Travelling in a Motorhome? Do this IMPORTANT thing BEFORE you go!

We’ve been travelling Europe in a motorhome for nearly two years, on and off. We started as complete and utter beginners… and we’re STILL learning things two years later.

But one of the scariest (and most important) lessons we’ve learnt so far happened on our very first trip!

(Note, this post was written BEFORE we had a motorhome fire… I’m still not sure which is scarier!)

Travelling in a Motorhome- our scariest moment (so far!!?!?!?!)

We took our first motorhome into Europe, through Italy and up into the Swiss Alps. On our second day in the Alps, we stopped at a little place called Gelmer for lunch, a walk and so our daughter, Jade, could find out her GCSE results (we’d been homeschooling her for a year.)

It was a glorious sunny day, her results were good (yay!) and we survived the trip up the terrifying Gelmerban funicular (a VERY old train which goes backwards up a mountain!)- so what could possibly go wrong??

Well, quite a lot as it happens.

Gelmer is halfway up a mountain in the Swiss Alps. Whichever way you go, you’re immediately driving on tiny, hairpin, mountain roads. And as soon as we set off, we realised there was something seriously wrong with our brakes.

We’d been wild camping in the Alps the night before- which was MAGICAL. But we’d been going up and down STEEP mountain roads for the past 24 hours. We’d stopped fairly frequently to allow the brakes time to cool, and we’d been stopped for about 4 hours this time whilst we did the funicular.

But, unbeknownst to us, the brake fluid had completely disappeared.

Gottard Pass, Switzerland

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Travelling in a motorhome- our mistake

When we bought the van 3 months earlier, we’d been assured it had just had a full service and MOT. We did our own checks, but we never thought to check the brake fluid. Turns out, it hadn’t been changed for many, many years and was mostly water- which meant it had evaporated over the past 48 hours as the brakes got hot.

All this led to us hurtling down a steep mountain, with a trailer pushing us even faster… and no way of slowing down except for our hand brake.

I am forever grateful that Mr WB was driving, not me. Honestly, I’m not sure I would have known what to do. There was nowhere to pull over, nowhere to stop and turning around wasn’t an option.

All we could do was continue down the mountain, trying desperately to slow down as we approached each hairpin turn and praying we didn’t catch up to a slow vehicle in front.

I couldn’t even speak, I was that scared. I just let my husband do his thing- which he did brilliantly. He used engine braking as much as possible- and the handbrake to supplement that. Yes, it probably ruined the handbrake. No, we didn’t care.

Travelling in a motorhome- the good part

At the bottom of the mountain was a small village (a fairly common sight when you’re driving in Switzerland). Just off the main road was a garage, and we pulled into the forecourt in a cloud of smoke.

The mechanics didn’t speak a word of English (why should they?!) but they did speak the universal ‘Oh’.

Oh indeed.

These guys were brilliant. They had several cars and jobs already in, but they stopped what they were doing to help us. The owner called his son, who came to help too, and they quickly replaced the brake fluid, changed the pads and checked wheels, tyres, handbrake (luckily not damaged) and fixed anything which needed fixing.

They also checked the oil and did a couple of other essential checks for us, as we no longer trusted the ‘service’ the motorhome had apparently had. Within a couple of hours, it was all done and sorted.

Our first motorhome- back on the road again

Travelling in a motorhome- our advice

Luckily, this story had a happy ending. We were ok. The van was ok. We bought a big crate of beer for the mechanics and headed off on the road again.

On England road trips, we were not used to driving up and down mountains. We certainly didn’t fully appreciate the toll it could have on a vehicle. But it could easily have been a different story.

Please please PLEASE, before you go travelling in a motorhome, get it fully checked by an independent mechanic- NOT the people you bought it from. Especially if you’re planning to take your van overseas into some fairly harsh terrain. There’s a complete list of essential motorhome checks you should do HERE.

This story isn’t meant to frighten anyone from travelling, whether in a motorhome, a camper or a car. Heck, it didn’t put us off!

But it’s DEFINITELY made us more wary about trusting salesmen and garages when we buy a vehicle- our new van got a full check before we took it to Cornwall and ANOTHER one before we headed off to Europe. (Yes, we’re uber-cautious.) We urge you to consider doing the same, especially if it’s a new (to you!) vehicle.

