Much Love for the Imperial Sand Dunes
People often ask me what 4x4 they should buy, who builds the best lift kit, what tires they should run, and so on. All of the answers to these questions are dictated by how you use the vehicle and where you plan to go wheeling. Interestingly enough, no one has ever really asked me where I like to go ‘wheeling regularly, until now. BFGoodrich posed the question and wanted a video answer. So I borrowed a Ford Raptor, loaded up a couple of cameramen, and we headed out to my favorite wheeling spot, the Imperial Sand Dunes near Glamis, California. You can watch the video below or at www.offroadplaygrounds.com, where you can see other favorite wheeling spots as well.
During my first Glamis trips in the early 1990s I rode several different ATVs and motorcycles before finally settling on a Honda CR500 with a 12-cup paddle. It was fast and hard to handle (for me) because at the time I was only 175 pounds. It took everything I had to keep the front wheel on the ground when racing up the dunes. After several wrecks and bruises I made the switch to 4x4s because I was worried about getting really hurt. In the beginning I was one of the only guys in my group with a 4x4 that went in the deep dunes. This was a little unnerving because if I were to get stuck or breakdown, I was on my own. There was no one to pull me out. Fortunately, I never had to abandon my 4x4 in the dunes, although several of my friends have. A few times it took us more than a couple hours to find the abandoned vehicles because all the dunes look the same. Word of advice, don’t breakdown at the bottom of a bowl, it’s better to breakdown or rollover on the top of the largest ridge you can find so people can find you.
Speaking of rollovers, the Glamis dunes are notorious for putting vehicles on their lids. It was kind of an ongoing joke in my group of ‘wheeling buddies. If someone had never been in the dunes with us it was almost a sure thing they would roll their 4x4 the first time out. To avoid rolling, always hit the climbs descents straight on. As you get more comfortable with the sand you can sidehill and carve the bowls.
Driving a 4x4 in the dunes is always an awesome experience for me. I enjoy powering around the large bowls at speed and weaving through the ocean of sand mounds. On several occasions I remember being pretty far out in the big dunes while people in sand rails and on ATVs wondered how we got out there. Most people just don’t think a 4x4 is that capable.
A mild all-terrain tire like the BFGoodrich All-Terrain is a good choice for most trucks and SUVs planning to hit the sand. I typically prefer to run beadlocks and air down my tires into the single digits. If you don’t have beadlocks you’ll either want to run air pressure in the 10 to 15 psi range, or drive less aggressively when cornering and sidehilling. Crawl boxes and deep low ranges are generally worthless in the bigger dunes. You just can’t get the wheel speed you need to keep your momentum. However, running with the T-case shifted into a low range of 2:1 to 3:1 can offer more power when you need it and better throttle response.
More than any other off-road surface, you need to learn to read the terrain in the dunes. The wind can alter the sand day by day so it’s always a new adventure. You have to figure out where the razorbacks and witches eyes will be or you could end up launching skyward or ripping the front suspension off your rig. The more wind the dunes see, the more treacherous they become.
As is true with nearly all Glamis trips, the trip to shoot our video didn't go exactly as planned. The wind had been blowing well into double digit mph for a week. On the one hand, that gave us a clean, almost untouched dune canvas to drive and film on, but it also created more witches eyes and abrupt sand ledges than I have ever seen out there. Yep, I got our Ford Raptor stuck, not once, but twice. Both times the front bumper wedged into a nasty witch’s eye hidden on the backside of a steep razorback. Both times I was able to dig the vehicle out by hand. Airing the tires down just a bit more than I was comfortable with also helped in the recovery process. This caused my third issue; I let too much air out to drive aggressively. I ended up debeading a tire when turning sharp for the cameras. I brought an air pump but no amount of floor mats, clipboards, and loose wrenches could keep the jack from sinking into the sand. A small 1x1-foot sheet of plywood would have been a life saver. I eventually hung the debeaded front corner of the truck off a dune ledge and undermined the sand beneath the tire until I could get the bead to reseat with my pump. I drove out of the Imperial Sand Dunes on my own that day but I think next time I’ll bring a buddy.