Driving a 4×4 on the sand is a discipline of its own ! The secret is to maintain a controlled speed while staying over speeded ! Choose a powerful 4×4 (see article what 4×4 to choose) and make sure you are in 4WD mode! The choice of the right gear will come with experience but avoid drinving to fast so you do not get stuck in the sand! The more you practice, the more you will be able to anticipate traps while switching gear before reaching rough areas.
On sand, it is imperative to switch to 4-wheel drive and on some 4×4 you can interlock the “low range” or “diff-lock” modes. In “low range” gear ratios will be low (between the 2nd and 4th speed) and the engine torque will be increased, which overall increases power. Be careful not to drive above 40km/h (25mph). The “Diff-lock” allows to balance the power on the wheels according to demand between front and rear, therefore allowing a better control of the power. Turn off the power steering, otherwise it will get interlocked every 5 seconds and you will not be able to drive!
Tires for sand driving
It is recommended to cut the tire pressure by half or even ⅔ (normally between 15 and 22 psi). This widens the contact area with the sand and increases the weight distribution of the 4×4. In practice, let the air escape between 40 and 60 seconds, get the pressure checked and adjusted by removing more where necessary. Using a deflator makes it easy to adjust tires pressure! As soon as you leave desert, go to the first gas station to get your tires inflated! If that’s not possible, use a compressor to get them inflated by yourself.You will need to let the tires cool down at least 15 minutes before driving on a paved road. Indeed, when friction with sand happens, tires get heated, which increases the pressure of the air. Risk of explosion is actual as evidenced by this photo.
Automatic or manual ?
Automated vehicles are smoother and faster in gear shifting than manual ones. This can make driving on sand easier. However, you may also find that the gear switching is done in an inappropriate time. With an automatic 4×4, you will not have the chance to play with the engine brake. For example, if you want to go down a dune, you will have more control over your speed thanks to the engine brake on a manual 4×4. On the automatic one, it will be necessary to use the brake slightly.
Driving on the dunes
You have to scrutinize the shape and the slope of the dune before getting there. It is generally better to drive perpendicular to the dune, that is to say, in the direction of the wind. If you find traces of existing tracks, then this is the best route to follow. If there is no trace of any track, do not hesitate to stop at the top of a dune and step out of the vehicle to assess the direction to take. Remember to check the absence of plants and animals on your journey (they are not always visible). Consistency of the sand may change during the day. In the morning, sand is usually harder, so is it after the rain. Driving around noon, especially in summer, is particularly tricky because there are few shadows and few contrasts available to foresee the bumps and hollows. With experience you will know how to read dunes signs in order to find the way to gain momentum or slow down. Watch out for fine sand that gets accumulated in the hidden hollows and may cause problems to reckless drivers!
Going up a dune
Gain momentum before starting to go up the dune. During the ascent keep your speed up to downshift.
Go up, if possible, on the axis of the slope. If you ride diagonally, make sure your speed is high enough to play with gravity, because the weight of the car will pull you down the dune. Approach the top of the dune from the front, at the risk of getting stuck on the crest of the dune.
If you need visibility, stop on top of the dune. Otherwise, do not go too fast or not far enough (at the risk of getting stuck on the crest, in which case it will be necessary to dig under the car).
Going down a dune
If you are unsure, stop on top of the dune to scrutinize before going down.
Above all, go down on in the axis of the slope. If you go down at an angle, you risk breaking a tire. This does not only happens to other people!
Use your engine brake (never freewheel). If the slope is steep, slow down slowly.
At the end of the slope, gently accelerate to get out of the dune (and do not stuck the front of the car in the sand).
What to do if you get stuck in the sand ?
As soon as you start to get stuck in the sand, avoid to accelerate. You may sink even more! Step out and check how stuck is the vehicle to find the best solution out of the sand while using, if possible, its weight and gravity.
- Remove the sand or obstacles around the four wheels.
- Remove weight from the car (passengers, bag, water, etc.).
- Check the tire pressure and, if possible, get it reduced.
- Turn off the air conditioning to put all the power in the wheels.
- Switch to low range (or diff-lock) and use the second gear.
- Suddenly turn the steering wheel to the right and left to flatten the sand and thus increase the grip. Or shake the vehicle from right to left then back and forth to fill the gaps formed by the wheels.
- Ask passengers to push the vehicle at the same time while you start.
- Gently start the vehicle
If despite all these tips you are still stuck, two possibilities:
- Use a board or a sand plate.
- Tow it with a second 4wd:
- The second 4×4 must be in a safe position (hard sand, downhill…) and both vehicles must be in the same axis.
- Get the tow rope tied to both vehicles (see instructions if supplied with the rope). Avoid tying two ropes to each other.
- Use the hooks, if any. Otherwise, make a solid knot to hang the rope.
- Put a piece of clothing on the rope to prevent the rope from coming back if it ever gives way. In any case, passengers need to stay away from both vehicles.
- Get both vehicles coordinated to head off (find a sign to advance or stop).
If, despite your best efforts, no method works, think twice before leaving your vehicle to seek help.
If you know where to seek help and you have enough water to go, then go for it. But if you are in the middle of the desert and you have no idea where you are, do not leave your vehicle! The desert can be dangerous, and the bodywork of your vehicle will protect you. It is easier to find a car than a lonely person walking in the desert.