Before we get started, I need to state the obvious: you need a 4WD vehicle before you head down to the beach. I have seen a few modified VW bugs on the beach and these are an exception but I wouldn’t be too keen on driving anything but a 4WD on the sand.
Some of the smaller 4WD vehicles will struggle on a lot of beaches so make sure that you haven’t bitten off more than you can chew. The last thing that you need is to have a vehicle that struggles on the soft stuff.
It does pay to run the tyres on a lower setting for the beach. I like to operate on around 12-15psi. If you are going to drop the pressure in your tyres, ensure they are pumped back up again as soon as you are back on the highway. Tubeless tyres that are run this low on the road can loose their seal on the rim while going around a corner and deflate instantly so tread carefully until tyres are back up to their normal operating pressures.
Having a recovery kit is vital. A simple snatch strap made from nylon, planks of wood and a shovel or two are the basics. The snatch strap is for being towed out and being made of nylon means that it will stretch before popping you out of a bog. These things load like an elastic band, building more and more pressure until you are out. Never use wire rope and only as a last resort use standard rope. Make sure that everyone is well clear as the vehicle is being pulled from the sand as a snatch strap can snap and quickly become a nasty projectile.
The planks of wood have two functions. One is to place under the jack if you need to change a tyre. Jacks sink very quickly into the sand so having some boards long enough and thick enough to support the weight is a good idea. The boards also come in handy for getting out of a bog. Dig the sand out with the shovel and place boards under the tyres for traction.
The shovel is purely for digging yourself out of a bog. Dig a nice clear runway and remove all the built up sand from in front of the wheels and in a lot of situations you will find that you can drive straight out.
Extras that you can carry in the kit are water, first aid kit, spare radiator hose and fan belt as well as a handful of tools. A broken down vehicle on the beach as the tide is coming in can be a major problem. Some enthusiasts also carry a small air compressor with them to re-inflate the tyres after use.
The easiest way to run along a beach or on the tracks that are in soft sand is to follow the tracks of other vehicles. This way the sand is harder and you are not causing any unnecessary damage to the beach. Be careful to stay in the ruts though and if you need to turn off and go over the ruts, ensure that you do it at a safe speed as some of these ruts are very deep, causing the vehicle to tip at a steep angle.
Making your own tracks isn’t only the easiest way to get into trouble, but it’s also environmentally stupid. In the tidal zone of the beach there is no problem but when driving through sand dunes and scrub, always use the tracks provided. The sand dunes are a very fragile part of the environment, often only being held into place by spinifex grass. Once a sand dune has been damaged, it’s open to the elements and can be blown away. Birds nest in the sand dunes and, as a recent accident on Fraser Island proved, so do people. So ensure that you stick to the tracks.
When driving on the soft sand, use momentum to push you along instead of power. If you hit a soft spot, stamping on the gas will spin the wheels and have you bogged up to the axles in no time. The vehicle will slow as it passes through the soft sections of sand so apply gentle acceleration, ensuring the wheels don’t start to loose traction and you will pass over the soft patch with little problem.
Getting bogged is a fact of life when it comes to driving on the beach. If your 4WD comes to a halt, stamping on the accelerator will just guarantee that any chance you had of getting out of the situation is expelled. Simply allow the vehicle to come to a stop and try to reverse out of it. Don’t panic and try to accelerate too fast backwards and most of the time you will get out of it. If you can’t get out, I suggest digging your way out before you have the vehicle buried down to the axles. The more you spin the wheels, the deeper the car will sink and the more digging you will have to do.
Often you will need to use some speed or momentum to get around a soft corner so use your horn to warn vehicles coming the other way or better still, have someone get out of the car and watch around the corner if you can. Every sand track that I have ever driven on has been one lane going two ways so keep this in mind.
Driving on the beach at low tide is awesome. Dead flat, smooth and what a view! This is simple driving for the most part but there are a few things to watch out for on the hard sand.
Cars coming in the opposite direction can sometimes try passing you on the left instead of on your right. If you’re ever unsure of which way another vehicle is going to pass, indicate to the side that you intend to pass them on and if not already pointing in that direction, move your vehicle in such a way that clearly shows where you are going. On beaches like those at Fraser Island that see a lot of traffic, it’s common for drivers to use their vehicles indicators to show which way they intend to pass.
Another thing you will need to watch out for is the waves as they move up the beach. Hit a soft spot and a wave at the same time and things could get interesting. Soft spots are common even on what you would think is hard sand. You may be cruising along at 40km/h and hit a patch that starts to slow the car down. As long as it is not too soft, accelerate through it and you should be all right but if you’re worried about how soft it is, move higher up onto the beach before you loose all your momentum. On an incoming tide, the last thing that you want is to be caught just a few feet from the shore break.
Cut-outs are the number one cause of vehicle rollovers on the beach. Cut-outs are formed when the high tide leaves a pool of water high up on the beach. As the tide falls, this pool could be left behind and at some stage, it forms a channel to drain back into the surf. If this pool is large enough, all of this draining water can cut a very deep channel down the beach and these are almost impossible to see, even for the experienced beach driver.
I have seen cut-outs that are 5ft deep and heard guys talking about some that were deeper. The only way to spot these early is to pay attention to the top of the beach and look for areas where these pools may have been.
The deeper cut-outs usually are associated with pools that are very large so they are often easier to spot than the cut-out itself. Unfortunately, sand on a beach is one universal colour so holes are tough to spot. Around the summer holidays we have huge daytime spring tides and in June, we have big night spring tides. It’s these big highs and low lows that create the deep cut-outs so tread carefully.
While beach driving comes with its own set of driving problems, not too many are unsurmountable. If you take your time, have all the recovery gear you need and don’t go out with a gung-ho attitude, you will experience few problems on our beaches. On most beaches help is rarely too far away, so if you do get into serious trouble, it’s often best to sit it out and wait for another 4WD to come along a rescue you and your vehicle.Reads: 529