How To Drive in the Sand

| posted on June 27, 2011

Lowering your tire pressure is key when it comes to sand-born pursuits. Photo: Lowe-White

There are few things in this world more satisfying than driving down an empty beach in search of a lonely peak with a few friends. That being said, there are also few things in this world more emasculating than having to ask another man to tow your crippled truck out of the sand. Unfortunately, surfers from Hawaii to the Outer Banks have felt the sting of spinning tires more times than we care to admit. To ensure that none of us find ourselves in that oh-so awkward place again, we consulted North Carolina’s own off-road rambler, Jesse Hines, to talk us through the ins and outs of beach driving.

Drive with Confidence: The first thing you need to do is to have a truck with four-wheel drive. When you’re driving in the sand, keep the truck in 4 Low. Other than that, the best thing you can do is to be confident, and sometimes slightly crazy, depending on where you are. The best sand driving I’ve seen was done by guys who may have a few screws loose. I went to Oman and we got in some sketchy situations in the middle of the desert. The only reason we didn’t get stranded was because our guide was a madman behind the wheel.

Keep the Pressure Low: The most common mistake that will get you stuck in the sand is not lowering the pressure in your tires. I think the best pressure is around 20 psi. It’ll make your truck feel like a pirate ship sailing through seas of sand.

Stay on Track: Another common mistake is trying to make your own tracks in the sand. People tend to roam around the beach trying to carve their own path. You want to drive in the tracks that are already there. It’s almost impossible to get stuck in another vehicles tracks because the sand has already been packed.

Start Digging: If you do get stuck in the sand, start digging. And if you haven’t already let the pressure out of your tires, do that. It’s also a good idea to look for any driftwood or washed-up lumber. Put them under the tires for traction. If all else fails, you can start accosting other folks with a rope or a bigger, unstuck truck.

Overgunned: The absolute worse thing you can do is to start gunning it over and over again. Once you’re stuck, gunning it will only dig you deeper until the vehicle is resting on the axles. That’s pretty much the worst thing that can happen. That and getting stuck when you’re too close to the water and the tide is coming up. I’ve seen some trucks lost to the sea that way.

  • Russell

    12 psi is better, more flotation. Also, manage your inertia, eg, build some speed if you have an uphill section to deal with. Carry a shovel and a good tow strap. Agree with the over gunning comment, know when you are beat, get out and dig before you make it worse.

  • Joman

    Also pack some long, narrow pieces of wood (2x4s or something similar), stick them underneath the tires, and drive on out!

  • Tom

    and don’t forget to pack a portable tire pump. Since you’ll need to re-inflate the tires to spec.

  • robert

    no doubt 12-13 psi, shovel, board, tow rope, make sure you lock the hubs if you are old school 🙂 and if you are new school make sure the auto hubs did engage.

  • 111makai111

    When in doubt and getting deep… Always go lower on the PSI to get a nice ‘bead’ (bulge on the tire at the bottom edge) increasing your tire patch displacing more weight.

    If you’re running your tire pressure real low don’t drive too aggressive or you’ll break the seal, popping the tire off the rim.

    When stuck and need a tow… Pull the disabled truck out from the lighter end first (usually the rear) with the towing truck driving away front (heavy) end first.

    Also, if you’re digging out, putting wood under or preparing the truck for a tow… Shut off the engine –Only adds to the heat of the day or chances of getting burned while maneuvering below.

    Take care, -Makai 1

  • Jon

    I got stuck once. I was just coming over this dune on a gravel road and I could have just parked right there, but my eyes were mesmerized by the sight of perfect surf. So I slowly made my way down into deep, loose sand, all the while watching the peaks, and buried my minivan to its oil pan. It wasn’t that bad of a spot, really. Just a straight shot from the road down to the wet sand. Just about any vehicle can make it if they try. But I was not trying. I was all “whoah, look at that one, almost oblivious to the sand.
    Well, it was an hour before dark, so I skipped the session and hiked to a pay phone (yes, a few years ago). When I got back from that it was sunset and this old salty dog pulled up in his very rusty Ford pickup, and hauled me out with some rotting piece of cable before the tow truck came. They still billed me. And, I could have been surfing the whole time, thanks to Salty. Never figured out what I did to deserve all that.

  • Scott

    Great advice, I have just one correction. Its better to save 4 wheel low until you absolutely need it. Drive in 4 high, you probably wont get stuck if you follow above mentioned, and if you do happen to get stuck in 4 high you will have your 4 wheel low to get ya out!

  • Bill Kreuzer

    I´ve lived in Los Cabos over 20 years now and have helped many getting out of a bad stuck in sand. You always see people trying to digg they’re way out of a stuck. This can kill you in the summer out in the East Cape! All you need to do is make a stable base out of anything flat to spread the wait, then use your jack to “lift” the tires out of the sand. Then drive off. Way less work. Also, if you do a lot of out of the way travel, invest in an ARB EXHAUST JACK”. It’s an inflatable bag that attaches to your exhaust pipe and will get you out of deep sand, mud, snow and water. One of the best item I’ve ever bought for off road use. I paid around $200 for it.

  • SteveInCalif

    In a pinch, use the car’s interior floor mats for tire traction (saved me once).