“Discover the do’s and don’ts before you attempt to conquer the dunes and be prepare for scenery unrivalled.”
Testing the skill of yourself and your 4×4 against sand can either be done in a dry river bed or on challenging dunes in deserts. I grew up in Namibia, in those days there were a limited number 4×4 vehicles available to choose from. There were the Willy’s Jeeps, Landrovers, Ford and Chev 4×4 pickups and a few more. Most of them did not have enough horses, was heavy and unreliable.
With great skill and patients we managed to navigate the beaches around the notorious fishing spots along the coast in 2×4 vehicles. Strangers from neighbouring countries struggled mastering this technique and we were asked for help more often than not.
Modern day 4×4′s is a different story altogether, with more horses than a stud farmer, reliable and highly advanced 4×4 systems. As if that is not enough, tyre manufacturers also came to the party by introducing tyres for specific terrains.
It’s the same principal that applies with a boat, the quicker you get on a plain, the better. The tyre grips in the sand and are forced upwards by the power of the vehicle; needless to say, we deflate the tyres to increase the actual width of the surface in contact with the sand, allowing for more traction.
Here are few basic rules and hints to follow that will make your time on sand hassle free and effortless:
- Discover and study the area to be driven with great care and switch over to 4×4 early enough. High range is adequate where the sand is dense and the dunes are long, but as soon as the vehicle starts losing traction and power, switch over to low range. Remember that first gear in high range is similar to third gear in low range. Keep in mind that every time you change gears in soft sand you lose a lot of momentum and it feels like you are hitting the brakes. If your gear selection was too low to start off with, you will encounter wheel spin and this will make the vehicle dig in to the sand instead of propelling it forward. Choose your gear carefully as with a high gear you will lose power forcing you to change gears and losing momentum. As a guide carrying a heavy load, I prefer Low range; it just gives you so much more options and is a lot more lenient on the vehicle’s transmission and clutch. Many a student had to learn that driving a dune acquires you to switch rapidly between gears to eliminate the loss of momentum. The art lies in listening to your vehicle’s revolutions and momentum to determine the right time to change gears. A loud exhaust system is very handy, cause believe me when I say there is no time in having a look at your rev counter somewhere on a remote dune. Automatic vehicles perform extremely well. Gear changes are instant and accurate. The Prado 4.0L is the best example, straight of the factory line.
- Deflate your tyres but make sure you own a pressure meter and an air compressor. Deflate to as low as 0.8bar but take note that allot of vehicles performs best at 0,5bar. Keep in mind that it’s risky as turning at high speeds can cause the tyre to jump of the rim. It is advisable as soon as you need to drop your tyre pressure too under 1bar, to reduce your speed especially when descending the slipface of a dune. The entire weight of the load and the vehicle is on the two front tyres and it will not withstand the pressure when turning at high speeds. Keep in mind that your tyres were warm before you deflated it. A lot of people reach for their compressors the following morning because the tyre pressure dropped to about 0.2bar after cooling down. Do not inflate your tyres back to 0,8bar! Start by driving slowly and gradually increase you speed. As the tyres warms up so will the tyre pressure increase, back to the 0,8bar of the following day.
- When stopping for a photo, a drink or just to admire the beauty of nothing around you, make sure it’s on a plateau or with your nose on a down slope. This makes the pull away much easier. When you battle to pull away, reverse a short distance. This will compact the sand and allow you to gain momentum.
I refer back to momentum more often than not. The truth is that this is most important facet of dune or sand driving. I always say: Rather try it over again than over doing it and flying over the peak and causing a lot of damage to the vehicle.
- Always stay in the leading vehicles tracks. It will eliminate the fear of the unknown and limit the damage to the terrain. The leading vehicle will have compacted the sand.
- The shadows casted by the sun early morning and late afternoon make it a lot easier to read the dunes. Mid day is dangerous as driving blind is a true reality without shadows to assist you in orientating yourself on a dune. The heat during mid day evaporates the air molecules in the sand and decreasing it’s density, making driving difficult. When the sand is cool, density is higher and driving is a lot easier.
- Dunes tend to have a long hard side. This is caused by winds generally blowing from the same direction. This causes a slipface that can vary from 30 to 38 degrees decline which is a far cry from the 65 degrees a vehicle can handle. When descending on the slipface, make sure that the vehicle is in a low gear and should you experience a side slide, simply apply more power and the 4 wheel drive will correct itself. Be afraid of the brakes, very afraid. When you brake to hard the vehicle will go into a slide and then you are in trouble!
- Keep a safe following distance and pay attention as to how the lead vehicle’s tyres react in the sand. This is a fair indicator as to what to expect. When approaching a slipface, make sure that the vehicle in front of you is off the dune. Make use of the two way radios issued on these 4×4 tours.
- When approaching a dune at an angle, it is advisable to do it with speed and torque. If you lack speed your vehicle will start sliding. Keep in mind that your wheels probably are not running is the same tracks due to the angle of your approach. If your vehicle goes into a slide simply change direction back down the slope till you have sufficient speed and attempt it again.
- Driving with your rear difflock engaged is a great advantage and remember that turning in sand will not damage the transmission, only on hard surfaces will you need to disengage. I personally keep mine engaged from the start and in cases where the road is full of potholes, I will even engage the front difflock.
- Even if you have a snorkel fitted, clean your air filter at regular intervals when driving in deserts. Sand particles always manage to find a way thru.
- Prepare yourself for very high fuel consumption. The power needed to navigate this terrain causes the machine to burn a lot more energy. Carry extra fuel either in a long range tank or jerry can. It is not pleasant running dry in these parts of the world.
- Make sure you have a good recovery kit and solid recovery point at the front and back of your vehicle. Everybody will get stuck at some point, some more than others!
Be safe and enjoy your outdoor adventure.