How to 4 wheel drive on sand: The Ultimate Beach Dune Guide

4-Wheel driving on sand is one of the most exciting and funs things to do. You always need to apply the rules of sand driving irrespective of what vehicle you have, size of your tires or the type of sand driving you are driving on. Beach sand driving conditions change rapidly so you need to exercise caution and apply the below rules of beach sand and dune driving to be successful.

Sand Driving requires you to apply the three golden rules.

  1. Air down your tires to at least 18psi as a start
  2. Always use momentum
  3. Use common sense

The next part of this article will discuss how to prepare your vehicle for sand driving as well as the laws of sand driving. We will look at the technique to climb up large sand dunes and the effects regular sand driving can have on your 4-wheel drive.

If you would like to read my definitive guide to sand driving, continue reading

The Ultimate Sand Driving Guide

My Amarok gliding over soft beach sand

So before you venture off onto the beach or into the dunes with your 4-wheel drive, there are a few things you need to do first. Preparation begins at home, long before you even hit the dunes.

Remove Excess Weight

Firstly, before you even leave your home, you want to remove any excess weight your vehicle might be carrying. Remove all unnecessary kit and heavy gear. This will reduce the weight of your vehicle, allowing it to accelerate quicker, maintain momentum easier as well as glide easier over the sand without getting bogged down. Carry only the essentials for the day and the recovery gear needed in the event you or a fellow 4-wheeler gets stuck. If you are just venturing out for the day and don’t intend on camping overnight, remove heavy items such as rooftop tents and other unnecessary camping gear from the vehicle.

Test your Equipment:

Secondly, you will do well to quickly test your equipment like your tire deflator as well as your portable compressor prior to leaving home. Nothing worse than being ill-prepared and realizing when it’s too late that your compressor is faulty or your deflator has packed up. Pack in a decent shovel and your Maxtrax if you have them. These are essential items to have for a great day out in the dunes or at the beach with family and a few mates.

Legal Permits

Thirdly, if you need a permit for the dunes, make sure you have this arranged prior to arriving there. Not all beaches are accessible without a valid day permit. Do the right thing! Enquire at the local municipal offices or online about purchasing a day permit well before the time.

Preparing Yourself for a Day of Sand Driving

There are a few factors you need to consider when planning a day out in the dunes. Let’s have a look at them.

Protection

When we go dune driving or beach driving its usually in summer when temperatures are high. Make sure you protect yourself by applying sunblock and re-apply once you have been exposed to the sun after a few hours. Wear head gear like a hat or cap and decent UV sunglasses. This will assist you to block out any glaring sun rays that might blind you while cruising in the dunes. One a really hot day the sun can reflect off the sand and if caught at just the angle, this can seriously impair your visibility. Not good when you are multiple vehicle driving around on steep sand dunes.

Re-hydration

Also, make sure you re-hydrate regularly since lack of fluids can also negatively impair your vision as well as judgment when out in the sun for multiple hours at a time. Keep a few bottles of liquid refreshments inside the vehicle stored safely and out of the sun. Avoid the intake of alcohol at all costs. Alcohol dehydrates you faster and impairs your judgment. Drinking alcohol in the sun also accelerates the problem. Leave the beers for afterward.

Shade

When playing out in the dunes with a few mates for a few hours, you’ll want to take a break and relax for a bit. This is good for both driver and vehicle since it allows you to refresh, relax and allow your eyes to reset. It also gives your vehicle a chance to cool down from all the high-revving action. An awning is always a great accessory to have and this weight is worth carrying to the beach or the dunes.

Preparing your vehicle for sand driving

So, you are organized and ready to hit the sand dunes, however, there are a few checks you would like to make prior to leaving for the beach. Let’s have a look at them in more detail here.

Suspension

Beach and dune driving can be very taxing on your 4-wheel drive’s suspension so it does well to inspect the suspension before you head out, as well as afterward. Take the time to crawl underneath the vehicle and have a look around for anything glaringly obvious. Inspect all suspension bushes for cracks or excessive wear. Check for play on your drive-shafts by yanking them back and forth a few times. Grab a firm hold of the front and rear shafts separately and give them a few turns in both directions to test for any play or strange clunky sounds.

There is a more detailed article about damaged drivetrain components that can be found here.

Make sure the vehicle is in neutral when you do this test. Any excessive play in the driveshaft could be caused by a worn or dry u-Joint. Also make sure the yoke on your driveshaft is secure and well lubricated. Look for any loose components in your suspension since these components will take the brunt of the impact of sand driving. If damaged suspension components are ignored, they will only get more damaged or worse, fail when out on the dunes.

