Sand duning and off-roading in the desert

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Off-roading (driving vehicles over natural terrains and landscapes rather than artificial pavements, that is, driving “off road”) is one of the most exciting activities you can do on a desert adventure, where it takes the name of sand duning. It’s hard to explain the thrill of riding a car through bumpy sand dunes in exotic locations, but it’s an experience filled with adrenaline.

What is sand duning?

Sand duning is the activity of driving off-road vehicles on sand dunes. It is a highly popular recreational sport in desert areas worldwide that can be practiced with different types of cars and 4x4  (or “4WD”, four-wheel drive) vehicles, such as Dune Buggy cars, All-Terrain Vehicles (ATV), and Sport Utility Vehicles (SUV). Sand duning is also referred to as Dune Buggy, Dune Bashing, or Dune Thrashing, depending on location and type of vehicle used.

Sand duning is practiced in many countries worldwide. It is a popular activity in areas with coastal dunes in the United States (such as the Oregon Coast) and Australia (particularly in New South Wales), and in desert areas in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Most beaches and deserts nowadays have a designated area for OHV (Off-Highway Vehicles) where you can drive your own car, rent an off-road vehicle, or book a sand duning experience with an expert driver.


How to drive off road vehicles in the sand

Driving 4x4 vehicles on sand dunes can be a daunting experience for beginners, as you will need to find the perfect balance between engine power and speed control in order not to sink. 4WD often come already optimized for driving in sand, but you may need to adjust gear depending on the location you are exploring. Sand duning on beach areas is generally easier than in the desert, but you can also find short, car-friendly desert dunes in places like the UAE, where off-roading is very popular. 

Gear and tires setup for sand duning

It is recommended to stick to low range 3rd gear and stick to it. Driving in low range will ensure that you can promptly react if your car starts bogging, while a high range should only be used if the terrain is hard enough. Changing gear while sand duning can be complicated as soft sand will start digging you in as soon as you stop moving, so it’s better to test the softness of the sand beforehand, choose your gear accordingly, and then stick to it for the rest of the ride. You will also need to deflate your tires by letting some air out before you drive. A tyre pressure of 12-15 psi is usually okay for general sand duning (the narrower your tires, the less pressure you will need). Make sure that all the tires have approximately the same amount of air in them - this will allow you to stay on top of the surface without sinking or having an unbalanced vehicle.

Driving up and down a dune

Never attempt to drive across a sand dune traversing it sideways - always go either uphill or downhill. Ensure that your front wheels are pointing straight ahead and avoid spinning your tires too quickly when doing turns. You will need to maintain a constant speed, but without going too fast. If you are descending, gently accelerate once you are reaching the base of the dune, so that you can get out of the slope without digging a hole in the sand with the face of your car.

Sand dune driving tips and recovery

Sand duning always comes with a risk of getting stuck with your vehicle. If you feel that you are starting to get bogged, try to slightly accelerate while driving in reverse along your tracks (do not make a turn!). If you get sucked all the way in and can’t get out, there are a few items that can come to your rescue:

  • Snatch straps - this will require a second vehicle, but it’s always useful to bring one along for other rescuing others or being rescued. You attach the strap to the recovery point of the bogged car and use the other vehicle to drag it out of the sand.
  • Lifting shackles - you will need some rather strong tow shackles that can handle heavy weight lifting. You use these to attach your snatch strap to your recovery point.
  • Sand ladder recovery boards - you place these under your wheels after you clear the sand beneath them so that you can get out. Kind of a portable pavement, useful in any kind of off-road environment, but essential on sand.
  • Long handled shovel - so that you can start digging and try to get as much sand out of the way. Clear the back wheels first and attempt to drive backwards. Any sturdy shovel will do, but make sure to wear gloves if they have a metal handle as they can get hot in the sun.
  • Plenty of water - you are likely to spend hours working hard in a hot beach or desert, so remember to stay hydrated.

Additonal safety tips for sand duning

Take your time to familiarize yourself with the terrain and pick your speed accordingly. Only practice off roading in designated OHV areas and displaying a whip flag on your vehicle so that others can see you. Wearing a helmet and protective gear is never a bad idea, and so is carrying a mobile phone, first aid kit, and plenty of water for hydration.


Next page: Where to go sand duning



Popular sand duning experiences and destinations

North America

Sand Duning in Oregon



The Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area (spanning from Florence to Coos Bay along the Oregon Coast) can be traversed off-road on a guided dune buggy tour or via private ATV rental. 

Sand Duning in Michigan



The Silver Lake Sand Dunes are divided in three areas: one for pedestrians, one for tour operators, and one for off-road vehicle (ORV) driving. You will need to purchase an ORV licence and trail permit before you go, which can be done online. Both motorbikes and ATVs are permitted, and all vehicles must display a safety flag mounted 10 feet off the ground. You can also rent a dune buggy or ATV from Silver Lake.

Sand Duning in Nevada

There are plenty of sand duning spots in and around Las Vegas, and you easily rent a dune buggy, ATV or quad from different tour operators. Nellis Dunes, Hidden Valley, Valley of Fire and El Dorado Canyon can all be reached off-roading from Las Vegas through the Mojave Desert.

Sand Duning in California



The Oceano Dunes States Park, about three miles south of Pismo Beach, is a huge recreational "OHV" (Off-Highway Vehicle) area for sand duning enthusiasts to roam freely. You can bring your own car or rent dune buggies, some of which are also suitable for kids. Sand duning in Pismo Beach is ideal for family trips and you can complement it with other activities such as hiking, sand sledding and camping.


South America

Sand Buggy in Peru

The oasis village of Huacachina is the most popular dune buggy destination in Peru, where you will have a chance to ride on a carro tubulare (“tubular car”) on some of the tallest white sand dunes in the world.

Read more: Dune Buggy and Sandboarding in Huacachina


EMEA

Sand Bashing in Dubai

In the UAE, sand duning is more commonly referred to as “dune bashing”, and it is usually included on a desert “safari” through the suggestive red sand dunes of the Arabian desert. It is an extremely popular activity and you can easily find a tour from either Dubai or Abu Dhabi. Not for the faint of heart!

Read more: Dune Bashing and Sandboarding in Dubai


Australia

Sand Duning Port Stephens and NSW

Sand dune safaris and quad adventures are popular in New South Wales and especially in the Stockton Beach area, stretching from Stockton to Anna Bay. Access to the area with private vehicles is possible but restricted: you will need a permit and ensuring to respect the environment of the beach and natural habitat refraining from driving on plants and grasses.


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