning up fatal accidents. If you are starting to nod off, pull over somewhere reasonable and safe, and take a catnap... often an hour will suffice, your body knows. Cops who see you asleep will be happy to see it.

Routes: the Union Pacific way

Generally any viable route is going to take you through Laramie, Wyoming. From there, does the vehicle handle wind well? If so, proceed west on I-80, which was built through a terrible wind area. Otherwise take US-30 west via Medicine Bow, paralleling the original Union Pacific Railroad and rejoining I-80 near Rawlins.

Wyoming is desolate, so be careful with fuel.

Continue west on I-80 via the Wasatch range, paralleling the Union Pacific the entire way. It's the best route, and it's flatter, which is why UP chose it.

Once in Utah, you'll hit a branch at Echo where I-84 turns northwest. Take it. It's your way anyway, and it's much flatter - still following Union Pacific. (Staying on I-80 will go an hour out of your way and put you on Parley's Summit, the worst grade on the entire 3000 mile length of I-80 - you certainly don't want to learn downshifting here!)

Congratulations, you have crossed the Rockies the easy way (the Union Pacific way).

From here, the only sensible road is I-84 west (actual northwest) - some time around Boise you should be planning your route into Oregon proper.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – JoErNanO Mar 15 '18 at 10:42
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    +1 for: "Cops who see you asleep will be happy to see it." – Mayo Mar 15 '18 at 16:12
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    Don't forget to be patient. Be easy on the gas and the brake pedals. Let other people drive around you. Give plenty of space. It really isn't that bad. If you have a second driver take turns so you can enjoy the view - when you're not driving of course. – Taul Mar 15 '18 at 23:25
  • The Union Pacific route takes advantage of a geographic feature called The Gangplank. – Andrew Lazarus Mar 16 '18 at 19:22
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    Second the danger of a runaway. I've been a passenger in a vehicle that became a runaway due to mechanical problems despite having a driver who knew what to do (beyond saying "fix this before we go"). Downshifting kept us down to about 45mph--given the road that was unpleasant but tolerable. Running a military checkpoint at the bottom of the hill was scary, though! (Fortunately they realized we were a runaway and not trying to crash through.) – Loren Pechtel Mar 17 '18 at 4:09
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Is your concern traffic, snow, difficulty of the road, ...?

Google Maps thinks that I-80 and I-84 will be your best routes to Portland from, say, Kansas City (other parts of Kansas won't have a terrible time reaching I-80). US Interstates are almost always designed well, with reasonable curves. If you are concerned, you can check the height of the mountain passes on each route; the higher the passes compared to the base elevation, the more up and down driving you have to do.

Secondary highways are often less well engineered. I'd stick to the Interstates.

One of the gentlest routes through the Rocky Mountains is the Crowsnest Highway (Alberta and British Columbia Highway 3), and your question originally didn't specify that you wanted an American route through the Rockies, but I'm assuming that with a truck, you don't want the hassles of clearing customs and immigration twice, so I'd stick to I-80 and I-84.

Check out Google Street View from a computer to get a sense of what your'e going to face.

Be sure to avoid riding your brakes on downhills; this can cause your brake fluid to boil causing brake failure. Use engine breaking wherever practical, and stop to cool off your brakes occasionally if you need to use them frequently. Whatever you do, don't ride your brakes constantly during a downhill, as this heats up the fluid significantly.

