The desert is one of the most inhospitable environments on earth. Men need food, water, and shelter to survive; all of these things are absent or scarce in these vast stretches of heat and sand. For some people, that challenge creates an irresistible allure. If you’re an off-road enthusiast, this unique terrain might provide just the sort of adventure you’re craving. However, you’ll need to go above and beyond the essential upgrades to your tires, lift kits, and driveshafts. The right preparations can unlock some of the most majestic and surreal landscapes you can find in the US. Here’s an overview of what it takes to go off-roading on the sands.
Gear up for survival
Desert conditions are not only harsh for humans but also for your ride. Your vehicle should be freshly serviced by a specialist technician, full-on fuel, and upgraded to handle general off-road conditions. As for clothing, cover yourself thoroughly-including earplugs, goggles, and a face mask-to keep sand out.
You’ll want to bring a first aid kit, repair tools, and spare parts. In addition to reserve fuel and oil, make sure you have extra coolant, filters, and fan belts. Pack a shovel and winch recovery system just in case you get stuck in the sand.
If anything goes wrong during a typical off-road trip, most people don’t need to panic. There are well-defined trails where you can encounter people who can help, and spending the night in case of an emergency is no big deal. That’s not the case when you get stuck in the desert. Store plenty of food and water in a portable freezer, and have a tarp handy for cover as well as some warm clothing or blankets; no matter the season, deserts will get cold at night.
Finally, relying on your GPS and mobile phone for communications is a recipe for disaster. Get a map of the area (and know how to read it). HF radios will let you connect to the outside world when mobile coverage is lost. Take a beacon locator with you so that others will have an easier time finding you in an emergency.
Level up your driving skills
Driving on the sand is unlike most types of terrain, and it’s something few people get to experience beforehand. Keeping it slow is the way to go; you want to maintain your momentum at a manageable level. This will help you stay aware of the terrain and respond promptly.
Desert sand is loose, but it can be compact under certain conditions. Well-traveled areas may have firm sand. The surface will seem like a dry crust, with less sand blowing out. The moisture from cold evenings or after a rare thunderstorm will have a similar effect and keep the sand compact for a time. In these situations, you can shift to a higher gear. Otherwise, stick with a lower gear range.
Tire pressure should also be low, around 15 psi. This flattens out the tire, giving it a greater area of contact with the surface. With a higher pressure, your wheels are more compact and likely to dig into the sand. However, low tire pressure also means that the side walls are more vulnerable to damage from objects buried in the sand, so keep an eye on the track at all times.
Follow safety practices
Exploring the desert in the relative safety of a 4×4 doesn’t mean you can ignore various safety measures. For starters, despite what the barren landscape may suggest, you’re probably not alone. Other off-road enthusiasts may be sharing the area. You should have a flag mounted on a whip mast to make yourself visible from a distance, or when mounting a crest.
Speaking of crests, you’re probably stoked to ride dunes. But until you have more experience, err on the side of caution. Driving on a dune feels like going across the water. It’s very tricky, and until you get the hang of ‘listening’ to your car’s movement, you’d best drive around dunes instead. Remember that if you do go down a slope, you might have to climb back up-unless you’re confident that might be a situation to avoid.
Weather conditions in the desert can change rapidly. Make sure you head off dunes or other elevations if you see a thunderstorm nearing. If a sandstorm approaches, turn your vehicle away from its direction, and stay inside until it passes. Try to park on a downward incline, so that you can use natural momentum to start moving again.
Desert adventures have never been for the faint of heart, but if you take these preparations seriously, you’ll be able to enjoy some of the greatest experiences on earth.