I hope sharing our story (and mistake!) will help you avoid being in such a terrifying situation yourself. If you know anyone else who might benefit from a bit of friendly advice, feel free to share this with them on Facebook or Pinterest. And to help you plan your roadtrip, here is a list of things NOT to do when you go on a roadtrip.

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17 thoughts on “Travelling in a Motorhome? Do this IMPORTANT thing BEFORE you go!”

    • You’re welcome! I hope you have amazing adventures- and PLEASE get the brakes/ brake fluid checked 🙂

  1. Hi,
    No brakes on the Rest and be Thankful would be frightening but on the Swiss Alps and towing your trailer ??, your guardian angel was looking out for you.
    Also so good how the local garage were super helpful and friendly. Good vehicle servicing is so important and we put so much trust in whoever does it.
    Glad your both safe to continue on your travels ??. Hurry up and get your new motorhome and put new travel blogs/vlogs ? on, they’re great and so’s the background song, who is it ?
    Cheers ?.

  2. Your campervan is pretty much at the limit of the weight for a car licence and therefore the design specs of the original donor vehicle: transit or whatever – probably over it if truth be told so you want as many things on your side as you can get.

    The old standard was to drive with the engine speed at half way between the idling revs and the red line, about 4000 on a modern diesel. Nobody does this any more because engines are more powerful at lower revs these days . . . but it’s still in the police driving handbook because its the best engine speed to let you go faster or slower easiest – without having to change gear.

    Upshot is when I’m driving on hairpin steep hills – up or down, I will always have the engine at full revs at the highest speed I want to be travelling at and then let the engine brake me before the bends. I’ll use the footbrake as well of course – if needed. It always an idea to try your vehicle at the red line in each gear to get an idea of what it can do and how loud it’s meant to go without doing damage!

    You now know why not to ride the brake* but being at only 1000 revs as you go through a hairpin going downhill leaves you with nothing for the “what if”. If you are driving as I suggest, you still have another 1000+ revs of potential engine braking at your slowest road speed.

    * Remember: brakes are devices that change rotational motion energy into heat energy. Slowing down happens to be a side effect of that.

    I know your trailer only has some motorbikes on it but you’d still benefit from fitting electric brakes to it like the bigger trailer caravans have over here in Aus. They have a manual override on the dashboard to use the trailer to brake the towing vehicle as well as avoid them trying to overtake the tow vehicle but it’s another brake for peace of mind.

    Good web site, thanks. We are hoping to get over to Europe soon so your hints about wild camping are very interesting.


  3. I’m SO pleased you published this warning as it can affect all of us road users. A few years ago, I rented a car in the Philippines and was just about to climb into the mountains on the way to Baguio when I felt that something was wrong and informed my wife to hold on tight as I wanted to test the brakes. Sure enough, I gave a hard push on the brakes and little happened. Luckily, we were on a flat road just before starting the climb. I got out of the car and found brake parts scattered on the road! Yes, the brakes had literally fallen apart! There was a nearby mechanic’s business and he had a look, then took me to the place where we could get new parts. Returning to the car, he immediately set to work fixing the brakes. I certainly gave the hire-car company a piece of my mind when I returned home! As usual, they said the car had been serviced and everything checked before I took the car out!! Such lies! They couldn’t argue when I produced the broken parts.
    Last summer, I took our 7.6 metre (25 ft.) caravan on a tour of France and Switzerland, travelling over 4000 miles in 6 weeks. Before leaving, even though I’d had the car serviced not a long time previously, I had new brake pads fitted all-round on the tow car and a pair of new front discs. I also had the caravan serviced and 4 new tyres and a new battery fitted to it. These precautions are life-savers – as Kat found.

  4. Thank you for the ‘fair warning’ on the brake issue.
    We bought our ‘new to us’ eleven year old motorhome last November and have yet to do any travels in it. As it weighs four ton brakes are obviously an essential check item. I am going to change the brake fluid before we head off out for safety sake if nothing else.
    Happy travels around Europe.

  5. not worth checking brake fluid just get it changed and system bled though at all 4 corners. i have a tester but it only tests the reservoir not the fluid at the caliper end which is where you get the problem. brake gets hot the water boils then you have a big problem

  6. Believe it or not you would be surprised how many people forget about changing the brake fluid, even after a few years.

    You can test break fluid and you can buy cheap testers that test dip, may save someone’s life one day just for a few quid and a few minutes of time.

    Regards and thanks for the read Kat.


  7. All fully serviced and MOT done last week and now ready for the south of France Italy and Switzerland on the way the way back to Blighty


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