How To Drive on Sand

Driving a 4 x 4 on sand requires an understanding of two simple principles, tyre pressure and momentum. We discussed tyre pressure here so in this article we'll concentrate on momentum and a few techniques to keep moving forward in the deep stuff.

troop carrier on sand dune

Assuming our tyre pressure is down to a workable level we should move off with our steering tyres aimed directly down the line we intend driving along. There is no point making the vehicle work harder than necessary by having the wheels turned at right angles to the driving line.

Gear Selection

Low range four wheel drive is often the preferred selection for travelling on really slow deep stuff. This delivers a tighter ratio between gears and often makes it easier to keep the car moving if you hit a soft section that requires a bit more torque in the downshift. Humming along a wide open beach in High 4 with the car barely labouring is an absolute joy, but depending on the weight, the 4WD itself and the conditions it's not always the best option. Thankfully soft sand is a tremendous communicator and you will normally be rewarded with instant feedback from your car when you make an adjustment for the better.

When accelerating from a stationary position do so smoothly while minimizing wheel spin. Sand requires lots of engine power and higher revs than normal will be required to get a heavy 4WD moving and travelling along.
Fuel Consumption

Fuel usage increases commensurately with the amount of power used so make sure you take enough. The amount of fuel required to travel 100km on the tar may only yield 60km on the beach. Try following the tracks made by other vehicles. Usually the sand will have been compacted by the weight and the going will be considerably easier than on new ground. The aim of sand driving is to get and maintain the vehicle on a plane over the sand. Planing is the gratifying sensation that the car has freed itself from the grip of the sand and is floating on top. When changing gears maintain higher RPM than normal. Sand acts as a natural brake and as soon as the power is reduced the vehicle wants to settle down into the surface. Higher revs and a crisp positive gear change help maintain forward motion. Crisp means firm and not a transmission-grinding Formula 1 shift.

In most cases it is unnecessary to use your brakes in deep sand. The natural tendency of the surface to resist movement means that generally all that is required to stop is to depress the clutch. The car will coast to a stop without pushing a berm of sand in front of your tyres. Coming to a stop in a smooth controlled manner means you can take-off with less effort and you won't have to bounce over the lump you made on the way back. Try and park with your rear wheels higher than the front. Let gravity do the work when you take-off.

Getting Around

Turning and maneuvering should be planned ahead, allowing enough room to make a nice wide arc. Similar to the earlier point about take-off and keeping wheels straight - sharply turned steering tyres create a barrier and fight forward motion. If room doesn't allow for a full circle or a three point turn is required try and stop with your front tyres higher than the rear and reverse in a wide arc back into existing tracks.

Hills and dunes should be treated with respect. Understand that the stresses placed on a 4WD on soft sand are vastly different to those on the road. Namib sand dunes When traversing steep hills travel vertically up or vertically down. Avoid travelling across the hill or dune.

A big, heavy 4 x 4 has perfect rollover potential if the dynamics of the situation alter. A car that feels like it has a nice comfortable lean across the face of a dune can quickly change to an unbalanced handful with weight shift.

On hills weight is transferred to the lowest side of the vehicle and combined with the unstable nature of sand the lowest side can give way and cause the tyres to dig in and tip the vehicle.

If you don't crest a steep hill reverse back down in gear, don't attempt a U-turn. If you are driving down a hill select the correct gear and drive down - don't coast. If the rear end begins to slide accelerate to pull the car back into line - don't brake and create a large weight transfer.


Take it Easy

Sand is wind and water driven and constantly changing. With the help of erosion a gentle hump in a dune today could be a sheer drop-off tomorrow. Likewise the constant tidal effect of the ocean changes the beaches everyday. Long stretches of pearl white sand are masters at concealing ruts and washouts.

Driving on sand can be great fun and a convenient way to get to remote and normally inaccessible areas. Newcomers tend to take a grip on the steering wheel and fight the sand the whole day - the initial feeling being that the sand has control of the car and not vice versa. Much better to relax, determine a comfortable speed and coast along.

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