  • I edited the question to be more specific about my concern. I'm not used to driving in mountains (we don't have them in Kansas!), so the prospect of driving a large truck through them seems daunting. – indigochild Mar 13 '18 at 13:28
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    @indigochild - take it slow and easy, and obey all warning signs, particularly about downgrades. Use the slow truck lane going up, stop on the way down to cool your brakes, and just give yourself lots of time. Going further south doesn't help until you are so far south you will have to tackle the mountains on I-5, which I think is worse than I-80 or I-84. – Jon Custer Mar 13 '18 at 13:34
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    @indigochild In that case, I suspect that information about routes is less important to you than information about how to drive down a long hill (and that's fairly simple: use a lower gear). Interstate highway lanes are wide, curves are gentle, and grades are limited. Remember, these highways were designed for vehicles much longer and heavier than the one you're likely to be driving. – phoog Mar 13 '18 at 14:02
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    @indigochild One of the most important things is to use engine braking down the downhill sections, instead of the actual brakes, whenever possible. (This means gearing down to control your speed, and using your actual brakes as infrequently as is practical.) A real concern on long downhill stretches is that you can overheat your brakes, causing your brake fluid to boil. This will make your brake system temporarily fail, a very dangerous condition. Brake as needed, but don't ride your brakes downhill or they may not be there to slow you down. – Jim MacKenzie Mar 13 '18 at 14:38
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    As a fellow Kansan, but one who feels a year without driving in mountains is a serious waste, I heartily concur with taking I-80 through Wyoming. The grades on that route are so gentle that you won't even know you passed over the continental divide if the signs didn't say so. The downhill into the Salt Lake area is not extreme either. I've only taken the I-84 route once, but I don't recall any significant grades on it either. Just remember to downshift as soon as your truck starts to run up, and don't worry about what it sounds like - your engine is fine. – Paul Sinclair Mar 13 '18 at 16:54
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The answers by Jim MacKenzie and Harper are both full of good advice, and the suggestions to use I-80/I-84 are great. I have taken that route with a 16ft box van.

I just want to note one more thing you should be aware of. Based on your description, it sounds like you might be going to the Portland/West Coast area. If so, you are most likely going to take I-84 from Boise. Along that route, you will cross another series of mountain ranges. So, just preparing for the Rockies isn't enough. The area that is most likely to give you trouble in my experience (and my extended family who lives in the area) is known colloquially as "The Blues" in eastern Oregon. A series of steep grades, high traffic, and a penchant for bad weather make it a particularly dangerous section of highway.

I can't really suggest more than to follow the advice that has been given; drive slowly, stay calm, avoid overbraking, and be willing to use the escape ramps if you do lose your brakes. It is just one more obstacle to be aware of.

If you would like some more information on what to expect, this link explains some of the dangers of that section of I-84. The information is somewhat outdated, but still gives a decent description of what to expect.

And welcome to the Pacific Northwest!

  • Thanks for that. I had forgotten there would be more mountains! – indigochild Mar 13 '18 at 19:22
  • Google says you can go Boise -> Bend -> The Dalles on US Highways with just one bad climb and no drops, then sneak across the Cascades through the Columbia Gorge, which is pretty much flat. Takes you through a whole lot of "middle of nowhere", though. – Mark Mar 14 '18 at 1:17
  • I drove once from NC to OR along I-80 and I-84 (new driver in a sedan) and the "cabbage patch" part of I-84 was the scariest part. I stopped at the first gas station I found and they were selling t-shirts that said "I survived the cabbage patch". The second notable experience was headwinds in Wyoming due to which my car couldn't go past 45mph! – hojusaram Mar 14 '18 at 4:37
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Something other answers haven't gone into details about are how the interstates are designed through most of these passes. On the steeper uphill sections, the interstate expands into extra lanes to allow for big trucks that have trouble moving at reasonable freeway speeds (you have to move all the way to the right). Typically, if you are slow on an uphill road, you are required to turn on your hazard lights.

On the downhill portions, as long as you are using your engine to slow you down, you should be fine. If you have a runaway/brake failure situation, there are pull-offs at regular intervals that are made of large gravel/stones which will stop you pretty quickly. I have lived in the Rockies my whole life and have only ever seen one truck that needed to use a runaway lane. It is really a last resort because it is very difficult to get your truck out of one once you are in it.

If you take I-84, the worst spot is probably going to be Deadman Pass before you get to Pendleton, Oregon. There is about 2000 ft in elevation change over a few miles. This is totally doable and most drivers, even out of state ones, have no problem navigating it. Be careful with your brakes for descending and heat for ascending and you will be fine.

