Handling Your Truck With Heavy Loads On Hills And Dealing With Curves

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(Last Updated On: November 24, 2017)

One of the first things you will notice once you begin driving is how different the truck feels with a load in the trailer. When you’re in school, most schools use empty trailers and have the trailer axles set in one location. Now that you’re in training you will find out how shifting, braking, turning and overall handling of the truck varies with different weights or types of loads. As a professional truck driver, it’s your responsibility to know how to deal with all the variations.

 

Heavy Loads And Upgrades

Uphill1

You will find out immediately that shifting is much different than with an empty trailer. Because of the weight, you will lose speed much quicker between gears, thus, you will need to shift quicker, especially when going uphill. One of the biggest problems I had with trainees was getting them out of the habit of using the timing method the school taught them when it came to shifting. That system is all well and good with an empty trailer on flat land but once you start hauling freight it won’t work all the time.

Learning how to float gears, shifting without the use of the clutch, will speed the process up but you can still shift quickly while using the clutch. It is vital to speed shift up a hill because once you miss a gear you will probably find yourself coming to a stop. You definitely don’t want to do this, especially on the right of way. If you believe that you are going to have to stop to get it back into gear get to the shoulder fast. Don’t even debate whether you should get over or not, just do it.

If you do end off stopping on an upgrade it can be tricky getting rolling again. Once you get rolling, stay on the shoulder until you pick up enough speed in case you find yourself missing a gear again. Once you get up to the speed you want, then move out onto the right of way. Never, never pull out on the right of way from a dead stop.

I had a truck do that to me when I was stuck in the right lane and was about 75 yards from where he was. So here I am doing 65 MPH and he pulls out in front of me doing less than 10 MPH. I was fortunate enough to be expecting his stunt and was already slowing down by the time he pulled out but it still ended off being a lot closer to being a bad situation than I like. This is a perilous move. Do not do it, ever!

If you shift at the right time you will do it without jerking the truck. It should be a nice, smooth transition from one gear to the next. Learn where the low RPM point is to begin your upshift and don’t rev the engine too much or it’ll be hard to get into gear. Of course, the lower you let your RPM’s drop the more you’ll need to rev so ideally you want it at a place where a tap of the pedal is all you’ll need to do. 

This was another hard thing to get my trainees to do correctly. They would tend to rev the engine way too high. Then, when they would grind the gear, they would rev it again and so on. This was when they would have to pull onto the shoulder because they couldn’t get into gear. You only need to tap the pedal enough to get the RPM’s up to where they need to be for a smooth shift, then shift….quickly.

Learn how to shift quickly from day one. Don’t wait till you’re on a hill. Ask your trainer where the ideal low RPM point is. Most of my trucks were 1200 RPM.

Be consistent and listen to how the engine sounds and soon you’ll be able to do it by sound rather than having to look at the dashboard. It’ll make things easier.

 

Heavy Loads And Downgrades

 

This is another important thing to learn. At first, it can be difficult because you will be unfamiliar with all the roads you’ll be traveling on. Pay attention to the roads, especially hilly roads. The reason for this, especially when getting ready to go down a hill, is that, ideally, you want to be in a gear you need to go down a hill before you start your descent so you won’t need to shift while on the hill. You want to reduce the need for using your brakes as much as possible.

Downhill1A couple things to take into account are how steep the grade is and how long it is. If you can’t see the bottom, or there is a sign telling you it’s a long grade, being in the right gear is important before you start down. If it’s a short hill that you can see the bottom, the steepness of the hill doesn’t matter as much because you won’t be using the brake that much on the way down.

All trucks have engine brakes so, of course, you’ll want that turned on.

Ideally, you want the gear to be set in a place where the engine brake will slow your truck down while going down the hill and you’ll have to release it to let the speed build back up. This is possible even on the steepest grades with the heaviest loads. I’ve been down all the mountains in the west with loads over 40,000 lbs without ever touching the brakes. Even though it results in other drivers getting annoyed at you because you will probably be the slowest vehicle on the hill, it’s still a good way to do it. I didn’t care what others thought. I just concerned myself with my own vehicle.

