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How to drive on sand

Momentum is your friend, so keep the revs, not necessarily the speed, high.

A mad cowboy driver once campaigned a high-powered two-wheel-drive Hummer in the Dakar Rally with amazing results, considering the mountainous sand dunes on the course.

Closer to home, the photo board in the Birdsville camping ground canteen shows plenty of photographs of two-wheel-drive vehicles such as a Porsche 911 making it to the top of Australia's biggest sand dune, Big Red. But these achievements have been made at high speed, with lots of power and huge ground clearance.

The shores and deserts of Australia beckon the adventurous motorist, but if you want to go driving on the beach or out in the Simpson Desert with a degree of safety, it is best to take a four-wheel drive.

You don't necessarily need a hard-core 4WD machine. Almost any compact SUV will be able to manage a beach at low tide when the sand is hard. But to get to the hard and wet sand at low tide, often you have to cross dry, loose sand at the top of the beach, so you will need to do some preparation.

Again, even part-time all-wheel-drive machines can make it through a short section of soft sand with the right preparation and driving skills. Of course, sand can be unpredictable and you are bound to get bogged at some stage, so a retrieval plan is necessary.

Let's start with vehicle choice.

VEHICLE

Clearance is the main consideration because a lack of clearance will mean the body drags in the sand and slows the vehicle. We would suggest a minimum clearance of 210mm, which includes most of the "soft roaders". However, remember that clearance is reduced if you have several passengers and cargo on board.

All-wheel-drive vehicles which only operate in four-wheel drive when the vehicle senses slip at a wheel are ok for flat sand running. However, if you are going to be travelling long distances in soft sand or trying to scale dunes, you need a permanent four-wheel drive system. The steeper the inclines, the more likely you are going to need hill descent and a low ratio.

Don't forget to turn off the traction control as it will only serve to get you bogged. Most supposed off-road vehicles these days come with highway tyres which are useless in the sand. A good set of sand tyres or even all-purpose/all-terrain tyres will make beach driving easier.

While most experienced sand drivers prefer a manual gearbox, for novices and even some expert drivers, an automatic gearbox is almost foolproof in the sand as it keeps the revs and the gear matched to the conditions. The last thing you want to do is try to snatch a lower gear when you are running out of puff up a steep dune.

PREPARATION

If you are heading into the vast desert landscape, tell someone such as a national park ranger first and take an emergency position-indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) in case you get stuck. If the beach is more your thing, grab the tide times from the newspaper and plan to drive at low tide. Many a vehicle has been lost to the sea by drivers who didn't check tide times. The most important equipment when sand driving is your tyres.

Depending on how big your load, you can deflate the tyres to 18-20psi or even lower if tackling powdery red sand. Don't guess pressures. Use a gauge. Also, take a compressor to reinflate your tyres. Remember, gravel tracks can easily damage the sidewalls of deflated tyres. Sand driving puts strain on the engine and transmission, so carry extra fluids (water, oil etc). Deserts are hot, so take extra water for the passengers, too.

Sand can be a trap and if you get stuck, you will need some form of retrieval gear such as a shovel, ropes, snatch straps and/or MaxTrax, a Brisbane invention which is basically a plastic "piece of road" you push under the bogged wheels and then simply drive out.

DRIVING SKILLS

Practise on a small area of sand before tackling the vast desert or a beach. Momentum is your friend, so keep the revs, not necessarily the speed, high. Sand tends to form into ruts and will push the vehicle around. Within reason, let the sand steer the vehicle and don't fight it too much.

Keep your hands light on the steering wheel and your thumbs pointed out so they don't get caught if the wheel suddenly spins. Drive smoothly as sudden steering input doesn't work and stopping and starting will bog the vehicle.

Always look way ahead for ruts, gullies and other obstacles, especially children if you're driving on the beach. Don't follow other vehicles too closely. If the vehicle in front gets stuck, so will you.
If you're travelling over dunes, put a high flag on the front of your vehicle to alert vehicles coming the opposite way. Slow down at the top of a dune to look for approaching vehicles.

RETRIEVAL

You will get stuck at some stage. But don't worry, that's all part of the adventure and if you have the correct gear, you will get out. There are many ways to escape a sand trap. You can use your winch, but only if there is something to attach it to.

Snatch straps are good, but you need another vehicle and they can be dangerous if they let go. Shovels are a must to clear sand from in front of and behind the bogged wheels. Then throw branches or rocks under the tyres so you can drive out. MaxTrax are even better and you don't have to rely on other vehicles or anchor points.

TOP 10 SAND DRIVING TIPS

  1.  
    1. Check tide times and drive at low tide.
    2. Momentum is your friend, so keep revs high.
    3. Deflate the tyres to about 18-20psi, depending on load.
    4. Use a tyre pressure gauge. Do not guess the pressure.
    5. Be smooth with steering, acceleration and braking.
    6. Keep your thumbs pointing out from the steering wheel.
    7. Look ahead for gullies, obstacles and children.
    8. Don't follow other vehicles too closely.
    9. Obey all normal road rules.
    10. Don't forget retrieval gear.
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