One of the more entertaining places to take your 4WD is the sand dunes, and if you live in Australia there’s a pretty good chance you won’t have to drive too far to find them.
There’s something truly amazing about driving down a 45 degree sand dune, and trying to get back up a bowl on the other side, and places like Lancelin Sand Dunes have become a mecca for entertainment because of this.
Driving in the dunes can be a lot of fun, but there is a potential for things to go badly wrong if you aren’t careful, and don’t know what you are doing. In this post, we cover 15 of the must know items when it comes to sand dune driving.
1) It’s all about tyre pressures
I’ve lost count of the number of times tyre pressure has been mentioned on this blog, and there’s a good reason for it.
In terms of the things you can control when heading off road, its probably the most influential. When it comes to sand driving in particular, if you don’t have the right tyre pressures you’ll end up in trouble quicker than you can ask why.
For most 4WD’s, we recommend you start off at about 16 PSI for soft sand driving. If you have a heavy vehicle you might get away with something a bit higher, and likewise a lighter vehicle a bit less air.
You can go up and down as required, and don’t be afraid to go right down if you get stuck, and need the extra traction.
When you deflate your tyres, the area of rubber contacting the ground grows, and for sand driving its the huge increase in length that allows your vehicle to float on top of the sand instead of sinking down like a block of concrete.
If you want to get stuck sand dune driving, leave your tyre pressures alone. I guarantee that the first soft spot you come to your vehicle will sink to the chassis and you’ll spend the next couple of hours trying to get it out again!
2) Always check what’s over the dune
Sand dunes can be a lot of fun, but they can also be extremely unpredictable. Yes, you need some momentum to get up sand dunes, but don’t hit anything that you aren’t familiar with.
I’ve seen people fly up sand dunes only to get to the top where it drops off almost vertically on the other side, and they get stuck right on top of the ridge for the next couple of hours.
Beyond this, the dune might not drop of straight, and you can end up on a very nasty side angle by arriving on something you weren’t prepared for.
3) Be careful where you stop
Sand can be far softer than you expect, and you should be wary of where you pull up. A lot of the time the sand is solid enough that you’ll get going again with minimal effort, but if you stop where its soft, or you stop on a gentle incline (or worse) you’ll have a hard time getting going again.
I’ve been stuck badly in my Land Cruiser in the past when a whole heap of sand has been blown between two ridges, and it hadn’t compacted at all. I slowed down, and didn’t get going again until a friend pulled me out with a snatch strap!
4) Keep the 4WD straight
One of the most dangerous parts of sand dune driving is when you come down a dune. You need to do everything you can to keep the vehicle in a straight line, and heading down at 90 degrees to the dune.
The reason for this is simple; its much harder to tip a car over forwards (as in over the bull bar) than it is to tip it sideways.
The easiest way to make your vehicle slide sideways is to apply the brakes, which will make it behave very differently.
Ideally, use your engine braking and if you feel the vehicle going sideways at all, just apply gentle throttle and it will straighten back out. Steer gently and carefully to keep the vehicle straight and you can go down some seriously steep sand dunes.
Do not ever try and turn around when you are on a dune, or you’ll likely dig in and roll the vehicle all the way to the bottom. Yes, it happens.
On the flip side, you need to keep the vehicle straight going up a dune too, or you’ll have the same issues.
5) Power can straighten you out
As mentioned above, the best way to straighten a vehicle that’s gone sideways a bit down a dune is to apply some gentle throttle. This will pull the vehicle back into a straight line and have you feeling almost immediately more comfortable. Don’t apply the brakes, as this is just about the worst thing you can do!
Obviously this doesn’t work when you are going up a dune, unless you have a lot of momentum
6) Don’t underestimate the clearance that you need
Sand Dune driving will soon show you how much clearance you actually have. You don’t need much of a ridge for your 4WD to get hung up on, especially when it requires you to slow down a little so your vehicle doesn’t end up airborne.
People get stuck all the time from going over a dune and the weight of the vehicle sitting on the top of the dune, in the middle of the car.
They also get stuck when they go down a dune and their entry, or exit angle isn’t enough and the car just bottoms out.