Click for larger image
Click for larger image

If you can’t get into the ideal gear, or don’t want to do it that way, the best way to go is to let your speed build up to somewhere around 5 MPH over the posted speed, hit the brakes to slow the truck down to about 5 MPH below the posted speed, then let go of the brake until it’s 5 MPH over again and just keep doing that all the way down. Do not attempt to ride the brake all the way. I had a trainee do that and it wasn’t long before we had smoke coming out of the brakes and lost the use of the brakes. There is no scarier feeling than stepping on the brake pedal and nothing happens.

If you feel the brakes starting to get spongy and/or see smoke coming from your brakes, pull over and stop as soon as possible. The next level will be no brakes at all and you don’t want to get to that point. If you do lose your brakes look for a runaway truck ramp. 

Obviously, different load weights will determine which gear you’ll want. With most of the mountains in the east, along the interstate, you will never need to go lower than eighth gear. Out west, in the big hills, you may need to drop into seventh gear and occasionally sixth gear if you don’t want to use the brakes at all. Figure out a system that is best for you.

Click for larger image
Click for larger image

There are a few places where you will need to stop at the top for a brake check before starting down the hill. These places are all well marked with signs so you know when it’s required by law. These are long, steep, and curvy hills so make sure you obey the speed limit.

Most mountain grades along the interstate are less than 7%. By law, interstate grades are not to be more than 6% unless the posted speed limit is less than 60 MPH. There are some spots that are a bit more but not for long stretches. However, once you venture off the interstates there is no limit on the grades. You will really need to know what you’re doing. Some grades can be 8 or 9%. I never ran across any that were more than 9% but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

Remember this saying. You can go down a mountain too slow an infinite number of times but you can go down too fast only once.

 

Curves

 

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen trucks rolled over on curves. There really is no excuse for this if you’re paying attention to what you’re doing. One of the things I am most surprised about to this day is how many trucks I had seen on their sides on turns and curves. To me, slowing down for a curve is common sense, even in a car, but it’s apparent some people don’t use theirs or are lacking in that department.

You can roll a truck even with an empty trailer if you go fast enough.  

You’re not in a car anymore. Trucks and trailers have a high center of gravity. The type of load you’re carrying, how it’s loaded, and weight all play into handling curves correctly.

Many times you will pick up a pre-loaded trailer that has been sealed. These are time-saving loads as far as picking them up, and I liked them, but the one drawback is that you’re unable to see how the trailer is loaded and how secure the load is.

Your bill of lading will tell you what you’re hauling so you should get a pretty good idea how it’s loaded. However, once you start your trip, for the first few miles, test the load on turns and curves to get a better idea of how the trailer is loaded. The riskier loads are things like paper or liquids.

Click for larger image
Click for larger image

Huge rolls of paper are loaded on end and they weigh anywhere from 2500 – 5000 lbs each. Looking at them you would think there is no way they can fall over or slide. Don’t believe that. More than one truck has flipped from hitting a curve too fast and a roll or two of paper slid and hit the side of the trailer.

Liquids can be a lot of fun….not. The loads I despised were the big, square plastic containers that come in metal cages. They were not filled all the way to the top and you can feel the trailer lean on even the slightest of curves. When stopping and starting you could feel the liquid sloshing back and forth giving you a jerky stop. See the image below right for a picture of these containers.

Other liquids such as beer are better at not sloshing, however, the way some places stack the product can cause the product to shift. I know of one shipper who would stack the product along the outer part of the pallet leaving a big opening in the middle. Needless to say, many times I had to restack those things at the receiver because many of the pallets had busted loose and the product was all over the trailer. This was a liquid product but it can happen with solid products as well if not loaded correctly.

