Towing on sand is easy when you follow these simple rules
Beach driving looks daunting if you’ve never done it. Perhaps it’s those images of vehicles bogged hopelessly, while the incoming tide rushes through them. Add a camper trailer or caravan – scary! But it needn’t be that way if you take a little care and use a few ‘smarts’.
Good ground clearance under your tow car and towed trailer is a big help if you are in soft sand.
This can be a bigger handicap that you might imagine in many modern faux-4WDs that use plastic undertrays for aerodynamic purposes or have protruding brake cooling ducts. While these are great on the bitumen, they can turn into sand scoops on the beach and the lower you sit, the more sand you will scoop... which in turn will get into your brakes, perhaps clog your transmission breather, etc, etc.
As you travel along the beach you’ll see plenty of evidence of this in the tortured plastic bits left by the wayside.
Extra weight means that your vehicle will sit lower and will have less ground clearance. If you don’t really need all that stuff for your beach drive, leave it back at camp or don’t take it at all!
Everyone knows that salt water can be corrosive. So can salt spray and salty sand.
At some beachside towns, locals offer an oily underbody spray to protect your car from salt corrosion. In theory, it’s a good idea, but it can be messy to get off.
A thorough rinsing with clean water afterwards, making sure you get up into the crevices of the mudguards, will do just as well, but don’t overdo it with a high-pressure cleaner, or you may get water into the vehicle’s electrics.
Time and tides
Here are a few simple rules. If you can, travel as early as you can in the morning and as close to low tide as possible.
Cool, damp sand is denser and won’t allow your vehicle to dig in like the soft, hot sand you’ll need to negotiate further up the beach if you travel in the heat of the day at high tide.
You can check tides times in most areas by your phone, but be sure they are the times for as close to where you will be travelling as possible, as they vary up the coast.
Another good reason to travel as early as possible is if you get stuck, you’ll have a better chance of getting help from passing travellers!
The more ‘bag’ in your tyres, the easier they will ride across sand, rather than dig in.
Generally, most people agree that 18psi is ideal both for tow cars and towed trailers, but that’s only a guide. You can probably get through on firm, cool, sand at higher pressures, while you can also drop your tyre pressures much lower, but if you do the latter you run the risk of rolling the tyre off the rim, particularly if you try turning at the same time as you accelerate.
There are several useful devices on the market that allow you to pre-set your intended pressure before screwing them onto your tyre valve as a replacement for your valve cap.
These save a lot of time, as you can drop all your tow vehicle and trailer pressures at once.
The ‘budget’ way is to use a blunt object to depress the tyre valve fully and count the time it takes you to reach your desired pressure, Then, repeat the procedure on your other tyres, without a tyre gauge. One or two psi either way won’t make a difference at the reduced speed you’ll be travelling on the sand.
Talking of speed, you need to be as observant of posted speed limits on the beach as on the highway for safety reasons, as other beach users often do unpredictable things (like stopping without warning in the middle of the ‘road’ to chat), but even if there aren’t any signs, 70-80 km/h is probably as fast as you should ever travel on hard sand.
One reason is to avoid over-heating your deflated tyres, but another better one is to allow you time to stop if conditions change unexpectedly. Anyone who has travelled high on the beach on Fraser Island will know how fresh water inlets can sometimes erode the sand, leaving a cleavage up to a metre deep in the sand that I guarantee you won’t want to drop into!
Most modern SUVs have an electronic traction control system that cuts engine power to a spinning wheel. It’s a great idea on wet bitumen; less so on sand, where power can be king.
As momentum is important to get you thorough soft sand, you should turn it off before heading across the soft and churned-up sand that usually separates the beach from its access road.
There is no hard and fast answer here, as it depends on the sand. If you have already lowered your tyre pressures and turned off traction control for the soft sand, your tow car alone may get through with a run up in high range. However, if you're towing, I’d recommend low range and a few revs to get up some momentum.
Once on the beach, you may prefer to go back to high range if the sand is cool and firm, but be prepared to drop back a gear if you strike a soft patch to maintain your momentum.
Despite all the above, unexpected conditions or a lapse in concentration may see you stuck and when your wheels start spinning and your speed drops, you will dig a trench pretty quickly. The real problem here is that the belly of your tow car will soon be sitting on the sand with your wheels spinning uselessly, rather like a beached turtle.
If you're travelling on a mainstream beach not too late in the day, you’ll soon find a friendly fellow traveller to help you out. Problem is, they may not have the means to do so unless one of you carries a snatch strap, which is why you should always carry your own when travelling solo.
If you’ve picked the wrong time to travel on a lonely beach and you’re stuck fast, you’ll need to use both your head and your hands to get free.
Let’s start with a shovel, which is the other essential item you should carry. I carry a three-piece Bushranger ‘Digger’, which is small enough to fit in the boot.
You need one to clear a path in front of each of your tyres down to the depth they are bogged, so that you are not pushing a wall of sand ahead of them.
If that doesn’t work, you will need to put something solid in these trenches for the tyres to grip on, such as rocks, sticks, etc.
Even better, use a dedicated recovery product like a pair, or even four MaxTrax, which can be stored easily when not in use, but when placed in front of your tyres gives them a solid surface to bite on.
When you get traction, keep on going until you reach solid ground before recovering your MaxTrax.
Raise the pressure
Once you have finished beach driving, it’s important to raise your tyre pressures for gravel or bitumen travel.
Leaving the tyres low on rocky surfaces leaves their baggy walls exposed to rock damage or being pinched between the rim and the road; on bitumen, the rapid heat build-up can lead to premature sidewall and carcass failure.
If you plan to drive a few kilometres on bitumen to a convenient spot to reinflate them, keep your speed below 70km/h at the most and keep it slower if turning.
Once you’ve finished with your sand driving, get a fresh water hose under both your car and trailer as soon as possible. Don’t leave it a week until the salt embedded in the sand that finds its way into every small crevice has a chance to attack your metal surfaces.
A regular hose with a good pressure should do the job, but if you’re using a coin-in-the-slot wash, make sure you get right underneath the vehicles and don’t get over-excited with the high-pressure spray on engine components.
Sand-driving is a wonderful thing to do if you use your head – and your vehicle – properly. Enjoy!