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It can be quite challenging with plenty of traps for the unwary. Yet it is one of the few off-road challenges suitable for just about any SUV or 4x4 ute, including those luxury softroaders that soccer mums use to ferry their children to school.
Softroaders are not really off-roaders. They have low clearance, the air intakes are too low for river crossings, they don't have low range and their monocoque construction (integrated body and frame) makes them unsuitable for rugged punishment. Yet they can be quite capable on the beach.
I recently took two unlikely SUVs for a romp on the Noosa north shore and attracted a lot of bewildered looks from the holidaymakers who were mainly in Toyota, Mitsubishi and Nissan SUVs and utes. A few even smirked, thinking they would be called on to pull us out when we eventually got stuck.
But with a little preparation and a bit of education, most people can take their SUV or ute on the beach.
The first thing you should do is check whether vehicles are allowed on the beach. There are many beaches around Australia where they are permitted and usually there is a sign on the access road to the beach.
Be aware that all road rules still apply on the beach such as wearing a seat belt, not drink driving and not speeding. Beach speeds are usually 80km/h, unless otherwise posted.
In peak holiday times police heavily patrol beaches where 4WDs are permitted. These beaches can be quite dangerous for swimmers and anglers; it's like playing beside the highway.
It's also dangerous for drivers as there have been several fatal accidents in vehicle rollovers. Another important aspect of choosing your venue is the time of day to drive on the beach. This is governed by the tides.
At high tide, there is sometimes no beach to drive on or there may only be a small section left which will be deep, soft sand. An incoming high tide can also cut you off from your exit point and leave you stranded.
Make it easy on yourself and go a couple of hours before peak low tide when you can run on the firm, flat and wet sand. Isolated beaches may be desirable, but if you run into trouble there is no help.
Busy beaches mean there are plenty of vehicles to help tow you out if you get bogged. However, heavy beach traffic can also churn up the sand and make the ruts deeper.
While just about any SUV or ute with part-time all-wheel drive or permanent four-wheel drive will perform on the beach, some are better than others.
If you have blinged your SUV with big wheels and low-ratio tyres, you may have given it more street cred, but you will also have decreased its beach ability because you can't drop the tyre pressures to gain the benefit of a wider contact patch. Yet BMW SUVs with low-profile run-flat tyres perform quite well on sand because they are wide tyres. Usually, the tyre profile should be at least 50 per cent so you can effectively deflate them.
Driving on sand is all about momentum. Keeping the vehicle moving swiftly will keep it on top of the sand and prevent it from sinking. Soft sand instantly saps power from the vehicle, which can then lead to bogging.
For this reason automatic diesels are the best sand performers. They have the grunt to handle the sudden slowing effect of soft sand and they will quickly change down a gear without losing momentum. However, good drivers can still use manual and petrol vehicles effectively.
Another issue is clearance. Your vehicle should have at least 185mm of clearance. The more clearance the better. While sand is unlikely to damage the vehicle's undercarriage, it will cause the vehicle to plough, slow down and lose precious momentum.
Before leaving home, take out everything from the vehicle that you don't need. The lighter the vehicle, the more chance it has of staying on top of the sand, rather than burying itself. A lighter vehicle also has better clearance.
However, it is wise to pack a shovel, snatch strap or, better still, a set of MaxTrax recovery gear which is a Brisbane invention. They are basically a piece of portable road that you shove in front of bogged tyres, then you simply drive out of the bog.
Make sure your vehicle is fuelled up before hitting the beach. There are no servos on the beach and sand will substantially reduce fuel economy, so you can run dry much sooner than expected.
Just before your vehicle hits sand, stop the car and deflate the tyres. Don't do it when you leave home as deflated tyres badly affect handling, wear quicker and brake longer.
You can deflate the tyres at a service station near the beach and use the air pump to gauge the pressures, or you can buy yourself a cheap tyre pressure gauge. Simple manual gauges are often more accurate than impressive looking digital gauges.
Never guess the pressures based on tyre bulge as some have stiff sidewalls that prevent bulging. Tyre pressures will depend on the terrain and load, but 18-20psi is fairly standard. If there is some rock on the beach and you have a heavy load on board, keep the pressures up a bit.
Don't forget to re-inflate the tyres as soon as possible after leaving the beach. Meanwhile, drive very slowly and leave plenty of braking distance.
Turn off any traction or stability controls on your vehicle. These controls either take power away from a slipping wheel or apply brakes. That's the last thing you want when you are trying to keep momentum going.
There are many words of advice for driving on sand such as "use the highest gear in the lowest range". However, softroaders don't have low range. In which case, simply choose a lower gear. If your vehicle is automatic and has sports mode, then use that.
Keep the engine revving so it has power on tap for when you hit soft sand. Be aware that an automatic gearbox can heat up in these conditions, so it's a good idea to rest the vehicle periodically. The smoother you drive, the better.
Don't make sharp turns because the vehicle won't respond. Instead, you will plough straight ahead, like understeering on a wet road. If this happens, unwind the steering and wind it on again. You may have to repeat this maneuvre several times and slow down a little.
Turn in long slow arcs a good distance before you need to avoid an obstacle. Place your hands gently at 3 and 9 o'clock on the wheel and keep your thumbs pointing out. The steering wheel can get flicked around by wiggly ruts and can dislocate your thumb.