Also, enjoy the mountain drives. They are very beautiful and should be a treat for a Kansas-dweller like yourself.

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    +1 For the mountains east of Pendleton, Oregon. I-84 in Oregon will be more challenging than anything on I-80 in Wyoming. I have driven both, albeit in passenger vehicles. – kevinbatchcom Mar 14 '18 at 15:53
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As others have noted, the U.S. Interstate Highway system is well built and likely your best choice. Given that you are driving in June and the weather ought to be nice, my biggest concern would be long downhill stretches where riding your brakes can result in brake failure (long before you run out of downhill).

If you were thinking of heading west on I-80 then making a right turn onto I-5 North in Sacramento, you would face two stretches of downhill driving (coming off Parley's Summit approaching Salt Lake and west of Truckee in California) that have a bad enough history for there to be dedicated Runaway Truck lanes.

If you can cobble together a specific enough search to find out where brake failure is a real danger on the candidate roads for your journey, I would weight such info highly in my choice of routes.

Happy travels and safe trip!

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    Downhill speed can also be managed with the transmission by shifting into a lower gear. Uphill speed is also a concern, especially at altitude, which is why it will go much easier if the truck in question is a turbocharged diesel vehicle. If it doesn't have a turbocharger, it may actually make sense to take a longer route that has a lower maximum elevation. – Todd Wilcox Mar 13 '18 at 16:29
  • I imagine that the asker is familiar with the Interstates, and probably wasn't even considering lower-grade roads for the bulk of the journey. That still leaves the question of which Interstates to use. I-80 and I-5 would be a huge detour versus I-80 and I-84 (it adds 500 miles to an 1800-mile journey). – David Richerby Mar 13 '18 at 18:52
  • I wouldn't be concerned about the descent into Salt Lake but more on the stretch from Reno past Lake Tahoe into Tahoe national forest, that's one of the longest downhill I have ever experienced. – Herman Toothrot Mar 13 '18 at 21:44
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Having actually done exactly what you're describing, I'll agree with what others have said: in mid June, any Interstate highway will be fine as far as road conditions are concerned. When you consider the number of commercial "eighteen wheelers" that cross the Rockies per day, it has to be this way.

I will also emphasize that brake fade is your biggest number one enemy. Period. There are four ways you can help mitigate it

  1. Downshift to a lower gear and let the engine do as much of the braking as you can get it to do. Preferably all of it.

  2. If you just can't manage on engine alone and have to use the brake pedal, do not "pump" your breaks, instead keep them on with a light touch continuously, till you can get your speed back under control and revert to engine braking alone.

These two are directly from the truckers my wife and I were talking to via C.B. radio as we crossed over the Rockies.

  1. Slow down. This is basic physics. You're trying to get rid of your trucks kinetic energy with your brakes. The slower you go, the less energy per second you need to get rid of. See below for a discussion of the details of this. Less energy per second means less brake heat up.

  2. Take a break from time to time. This is a good idea anyway, and by taking a break, you get a rest yourself, and let the brakes cool down.

Good luck, and drive safely!

Detailed physics discussion. Ignore this if you don't care. A moving vehicle has two forms of energy: potential and kinetic. Kinetic is energy due to its movement. Potential comes from a lot of sources, we care about mechanical potential energy due to being at the top of a hill.

Left to its own devices, as the truck rolls down the hill, potential energy is converted to kinetic, and you lose altitude but gain speed. You convert the same amount of energy for every foot of altitude you lose.

Therefore if you lose fewer feet of altitude per second by slowing down, you lose less potential, and gain less kinetic per second. Hence your brakes have less kinetic energy they need to convert to heat per second, and thus they stay cooler.

