Car Advice

Driving on hard and soft sand in your 4×4

Learn some tricks and tips for driving in hard (firm) or soft sand in your 4×4.

(SPONSORED) Being able to access and explore a beach or sand dunes in your 4×4 can be one of life’s great pleasures. But four-wheel drive access to beaches and dunes differs from state to state. The best way to determine if you’re allowed to drive in the place you’d like to visit is to check with the national parks and wildlife authority in that area as, even if you are allowed to drive on the sand, it’s likely you’ll require a permit to do so.

Learn some tricks and tips for driving in hard or soft sand in your 4x4

When driving on a beach, you’ll encounter two types of sand, wet and dry. Wet sand is going to be the stuff you find down close to the edge of the water where the moisture compacts it. But, too much water in the sand can have the opposite effect, water-logging it and turning it into quicksand.

And then there’s the dry, soft stuff that generally only sees moisture when it rains. With the wind keeping this soft sand bone dry and powdery, driving through it can be hard going; sucking the grunt from your vehicle with minimal progress to show for it.

When looking at the beach you can tell the difference between the two types of sand, as the wet sand will be darker than the dry stuff. In general, when driving along a beach, it’s encouraged that you stay closer to the water and try to stick on the firmer sand.

What to do just before you drive onto the sand

Once you’ve confirmed you’re allowed to drive on the sand and, if necessary, have paid for a permit and fixed it to your vehicle’s windscreen, then just before you drive out onto the sand you’ll want to drop the pressure on your 4WD’s tyres.

How well you’ll go driving on sand will come down to your tyres and how much air you either have in them or don’t have in them, and not driving too aggressively. But, having a high-tech 4WD wagon, like the Ford Everest 4WD will help too, as you can use the Terrain Management System to dial up Sand Mode, which will loosen the control of the stability and traction control systems allowing for more wheel spin before intervention. Sand mode will also sharpen up the throttle response to help maintain momentum with the transmission adjusted to hold on to gears longer to prevent unnecessary gear shifting when driving across sand. This is handy, as grabbing too high a gear while trying to maintain momentum could see the vehicle slow down and become bogged in deep sand.

You want to float across the sand

The key to driving on sand, be it hard or soft, is to have your 4WD float across the surface. If you’re ploughing through the sand seemingly half bogged then it’s probably because your tyre pressures are too high. Indeed, you’ll be able to drive further in a 2WD vehicle with your tyre pressures at the right level than in a 4WD running highway pressures.

By lowering the tyre pressure, you can see how the tyre deforms to the terrain rather than digging into the sand.
By lowering the tyre pressure, you can see how the tyre deforms to the terrain rather than digging into the sand.

It’s generally accepted that a typical 4WD wagon, like the Ford Everest, should be running around 20psi when driving on sand. The key when airing down, the term used to describe letting air out of your tyres, is to only let out a little bit of air at a time and to do so with a tyre pressure gauge so that you can let the same amount of air out in each tyre.

There are some risks to airing down too much and for driving for too long with insufficient air in your tyres. While it might be necessary to drop your tyre pressures right down if you’ve become bogged, having too little air in them places increased pressure on the bead of the tyre which, because of the weight of the vehicle, could see the wheel rim cut through the bead and destroy the tyre. More than this, sand can get in-between the wheel and tyre and thus, when reinflated, the tyre will no longer seal correctly causing a slow leak of air.

Note that each 20% reduction in air pressure should be accompanied by a 20% reduction in maximum speed – while you can do over 110km/h at 36psi, a drop to 18psi means you won’t want to travel above 50km/h. 

Once you’ve aired down your tyres

Once you’ve aired down you want to make sure you keep your speed even and avoid throwing your 4WD around. Try and hoon around on the sand with deflated tyres and you risk rolling them off the rim, getting sand into them which will cause a slow leak, and make it more likely that you’ll become bogged… as well as being deemed a dill by everyone else on the beach.

That said, you need to ensure you keep up an even but not ridiculous speed when driving on sand. You don’t want to wait for your vehicle to slow down before you start applying the throttle again; a nice even throttle and the minimum speed you can get away with is key when driving on sand.

Learn some tricks and tips for driving in hard or soft sand in your 4x4

Once you’re up and running on the beach you need to bear in mind that your 4WD, even if it’s floating across the sand, will be working extra hard due to the boggy nature of sand. So, keep an eye on your temperature gauge and fuel consumption.

