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Driving downhill in a stick shift car doesn’t require the skills, the practice and the clutch control of uphill driving, but there’s still plenty to consider. You won’t have to worry about rolling backward, but you still have to think about what gear you’re in, when to brake and how to deal with the traffic around you.
Cruising down from a mountaintop, edging down a steep hill in town and driving through “rollers” in the countryside don’t require exactly the same techniques, but there are some basic rules you should follow no matter what kind of hill you’re descending.
General Principles for Driving Downhill
Here are some general principles for driving downhill in a manual transmission vehicle.
- Use both kinds of braking. Use the foot pedal to operate the hydraulic braking system, and use lower gears to maximize the effects on engine braking.
- Drop one to two gears to offload some of the braking to the engine. Depress the clutch pedal and move the gear shifter to a lower gear. If you are slowing significantly, it’s OK to drop two gears at once.
- When you use a lower gear on a downhill, the engine will rev high. This is fine as long as your tachometer is not reaching the redline. It’s a natural part of engine braking. The more you drive, not only on downhills but also on flats, the more readily you’ll recognize an acceptable engine speed noise vs. an engine revving too high.
- Minimize foot braking, particularly on long downhills such as mountains.
- Do not coast down the hill with the manual transmission car in neutral. There’s a temptation to do this and save a little gas, but you have less control over your vehicle. For starters, you’re doing no engine braking and must rely entirely on the brake pedal to slow down. Furthermore, if you have to react to cars or events in the road ahead, you’ll be mentally and physically less prepared. Finally, this sort of coasting is illegal in many states.
- Don’t use cruise control. You need to take responsibility for your speed and not leave it to the “automatic pilot.”
- Do not keep the clutch pedal pressed to the floor. That carries the same risks as driving downhill with the gear shift in neutral. Use the clutch pedal only to change gears and release it as soon as you’ve done so.
- Leave plenty of room. One rule of thumb says to stay 3-4 seconds behind the car ahead, and to add a second for each hazardous condition. Driving downhill is inherently hazardous, so 4-5 seconds is more appropriate.
- When in doubt, slow down. On a gradual hill with no traffic immediately ahead, slowing may not be necessary. On a steep hill, a hill with curves or a road that’s wet or icy, reduce your speed.
- On a steep downhill, slow down and shift to a lower gear before you reach the top of the hill.
How To Drive Down Moderate Hills in a Manual Transmission Car
If you’re driving through rolling (but not mountainous) hills on a highway or rural road, or on normal hills in town, and the road is dry, it’s not much harder than driving on flats. It’s unlikely you’ll have to brake unless stoplights, stop signs or traffic force you to stop or slow way down.
In some cases you won’t even have to shift but will slow enough simply by backing off of the gas pedal. If reducing the throttle doesn’t slow you enough, drop one gear. You should be able to comfortably depress the clutch pedal and move the shifter to a lower gear. Reengage the accelerator pedal if needed to maintain an appropriate downhill speed. Use the brake only if your speed isn’t dropping quickly enough. If you do brake, do it gradually.
How To Drive through Downhill Curves in a Manual Transmission Car
Curves present a special challenge. When you drive a manual vehicle around a curve, there are two motions that fight each other. The tires are moving forward, and inertia is forcing the vehicle toward the outside of the curve. The conflict is heightened by the increased forward motion of a car moving downhill. You need to slow down enough to keep the outer wheels on the road surface, to maintain full traction and to avoid skidding.
Slow and downshift before you reach the curve. Ideally you want to maintain some pressure on the gas pedal going into the curve to maximize your traction. If you have slowed adequately, about halfway through the curve you can increase throttle and accelerate out of the curve. Depending on whether the downhill continues out of the curve and how steep it is, you may be able to shift back to a higher gear as you leave the curve.
How To Drive Down Mountains in a Manual Transmission Car
On a long mountain descent it’s particularly important to minimize foot braking and make full use of engine braking by using lower gears. Repeated and prolonged use of the brakes can cause them to overheat. In extreme cases you can smell the brake rubber burning. If that’s happening, you’re in danger of losing your brakes entirely and at some point not being able to stop at all.