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    The commercial 18-wheelers are driven by experts, rather than by car drivers who're asking on the internet because they've never done it before. Also, you seem to be advocating "riding the brakes" on down-grades, which is seriously bad advice. – David Richerby Mar 13 '18 at 17:04
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    Seriously, seriously, bad advice. – Jennifer Mar 13 '18 at 17:52
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    Good post, except for the continuously riding the brakes part. Use brakes intermittently and sparingly, and rely more on engine gearing to slow you down. – Jim MacKenzie Mar 13 '18 at 22:02
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    Also, going significantly slower than the traffic around you is very dangerous too. You can't just gently coast down the hill at 15mph on an interstate. – whatsisname Mar 13 '18 at 22:39
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    @whatsisname That is true if you are trying to stop from a given speed, but what we are talking about here is bleeding off the additional kinetic energy you pick up on the downgrade. That quantity is equal to the rate at which potential energy is converted to kinetic energy. PE = mgh, so d/dt(PE) = mg dh/dt = mg sin(grade) * v. So, the amount of heat you have to dissipate to maintain a constant speed is indeed proportional to your speed. – Nobody Mar 15 '18 at 14:03
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All answers have given great suggestions, so I will suggest something quite different. If you are not pressed for time you could head south and then west through Albuquerque, or you could even go more south, in any case you can then take I-40 heading toward Bakersfield and catch I-5. You can't completely avoid the mountains but by going this route the slopes are much more gentle than crossing the Rockies and going through NV, CO, UT. If you leave from southern Kansas you are not adding too many extra miles.

  • I think you mean west through Albuquerque, not east...? – Jim MacKenzie Mar 13 '18 at 22:00
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    That's an awful long way out of the way compared to I-80 through WY...which is easily just as flat – UnrecognizedFallingObject Mar 13 '18 at 22:33
  • That adds 700 miles to an 1800 mile trip. – David Richerby Mar 14 '18 at 0:10
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    I-5 northbound goes over Siskiyou Pass, which has seven miles of 6% downhill with two runaway truck ramps. There are also a number of other, smaller passes. Yes, you dodge the Rockies, but you pick up about 250 miles of other mountains. – Mark Mar 14 '18 at 5:08
  • @Mark you could take 101 to dodge that. I said this is not an optimal route, but a nice road trip :-). Anyway I think the OP is being too paranoid, any truck can take mountain passes if well maintained and driven with some common sense. – Herman Toothrot Mar 14 '18 at 10:45
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I drove the exact route, other direction, from Portland, OR to Overland Park, KS, in a 26-foot long U-Haul towing a compact car behind it.

The route I picked is here on Google Maps.

The steep parts were outside of Salt Lake City, near the Wyoming border, but everything else was quite easy. The Wyoming section is at very high altitude, so the engine seemed to slow down there.

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A view from the UK. Here we use 'stick shifting' as the norm (only a few have automatic gearboxes), so down shifting is well understood in terms of 'clutch control' (we even have a separate pedal for clutch control!). However many still are not good at down shifting to control speed as an alternative to braking.

On simple techinque for practice is the "No brakes game" - with the vehicle (your normal one) in good working order, drive around your local area, including places with a few rises and falls, and USING THE GEARS ONLY (and accelerator/gas pedal), try and control your speed to smoothly proceed through the route. (touching the brakes isn't a failure, just an indication that road conditions needed it at that moment... should have seen it coming... etc. hey-ho, better next time.)

Obviously allow plenty of space and anticipation (look ahead) so that the engine braking is given time to work and you get the time to get used to it.

The value of the anticipation (looking ahead part) is probably of most value as it provides safety in depth. In the UK, with the stick shift, we can also get into 'double de-cluching' but that's really for old vehicles which don't have synchro-mesh gearing (you needed to make the engine revs match the geared-wheel revs, so that the different parts of the gears would slot together smoothly without 'crashing' - historically brakes were very ineffective!).

The key is that you can practice gear shifting without any significant hills, which should give extra confidence that you at least have the mechanics in place.

Enjoy the trip.

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I90 through Montana/Idaho/Washington has a couple of mountain passes but they aren't as treacherous in the summer. Then you drop down through Kennewick/Richland/Pasco to the I84, the route is flat once you hit Coeur D Alene. Or just take the I80 to I84 in Ogden and head through Boise , its pretty flat all the way to Portland once you get to Ogden.

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