Use extreme caution when hauling these.
Use extreme caution when hauling these. Click for larger image

Another situation I ran into once was picking up huge slabs of some kind of metal, I believe iron, in N.J. That’s all it was. There were four loaded down the middle of the trailer but they weighed 42,000 lbs combined. They did not brace them at all, even though I asked several times for them to do so.

It didn’t take long for all four of them to slide to the side of the trailer causing the trailer to lean severely to one side. I did contact my company and they told me to run with it, which I wasn’t happy about, but I just had to crawl on left-hand curves since the trailer was tilting to the right. I made it to the receiver W.V. but I told the company I would never pick up at that shipper again and I never did.

Once, I picked up an engine from a place that didn’t normally ship engines. It was one engine on a pallet which was placed in the middle of the trailer. They braced it with wooden blocks nailed to the floor but the weight of the engine managed to break one of the braces and it slid to the side of the trailer causing the trailer to tilt. That time I was only a few miles from the shipper so I went back and we worked on bracing it much better using a combination of wooden blocks, long 2×4’s, straps, load locks, and about anything else we could find.

So, even with a “secured” load, you can’t be sure it will hold and a load can shift on you.

A shifting load is the main cause of trucks flipping so always keep that in mind when you have freight that doesn’t fill the entire width of the trailer.

Top heavy loads are also perilous because the center of gravity, which was already high to begin with, is now higher. Even light loads that are loaded top heavy will flip you a lot easier than normal.

Curves2I’m sure you know that mountain roads can be extremely curvy and for some reason, many seem to be located right at the bottom of a hill. Maybe it’s a planned thing to mess with truck drivers. There will be signs alerting you to upcoming curves so make sure you pay attention to all signs.

Keep all these possibilities in mind when driving. A huge majority of the time there won’t be any problems but don’t allow that to get you to think it could never happen. All it takes is one time and you’ll find yourself on your side, jobless, and possibly injured or worse.

 

Recap

 

Anyway, the point of all of this is to make sure you realize the necessity of being careful, even over-careful.

When going down hills, don’t let anyone intimidate you into going faster than you feel comfortable with. It’s your job and life at risk.

When going up hills, get off the roadway if you have even the slightest thought you may not be able to shift in time. Don’t wait until you’re out of gear to attempt to move onto the shoulder because you may not make it.

When picking up loads you can’t check visually, test the load early in the trip, starting your curves or turns slowly at first then gradually building up speed on the following turns or curves you come to. Normally, the speed signs at curves will be fine. I know they say those aren’t intended to be truck speeds but I never ran across a curve where the posted speed was too fast for me. However, if you have a sloshy liquid load those speeds could very well be too fast, even if it says something like “recommended truck speed”.

Do not assume that because a truck in front of you can do something you will be able to do it also. First of all, you have no idea what, if any, kind of freight they are hauling. Only be concerned about what you know about your truck and the freight you have.

Pay attention to the roads you travel so next time you will know how to deal with any hills, curves or other conditions ahead of time.

Make sure you have your trainer allow you to practice these things while you’re with them. Some trainers are reluctant but if your trainer won’t allow you to do these things ask for another trainer. It’s much better to learn when someone is there to help than when you’re alone.


 

Next week I’ll discuss common courtesy while on the road, something that doesn’t seem to be taught anymore.

In my next article, I will talk about something that may not seem important, but it is. Common courtesy on the roadways.

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38 Thoughts to “Handling Your Truck With Heavy Loads On Hills And Dealing With Curves”

  1. Sydney

    Getting the gears and braking right on downhill grades would be the most difficult, I think. Are there state or federal requirements on where there should be runaway pullouts, like for every X number of miles on a downhill grade, they have to build a ramp?

    1. Dennis

      There is now Federal regulation saying ramps must be built.

      However, here is what I found on the topic.

      “States determine where ramps are constructed, based on such parameters as: runaway truck accident rate at a candidate grade; length and percent of slope; traffic volume and percent of heavy truck traffic; and conditions at the grade’s end, e.g., a sharp bend, a building, etc.”