If you find yourself constantly tapping the brakes, drop down one gear. If you have to slow down in that lower gear to keep the RPM below the redline, do so. If it feels (or smells) like your hydraulic brakes are weakening, pull to the side of the road and stop.
Mountain roads often have curves. Use the precautions for curves, that is, slow and downshift before you reach the curve. Increase throttle as you go through if you can. On an interstate you will generally be able to gain some throttle coming out of curves even on a downhill. On a two-lane mountain descent with sharp curves, you may have to take it slow all the way through the curve.
How To Drive Down Steep Hills in a Manual Transmission Car
You may encounter a steep hill on a rural road or in a town or city. Downshift and reduce your speed before you reach the top of the hill. You should be no higher than third gear and more likely should be in second. If your speed gets lower than about 15 MPH you should even drop into first gear. Maintain a slow steady speed all the way to the bottom. If you can control your descent without using the foot brake, all the better, but if necessary use the brake pedal in addition to the engine braking power of the lower gear. Do what you must to get down the hill safely.
How To Stop for Downhill Stop Signs and Stoplights in a Manual Transmission Car
On the flats, you come to a stop either by shifting down through the gears or by coasting to the stop with the clutch disengaged, that is, with the shifter in neutral or the clutch pedal depressed.
On a downhill, if you’ve downshifted to minimize brake pedal usage, you’ll be rolling to the stop sign or stoplight in first gear. You won’t use the brake until you’re close to the stop, and you won’t press the clutch pedal until it’s necessary to keep the engine from stalling.
As you wait your turn to go, it’s possible to either leave the car in first gear with the clutch pedal to the floor, or to shift to neutral. There’s also a choice of whether to engage the emergency brake.
If you expect to move soon, such as at a four way stop or a light that’s about to turn green, leave the car in first gear and don’t use the hand brake. If you’re going to wait awhile, any of the options is acceptable. Leaving the clutch disengaged (neutral gear or pressed clutch pedal) saves a small amount of wear and tear on the clutch and transmission, while leaving the car in first makes you more ready to start up again. With the clutch disengaged you get to rest your foot.
Applying the hand brake provides a little more security if you’re stopped on a downhill, but it also gives you one more task when you move again.
How To Drive a Manual Transmission Car in Stop and Go Traffic
There’s some clutch control skill needed to drive downhill in stop and go traffic, but not nearly what is needed to drive uphill. You will usually be driving in 1st gear in this situation. If you can maintain some distance from the car in front there will be little need to use the clutch pedal while you’re moving. You will of course have to use the clutch and the brake when you come up on a car that’s stopped in front of you.
When you start up from a stop you’ll need to find the bite point and slip the clutch the way you have learned to do on the flats. However, you don’t have to worry about holding the car from rolling backward the way you do on an uphill.
How To Park a Manual Transmission Car on a Downhill
When you park pointing downhill, move the gearshift into reverse and set the hand brake before you leave the car. There’s a temptation to leave the gear knob in neutral, but if the emergency brake doesn’t do its job the car could roll.
As with an automatic transmission car, turn the steering wheel to cut the wheels toward the side of the road whether there’s a curb or not. That way, if the car rolls it will roll off the roadway.
How To Start Out Downhill in a Manual Transmission Car
Unlike starting uphill from a stop, there aren’t any new skills to learn. Apply the skills you’ve developed in finding the bite point and slipping the clutch on a flat roadway.
- Release the emergency brake if it’s on.
- Shift into first gear if you’re not already there.
- Keep the brake pedal and clutch pedal depressed. Release the brake part of the way, and let the clutch pedal rise until it reaches the bite point. The engine sound will change and the hood of the car may rise slightly.
- Slowly release the clutch until the car moves forward. Depending on the steepness of the hill, you may have to either continue to use a little brake or move your right foot to the gas pedal.
One difference from starting out on the flats: be in no hurry to shift to second gear. On a flat roadway you shift to second as soon as you’ve released the clutch pedal in first. On a downhill you may remain in first until you reach a speed of around 10-15 MPH, which may not happen right away if you’re cautiously descending a steep hill.
