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Firing Order: This Sand That

Posted in Features on December 5, 2016
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My first experience driving in sand was on vacation at the Outer Banks of North Carolina 27 years ago in a rented ’90 Ford Thunderbird.

It did not go well. Go figure.

I owned a 4x4 at the time, but being planted in the rural Midwest, my off-road experience at that point was limited to the daily obstacles we encountered on the farm: mud, dirt, and snow. If mud, dirt, and snow was English, sand was Cantonese. At the time, I didn’t understand it and definitely couldn’t speak it. To a sand-naive Midwest dude, the granules looked harmless. I mean, heck, on the farm we dealt with “real” obstacles like gnarly frame-deep snow and evil mud. Sand shmand. Whatever man. Heck, I had seen photos of sports cars cruising around on Daytona Beach with no problem.

I should’ve recalled when I was a young ’un how my Hot Wheels cars got swallowed by the sand in my sandbox.

So there I was on vacation in a Thunderbird, and I was green with envy seeing all the 4x4s frolicking on the beach. With my keen, scientific, computer-like mind, I figured if I gathered enough speed in the Thunderbird, I could blast through the soft sand and make it to the hard pack near the water, where frolicking would ensue. How hard could that be? What actually happened was far different. As soon as the Thunderbird’s front tires dropped into the soft sand it was like they dug in their heels and dropped anchor. Meanwhile, at the other end of the car, the rear tires made a heroic but futile effort to maintain the car’s forward velocity, which resulted in the duo sinking in the sand faster than I could say, “Dang nab it.”

I returned to the Outer Banks area a year later with a 4x4 and explored the sand from Carova Beach to the South Core Banks. I became a sand fan. It was different than other natural obstacles and a total blast. And the views weren’t bad either. Since then I’ve spent hundreds of hours wheeling in the sand. I’ve explored Dumont Dunes and Oceano Dunes in California; Silver Lake Sand Dunes in Michigan; the sand of South Padre Island, Texas; miles of sand roads in Florida; and the Oregon Sand Dunes, among many others. I’ve had some great times wheeling in the sand.

Here’s a surprising tidbit: Sand may be closer to you than you think. In this Mar. ’17 issue, Four Wheeler contributor John Cappa offers up an overview of cool places to wheel in the sand, from slow-speed exploring to all-out dune running. He also takes a detailed look at prepping a vehicle for driving in sand from mild to wild. The reward to sand wheeling can include having vast stretches of beach to explore or experiencing the rush of extreme dune-running in areas with massive dunes.

What’s your favorite sand wheeling spot? Is it a simple stretch of sandy road, a killer stretch of beach, or an all-out big-dune nirvana? No matter what type of sand it is, drop an email to and tell us about it. If you have a photo, please include that too!

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