      1. It’s the old Federal regulation vs. state implementation problem. I think of all the mountain roads I’ve driven (in a car) and I didn’t see many runaway ramps. Of course maybe you just don’t notice them if you’re not driving a truck.

        1. Dennis

          It really depends on the mountains. You’re less likely to see them in the mountains in the eastern U.S. because, for the most part, they aren’t as steep or the grades aren’t as long as they are out west. You definitely see them more often out west.

  2. Wern

    Thank you for the article, Dennis. It has valuable information for me, especially the part on heavy loads. I’ve been having trouble practicing with loads but will be persistent in searching for a proper trainer to tackle it.

    1. Dennis

      Going up hill you need to be really quick on the shift. A split second hesitation, literally, can make the difference between hitting the gear and not.

    2. jayden

      It is never easy handling loads, even for that seasoned truck driver. I think it requires patience and time. I am not also sure if we have such good trainers like Dennis out there. It would make a lot of difference if we had more people who are truly committed to sanity on the roads.

      1. Dennis

        Patience is the key. No matter what we do, rushing things will tend to lead to mistakes.

        You also have drivers who see another truck do something and think they can do the same thing. Big mistake.

        Thanks for the compliment. I did as much as I could with the little time I was given. Even though I would give them a lot of information, it could be overwhelming and I knew they wouldn’t remember everything. I did always tell my trainees that they could give me a call if they needed help with anything after they got into their truck.

    3. djanana

      I have also been having trouble handling the loads and there are not many good trainers out there who are willing to be patient with someone.

      This is a very helpful article indeed.

      1. Dennis

        I know a lot of trainers who wouldn’t let a trainee drive in mountains with a heavy load. Normally, I would drive the first time so they could see how I shifted and used the engine brake. After that they did the driving.

    4. wayne

      I have been practising with loads too for sometime and it is even harder now because my trainer left the city for a while. I guess it is a great feeling knowing how to handle heavy loads.

      1. Dennis

        Practice. After a while you will automatically get into the gears you need and handle hills easily. Caution is always the key.

    5. djanana

      I have also had a problem with loads but I think looking for a trainer is normally the easiest way out. This is something that takes time to perfect and it shouldn’t worry any new truck driver so much.

  3. Raincloud

    Gauging the RPM’s for a smooth shift can be very tricky. Different transmissions can act differently, so I can feel for the new drivers.

    Great stuff you got here. Keep up the good work. You’re teaching people a lot.

    1. Dennis

      You’re correct about shifting. Every time I got a new truck I had to learn the shifting method for it.

      Thanks for the compliment.

  4. malcolm

    I had no idea that the trailer axles are normally set in one direction during training apart from the fact that they (trailers) are normally empty. My wish has always been that the training schools would expand their curriculum to include a session where the trainee is subjected to a real life scenario (in this case, a truck with some load). I wouldn’t mind if there would be an extra cost.

    I am not sure if this is a general observation but I think most truck drivers learn on the job rather than coming in while say, 50% ready. I agree that the states need to do something.

    1. Dennis

      The common thing told to brand new trainees is, “Forget everything they taught you in school” and that'[s pretty much true. Schools teach only what you need to get your license.

      One would think that company schools would delve into things a bit more but they are in such a hurry to get the student into a truck they don’t take the time. They dump everything on the trainer and give the trainer about 4 weeks to cover everything.

      1. djanana

        Very true Dennis. Most of these schools just exist to make money, period. I cannot thank you enough for the invaluable information that you keep sharing for the rest of us, and especially for the new truck drivers looking to make it big in this industry.

        1. Dennis

          Thanks for your remark. I certainly hope I can help new drivers or those who are thinking about it.

  5. jeff

    Over time, I have realized that sanity on the roads is very important. Whatever we learn in school is never properly reproduced, unless the learner goes out there to try out the ‘real thing’. I am yet to drive a truck but at the same time, I want to remain cognizant of the basic and most advanced ways of driving a loaded truck.