How To Drive Downhill in Rain and on Wet Roads in a Manual Transmission Car
As with an automatic car, the big threats of a rainy or wet downhill are loss of visibility and loss of traction. The answer to both is to slow down and leave plenty of following room. Following the rule of thumb to add a second of following time for each additional hazard, you would allow two extra seconds (one for downhill, one for the wet surface) and allow 5-6 seconds between your car and the one ahead.
Using the foot brake on a wet surface can be hazardous, so use a lower gear and take advantage of engine braking as much as possible. How much to slow down? Some estimates say you lose about a third of your traction, so one-third less than the posted speed limit is reasonable. For example, travel 30 MPH in a 45 zone, or 40 in a 60.
On a large or steep hill, it’s a good idea to slow before the top of the hill, shift into a gear you can maintain all the way down, and take the downhill at a constant speed. Ideal speed and gearing will get you to the bottom without using the brake pedal.
If traffic allows it, it’s good to stay to the center of the lane rather than close to the shoulder. If the road is cambered toward the shoulder, your right wheels are more likely to be in standing water. Thus the risk of hydroplaning is greater. Hydroplaning is when the water is deep enough that it isn’t being eliminated through the treads and the tires lose contact with the road surface.
If the car starts to skid or slide, don’t hit the brakes hard, don’t steer sharply and press the clutch pedal to stop engine force to the wheel. Keep a light touch on the steering wheel until the car regains some control, then point the wheel in the direction you want to go, which is usually toward rather than against the direction of the skid.
How To Drive a Manual Transmission Car Downhill in Snow and Ice
This is a treacherous situation and you need to do anything possible to avoid a skid. Slow down and shift into a low gear before you reach the hill. If it’s steep or icy enough slow down to around 10-15 MPH and use first gear. It’s best to maintain the same speed and gear all the way down. If you press the clutch pedal even just long enough to shift gears you run a risk of losing traction.
If you need to use brake pressure make it slow and steady. Almost all cars today have antilock braking system (ABS) so you shouldn’t pump the brakes. ABS is doing it for you. If you happen to be driving an older car without ABS, pump the brakes lightly.
If the car slides or skids, the rules are the same as for hydroplaning: don’t accelerate, don’t brake, push in the clutch pedal and steer in the direction you want to go. Anytime you’re having trouble with control, look to where you want the car to go and not to that big tree you hope not to hit. You tend to travel where your eyes are pointed.
What To Do In a Manual Transmission Car If Your Brakes Fail Going Downhill
Brake failure is unusual, but it can happen, especially on a long mountain downhill where the brakes have been used excessively. Brake failure doesn't mean that a crash is inevitable. If you keep your head and take the right actions you've got a good chance.
Here are steps to take if the brakes fail in your standard transmission car:
- Try the brakes again. Usually front and rear brake systems are separate. It's unlikely for both to fail. You may have reduced braking power rather than no brakes at all.
- Downshift even more. Stay off the accelerator pedal. Continue down through the gears as the car slows. Don’t worry about how high the engine revs. Stopping is more important than protecting the engine.
- Use the emergency brake. If you have the type of handbrake where you can engage it slowly, do so. In some late-model cars, the parking brake is either on or off, and you'll have to set it all at once.
- Leave the clutch engaged. Except for changing gear, don't use the clutch pedal. Use engine braking as much as possible.
- Try the brake pedal again.
- If you can, maneuver the manual car off the road. Aim for a spot with an upward bank rather than a dropoff.
- Don't turn off the engine until you come to a stop.
Driving Every Type of Downhill in a Manual Transmission Car
Whether you’re cruising down a mountain or creeping down your local hill in a storm, remember the basic principles. Reduce speed and shift to a lower gear. Minimize foot pedal braking and rely as much as you can on engine braking. Don’t coast with the clutch disengaged and don’t use cruise control.
Successfully driving downhill in a stick shift is largely a matter of taking your time, following the basic principles and using the skills you’ve already developed driving on flat roads.