A beginners guide to driving on sand dunes
Driving on different surfaces challenges both your driving skills and your ability to actively manage your motor vehicle and its features. Pursuing different conditions is, therefore, a great way to help build your skills and learn more about how your car works.
My first experience of driving on sand was in 2015 when Isuzu launched its iVenture Club with a trip to Moreton Island.
It was an incredibly valuable experience, where I learned a lot – and it was also a heck of a lot of fun.
Moreton Island is relatively flat, however, so I earned my sand-driving chops along the beaches and inland 4WD tracks.
Therefore, when I had the opportunity to join a group on a weekend visit to drive over some of Victoria’s steepest and best sand dunes, I jumped at the chance to try out this other type of sand driving.
Our trip takes us to Portland, Victoria, the oldest European settlement in the state, just a couple of hundred kilometres from the South Australian border.
Only a limited number of vehicles are allowed on the site at any one time, so you won’t be crowded either. The camping area is well-equipped and well-maintained by the club, with a small toilet block and a – surprisingly comfortable – gas-powered trailer where you can enjoy a hot shower for a gold coin donation.
My little Toyota 86 is capable of many things, but it wouldn’t do very well on these sand dunes, so Mitsubishi (through the good folks at Chadstone Mitsubishi) has kindly loaned me a new Pajero Sport from their fleet to put through its paces.
After flying down from Canberra and picking up the car on Friday afternoon, it’s a long drive from Melbourne out to Portland. So when I arrive at around 9pm, I decide to grab a motel room for the night and drive the final 30kms or so out to the site early the next morning.
(this was not least of all because, on the drive down, I narrowly avoided hitting an owl, a possum, a fox, a wallaby, a hare, a cat and a koala. I felt like I was working my way through the Chinese horoscope of roadkill … )
Sand flags for safety
The first thing to do on arrival is to make sure I adhere to the first of the Dune Buggy Club’s rules, which is to have a sand flag, fitted to a tall pole, mounted on your vehicle at all times. This is a critically important piece of safety equipment for dune driving, alerting others to the presence of your vehicle – which might be otherwise unseen – as you drive over the crest of the deep dunes.
You can buy a sand flag or make your own using a long length of bamboo or even a fishing pole – as long as it has a bit of flexibility. To ensure the flag serves its purpose, it should be mounted to the front – not the back – of your vehicle. Given our short time frame, we had to mount mine to the back of my Pajero, but given we’re driving as part of a carefully-controlled group, it should be fine. The guys at Chadstone Mitsubishi fabricated up a mount that fitted into the towbar. Ideally, you’d want the sand flag at the front of the car for maximum visibility going up a dune and ease of access to the rear, but this one is very tall so it works at the rear.
UHF radios for communication
The other piece of equipment that’s important for safety as well as communication on our trip is a UHF radio. Many experienced 4WDers have one fitted to their car, but you can buy a simple 1- or 2-piece handheld set for under $100.
Before setting out, we agree on the band to use for general communication. When groups of us split off for different activities, we often switch to another band for individual conversations (this is also considered good UHF etiquette).
Over these steep sand dunes, with almost no mobile reception, UHF radios are essential to stay in touch and keep everyone safe. They’re also a lot of fun, as we fire jokes and jibes at each other across the airwaves.
An important reminder: if you’re playing with UHF radios, stay away from channels 5 and 35. These are for emergency use only and are closely monitored by emergency services personnel. This is legislated by the Australian Government and heavy fines apply if you misuse them.
Understanding how your vehicle drives on sand
The changes you need to make to your vehicle and to your driving style make more sense if you understand how driving on sand affects your car.
First – and rather obviously – sand is soft, and it shifts a lot. This is the case even more so in the dunes, as compared to damp sand on the beach. That’s why, contrary to popular belief, road tyres are generally better than off-road tyres on sand. The large, deep tread of 4WD tyres just serves to dig in and break up the surface of the sand more. Throughout our weekend, when the performance of my Pajero Sport impressesed my colleagues, many remark that standard road tyres are the best way to go.
The challenge of driving on sand also means your vehicle will be working a lot harder – so keep an eye on that temperature gauge, and be prepared to go through much more fuel than you might expect.
In many instances, the key to driving successfully on sand is keeping up momentum, and that means a steady source of power. Modern safety systems that are invaluable on the road – such as electronic stability and traction control – can actually work against you in the sand. The last thing you need is your engine power dropping down at a crucial moment, because the electronics have read the movement of the sand as a loss of traction. So switch these systems off for the duration of your dune drive.
