How to Drive in the Sand

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Original article contributed by B3rick, Friendship, MD[edit]

Driving on the sand dunes in Glamis, CA - not so easy
On the beach at Cape Hatteras, NC

Rule number one for driving in sand is that “Hard tires don’t go in sand.”

Having said that, the sand at Daytona Beach, FL is so hard a Cadillac or a Corvette will be just fine for a beach outing. Usually however, sand driving requires some lowering of tire pressure. For example the typical mid-Atlantic beach has fairly hard sand below the high tide mark and soft deep sand, as you get closer to the primary dune. The required tire pressure will vary depending on the sand conditions, vehicle weight, and tire size. Experiment with what works best for you. Four-wheel-drive is nearly essential but with low enough tire pressure, good ground clearance, and skillful driving, two-wheel-drives can actually make it in some sand.

The author frequents the East coast beaches in a Jeep Wrangler or Cherokee and runs 20 psi tire pressure in high range, first or second gear with no problem all day. 15 psi in deep sand would offer less resistance but at 20 one can still make short road trips for supplies or to the nearest compressor. 25 psi would be a better compromise if one wanted to more on-road flexibility and still probably not get stuck on the beach.

Low range can be used to creep through deep sand, get you out of being a little stuck, or to slowly cross the existing tire ruts without bouncing everything around in the truck. (Ruts form as most people drive parallel to the ocean.) If you need to use low range to grind your hard tires through the sand for any length of time you will probably overheat the engine or get stuck.

To keep from getting stuck in the first place lower your tire pressure – of course. A tire gauge is essential – don’t guess. Don’t go where the sand depth (that you sink to with your current tire pressure) exceeds your ground clearance. Once you start plowing sand with any part of the vehicle things will quickly get worse. Make smooth accelerations and smooth stops. Spinning your tires may be fun but you risk the possibility of quickly sinking to the axle. Keep up your speed if you are getting bogged down in deep sand but not to the point of getting stuck. Applying throttle is the first thing one instinctively does when it appears that you will get stuck, but don’t spin the tires. You can always stop and creep out in low range if you don’t spin your tires and get stuck down to the axle first. Once on the axle, start digging. At that point it is also too late to let air out of the tires or the problem becomes worse.

Warning – A hard stop will pile up sand in front of the tires and turn into a real hard stop!

Typically, beaches are fragile environments on barrier islands and driving on the dunes is strictly forbidden. There are places such as one near Lake Michigan where it is allowed. Dune sand is obviously soft and very deep so even lower pressure may be required. Just be aware that extremely low pressure can damage tires and they can come off the rim. Use extreme caution not to meet another vehicle head-on at the top of the dune or to drive off an unseen steep slope. Deserts offer their own challenges and restrictions so whether it is desert, beach, or dunes, don’t be shy about inquiring locally about local customs and conditions and tread lightly.

One note about salt water: Beach sand and wind blown sea spray will plaster your truck with salt. Wash the truck, wheel wells, and under carriage thoroughly when you get home. Avoid the temptation to splash through the surf. The sand past water’s edge is usually hard enough to drive on but salt water will immediately attack everything. If you have to cross salt water just go slow. There are plenty of idiots that have driven out to a sandbar only to have the tide rise and ruin their vehicle. When you park on a beach be aware of the tide schedule.

Here is a list of items to have with you on the sand (you probably have most of them anyway if you wheel): Also note that a winch will be of little use on wide-open expanses of sand though a “sand-anchor” product does exist.

  • Tire gauge
  • Tow strap!!!!!!!!!!!!!
  • Tow hooks front and rear!!! (a tow strap is useless w/ out a way of hooking up)
  • Hi-lift jack
  • Board or plate to keep jack from sinking
  • Shovel

By the way All Terrains are king, mud tires are good as well, however It does take practice to drive in the sand w/ mud tires as they tend to dig all to well. The key to sand is to stay on top. Therefore if you feel the truck/SUV/or car starting to dig watchout it is a good idea to stop and try to backout while you are still moving. Most importantly if you stop moving DO NOT HIT THE GAS PEDAL!! Get out and move the sand away from your tires . . . 9 times out of 10 you can get yourself out if you stop as soon as you fell your self getting stuck. It's when you get stuck and hit the gas that will get you in trouble. Good luck, only practice and knowledge of your truck/car and what it is capable of will ultimately decide on how far you can go. In other words, know your limits and if you want to test them make sure you have another truck/car w/ you that can pull you out if or when you get stuck.