Fuel

Sand driving uses a ton of fuel since the vehicle will constantly be operating at high revs. In most cases, you will be driving in low-range which means your MPG reading will skyrocket. Dune and beach driving requires a lot of fuel since it’s a high resistance environment and your engine will be operating at peak for most of the time.

Ensure you have enough fuel in your tank, even carrying a single Jerry-can could save you or a fellow 4-wheel driver.

Tires

Always inspect your tires for sidewall damage and cracks before you head out, as well as afterward before you leave the beach dunes for home. This is very important since you could suffer a blow-out from a damaged tire once the tire is fully pumped up, after a day of driving on the beach. The beach is filled with small obstacles like jagged rocks, broken branches and sharp seashells that could all potentially damage a sidewall of a tire if caught at exactly the right spot. Remember, your tire pressure will be drastically reduced so the sidewalls are exposed and at risk of damage by foreign objects lying below the surface of the sand. Take the time to do a quick inspection, it will take less than 60 seconds and could literally save your life. Don’t forget to inspect the wheel wall facing inside as well.

Remember larger tires offer a bigger footprint in the sand, but also robs your vehicle of valuable torque. If you fit big oversized tires, you would probably want to look at your gear ratios to have them modified to accommodate the extra weight on the drivetrain.

A bigger footprint offers improved traction and combined with a decent AT (All-Terrain) tire could make sand driving a breeze. However, if you go too aggressive, you could have an adverse effect, since the large gaps between rubber lugs on the tires will dig into the sand instead of gliding over the top. This will generate a lot of resistance and make it harder for your vehicle to build and maintain momentum.

Flag

In many places, sand dune flags are compulsory on 4-wheel drives. Make sure you have visible dune flag mounted securely on your 4-wheel drive. This allows a driver approaching an apex from the other end of the dune to see your flag and react in time avoiding a potentially fatal accident. It’s a small item to consider that could be a lifesaver. The flag should be red mounted on a white PVC pipe and highly visible.

Air Filter

The job of an air filter is to trap or block any foreign objects from entering your engine combustion chamber. By driving on the sand at the beach, there will be thousands of tiny sand granules being flung in all directions for extended periods of time. Sand granules can get in absolutely everywhere. This means your air filter will need to be absolutely clean and clear of any debris prior to driving on the dunes and also needs to be cleaned thoroughly afterward. A clogged air filter will have a negative impact on your 4-wheel drives performance and fuel consumption. 

When parking on the sand, always try to park with your rear-facing the wind so you prevent any sand from blowing directly into your engine bay. If you happen to be on the dunes and experience a sand storm, position your 4-wheel drive with the front-facing away from the sand storm and switch your engine off immediately.  

Necessary Equipment

Beach sand driving is always a ton of fun and the more often you drive your 4-wheel on the sand the more confident you will become. This is both a pro and a con since you could become slightly overconfident and attempt driving situations you otherwise would avoid. At some point you will get stuck, may it be your fault due to lack of judgment or caused by external factors outside of your control. In this event, what do we need to become unstuck? Let’s have a look at the basic recovery gear required when 4-wheel driving in sand.

Spade

Aaaah, the good old spade, or is it a shovel? Either way, make sure you have one handy. Preferably one with a longish handle that can easily reach underneath the belly of a 4-wheel drive with minimum effort. This will be your first point of call when you get bogged in thick sand. Getting stuck in the sand could be a result of any of the below factors:

  1. Incorrect tire pressure – too high
  2. Lack of momentum – driving too slow
  3. Excess weight – carrying too much unnecessary gear
  4. Towing a trailer or boat
  5. Thickness and looseness of sand – dependant on time of day and weather

Whatever the reason, you will need to dig. Get down and dirty, and clear all the sand from in front of all four or even all 6 wheels if you are towing. Clear a long enough track for the wheels to easily run in once you attempt to free yourself. Make sure the sand under the chassis is also free, so you could have your work cut out for you, depending on how badly you are bogged. For that reason, you will need to call upon your spade. Most roof racks have accessories to mount spades and other quick-access tools. Its well worth having that well organized.

Compressor

This device should be in the top three of every four-wheel driver’s arsenal of tools. It will repay itself back more than 100 times over and well worth the money spent. Ensure to get a decent quality compressor with 72L being the absolute minimum volume. Aim for a twin-cylinder and 160L volume compressor if money isn’t a problem. They are just miles better and time spent pumping up tires are drastically reduced. There are many cheap knock-offs around but stick to the better-known brands. You know what they say, you buy cheap, you buy twice!

Click here for guidelines on what to look out for when purchasing a portable compressor

Tire deflator

You will need a reliable and more importantly accurate tire deflator when it’s time to deflate rubber. Don’t settle for a silly cheap one that takes minutes to deflate. The deflator that screws directly on to the valve and turns the valve stem out is the quickest way to deflate your tires. After all, you want to get out into the dunes and every minute spent deflating tires means less playtime on the sand.

