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Soft Traversing: Tips And Tricks For Crossing Sand Safely

Posted in How To: Suspension Brakes on November 10, 2016 Comment (0)
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It doesn’t matter if your favorite sand spot is on the beach, in the dunes, or down a desolate desert wash, there will inevitably always be a 4x4, motorhome, tow rig, or commuter car hopelessly stuck with its axles planted in the sandy surface. All too often we see off-road enthusiasts get themselves captured in these precarious predicaments because of poor planning and execution. Most of these situations occur because of a pin it to win it heavy throttle attack, which is a gamble. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Rather than let your sand wheeling adventure turn into an unpredictable game of chance, we’ve compiled some critical components to consider as well as some driving tips to help get you through the soft stuff.

Vehicle Setup
As with any type of four-wheeling, the most important item you’ll need is a proper tow point on the front and rear of your 4x4. If possible, your vehicle should have a tow point at each corner. For sand recovery, we usually prefer kinetic straps that stretch, like the Bubba Rope. The stretching recovery rope helps slingshot the stuck vehicle out of its hole and cushions the stress imposed on the tow points. Other useful sand recovery items include a fullsize shovel, traction mats, and a jack with an oversized base that won’t sink into the sand under the weight of the vehicle.

It’s often believed that all-terrain tires are better for sand than mud-terrain tires. It’s true that all-terrain tires will maintain flotation slightly better and they won’t dig down as quickly. However, mud-terrain tires can function more like a paddle tire and provide more traction. This is especially true on lighter 4x4s with plenty of power. Ultimately, running the proper air pressure will improve sand performance much more than the performance difference between all-terrain and mud-terrain tires. Experiment with different air pressures and look for a good tire sidewall bulge when aired down. Most radial tires can usually be aired down to 10-25 psi depending on the tire size, vehicle weight, wheel type, and driving style.

Towing a trailer through the sand is near the equivalent of pulling a plow. For best performance you should air down the tires on both the tow vehicle and the trailer before hitting the soft stuff. Fully inflated narrow trailer tires cut through the sand and sink in quickly, causing a lot of drag. Airing them down will help maintain flotation. Other options include lightening the trailer by emptying the vehicles out before you get stuck. If you find yourself towing in a lesser two-wheel-drive vehicle or heavy motorhome, you could always have a camp buddy with a 4x4 tow your trailer in for you.

Driving Tips
Successfully traversing beaches, washes, riverbeds, and dunes depends greatly on your ability to read the sandy terrain and predict the conditions ahead. Coarse sands won’t pack down as well as fine-grain sands. Wet sand is generally more packed and easy to stay on top of. However, overly churned wet sand becomes fluffy with air pockets and ruts from other vehicles, making it more difficult to cross than dry sand that maintains a flat surface. Driving closer to the water’s edge on wide flat beaches at low tide provides better vehicle flotation. Avoid the water’s edge on steep beaches. These areas are often covered with loose deep sand that can result in your 4x4 getting stuck. Poor attempts at getting unstuck and failed recoveries on steep beaches end with your 4x4 in the drink.

While maintaining momentum is extremely important in sand, it can also get you into trouble if you can’t see what’s on the other side of the dune ahead. Almost every dune has a steep side and a more mellow rolling side. This is caused by the wind picking up sand particles on the smooth front and depositing them on the backside, similar to the way a dump truck drops material in a mining tailings pile. The steep backside of a dune is almost always much softer and more difficult to traverse than the mellow front side. Learn the direction the dunes are facing and where the steep side will be before throttling up and over. Less predictable are “witches eyes.” These hole-like sand formations are created in more turbulent windy areas and can be big enough to swallow a Jeep. It’s generally best to avoid them altogether.

Avoid jerky throttle inputs and sharp turns, especially at slower speeds and when climbing hills. If you can, only stop when the vehicle is facing downhill. This will ensure that you can continue on more easily. Never apply heavy throttle from a dead stop, you’ll only dig a couple holes. Mimic the controlled and measured throttle input that modern traction control systems use on soft surfaces to minimize tire spin. If it feels like the vehicle is not moving forward and is instead digging down, stop immediately and assess the situation before burying your 4x4 to the axles. You may only need to back up a bit and try again or shovel a small amount of material before continuing on your sand venture.

Sandy climbs can be incredibly challenging. Maintain momentum, steer straight, and if at all possible, avoid the chatter bumps left behind by other drivers. Use smooth throttle input and let off the moment it feels like the vehicle is no longer moving forward. You may have to back down and try again. Although, the beauty of sand dunes is that there is almost always another less difficult way around. Don’t be afraid to take an easier route.

Cresting the top of a large dune for the first time can be a terrifying experience, especially if you’re carrying too much speed. Learn to let off of the throttle before reaching the top and roll over slowly. In some cases, it may be best to complete a mini S-turn at the top of the dune. This helps in two ways. It gives you a chance to see what’s on the other side, and it keeps your 4x4 from high-centering. It takes time to perfect this skill. You have to know the sand conditions well and be quick with the steering wheel and throttle. Needless to say, you don’t want to go down the backside of the dune sideways. Practice this technique on smaller dunes first.

As with any off-road terrain, you should always have a recovery strap or two and proper tow points. We generally prefer kinetic-style stretching recovery straps in the sand, but it’s always a good idea to have a few options. You may have to create a tow point on a stuck vehicle using a tree strap and clevis.

All-terrain tires are usually better for sand flotation on heavy 4x4s, while mud-terrain tires can perform like a paddle tire on lighter 4x4s with plenty of horsepower. However, properly lowering the tire air pressure will increase your 4x4s sand performance more than the tire type or width.

You’ll need to experiment with different tire pressures in different sand conditions. Aggressive driving and heavy vehicles will require more air pressure to avoid popping a tire bead. Most vehicles can successfully run somewhere between 10-25 psi of tire pressure in the sand. Of course, you’ll need an air source to fix a popped bead like this and reinflate your tires at the end of the day.

Most people forget to, or try to avoid airing down their tires when towing because it’s inconvenient. Being stuck with a trailer is far more unpleasant. Properly deflate the tow rig and trailer tires for better flotation before making the trek across the soft stuff.

Learning to read the sand will help you predict where the steep razorback drop-offs and soft spots are. With a little wheel time and experience, you can easily avoid being high-centered like this.

When climbing sand hills, maintain momentum, steer straight, and avoid the chatter bumps left behind by other drivers if possible. Use smooth throttle control. Let off and back down if it feels like the vehicle is no longer making forward progress.

Wider tires will always stay on top of sand better than narrow tires. Although, you’ll have to decide if the on-road handling quirks of extra-wide tires are worth the increased flotation.

When all else fails, make sure there is always someone in your group with a heavier, more powerful, and more capable rig than yours. A comparatively small 1-ton truck was unable to even budge this motorhome stuck in the sand.

Spinning your tires in the sand after forward progress has ceased only makes recovery of your 4x4 more difficult. Whenever forward momentum is halted, you should stop and assess your situation before making it worse.

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