Don't fight the steering. Let it go where it wants. In deep hard ruts you may need to "row" the steering wheel to gain traction on the sides of the ruts. Also, be smooth on the brakes. Sudden braking will lead to slides and can bog your vehicle. If there are dunes on the beach, drive up swiftly but pause at the top in case there is traffic coming the other way.
Fit a tall flag on the front of your car so people can see you approaching from the other side of the dune. Never turn on a dune. You can easily get bogged or roll.
Don't follow too closely. If the vehicle in front becomes bogged, then you won't have time to steer around them or brake safely. If you follow a slow-moving vehicle too closely you also run the risk of losing momentum and getting bogged.
When you stop on the beach, park on hard sand. When taking off again, move slowly to avoid wheel spin then pick up speed as quickly and smoothly as possible. On beach tracks always give way to vehicles travelling uphill as they need to keep up momentum.
While beach driving is fun, you must be alert to the many lurking dangers. Watch out for gullies, especially at low tide and at noon when there are no shadows to alert you. On north-south beaches there won't be any shadows even when the sun is low.
Watch out for children on the beach. They are having fun and oblivious to traffic. Stay off any beach vegetation. It is very fragile and even driving slowly over it can destroy roots.
There are no line markings on the beach, so when approaching another vehicle, stay left. If you can't, then slow down and put on your right indicator to show the approaching traffic you are going to pass on their left.
If you become bogged, you most likely will be approached by people eager to help tow your vehicle out. Be careful that the helpers don't damage your vehicle by attaching a tow line or snatch strap to the wrong part of your car. Check your manual first for the correct anchor point.
When you leave the beach you wash the sand off your feet and body. The same goes for your car. Give it a thorough clean that includes a vigorous hosing underneath. A lot of popular beach driving venues have underbody wash facilities nearby.
TOP 10 SAND DRIVING TIPS
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. Never guess the pressures.
5 Be smooth with steering, acceleration and braking.
6 Keep your thumbs pointing out from the steering wheel.
7 Look ahead for gullies and other obstacles.
8 Don't follow other vehicles too closely.
9 Obey all normal road rules.
10 Watch out for children.
SAND DRIVING TEST
Our test involved two vehicles not normally associated with beach driving. The Audi Q7's natural environment is the leafy suburbs around private schools.
Yet it was launched in Australia a couple of years ago with a gruelling trans-continental drive that included a trip over our biggest sand dune, Big Red, near Birdsville. As capable as it may be, this stylish luxury SUV attracted some interested looks from holidaymakers and police alike.
Those looks turned to sheer bewilderment as the big seven-seater 3.0 TDI model easily ambled through the deepest soft sand, even with a full complement of passengers _ all 500kg of them.
That torquey diesel engine is just the sort of beast you need with a full load on board as you hit the soft stuff. Audi has also helped by fitting decent tyres to this model.
The Goodyear Eagle F1 tyres have "SUV 4x4" printed on the sidewalls which means they are made for this sort of terrain. They are also 235mm wide and have a high 60 per cent profile which means you can drop the tyre pressures from the recommended 44/49psi to the low 20s and make the tyre contact patch even wider. It makes a nice big footprint on the sand.
Fuel economy is rated at 9.1L/10km (combined) but with beach driving and seven seats occupied this blew out closer to the official city figures of about 11L/100km. We also took a Jeep Patriot on the beach.
While, Jeeps are not an uncommon sight on the beach, it's usually the Wrangler, Cherokee and Grand Cherokee. The Patriot is light and skips across the top of the sand, but it's compromised by 203mm of clearance. Lowering the tyre pressures drops that a little bit further.
However, the sturdy steel underbody with no plastic bits or fragile protrusions mean it can slide along on its belly without any damage. It is also shod with sensible rubber for this sort of driving. The Continental ContiPremiumContact tyres have a 215mm tread width and a 60 per cent profile.
And of course, it's a Jeep, so its drive system is dependable. This comes with the Freedom-Drive active on-demand all-wheel-drive system with a selectable lock-in 4WD mode so you can plough through the softest sand.
Another virtue is that the design means the steep windscreen doesn't leave you baking in the sun, so you can turn your airconditioning down or off and use maximum engine power.
While torque is not as good as a diesel, the CVT box keeps the revs stirring high, plus the selector mode allows you to quickly chose a lower gear as soon as the soft sand starts draining momentum.
Jeep Patriot Limited
ENGINE: 2.4L 4-cylinder petrol
POWER: 125kW @ 6000rpm
TORQUE: 220Nm @ 4500rpm
TRANSMISSION: CVT with Auto Stick manual shift mode, Freedom-Drive active on-demand with selectable lock 4WD mode
TYRES: Continental ContiPremiumContact 215/60 R17
ECONOMY: 9.1L/100km (official), 10.5 (tested on sand)
Audi Q7 3.0 quattro
ENGINE: 2967cc V6 turbo diesel
POWER: 176kW @ 4400rpm
TORQUE: 550Nm @ 2000-2250rpm
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed automatic with select shift
TYRES: Goodyear Eagle F1 SUV 4x4 235/60 R18
ECONOMY: 9.1L/100km (official), 11 (tested on sand)