How to drive on sand with your SUV
Because we Aussies spend a lot – A LOT – of time on the beach (swimming, surfing, playing nude frisbee) It’s a given that those in off-roaders often head straight for the nearest – or any – legally drivable stretch of beach sand and simply go for it.
Australia has plenty of beaches and a fair few deserts – and the sum total of having those vast tracts of land is that we have a lot of sand. If you want to have any off-road adventures, you will be faced with the prospect of driving on/in/through sand. Now, that may seem a little intimidating to some newcomers, but it needn’t be. Sand-driving is an absolutely essential skillset and once you understand a few basic principles, the idea of doing it – and doing it well and safely – will not send a shiver down your spine; it will instead fill you with joy.
Note: These (below) are general principles only, they are parameters in which to work. Not all sand is the same and circumstances will influence the way you tackle different terrain. Avoid driving in sand if you’re in a FWD vehicle; RWDs may fare marginally better; AWDs will get you through at a pinch but most will struggle due to low ground clearance and lack of low range; and 4WDs will conquer most sandy terrain.
Before you do any off-roading it’s a great idea to get formal training off an accredited instructor, like Getabout Training, for instance. No vehicle or gear is a substitute for skills and experience.
Keep in mind that at some stage while off-roading, you will get bogged; everyone does. That’s not a big deal, so don’t stress – unless you’re bogged on the beach and high tide is lapping at your tyres. (A well-worn off-roading adage is: “If you’re not getting bogged, you’re not trying hard enough.”)
Here are our tips for sand-driving.
Drop your tyre pressures before you get onto any sandy surface and you’ll make life much easier for yourself. (I’ll say that again for those people in the cheap seats – do this before you get onto the sand; if you wait until you get onto the beach or into the desert, you will swiftly get bogged.)
When you drop tyre pressures, it lengthens the tyre’s ‘footprint’ (its surface area from front to back), increasing the vehicle’s contact with the ground, thus aiding traction. Great traction is what you need when driving on sand. On bitumen, recommended tyre pressures on an AWD or 4WD will generally be from around 30 psi (pounds per square inch). On sand, you will need to drop that to between 15 and 18 psi. That’s not a hard-and-fast rule though – it’ll depend on your vehicle (how heavy it is etc), your load (is it just you and your partner, or is it loaded to the gunwales with your family and gear?), the conditions (hard-packed or soft sand?) and myriad other factors which must be taken into account.
If you are bogged or have inadvertently wandered onto a patch of very soft sand then you may have to drop tyre pressures even further to help get you out of your predicament; perhaps go as low as 8 psi (no beadlocks) or 5 psi (with beadlocks).
It pays to remember that ambient temperature and usage affects tyre pressures; for instance, if you’re driving on the beach on a 30°C summer’s day, your tyre pressures will increase as the tyres warm up as a result of the outside temperature and due to simply being driven on. You might have dropped pressures to 15 psi, but if you’re doing a lot of sand-driving in searing heat then they will likely rise by five psi in no time at all.
When a tyre is cold – i.e. it hasn’t been driven on for a few hours – then Its ambient temperature is about 20°C or so. When a tyre is being used, its temperature may rise more than 15 percent, with a knock-on rise in tyre pressure.
To measure tyre pressures, use a good-quality tyre-pressure gauge; don’t just guess – guessing gets you bogged.
To drop tyre pressures accurately, use a deflator from a reputable company, such as the EZ Tyre Deflator from ARB. In layman’s terms, a deflator, via removal of the tyre’s valve stem, lets air out at a faster rate and with more precise control, then you would be able to otherwise. Deflators are easy enough to use; follow the instructions and you’ll be fine.
Now, after you’ve had your fun on the sandy stuff – and before you head back too far along firmer ground (gravel roads, bitumen) – you need to re-inflate your tyres. Driving on hard surfaces with low-pressure tyres is unsafe and may damage, among other things, your rims. To inflate your tyres, you’ll need an air compressor. These are simple to use; attach the unit’s alligator clips onto your battery’s positive and negative points, and pump up each tyre back to the required levels. Again, opt for a solid product from a reputable company
If you’re nearing the start of your sandy jaunt, stop, drop tyre pressures, select 4WD Low (or 4WD High, if you know the sand is firm), and away you go. (Note: If you’re in a soft-roader/AWD without low-range gearing, select Sand/Off-road mode but tread very carefully; while some of these vehicles can be driven on sand without too much stress, they generally have less ground clearance than most of their ‘harder’ rivals and, as such, are more prone to getting bogged or sustaining mechanical or body damage.)
With tyre pressures dropped, you must drive conservatively, because your vehicle’s handling has been compromised. Fast, sharp turns may roll a tyre off its rim or, worse, the vehicle itself may roll. Your braking distances are also affected, so take that into account if you’re travelling in a convoy or nearing a populated area on the beach.
On sand, momentum is key. We’re not talking about hell-for-leather-type speed or driving your vehicle like you just stole it; we’re talking steady constant throttle which will maintain a steady forward progress.