The greatest adjustment will be to your driving style and getting used to driving in a lower gear, and at higher revs than you otherwise might. As a driver, your natural inclination will be to tackle difficult terrain slowly and carefully but that approach doesn’t necessarily work on sand or when driving up a soft sand dune. And being mindful of how your actions behind the wheel affect your vehicle is vital, like braking hard on sand; this is a great way to dig the front wheels of your 4WD into the sand as the weight transfers forward under brakes. The best way to stop on sand is simply to ease off the throttle and let the resistance from the sand slow you down.

Do tyres make much difference?

Yes, and no. Obviously low-profile tyres aren’t ideal as they don’t allow the tyre to flatten out enough when the pressures are dropped. Some say that tyres with an aggressive tread pattern can end up digging into soft sand, other say near-bald tyres work best; it’s generally accepted that combination on-road and off-road tyres (60/40) are probably the best for sand driving.

Is a differential lock helpful?

Yes, and no. Having a rear differential lock, like the one in the Ford Everest 4WD, can be handy if you’re on a section of sand that’s very bumpy and is likely to cause your 4WD’s wheels to lift off the ground. An engaged rear differential lock will ensure there’s no loss of forward momentum…

However, in soft sand they can cause your 4WD to dig into the sand and become bogged; at the same time in very deep, soft sand they can help you to keep the power poured on and grunt your way out. So, having a differential lock is nice to have but it isn’t crucial to driving on sand.

Driving straight up and straight down

If you are driving around at the back of a beach and need to negotiate a dune, it’s vital that you drive straight up and over the dune. Never drive sideways across the face of a dune or you run the risk of a vehicle rollover. Always drive up and down a dune in as straight a line as possible; and if you fail to make it to the top of a dune and need to reverse back down then be careful to stay straight and in the track you’ve just made to avoid running off the track and rolling your vehicle back down the dune.

Learn some tricks and tips for driving in hard or soft sand in your 4x4

At day’s end

When it’s time to leave, check your exit point, use the correct gear and just enough momentum to get you out safely. If you’re driving a high-tech vehicle like the Everest 4WD, remember to change out of Sand Mode and back into Normal Mode via the Terrain Management System, re-inflate your tyres to road pressures (you should carry a portable air compressor and tyre pressure gauges) and take the earliest opportunity to give your 4×4 a thorough wash to prevent salt corrosion, especially underneath, even if you haven’t driven through salt water.

Top Tips for sand driving

  • Engage 4WD high range and lock the centre diff if equipped. Some people automatically stipulate to use low range for all sand but it’s not necessary for most beaches. It will come down to type of vehicle; the Ford Everest 4WD has Sand Mode for improved performance and capability when driving on sand. With the Ford Everest 4WD, only extremely soft sand will see you need to move out of Sand Mode and into low-range;
  • Disengage stability control where fitted, to prevent the vehicle’s electronics slowing momentum. If your 4WD is equipped with an adaptive terrain system, then choose the Sand Mode. With the Ford Everest 4WD, choosing Sand Mode automatically adjusts key elements of the vehicle, like the transmission, throttle response and de-sensitises the traction and stability control systems to allow for wheel slip when driving in sand;
  • Select the correct gear and remember that momentum is your friend. Avoid changing gears in tough conditions such as ascents, as momentum is quickly lost in sand;
  • If you feel the 4WD is struggling to keep pace, stop as soon as practical to avoid becoming bogged. Stop by just gently lifting off the accelerator – the drag of the sand will slow you down. If you brake, you’ll dig in. Lowering tyre pressures in 10% increments will, 99% of the time be an easy fix. Remember that the lower the pressures the lower the speed and ensure your turns are smooth, otherwise you risk peeling the tyre off the rim; and
  • Use existing tyre tracks to your advantage where possible as the sand is compact, and don’t fight the steering wheel. Don’t hook your thumbs through the steering wheel – let the 4WD finds its own way through.


  • trackdaze

    Outgoing tide is the best time.
    Left foot braking allows revs and speed to be maintained once bump/obstactle is traversed.

  • Ziggy

    The two types of sand you’ll find are soft and firm.

    And for a midweight 4wd on soft sand, start with 16 psi.

    Who wrote this stuff?

  • Ken Murrey

    You never mentioned sand flags, or the potential to run up dunes into oncoming vehicles. Not always essential, but useful information relevant to this topic. It has happened…

Practical Motoring

Practical Motoring