Maxxtraxx

These recovery devices are a must-have when sand driving. Especially if you are alone, you will need to have all your bases covered and be well prepared. Maxxtraxx works like a short little track that offers grip and traction when you are stuck in sand, snow or mud. They can even double up to form a little bridge to overcome short un-passable gaps in an off-road situation.  They can be quite handy and even double as a spade to shovel sand away from your tires.

Click here for guidelines on what to look out for when purchasing maxxtrax

Sand driving laws

When driving on dunes there is usually an unwritten rule about the flow of traffic. This is made more obvious by the tracks created by other 4-wheelers as well as the general direction flow observed by other 4-wheel drives. Depending on which country you live in, when faced with a situation where you come face-to-face on the same track, veer off to the left, if the law dictates all vehicles to drive on the left-hand side of the road. If you drive on the right-hand side of the road in your country, swerve right to avoid a collision in the dunes.

Stopping in sand

When stopping in thick sand, avoid stomping on the brakes or applying brakes too aggressively. This will avoid creating a huge heap of sand in front of your tires, which can create problems when it’s time to pull off with no momentum on your side. Brake gently and allow the resistance of the sand to gradually bring the vehicle to a complete stop. Once stationary, reverse half a meter to create a compacted runway for you when it’s time to pull off again.

Parking in sand

When parking, always face the see on an inclined slope. This will make pull-offs a lot easier since the vehicle will almost roll off with ease, requiring minimum acceleration.

Read the sand

This a skill you will need to learn quickly when sand driving on beaches or dunes with regular traffic. Dirt Bikes & ATV drivers also enjoy dune driving just as much as we do, however they can cause a bit of a challenge for 4-wheel drivers since they tend to churn up the sand quite badly. This creates deep thick loose sand that you want to try and avoid as much as possible. The uneven holes and sandpits created by spinning dirt bikes tires make it a bit harder for 4WD’s to navigate through. Always try and aim for the moist firm sand on beaches since they are more compact and easier to drive on. Sand closer to the seawater creates less resistance than soft loose sand found higher on the shores.

Observe where other vehicles are getting stuck and avoid those areas if possible.

When dune driving, you want to learn to read the dunes by observing shapes and sizes and crest heights. This can become difficult after a while since even an experienced dune driver can suffer from dune blindness. This phenomenon is caused when you lose the ability to judge the height or distance from the top of the dune. It’s like having no depth perception, which could result in you cresting a dune at a speed and ramping over the other end.

Remember the dunes can change shape and size within minutes when the wind picks up. This means a dune that was easy to ride a few hours earlier could pose a serious challenge later on as the wind shapes and forms bigger higher dunes.

How to climb a large dune

The below guide is quoted from another article I wrote about the proper technique to climb a decent size dune. You can read the full article here – How to drive a Jeep on the beach: foolproof tips

“To clear a decent size dune you will need speed and momentum on your side else you will not make the dune.

Make sure you check out the bottom or base of the dune for a good approach ramp so you don’t nosedive straight into the dune and lose all your momentum from your run-up

Nose-diving into a steep dune doesn’t feel great at all and you risk seriously damaging yourself and your Jeep suspension. 

Stay on the throttle till you reach the top of the dune and tap off just before the apex and let the momentum and light throttle carry you over gently

To master this art takes some practice and you need to be able to judge where the top of the dune is to know when to tap off the gas.

Tap off the gas too soon and you won’t make all the way up the dune. Tap off too late and you’ll go flying over the dune and nose-diving over the other side.

If you do not have visibility of what is on the other side of the dune then turn off to the side of the dune just before the apex and ride the top of the dune first.

NB: If you don’t let-off before the dune apex you will get airborne and cause massive damage and injury to yourself and your precious Jeep

When your Jeep comes to a dead stop midway up a dude, take your foot off the gas, pop it in reverse and drive out of the sand and retry the dune, this time, with more speed and momentum

Remember to always keep the vehicle straight when reversing down a high sand dune

Always carry a recovery strap and shackles with you, especially if running beaches that are less traveled and secluded

Have a driving buddy with you, if at all possible.”

The above is an extract from a previous article written here titled: How to drive a Jeep on the Beach: Foolproof tips

How does Sand Driving affect your 4-Wheel Drive

Regular dune driving can become very taxing on your 4-wheel drive, so it’s important to keep a few things in mind.

Air Filters

When driving on dunes your air filters can become clogged with sand and dust very quickly. Take the time to inspect and clean out the air filter once you have had your fun at the beach or in the dunes. A clogged air filter will prevent your turbo from breathing easily and this will have a negative effect on performance as well as fuel consumption.