Setting up your vehicle
Driving on sand means lowering the pressure of your tyres to flatten them out, ensuring more of the rubber is in contact with the ground at all times and you float over the soft surface, not sink in. So a little tyre gauge is an invaluable piece of equipment, and remember, you’ll need access to an air compressor to re-inflate your tyres before you hit the road again.
Before we set off to the dunes, my camping neighbour Dave (‘Pickles’ to his friends) helps me drop the pressure of my tyres down to the recommended 15psi. If you get into trouble in soft sand, you can drop them as long as 10psi, but this means driving at a virtual crawl until you can pump them up to 15 again.
That’s because lower air pressure increases the risk of popping your tyres off your wheel rims. Even at 15psi, the best way to avoid this is to drive smoothly – take off easily, stop easily, and try to avoid sharp or sudden turns that put the tyres under unnecessary pressure.
Adjusting your driving style
For me, the greatest adjustment to my driving style is getting used to driving in a lower gear, and at higher revs than I otherwise might. Keeping moving in the sand is a tough job for your vehicle, so you’ll need to get used to hearing it work hard. Fortunately, the paddle-shift manual control option on my 8-speed Pajero Sport make this easy – I can choose to hold the car in a lower gear if I need to.
My first lesson in this comes as soon as we set off for the dunes. The steep, sandy slope leading up and away from our camp site is a good initiation, and requires a fair bit of power, speed and confidence. As a driver, your natural inclination is to negotiate difficult surfaces slowly and carefully; so there’s no way I’d have known to approach this ramp at the higher speed that’s necessary. But thanks to some good instruction, I’m up and over in no time at all.
Thinking about the way your vehicle’s weight shifts can also help you adjust your driving techniques.
For example, when you brake hard, you know the weight of your car shifts forward and down. In soft sand, this is a great way to really dig the front of your vehicle in – just make sure you have a shovel to dig your way back out.
If you’d rather skip the digging, avoid braking hard: come to a stop by easing off on the gas and letting the natural resistance of the sand slow you down.
Wheelspin is your worst enemy
This understanding of weight and momentum comes into play for my first serious safety lesson.
If you’re driving on steep dunes, chances are there will be at least one occasion when you won’t make it all the way up. Therefore, it’s a good idea to practice how you’ll manage this situation calmly and safely.
Before we hit the serious sand dunes, starting with the infamous ‘The Bowl’, instructor Russ jumps into my car to teach me how to do a ‘stop-start’.
Driving up a sand incline, notice if your speed starts to drop or your wheels start to spin. As soon as this happens, ease off the accelerator and jump onto the brake as smoothly but as quickly as possible. Keep on pushing, and you’ll likely just spin the wheels more, which will dig you in deeper and make it harder to get out.
Once you’ve stopped, take a second to catch your breath – chances are, you can release the brake, and you’ll still sit comfortably in the rut your wheels have created.
When you’re ready, put the car in reverse and very gently accelerate to back up and out of your wheel ruts and down the hill. Try to stick to the tyre tracks you created on the way up, for a bit of extra stability.
Once safely at the bottom, you can decide whether to try again or find another way up.
Straight up, straight down
Your chance of actually making it up (or down that hill), and doing so safely, rely largely on one important lesson: always drive straight. Straight up, straight down.
Don’t drive sidewise across the face of a dune, either deliberately or inadvertently. You really don’t want that weight of your vehicle pushing sideways down the slope.
It’ll hinder your performance and worse, might even cause your vehicle to roll.
The only exception is when you’re travelling directly across the face of a dune, and with enough speed and momentum to hold you in pace. This is another technique I get to try, again under instruction for the first time.
Getting by with a little help from your friends
A final word on the immeasurable benefit of 4X4 clubs.
I travelled as a guest of Mitsubishi, alongside a group from the Pajero 4WD Club of Victoria. While not an official club event, the members of this group were incredibly generous with their time, advice and expertise, making sure I – along with other less experienced sand drivers – had a fantastic weekend.
There are car clubs all over Australia to suit every area of motoring interest – from clubs centred on particular brands to models, to different motorsports, and special interests such as off-roading or track driving.
My trip provided a great demonstration of the benefit of joining a car club. You can meet new people and learn from their experiences. You also have a group of friends around if anything goes wrong – from forgetting your air compressor to getting bogged in the sand. I can’t recommend it enough.
Fortunately, I encountered no such crises. But my warmest thanks to Paul Hicks from Chadstone Mitsubishi as well as Ralph, Russ, Glenn, Dave and all others who took time out of their trip to assist me and make me feel very welcome.
Anything else you’d like to know about sand driving? Have you tried it?