Driving in sand dunes almost feels like you’re on another planet. Here are some tips to help prepare you for this unique experience, so you can have a successful trip.By Jeff White – December 8, 2015

This article applies to the Jeep Wrangler JK (2007-Present).

Sand dunes is one of the most unique terrains to go off-roading in your Jeep. It almost feels like you are on another planet, or in some far off land. There are a few places in the United States where you can go driving in sand dunes similar to the Middle East and the Sahara Desert. A number of them are in California, such as Glamis or Pismo Beach.

Driving in sand dunes requires a different set of skills and vehicle setup than driving on most other off-road terrains. Sand is very soft and in most places, where dunes are present, it can be extremely deep. The dunes also create a landscape that nothing else can compare to.

Most of the tips here in this article will pretty much apply to any vehicle, not just Jeep Wranglers, and are good things to think about before going off into the dunes for the first time. You will be amazed at some of the things that work in the dunes that don’t necessarily fall into line with most other off-road terrains.

Material Needed

  • Tire pressure gauge

Step 1 – Check vehicle

Before going on your off-road adventure, you will first need to make sure your vehicle is in peak mechanical condition. In sand dunes, you are going to need all the power that your vehicle has to offer. This means making sure that it is in the condition to provide you with this needed power. Dune driving will also usually require your engine to operate at higher RPMs for a longer duration, so making sure that it is ready to do this is extremely important. A fresh oil change and filter, spark plugs, and a fresh air filter is where you should start. If you have any check engine lights on, it would be a good idea to get those taken care of also.

Figure 1. Check your fluid and replace as necessary.

Step 2 – Tires

Tires are a very important part to sand dune driving. Other than your driving technique, this might be the most important thing to focus on. With dune driving, it’s not all about an aggressive tread pattern like with other off-road driving. It’s about having a large footprint and keeping the tire from digging into the sand. To make sure that we have the largest footprint available from the tires on our vehicle, we need to air down. This will make the tire widen where it contacts the terrain, proving it with a much larger footprint than normal. How much do we air down? Well, that actually depends on the tire, but you should be safe with 12 to 15psi on most street tires. What you don’t want to do is air down too much and cause the bead to roll off the wheel. If you have deadlocks, then you can air down much farther.

As far as tread goes, sometimes the balder or more compact the tread, the better. I had an F150 FX4 one time with SUV tires on it, which were the farthest from an aggressive tread design you could get, and it would go anywhere in the sand even without airing down. I used to have to pull people out all day. It dominated in the sand compared to the lifted Tahoe Z71 that I had prior to that with 35″ tires with an aggressive tread design and being aired down.

One thing to remember is that if you are going to air down, you will need a way to air back up again when you want to get back on the road. So you will either need to bring a compressor that you can operate from the vehicle or know a place close to the dunes where you can air back up again. I know in Glamis this is common, but I am not sure about other places.

Figure 2. Footprint versus tire pressure.

(Related Article: Portable Air compressor Reviews – JK-Forum.com)

Step 3 – Transfer case selection

I will assume that since this is an article on Jeep Wranglers that yours is equipped with 4WD. It is possible to drive in sand with 2WD, but that requires different equipment and a different approach to your driving style. With 4WD, what you want to remember is if the sand is on the soft side, keep it in 4HI. If the sand is wet or on the harder side, then you can go to 4LO. The reason for this is because you want to keep up momentum when in the sand, especially in soft sand, and 4LO will cause the gearing to be too short and not allow you to maintain the speed you need. You also don’t want to apply too much torque at such a slow speed, as this will cause the tires to dig in and we don’t want that. Of course, if you do find yourself in some sand that is wet and is starting to become thick and muddy, then switching to 4LO will be the way to go.

Step 4 – Momentum

This is where your driving style will play an importance. You only get stuck in the sand at slow speeds. Nobody ever gets stuck in the sand going fast. So after you have all of your mechanical variables covered to help you keep your speed up, now it’s up to you. This will require you to shift at the correct time if you have a manual, or shifting your automatic into the right gear at the right time to keep yourself moving at a good enough speed so you don’t dig in.

Figure 3. This is what happens when you lose momentum cresting a dune.

Step 5 – Drive smooth and pick your lines

Keeping the momentum that you need to keep yourself from getting stuck will require you to operate your vehicle with smooth inputs and picking your driving line far ahead of where you are headed. If you turn too abruptly, it could cause the front tires to dig in, which will lose you momentum. If you don’t pick the proper driving line, you could drive in sand that is much deeper and softer, causing you to lose momentum. Try driving in other people’s tracks as long as you see that their tracks keep going and don’t come to a stop. This means that they probably got stuck there. If you are going to drive where you don’t see tracks, aim straight and pick up even more momentum. It’s going to seem counter-intuitive, but try and stay off the brake pedal. You shouldn’t need the brakes too much, as sand will slow you down pretty effectively, so try and keep the wheels from slowing down unnecessarily. Last but not least, you are going to have to stop eventually. Before stopping, try and find a spot that looks firm and higher than the other areas around you. This will help when it’s time to get going again.

Figure 4. Follow the path of those who came before you.

Step 6 – Recovery equipment

Now comes the part nobody wants to talk about. Getting stuck. It’s going to happen, and when it does, you want to be prepared. In the sand, I would say there are three things that you can equip yourself with at a minimum to make getting stuck not so bad. A tow strap, preferably one rated to the weight of your vehicle. Ensure you also have good, solid tow points at the front and rear of your vehicle. A shovel; this will come in handy to dig your tires out if they get too deep in the sand. Finally, sand ramps. Sand ramps are actually a product that is offered so that if you get stuck, you place these in front of your tires and use them to drive on, which will lift you out of the sand. You can make your own sand ramps out of wood or metal. I’ve also seen some people use a roll of carpet, or their floor mats if they failed to bring their own.

Figure 5. Traction strips.

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