Part I: Sand Driving

Part I: Sand Driving

In the first of a our new six-part series, we will provide you with the hands-on knowledge that you require to take your brand new 4x4 vehicle or go-rig, off-road for the first time in a safe and practical manner.  Considering that more than 95% of all SUV’s & 4x4’s sold, are never utilised for other than pavement driving, Advanced Off-Roading will take you through the most elementary steps required to venture off-road with confidence and to ensure that you derive the full pleasure of 4x4 ownership whilst limiting risk to yourself and your passengers.

In the coming months, our Advanced Off-Roadingseries will cover the entire gambit of successful 4x4 driving techniques, including mud driving and negotiating water obstacles. Once equipped with this knowledge we will show you how to safely snatch strap, hi-lift jack and winch your vehicle out of difficult recovery situations.  Fieldcraft Survival recommends that all new 4x4 owners should without fail attend a recognized off-road training course to familiarise yourself with your vehicle before venturing off-road in any event. It goes without saying that driving on North American beaches is strictly prohibited. In countries where this is allowed, ensure that you stay between the high water mark and the sea, to limit ecological damage to the environment.

When you first venture onto sand with your new 4x4, it is wise to keep two important facts in the back of your mind. Firstly, always ensure that your vehicles tires float over the surface area of the sand in order to increase traction. This can be achieved by lowering the pressure of your tires down to about 1.5 bar or even lower. However, never drop the pressure lower than 0.9 bar, or the tire could actually climb off the rim with disastrous results. In addition to that, the lowered pressure will lead to an increase in side wall flexing, which in turn, heats up the core temperate of the tireand could lead to premature failure. As a result, keep the vehicle’s speed down to 50km/h and less, depending on the air pressure.

Always make the vehicle turn as wide as possible whilst driving on sand, as the front wheels could act as rudders and therefore radically reduce your forward momentum. This brings us to rule number two, which is to ensure that your 4x4’s forward motion (or momentum) is maintained under any circumstances.  Once you have lost significant speed driving in soft sand, it is fairly difficult to regain momentum. Try not to use the brakes when stopping on sand, but rather let the vehicle lose by coasting to a halt. Using the brakes will cause a build-up of sand ridges in front of the tires, which makes pulling away more difficult.  

On the subject of pulling away in sand, using your 4x4’s high range gearbox, (1st gear) should be fine in most cases, although more experienced drivers prefer to engage low range (3rd gear) in the event of more torque being required to get out of difficult situations. If you do need to stop on an incline, ensure that the nose of the vehicle is pointing downhill and that the front wheels have been straightened out. This will assist in pulling away and ensure that the front tires don’t dig in.

Dune driving can be an exhilarating experience, but there are also a number of safety factors to consider. Never attempt to make a U-turn on a sand turn and ensure at all times that you approach a sand dune at a right angle, regardless whether you are going up or down. Failing to adhere to this advice, could see the rear tires of your vehicle digging in, which in most cases would lead to the vehicle rolling over. Should you get stuck going up a dune, gentle reverse back the way you came. I have found that going down a sand dune can sometimes be more risky than the ascend, as the back of the vehicle tends to slide out. Novice drivers naturally at first would hit the brakes with fatal consequences. Rather apply power gently to ensure that the back of the vehicle straightens out.

From a practical perspective, always follow the tracks of other vehicles whilst driving on sand. Remember that tracks generally have more compacted sand underneath, which assists with traction for your own vehicle, not to mention less damage to the environment and unsightly tracks over pristine dune areas.

Experienced 4x4 drivers never lock their differentials while driving on sand as this increases your turning circle tremendously and you run the very real risk of overturning your vehicle. Always ensure that you carry a good quality air compressor with you and a tire pressure gauge. Once you are on a hard surface, stop your vehicle and inflate the tires to the manufactures’ correct air pressure.

Should you experience wheel spin while driving on sand, resist the urge to apply more power as this will only make matters worst by letting the tires dig in further. Rather let the vehicle come to a complete halt, engage reverse and backup on your existing tracks for a couple of meters.  Remember, as mentioned before, your own tracks are compacted and therefore provides better traction than the surround areas. Now build up a bit more speed and attempt the sand obstacle again. If you find that your new 4x4 is getting completely stuck in sand, deflate the tires by another 0.2 bar. Walk around the vehicle and clear any sand ridges in front of the tires before attempting to reverse out or get another vehicle to snatch recover you. If help is not nearby, try placing stones or branches underneath the tires to provide better traction for the vehicle.

We will cover recovery techniques such as snatching, hi-lift jacking and winching in future Advanced Off-Roading articles. In the meantime, safe 4x4’ing !



About the author: Johan de Villiers


After originally trained by the 1994 West German Camel Trophy team, Johan has extensively traversed a number of Central and East African countries, includingTanzania, Zambia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Botswana, Namibia, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya and Zanzibar. On his return to corporate life, Johan has continued to enjoy the outdoor lifestyle and has since led numerous expeditions through Africa and the jungles of South East Asia. In addition to being a qualified Land Rover recovery expert, Johan is a qualified helicopter pilot (turbine rated) and a regular contributor to various 4x4 publications & aviation magazines. His personal vehicle is a highly modifiedLand Rover Defender 110 TD5.