How to drive in the desert

Desert driving is a bug. Those who catch it love it. Although it’s often referred to as dune bashing, we like to refrain from using that phrase as we believe that desert driving is far too eloquent for such terminology. Some people might like to bash a dune, but for us it’s about the challenge of the climb, the uncharted territory, the off-road capacity of the car and skills of its driver. Don’t follow a path, but instead set the trail!

For those who caught the bug we provide you with a few essential desert driving tips and techniques. Desert driving is a unique discipline and requires uncommon driving skills. In this blog we will explain to you what type of vehicle settings you need to understand, the bear minimum off-road equipment you need to bring, and what desert driving techniques and good practices will make you a better driver. Bear in mind that you don’t learn desert driving by reading a blog, but combined with a few practice rounds this will help you master your vehicle in the sand.

We also advise you to read our blogs “Suitable Vehicles for Desert Driving” and “Ten Tips for Off Roading in Sand Terrain” to make sure you are well prepared.

Vehicle Settings

The following vehicle settings are primarily for consideration as for most experienced off-roaders these are subject to preference, but it’s good to familiarize yourself with the following:

  • High Range. In case you have a part-time 4WD when going into the desert switch from 2WD to 4WD high range which will engage the transfer case and provide equal power distribution to the front and rear axles. In case of a full-time 4WD switch to high range lock which lock your center differential also spreading equal power distribution to the front and rear axles.
  • Low Range. When stuck or in highly challenging terrain you might need to switch from high range to low range (also called low gear). Low range does not change the torque distribution of your car but puts it in a low gear ratio which effectively reduces your speed and increases your torque. Some people advise to use low range only when you are stuck in the sand, but in a challenging environment such as the Empty Quarter you can drive in low range. Just understand that low range demands high revs which increases fuel consumption and the risk of overheating your engine. Some 4WD cooling systems are not designed for extended low-range use in combination with the hot UAE desert.
  • Diff Lock. Differential locks can be located on the front, rear or central axles. Among off-road enthusiasts there are a lot of different opinions on what the best diff lock location is and when it should or shouldn't be engaged. It’s a fair discussion because using diffs at high-traction off-road surfaces can result in transmission wind up causing serious damage to your drivetrain components. The good thing about the desert however is that you are in a permanent low-traction environment. In our opinion diff locks can be permanently engaged in the desert, just make sure to switch it off on the roads or on high-traction off-road surfaces such as gravel roads, wadis, etc.
  • Stability Control. Switch off the Stability Control system if that is not automatically done by engaging the diff lock or 4WD high/low range. The stability control system improves vehicle stability when it detects loss of traction, and automatically applies the brakes or reduces engine power. Although it’s intended to improve the car’s off-road capabilities it’s an unwanted feature in the desert as the break and engine power interference will cause you to lose momentum. Depending on your 4x4 make/model this might be called VSC, ASC, ECS, ESP, DSC.
  • Tire Pressure. Deflate tires to appropriate pressure, eg. 15 psi. Large 4x4’s (> 3,000 kg gross weight) recommended to have slightly higher pressure, e.g. 18 psi. Note that when deflating in the morning the tires can easily regain a few psi when temperature rises during the day.

Off-Road Equipment

In our “Ten Tips for Off Roading in Sand Terrain” blog we explain how to prepare for an off-road trip, with tip No. 8 being “Carry Recovery and Emergency Equipment”. Here are a few extra details of what we believe are the minimum equipment requirements:

  • Tire pressure gauge. We prefer to use deflators in combination with a pressure gauge with a blow down (deflate) function to easily set the right tire pressure. If you set your deflators a little bit higher than your required tire pressure, then you can easily take out the last 1-2 psi using your blow down gauge. We also like to use a small pocket size gauge for quick checks.
  • Air compressor. Of course, you will need to inflate your tires before getting back on the road but you might also need it during a desert drive when a tire accidentally separates from the rim.
  • Car jack & spare tire. Make sure your car is equipped with a car jack, lug wrench and spare tire. Some specialized jacks are equipped with a base plate for sand terrain, but for a normal car jack a wooden plank will also work fine. A high-lift jack can be useful but make sure you test it at home to know where and if you have suitable jack-up points.
  • Off-road visibility flag. An off-road visibility flag is essential off-road safety equipment. It makes you more visible for the other 4x4s, and it’s especially useful in a convoy to see if the car in front of you going over a ridge has cleared the way. Desert collisions are often caused when the lead car gets stuck in a small sand bowl on the blind side of the dune. With a pre-installed flag holder you can easily connect and disconnect your flagpole. Check out our HEEV Flag Pole and Flag Holders where we provide a wide variety of flag holders for different 4x4 vehicles.
  • Snatch strap or snatch rope. For most off-road conditions, you can use a snatch strap which is around 2-3 times the gross weight of the largest vehicle in the recovery operation. For desert driving where you can get severely bogged down in a sand bowl, or have your chassis properly resting on a dune crest, we recommend a breaking strength of at least 3-4 times the gross weight of the largest vehicle. So with a 3350 kg gross weight vehicle (eg. Land Cruiser) you need a minimum breaking strength of around 10.000 kg / 22.000 lbs. Make sure to use kinetic straps/ropes only with approximately 20-30% elasticity. Normal towing straps/ropes should not be used for recovery. Note that bigger isn’t necessarily better. You can find snatch straps up to 200,000 lbs capacity which are typically used to recover tractors, loaders, dump trucks, etc. With bigger snatch straps you won’t get the elasticity you need and you can damage your vehicle.
  • Soft shackles. Soft shackles are much safer than steel shackles, and typically just as strong if not stronger. Tow lugs are known to break with the result of the steel shackle being catapulted though the rear door window of the towing vehicle. A soft shackle is easier to install, easier to disconnect and much safer to operate.
  • Winch dampener. A winch dampener is basically a vinyl blanket which function as an air-break in case of a recovery failure. We would like to emphasize that recovery operations both with winches as well as well as with snatch ropes/straps are dangerous and dampeners work well. Snatch ropes and straps are kinetic and store a lot of energy when tensioned. Dampeners absorb a lot of the energy when the line breaks. As you don’t know where the line will break, or which component will fail, we recommend placing the dampener in the middle of the line. The dampeners are typically equipped with pockets which can be used for storage, but more importantly it can be used to fill with sand which greatly enhances the dampener’s energy absorption. Other good practices during recovery operations is for everybody to remain outside the snap back zone of the line and for people to leave the vehicles except for the drivers.

