It would be fair to say that the media do not portray driving on the sand very well at all. In the quest for that perfect image, tyres spinning and sand flicking up in a cool-looking wave, we are probably more often than not responsible for many of the bad habits first-timers driving on the sand fall prey to.
An exciting shot does not equal good driving in a lot of cases. Add to this that the sand is often the first place novice 4WDers test their skills, and you can have a recipe for disaster.
There are several rules, regardless of the type of sand, be that desert, beach or sand pit, that will make sure you travel safely and do not get stuck (or at least minimise the chance of doing so). Slow and steady is safer than wild and out of control.
What’s The Correct Tyre Pressure?
One of the most important aspects in 4WDing in general is using the correct tyre pressure, and that carries true regardless of the terrain you are driving on. On sand it is particularly important.
Lowering your tyre pressure allows the tyre to create a greater tread footprint, allowing the vehicle to float on top of the sand, and thereby less likely to get stuck in it. It is the number-one factor in determining how your vehicle performs on this type of terrain.
There are so many theories on the correct tyre pressure, and depending on the softness of the sand, I have successfully used pressures as low as 12psi and as high as 25. Generally speaking, you should aim for somewhere between 16 and 18 as a starting point, and be prepared to go lower if needed.
If you find you are struggling to maintain forward motion and the engine sounds as if it is really close to stalling, or you are getting stuck constantly, try a lower tyre pressure.
Tips To Reduce The Chance Of Getting Stuck
I’ve been told many things about sand driving, but the most important one is maintaining momentum. Sand is fluid, and therefore the friction between the vehicle and the sandy surface will really zap the vehicle's power. Without the right throttle application, you will come to an abrupt stop and get stuck, so it is important to understand your vehicle and how it feels on the sand.
If you feel it slowing (it almost feels as if you are dragging something), apply more throttle and you should, with a little luck, maintain forward motion, start floating on the sand again and stay out of trouble.
Gear selection is also important, and making sure you have the vehicle in 4WD (and don't forget the locking hubs). It isn’t uncommon for people to forget this crucial element. I use low-range most of the time on the sand as it provides better torque. The key to maintaining momentum is being in the right gear. Too high a gear and you have no power, or too low and you could have too much. In an automatic, it’s pretty easy as the car will select the right gear for the job most of the time.
If the automatic gearbox isn’t quite coming to the party, select manual mode and use the revs to choose the right gear for the conditions. If the revs start dropping and the vehicle slows, you are in too high a gear. Always keep a little in reserve for those just-in-case moments, such as when the sand is softer. Most often, conditions are most challenging when entering and exiting a beach.
Manual vehicles can be harder, but not necessarily so. The risk is mid gear change when depressing the clutch stops power going to the wheels. This can result in a rapid deceleration of the vehicle and a sudden sinking feeling.
Quick gear changes help, but more importantly, learn how to decipher what lies ahead of the vehicle and choose the gear accordingly. In either transmission, you want to be in that sweet spot where the gear you are in provides a steady go forward, with some in reserve to get you out of trouble if needed. And if you're unsure, hold the current gear for as long as you can.
Obviously, there are speed limits on the beaches, and realistically 20km/h should be enough if you have the right tyre pressures for the conditions. Always obey the speed limits, as they are in place for the safety of all.
Above: You'll often need a little extra momentum when entering or exiting a beach, as the sand is often soft and chopped up.
Read The Terrain
The natural contours of the sand are also important, and you can use them to your advantage. For example, if you want to turn around, use whatever slope you have and work with it, not against it. If you have momentum on your side, drive up and turn down with the slope.
Driving up a slope will slow the vehicle down quickly and place pressure on the engine and drivetrain. Going with the slope, it is much easier to maintain your momentum.
When coming to a stop, never stomp on the brakes. This will cause a sand build-up in front of the tyres, making it difficult, if not impossible, to go forward again. The sand naturally has enough friction to slow you down effectively to a stop with a light feathering of the brake.
If you want to make it easier to get going again, either stop at the top of a downslope, or stop using the method above and reverse back a little. That way, the first two metres once you get going will be on compacted sand and much easier on the vehicle.
Once you are on the beach, or in the desert, follow the tracks of vehicles that have gone before you. Use the existing ruts, as this is where the sand is most compacted and less likely to be soft and swallow your car. You will at times need to cut across ruts, but for the most part, follow them where you can.