Gear selection is crucial on sand; an auto will sort you out, er, automatically, – put it into Drive and away you go – but a manual requires judicious use of the gears to ensure you move along. On sand, keep the revs up to help maintain momentum as softer patches of sand will naturally bleed your speed.
At any time on sand, if your wheels start to dig in, and you lose all forward momentum, stop accelerating immediately because you’ll just make it worse. (Now you should skip to WHAT TO DO IF YOU GET BOGGED)
BEACH BASICS (AND A FEW TIPS FOR THE DESERT AS WELL)
Stick to road rules and speed limits and if there aren’t any signposted, then err on the side of caution. Driving between 30km/h and 40km/h is a fair clip on a beach. Use your indicators, things like that.
Slow down as you near populated areas of the beach. People, especially kids, tend to lose their minds with excitement on the beach and their behavior can become even more erratic than usual, so slow right down – even to walking speed – when you see any evidence of families along the beach; that way, everyone stays safe.
The onus is on you to travel at a leisurely pace, enjoy the scenery, have a laugh, and make some happy memories.
Slow down on any stretches of beach where the surface seems varied or tricky. Undulations, wash-outs from the tide, saltwater potholes, a pile of fisherman’s gear hidden from view by a small mound of sand – any of these things can pose a threat to a speeding beach-driver. So, the onus is on you to travel at a leisurely pace, enjoy the scenery, have a laugh, and make some happy memories. Too easy.
To tackle sand dunes on the beach or in the desert, you need momentum. Again, steady, constant throttle is key but, for steep dunes, sometimes a more aggressive approach is required, I.e. a bit more speed and a chunk more mongrel. However, don’t go so fast that you launch over the top of the dune, get air – a la a Fast and the Furious movie – and then crash to the ground on the other side, vehicle in bits.
Drive up and down sand dunes in a straight line. Don’t blast sideways across the face of a dune – sweeping a large, red rooster tail behind you as if you’re in a TV ad – because driving like that increases your chances of rolling the vehicle.
Never stop going up a dune because you will lose all momentum and likely get bogged.
Never stop going up a dune because you will lose all momentum and likely get bogged.
Once you’ve driven up the dune, pause at the very top momentarily* to make sure there is no oncoming traffic, but don’t linger too long to gloat because you may well get bogged. (Ideally, you should get one of your travel companions to scale the dune on foot before you drive it, check for oncoming vehicles and signal to you that it is all clear or that a vehicle is indeed on its way from the other direction and you need to standby. This rules also holds true for desert-driving as well.)
WHAT TO DO IF YOU GET BOGGED
Congratulations, you’re bogged! Welcome to the wonderful world of off-roading! Now, take a deep breath.
The second thing to do is: don’t rush. There is no screaming urgency to extract your vehicle from its boggy predicament, unless you’re a) stuck below the high-tide mark on a beach and the tide’s rapidly coming in; or b) being attacked by aliens. A rushed vehicle-recovery is a risky one – to you, bystanders and the vehicle.
So, your next step is: assess the situation. How bad is it? Are all four wheels bogged? Is the underbody snagged on a half-buried tree branch? Clear away all obstacles from under and around the stuck vehicle and formulate a plan of action.
Now, drop tyre pressures. Chances are you’ll be able to get out of strife by simply dropping tyre pressures further. So, the process goes: drop pressures, then drive; drop, then drive – until you’re out. If that doesn’t work it’s time to get your vehicle-recovery tracks* (MaxTrax et al) ready. (*These resemble hard plastic snowboards with rows of hard lumps along one surface and are generally sold in pairs.
If you have a good-quality set of vehicle-recovery tracks, you will be able to use them inverted as shovels to dig sand out from in front of each tyre and as much as you can from underneath the vehicle, if needed.
Once you’ve cleared the sand away, flip each track over so its ramp-side is up and wedge each one under the wheels, at an angle not flat, facing in the direction you want to travel; so, in front of both front and rear tyres if you’re going forward and behind both front and rear tyres if you’re reversing.
At this point, it will help to drop tyre pressures even further – if they’re not too low already – as this will provide even more traction.
When you’re about to undertake a vehicle-recovery, move all bystanders well out of the way.
Make sure your vehicle is in 4WD Low and slowly accelerate. By going inchworm slowly, it allows your tyres to grip the tracks, creep up them and then out. If your wheels start spinning, stop immediately, get out, reposition the tracks, wedge them into place, and try again.
All going well, your vehicle will slowly drive up and along each track until it reaches the end of them and hits the soft sand again. You may only need to do this whole procedure once to get out of a boggy patch or you may need to do it a few times. Relax – getting bogged and getting out are all part of the fun.
THE GEAR YOU NEED
If you haven’t already realised, part of being prepared for any off-roading adventure is having the skills and having the gear.
There is a mind-boggling variety of vehicle-recovery gear available – ranging in quality and price – for all manner of trips – from cruisy weekend bush sojourns to three-month-long remote-area expeditions – but if you stick to the basics for starters and make sure you have good-quality equipment onboard then you’re at least heading in the right direction.