Body Damage

If, you approach a dune too fast or at an incorrect angle or your departure is too aggressive, the first items to take the hit are usually your front and rear bumpers. We call them Tupperware. These are the low hanging plastic bits that can easily get ripped off or dragged off in deep sand dunes. Be aware of your 4-wheel drives ground clearance limitations and break-over angle dimensions to prevent serious body panel and bumper damage.

High revs

Driving at high revs for extended periods of time is not good for any turbo diesel 4-wheel drive. This is usually what happens in thick sand and high dunes.  You become so fixated on not getting stuck or about overcoming a certain dune that in the process you fail to realize how much throttle you’ve applied or for how long the vehicle has been over-revved.

Turbo & EGT (Exhaust Gas Temperatures)

This is not really a problem for petrol (gas) engines since they prefer high revs to perform. This is more applicable to turbo-diesel engines where your usable rev-range is usually limited to 2000-2500 rpm. This is not always ideal for dune driving since you want a longer, higher revving vehicle with decent high-end power. Diesel engines usually make all their torque low down in the rev range and the max power is in most cases before 4000 rpm. Driving a diesel at high revs under load quickly increases the EGT. The Increased EGT (Exhaust Gas Temperatures) over prolonged periods is something to monitor since EGT can kill a diesel engine very quickly. Install an EGT gauge if you intend on regularly taking your turbo diesel to the dunes so you can keep a close eye on things.

Always remember, after a heavy session in deep sand and dunes you want to allow your turbo-charged diesel engine to idle for a minute or two to allow the burning hot turbo to cool down before you turn off the engine. This is good practice to prolong the lifespan of your turbo.

Fuel Consumption

The constant high revs combined with the high-resistance surface and low-range gearing is going to drastically increase your vehicles fuel consumption. Your average liters per 100 km or MPG readings can easily triple when driving on sand. Ensure you have sufficient fuel on-board. 

4WD Hi or Lo for Sand Driving

Driving in thick sand with deflated tire pressures is a complete no-no for 4-High. This is definitely 4-Lo territory since the sand creates so much resistance that you don’t want to place your engine, gearbox or clutch under so much pressure. If you have lo-range, use it in the sand.

Gearing is different for most 4-wheel drives so it’s hard for me to specify which gear to use on sand, however, the rule of thumb is usually between 2nd and third gear low-range. I feel that 2nd 4-lo is the perfect gear to pull off in and maintain steady momentum with 3rd. On long flat firm, the beach stretches where sand is compact you could get away with 4th and 5th gear low-range.

Best Sand Driving Vehicles

The best sand dune driving vehicle, in my opinion, must be a gas (petrol) vehicle. Preferably a v6 if possible since the higher-revving petrol’s are ideal for long steep dunes where speed and momentum are necessary.

For beach driving where you don’t often climb too many high dunes, I would say a modern turbo-diesel is fine since the low down torque will be excellent.

Vehicles with high ground clearance combined with a v6 are ideal for sand dunes and beach driving.

Can AWD Drive on the beach

An AWD vehicle was not built with the intention of driving on beaches. Their main purpose is to offer more traction on slippery surfaces such as tarmac roads and concrete surfaces in the city. They are ideal for snow and ice-covered roads as well as mild dirt tracks.

With that being said, I would say an AWD should be able to get away with driving on shallow sand where high ground clearance is not required.

The only problem I foresee with an AWD on the beach is the traction control systems constantly being activated.  If this can be completely disabled then the vehicle should perform well. However, most AWD’s traction control and other electronic governing systems cannot be completely shut off by the driver. This means each time the AWD system senses a loss of traction, it will attempt to correct it by braking the other wheels with good traction intermittently. This would seriously hamper forward progress in the sand.

Sand Driving Video

Watch this short video where Graham explains some fundamentals about beach sand driving.

Conclusion

How to 4 Wheel Drive in Sand

Sand driving is a lot of fun and can be enjoyed by anyone with a 4-wheel drive and little experience. If you stick to the golden rules of tire pressure, momentum and common sense you’ll do just fine. With that being said, you need to be prepared for the worse so ensure you have all the required gear to get you or a fellow 4-wheeler out of trouble. Test your equipment prior to beach driving or dune driving and make sure you take a mate along cause 2 is always better than 1 and 4 is even better than 2… lol.

Happy 4-wheeling and remember, safety first!!!!

Jade C.

4-Wheel drives and off-road driving techniques has been my passion for over 20 years. Here we strive to provide the most accurate, up-to-date, information about the functionality, common faults and latest technology built into most 4 Wheel Drives.

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