Starting Off With Sand Driving

The basic theme with sand driving is to conserve your momentum. Since traction is seriously limited, trying to increase your speed can be extremely difficult, and you do not want to lose any momentum, since you may not be able to regain it once you start slowing down unintentionally.

The first thing to do before driving on sand is to lower your tire pressure all round. This is done to provide better “flotation” by increasing the size of your tire “footprint,” which improves your traction exponentially. It also reduces the amount of strain on your vehicle’s structure, softening out the effect of bumps on the trail.

The optimum tire pressure depends on your vehicle, the type of tires fitted and the terrain. The following technique provides a good starting point to find the optimum pressure and is best performed before leaving paved roads.

Park your loaded vehicle on a level surface and then deflate that tire until the sidewall sticks out by an additional half-inch, and then measure the tire pressure. Use this pressure as your starting point when initially lowering your tire pressure for sand driving. As you become more familiar with sand driving, you can intuitively alter this pressure as the terrain dictates. Of course, this technique isn’t that important. You can just follow the common rule-of-thumb and lower the pressure to 15 psi.

Indeed, be sure to have a tire pressure gauge, and keep track of gas stations where you can re-inflate your tires, or just buy your own air compressor.

As you lower tire pressure, the tire becomes more vulnerable to damage by stoking the sidewall or rolling the tire off the rim. This isn’t an issue at 15 psi, but the lower the pressure, the higher the risk. But the gain in traction can be remarkable and may make the difference between becoming completely bogged down and simply driving away.

In severe cases of bogging, tire pressure can be lowered to a minimum of 6 psi, as most tires require at least 6 psi to remain seated on the rim while stationary. In almost all situations, 10 psi is the minimum safe pressure. Speeds should be severely restricted at these low pressures. To minimize tire damage, it is important that these low pressures are only used on soft sand for brief periods, and pressures should be immediately increased once firmer terrain is reached.

When driving on sand, you should make an effort to follow in the tire tracks of the vehicle in front as they have already compressed the sand to form a firmer surface than untouched ground. Never drive on vegetation.

You should avoid rapid changes in speed when accelerating or braking. Braking on sand will cause a mound to build up in front of all wheels and possibly prevent your vehicle from taking off. Rapid acceleration simply digs the wheels in and can instead lead to a slower take-off speed.

Take-off should be performed as smoothly as possible with gear changes done at fairly high revs. Sand driving requires plenty of engine power to get your vehicle moving on the sand. It is not necessary to use low-range gearing unless you are close to getting stuck. Low-range, available on most proper 4x4s, multiplies the amount of engine torque available and will provide that extra gear if you encounter a particularly soft patch of sand. Check that your tires are pointing straight ahead when taking off to reduce the takeoff effort required.

When stopping on sand, depress the clutch and allow the vehicle to coast to a stop. This will minimize any sand build-up in front of the wheels. If the terrain permits, coast to a stop, rather than braking, with the vehicle pointing downhill as this will aid take-off. Avoid the soft sand at the base of most dunes and gullies when stopping.

When turning, make the turn as wide as possible to reduce the chance of bogging. Your front wheels act more like a rudder in sand and turning too sharp has a similar effect to applying the brakes.

Steep sand dunes can be traversed only straight up or down. If you drive even on a slight angle, the weight transfer is to the downhill side wheels. If the vehicle starts to slip, the downhill wheels tend to dig in and make the angle of the dune even worse, leading to a potential rollover.

If you are moving straight down a steep dune and the back end starts to slip sideways, it is best to accelerate slightly to try and straighten the vehicle. Never use the brake, as this will cause weight transfer to the front wheels and can increase the back end movement.

If you drive up a dune and cannot get to the top, reverse down the dune in gear. Never coast down the dune and never attempt a U-turn.

When you return, it is important to hose down your vehicle to remove all traces of sand. Pay special attention to areas like the mudguards where sand is sprayed around and tends to get trapped. Thoroughly hose underneath your vehicle as well, as there are many nooks and crannies where sand can also get trapped.


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One Comment

  • Mike
    April 22, 2012 | Permalink |

    Guys – I need some sage advice. I currently live in NJ and love my 2000 Jeep Cherokee Limited. My family and I fish lakes from a 15′ boat (trailered), but also love driving our miles of beaches to go surf fishing. My Jeep still does its job and runs well, but also realize it can’t last for years and years to come, with nearly 185K, so I’m reading up on what to get next. I want to lower my carbon footprint, but wonder about hybrids on the beach. I spoke to the Chief of the LA Lifeguards last Fall and he had nothing but great things to say about the 100 Ford Escape Hybrids they use, pretty much stock underneath. This is fine, but there’s the counterargument that hybrids don’t always beat high gas mileage gas engines, so what’s the point? There’s also the issue of increased cost. And finally, there’s the issue of battery life, meaning how long will the batteries work on the beach before giving out and the vehicle reverting back to the gas engine? On pavement, you just lose overall performance power, which just makes your ride wimpy. But on sand, I doubt I’d be able to drag my Escape up a hill through heavy mashed potatoes (where its always soft and deep above the tidal water line) and over the exit ramp. Are there any off-roading advice articles? I’m certain that while I doubt the average beach driving surf fisherman cares much about hybrids and electric vehicles, I believe we need to do what we can to look into the future, and gasoline just isn’t going to be there forever. I want to do my part to move forward, but if the technology isn’t quite there yet, and I should wait and nurse my Cherokee for several more years to see Detroit put something out, I’ll do just that. Thanks tons, Mike.

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