    1. Dennis

      I think the biggest favor states could do for truckers and car drivers would be to teach, in drivers education, how to drive around trucks. It would definitely decrease the number of times people do stupid things around the trucks. Some of the things I believed about trucks sure was found to be untrue once I got behind the wheel of one. If the states are really serious about truck safety the burden can’t be placed solely on truckers while car drivers continue to drive completely oblivious to the risks they take around the trucks. Teach them.

  6. djanana

    Changing of gears has always been challenging for me but I believe that if I do another read, perhaps I will begin to grasp what is really involved in truck driving. How easy or hard is it for a first time truck driver to get through the basics?

    1. Dennis

      It depends on the person. I had some trainees that picked it up as if they’d been doing it all of their life and I had others that washed out. It also depends on how much effort the person puts into trying to learn.

  7. jayden

    Reading this, I now realize that reality normally strikes the moment a person leaves the training school and begins to drive in the real world. While undergoing training, there were a few of my friends who failed the test because of being unable to drive a truck past a hill. I now believe it means a lot more when you are a beginner truck driver since you basically need to apply all skills and be a fast learner.

    1. Dennis

      You definitely need to be a fast learner. There is a huge difference between the school environment and the real world. Companies will give you every opportunity to show you can do the job but they are patient for only so long.

  8. Caden

    I remember the first time that I missed a gear when I was learning how to speed shift because I was never taught this in class. I was on a road that splits into a ‘y’ and of course, it’s on a hill. I ended up stalling the truck right there in the middle of the road. I was so embarrassed and the people behind me were not happy. My trainer ended up waving them on so that I could get moving again.

    1. Dennis

      You aren’t alone. It’s left up to trainers to teach that sort of thing. Unfortunately, there are too many trainers who have been on the job for such a short period of time that they can’t do it either.

    2. jayden

      Is this what they call hill balancing? I have experienced this once and it wasn’t an interesting experience. It even gets worse when other people are shouting at you.

  9. Dean

    Curves and hills are very dangerous, especially when the weather is bad. The force may be strong enough when it hits the trucks so the center of gravity can also change. That makes situation a lot trickier.

    1. Dennis

      Wind blowing against you on curves can make it a lot scarier too. Just take your time. Your life isn’t worth being in a hurry for anyone.

      1. Dean

        I was driving with my family once on bad weather and we were a bit too stubborn. The road was slippery and there were cliffs around us. We almost had an accident. We probably can’t be so lenient because we have fixed hours for this job, but we shouldn’t be afraid to pull back if the weather is not friendly.

        1. Dennis

          Certain kinds of weather, severe t-storms for example, and I would find a place to pull off the road to keep out of harm’s way if possible. Sometimes, especially if you’re out west, there is nothing you can do but hope for the best because it’s so wide open, no trees to break the wind, no place to hide.

  10. Ryan

    You know, I have always wondered something. Why do they haul full loads of liquids in the cylindrical tankers, yet they have square containers for smaller amounts of liquids. It would seem that liquid should be hauled in cylinders only, regardless of the quantity.

    1. Dennis

      That would be my preference, for sure. I hated those loads with a passion. Some customers need them in that size though so what can you do? 🙂

  11. Wilson

    The more you haul, the more variations you are bound to run into. Thanks for posting this, because most people don’t know how tricky this end of the drive can be.

    1. Dennis

      Absolutely correct. I found out from my trainees how little they know about this.

      1. Johnny 5

        Sometimes you have to take the good with the bad, that’s for sure.

        I’m kind of surprised that no one has made a cylindrical container for different amounts of liquid. The kind of tanks that you see propane in. Or maybe someone has?

        1. Dennis

          There are definitely tankers out there but I think the ones they put onto regular trucks are for customers who don’t need that much at one time or don’t have a storage tank for the product. Believe me, I wish there was another way to haul those. 🙂

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