We believe these are the minimum requirements, but of course there is a wide variety of products you can use in addition, e.g. winch, heavy duty jack, traction boards (sand ladders), sand shovel etc. And of course, there are modifications you can make to your vehicle, some of which are quite useful and others mostly cosmetic. We’ll do a blog on 4x4 modifications soon.

Driving Techniques and Good Practices

In order to learn desert driving it is important to understand in what type of desert you are and what type of dunes you are facing. Especially in areas with a predominant wind direction, dunes typically have an upwind side which is the stoss side, and a downwind side which is the lee side – among desert drivers better known as the slip face. The slip face is basically the maximum angle of inclination the sand formation can take without slumping. The fact that your 4x4 can easily descend the steepest part of the dune should give you some reassurance. Regardless of the angle of repose, you can always drive down. It is still important however to know what you are doing. Here are some key tips:

  • Read the dunes. Learn to understand your environment. If you're in an area with barchan (crescent-shaped) dunes, then you’ll find that all slip faces are in the same direction, perpendicular to the prevailing wind. Some deserts in the Arabian peninsula have seif (longitudinal) dunes which are shaped by bidirectional winds and have slip faces on either side. Understanding the different types of dune formations allows you to set the right trail.
  • Read the sand. For some it all looks the same, but for a skilled desert driver the different surfaces and sand colors make a world of difference. An area with a rippled sand pattern for instance provides a reasonably hard surface due to variations in grain sizes that is causing the rippling effect. A completely flat surface is often much more unstable, especially during and around the summer period. When going out for a practice run, try out the different types of surfaces and see how your car behaves.
  • Look where you’re going. Assuming you have an end location/coordinate in mind, when setting the trail be mindful of where you are going. At high points try to look ahead to know where you are going and anticipate how to get there. Don’t be afraid of the unknown. Whatever is behind the dune’s crest, you will be able to descent it.
  • Keep momentum. A key skill for desert drivers is to maintain the right momentum. Especially in a challenging terrain, when it’s hot and dry and the sand is loose the most important aspect of desert driving is to maintain the right balance between traction and momentum. Accelerating too fast, especially from a standstill position is a great way to dig yourself in. Learn to know your 4x4 and feel how much momentum you require to bring your car over the ridge without getting stuck or go airborne. When going uphill you might need to take some speed from the downslope first, but this can be difficult when descending a slip face which is immediately followed by an uphill climb. Accelerating in the final descent of a slip face is a great way to lose your bumpers or worse. Avoid areas with excessive tracks. Not only does it drive extremely uncomfortable, it’s also a great way to lose momentum in an uphill climb. (Follow the lead car but drive your own track. Note that the opposite advice is often given on off-road forums as they will mention a track provides compressed sand.) Virgin sand usually offers better traction than churned-up sand.
  • Know where to stop. Don’t use the break if you don’t have to. On a flat surface the car will stop when releasing the gas, while hitting the break too hard in loose sand is a great way to dig your tires into the sand. Stopping on a slope typically allows you to depart more easily as gravity will provide a helping hand. When stopping on top of a hill, especially a sharp crest, make sure to bring the car’s center of gravity over the ridge, but don’t stop directly over the crest on the blind side of the slope where following vehicles don’t see you. When taking off make sure your wheels are pointed straight ahead.
  • Going up and down. When ascending and descending make sure to go up and down the dune in a straight direction to ensure equal weight distribution to the wheels. The most common cause of cars rolling over in the desert is when people cross a ridge at an angle rather than perpendicular and the sudden shift of the center of gravity of a top-heavy fully loaded 4x4 will flip the vehicle. Climbing at an angle will also put excessive load on the downhill wheel which is a good way to get stuck. When climbing towards a sharp ridge you can reduce speed before you hit the crest. It takes practice to smoothly cross the ridge, but keep in mind that having to reverse or even getting stuck on top of the crest are good alternatives compared to over-accelerating. It is possible to flip your car forwards. A good way to descend a long slip face is in first gear. Hitting the break will block your front wheels which can cause the vehicle to shift sideways. This can be extremely dangerous on a 200 m high slip face. The high revs of the first gear will provide a slow descend.
  • Keep distance. Make sure to keep safe distance from each other when driving in convoy. As the lead car sets the trail the driver will often stop or slow pace to look ahead. Keep sufficient distance and make sure the vehicle in front of you has sufficient maneuvering space to reverse if necessary.
  • Communicate. A good way to communicate between vehicles is by using walkie talkies. As per the above practice, maintaining sufficient distance allows the lead car to communicate a different route if necessary. On the blind side of the hill there might a mean gully, vegetation, a small tree, etc. When someone gets stuck and the lead car(s) turn back, make sure to communicate you are driving back in opposite direction.