Driving in the sand means no lanes and in some places, particularly over holidays, plenty of people and other vehicles. Always indicate to any oncoming vehicle which side you wish to pass on. In most cases, you will pass to the left of an oncoming vehicle.
Also, do not tear up directly behind another 4WDer. You do not know their skill level or the terrain ahead, and they could come to a more sudden halt than you are capable of effecting and result in an accident.
What Are The Risks?
For the novice, low tyre pressures can also be a danger in sand, and this is where we think back to our media guy hooning around, turning sharply and flicking sand while trying to get an exciting shot. There is a real risk he could roll the tyre off the rim.
The lower the tyre pressure, the greater the risk that the sidewall of the tyre cannot cope with the strain, leading it to buckle and in turn causing the tyre to roll completely off the rim. Dangerous and a nightmare to fix without the proper equipment. Beadlocks will help to a point, but are expensive and not a cure-all.
The best way to drive on the sand is slowly and steadily. And definitely avoid harsh and unnecessary turning. That includes turning at speed. There are multiple videos of cars going too fast down the beach, turning suddenly and drivers forgetting that sand can also give, tyres dig in and cars flip.
Above: Yes, it looks cool. But it's not good practice and could lead to a separation of wheel and tyre.
When on the beach, be aware that there could be other beach users, including bathers. They can be on any stretch of beach you are able to drive on. While it can look empty, faster is definitely not safer. Take it easy, take in the view, and reduce the risk of coming over a crest and straight over someone innocently sunbathing. And again, obey the speed limits.
Driving on the hard sand can feel like you are on an empty freeway, but always be aware that at any stage on a beach, you could come across wash-outs where water has eroded part of the beach, washed-up debris or even water flowing down the beach. Be aware and ready, and do not speed across what is an unforgiving and fluid surface.
And always check the tide. If it’s coming in, be aware of how high it will come up the beach, and do not drive too close to the water unless you want to make an artificial reef with your pride and joy.
Driving on dunes presents its own issues. In dunes, you have very limited visibility. It is impossible to see what is over the next hill. Fixing a high flag to the front of your vehicle can signal other vehicles where you are. It’s not uncommon for two vehicles to meet at the crest of a dune with devastating results.
Dunes are also particularly difficult to conquer, so be prepared to have a few goes at some of the taller ones. Always go straight up or down only, and lift off at the top – in particular at that point where you are seeing nothing but blue sky and have no idea what’s coming on the other side. If possible check first, and never, ever traverse across a dune. The sand slips and you roll down the hill. Not fun.
If You Get Stuck
You are going to get stuck. Let’s get that out of the way now. That doesn’t make you a bad driver. If the vehicle is slowing and a little extra throttle doesn’t work, it is important to stop to avoid burying yourself further.
If you are really stuck and a little back-and-forth doesn’t work, there are options. Deflating the tyres further can sometimes be the fix you need. If that doesn’t work, try something like a set of Maxtrax. These are plastic tracks with moulded pimples on them to allow the wheel to grip effectively. They are also designed with handles and make a handy shovel too.
If you do find yourself quite stuck, first start by removing the sand piled up in front of the tyres to make it easier to get some forward momentum (or backward depending on the best way out).
When ready, jam the Maxtraxs under the wheels you feel need the most help, or all four if you have enough of them. The width of the Maxtraxs allows them to sit on the sand and not bury in it. All you have to do now is jump in the car and apply some throttle. You may need to keep driving some distance before the car climbs back on top of the sand.
If everything else has failed, a snatch strap is the only way out. Snatch straps are made of webbing and stretch by about 20 per cent under load. That energy is stored, and as the strap returns to its unloaded length, it pulls the vehicle from a bog. To use one, you need a second car and plenty of caution.
Always use a dampener to stop the strap from flinging into one of the cars, should it be compromised and break. A wet towel will also suffice draped over the strap.
Once Off The Sand
Once you have left the sand, there are a few things to remember. Always reinflate. Tyres can be damaged when run at very low pressures, so never drive off the beach and straight onto a freeway.
The steering will be heavy and cornering could damage or destroy the tyre, and it’s basically dangerous for you and other road users. And if you've been beach driving, don't forget to give your vehicle a hose down (on top and underneath) with fresh water to get rid of salt.
It is important that you carry your own safety/recovery gear. There’s nothing worse for other drivers on the sand than a guy who has nothing to help himself.