I’ve actually seen some pretty nasty damage done with cars hitting dunes that are too steep. If you do come across this, you should gently go up and down the part of the dune you want to climb, and you’ll find the sand will collapse and build a much more friendly angle to drive it.
7) Sand flags are worth their weight in gold
Lots of people enjoy sand dune driving, and generally that means you’ll see others out there. The more notice that someone else has that another car is coming, the safer life is. Sand flags allow vehicles to stand out and can be seen far earlier than without them.
If you are in a busy location, its easy for two vehicles to come up a dune on either side and collide, or one to come over at speed and hit someone else. If you can, get a sand flag.
8) Watch out for others
Going on from the above point, you need to be careful of others. This is most important when there are pedestrians sand boarding, or those on motorbikes.
Lancelin Off Road Area is the perfect example of this, with a huge number of people heading there every day. Unfortunately, there have been a significant number of deaths in the sand dunes, and many of them are from motorbike riders getting hit by other vehicles.
Sand dunes are popular for sandboarding, photography, motorbike riding, 4WDing and the use of off road vehicles, and that means things can get dangerous really quickly in a smaller area.
9) Time of day can make a huge difference
On thing that a lot of people don’t realise is that the sand often behaves differently depending on the ambient temperature, and ultimately the time of day. If you head into the dunes in the middle of the day when its scorching hot, the sand will be softer, and your chances of getting stuck go up significantly.
That’s not to say that you can drive in the dunes during the middle of the day, but it is something to be aware of, especially when it relates to tyre pressures. When its really soft, travelling earlier in the day can be a big benefit.
10) Go with a second vehicle
We always recommend that you head off road with a second vehicle, and this is even more the case in sand dunes where things can go wrong real fast. By having another vehicle with you a recovery can be done in a number of different ways, which is not only safer but a lot more enjoyable.
11) Getting stuck is all part of the fun
There’s a good chance that you will get stuck at some stage in the dunes. It’s just what happens, and there’s nothing wrong with it. The only thing that matters is that you get going again, and safely. There’s a myriad of 4WD recovery options on sand, with Maxtrax or traction boards being the easiest, safest and quickest way.
Of course, reconsider your tyre pressures and adjust as required. I recall driving through the Lancelin Sand Dunes one afternoon, and we’d been there for a few hours enjoying ourselves.
I came over a dune, and was driving on a flat section and the car just sank like a rock. I guess some sand had shifted and there was no real substance under the vehicle, and it just went down despite being at 15 PSI.
12) Pick the right gear
When you are driving through the dunes, gear choice is incredibly important. This is mainly for when you are trying to go up a dune, and need the right balance between power and speed. If you pick a gear that is too high, you’ll run out of punch by the time you get to the top and come to a halt.
If you pick a gear that is too low, you won’t get enough momentum and will also struggle to make it up. For this reason, you’ll often see people giving the same dune a number of attempts, trying different techniques and gearing.
You might think its possible to change gears mid way up a dune, but almost every time (including autos) the time it takes to change gears just loses the traction you had, and when you are able to apply power again the wheels spin and you dig in.
If you have an auto, its a good idea to lock the gearing in your chosen gear, so it doesn’t go up or down when you don’t want it to. Low range is generally the best option, although high range can work well in some situations as well.
13) Don’t drive too fast
Despite being soft sand, if things go wrong its very easy to have a pretty serious accident. If you come across a drop off, or a step up at speed, you can do some serious damage.
I’ve seen Land Cruisers push their front differentials back into the panels, and even chassis damage from high speed impacts in the dunes.
Take it easy, drive carefully and make sure you are familiar with the area you are driving.
14) If you go down, you have to be able to go back up
Amongst sand dunes, you’ll often find sand bowls, which have a dune entry on all sides. Remember, that if you choose to go down, you need to be able to get back out again, and that can be quite hard to do.
I’ve seen a lot of people drive down steep embankments, and get stuck at the bottom with no way of getting back out again without a tow.
15) Leave nothing but tracks
Lastly, this should come as common sense, but you should leave the dune system with nothing in place except tracks. That means no rubbish, no toilet paper, and no food scraps. These areas are pristine, and need to stay that way. If you can’t respect the amazing dunes, stay at home.