Words Dean Mellor
The key to successful sand driving is to run low air pressures in your tyres. Dropping pressure gives the tyre a longer footprint, which helps it to float over the sand rather than cut through it. Around 16psi (110kPa) will be adequate for most four-wheel drives running standard wheels, but you can always start a little higher and experiment by dropping pressure if you find your vehicle is struggling in the sand.
Air pressure gauges
To set the air pressure in your tyres you’ll need an air pressure gauge. There are several types of air pressure gauges on the market, from the el cheapo pencil-style gauges you can find at the local service station to more expensive, top-quality gauges with a large analogue or digital face.
A basic pencil-style gauge usually features a chrome-plated metal body and a plastic internal shaft with pressure markings on it. These can be surprisingly accurate and a handy addition to any vehicle’s glovebox, as they don’t take up much space; a great backup if your main gauge is left at home or is damaged. On the downside they can be a bit hard to read, especially in low-light situations. They are usually available with different increments, such as 10-100psi or 5-50psi. Unless you need to use it for checking high-pressure bicycle tyres, go for the 5-50psi model, as it will be easier to read and therefore to set accurate air pressures. At less than $10 a pop, you could probably even buy one of each.
A good quality analogue gauge with a large round face will be much easier to read than a pencil-style gauge. Look for a unit with a strong metal housing and a protective rubber guard, as well as a flexible hose for easy access to the tyre valve stem, and a reset button. Again, a gauge with a lower air-pressure scale will offer greater accuracy for off-road driving use than one with a higher scale.
The simplest way to let air out of your tyres is by depressing the valve with a pointy object, such as a stick, a car key or the specific point on the back of a pencil-style air pressure gauge. But this can be a slow and laborious process, especially if you let out too much air and you have to reinflate the tyres. Fortunately there are several tyre deflators on the market that make airing out an easy task.
A set of Staun tyre deflators is one of the most convenient tyre-deflation methods. These quality brass deflators come in a pack of four, pre-set to 18psi. All you have to do is screw them on to the tyre valve stem and they will deflate the tyre to that pre-set pressure. By the time you’ve screwed on the fourth one, chances are the first will have already completed its deflation process, so you can remove it and screw the dust cap back on, then move on to the next tyre. The pre-set pressure can be easily changed via an adjustor ring and there are several models available with varying adjustment ranges for different uses, such as rock crawling and sand driving.
One of the fastest deflation tools is an E-Z Deflator. This is a device that is screwed on to the valve stem and then allows the removal of the valve core. The E-Z Deflator won’t let air out of the tyre until a sleeve is pulled back, resulting in rapid deflation. It also features an accurate and easy-to-read analogue gauge. Once the desired air pressure has been attained, the valve core is screwed back in, the dust cap is replaced and you can move on to the next tyre.
As well as the ARB E-Z Deflator, companies such as Ironman, Opposite Lock and some of the larger automotive outlets such as Autobarn have similar valve-core removal deflators.
What goes down, must come back up… well, in the case of tyres, anyway, so you’re going to need a good quality air compressor to reinflate your tyres once you’re off the sand and back on the road.
There are many air compressors on the market and while some of the cheaper options are pretty good you certainly don’t want to be too stingy when it comes to tyre inflation.
Features to look for in an air compressor include a high flow rate for fast inflation, a high maximum pressure that exceeds what you’ll need to inflate your tyres to, thermal overload protection so it won’t overheat and destroy itself, and quality fittings such as a long and sturdy air hose and chuck. Portable units also need a long-enough power cable and quality battery clamps, and the compressor should be supplied in a sturdy carry bag or hard case.
Additional features that will make tyre inflation even easier include a trigger-style inflation gun with an inline air pressure gauge, and a pressure switch so you don’t have to manually turn the compressor on and off.
Some inline air pressure gauges will have a large analogue face for easy and accurate inflation, while others will offer a backlit digital readout with a choice of units (kPA, bar or psi). Either way, a deflation button on the side of the gauge will make it easier to achieve the desired pressure if you inadvertently overinflate the tyres.
Adding an air tank to your air compressor kit will allow for even faster tyre inflation, and help with quick bursts of air required when trying to reseat the bead of a totally deflated tyre.
When you’re driving in sand with low pressures in your tyres, there’s an increased risk of tyre damage, either through staking or peeling a tyre off the rim when cornering, so you’ll need the right gear to change and/or repair a tyre.
First up, make sure you have a suitable jack and wheel brace. Add some sort of wide base to your kit to support the jack when it’s being used in soft sand, such as a steel plate or a piece of timber. You can also use a shovel to dig around and under the tyre that needs changing.
A basic repair kit will include everything you need to effect a temporary repair of a tubeless-tyre puncture, including a reaming tool, an insertion needle, vulcanising repair cords and lubricant. Additional items in some kits include pliers, side-cutters, blades, extra tyre valves and a valve tool.
If your vehicle runs tyres with inner tubes, you’ll need some additional items in your tyre repair kit including tyre levers and vulcanising patches. A very handy tool for breaking stubborn tyre beads is a Tyrepliers bead breaker kit.
Tyre pressure monitoring systems (TPMS)
Some modern vehicles come standard with tyre pressure monitoring systems (TPMS) and for older rigs without such a set-up there are plenty of aftermarket options.
A TPMS will alert you of a slowly deflating tyre well before any lasting damage occurs. A TPMS consists tyre sensors at each wheel and dash-mounted display with an audible alarm. Some TPMS sensors are attached to the inside of a vehicle’s wheel before the tyre is fitted, either via a large metal ring (SmarTire) or on the backside of a special valve stem (SensaTyre), while others are external units that are simply screwed on to a standard valve stem (Tyredog).
As with any off-road driving, you should always carry suitable recovery gear when driving on sand. In fact, you probably have more chance of getting stuck in sand than anywhere else.
First and foremost, you should carry a long-handle shovel for sand recoveries. You’ll be amazed at how many times you can get ‘unstuck’ just be digging around the tyres and shifting sand from underneath your vehicle. Secondly, a set of quality recovery tracks such as MAXTRAX or TRED could prove invaluable.
You should carry a snatch strap and rated shackles in case you need to be pulled out of a situation by another vehicle, and make sure that your vehicle is fitted with rated recovery points for this purpose.
If you’re travelling alone and in a remote area, you should also carry a winch and associated equipment. Often when driving on the sand, whether at the beach or in the desert, suitable anchor points such as trees will be few and far between, so a ground anchor is another useful addition to your recovery kit… or you could always bury your spare wheel and use that to winch off – hard work, but effective.
The final word
As well as carrying the right gear when sand driving, you really need to have the right attitude. Respect the sand, especially when driving in dunes, and especially when in remote areas. Conditions can change rapidly with wind, heat and rain, and changing topography can be hard to see, especially on overcast days when there are no shadows to aid visibility. Sand driving can be intimidating for novice four-wheel drivers but with a little practice it will soon become second nature. And with the right gear you’ll be able to get back home even if you do get stuck.