My first trip into the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia taught me the most important lesson of desert exploration that I ever learned: DON'T DO STUPID THINGS!
The desert is unforgiving and doesn't treat fools lightly. Here is how I learned that lesson.
After a four hour drive from Riyadh, we arrived on the northern edge of the Empty Quarter and filled up with gas at Harad. We left the asphalt and half a dozen cars lined up on a desert track awaiting instructions for our first trip into the Empty Quarter. We stopped our vehicles and gathered around our fearless leader. Our plan was to drive south into the twilight and set up camp in the dark when we had some distance under our belt on our way to Nadqan.
We returned to our vehicles, and everyone started their engines except for one vehicle. A Nissan Patrol came all the way to the edge of the Empty Quarter only to have its starter fail. The battery was fine, but the starter was dead. Zero, zip, nada.
We were up to our axles in disappointment. The sensible thing to do would be to abort the trip into the Empty Quarter. Everyone had prepared for the trip, and this was the only time the white Nissan could go. It was at that point we decided to do something stupid. We made the decision that we would push start the vehicle and forge ahead into the desert with a broken starter. Fools walk in where angels fear to tread.
We started up our Defender and headed into the Empty Quarter. We were about to learn an important lesson. Push starting cars in the sand dunes does not work well. On a positive note, we were on the threshold of learning how to recover a bogged vehicle with no functioning starter.
The trip to Nadqan is not particularly arduous unless you do stupid things. Nadqan formerly was an Aramco outpost when they explored the Empty Quarter for oil. Large corrugated tracks took us south over the gravel plains and sheet sand of the northern Empty Quarter. As long as we stayed on the track, going was easy. If we left the track, going was more challenging mainly because we were novices and did not know what to expect or what we were doing.
We set up camp and were excited that we had actually made it into the Rub-Al-Khali. The next morning we push started the Nissan and resumed our journey south. So far so good.
Then we came to the sand dunes. That's when we realized the error of our ways. We had done something stupid.
The white Nissan Patrol got stuck in the sand dunes at least ten times. Recovering a vehicle that does not have a starter means you have to extract the vehicle from the sand with either a winch or snatch strap with no help from the vehicle that lies dead in the sand. To top it off, the ambient temperature was in excess of 100 degrees. This was the recipe for heat stroke as we recovered the vehicle again and again.
The individual driving the Nissan Patrol was a novice the same as us, and we were amazed at how many times he became stuck. After extracting the vehicle half a dozen times, he asked us whether he should put the vehicle in four wheel drive when he got stuck. Unbelievably, he had been driving in the sand dunes in two wheel drive, and the only time he put the vehicle in four wheel drive was when he got stuck. At that point, our fearless leader went apoplectic. What we were doing was dangerous because of the extreme heat. We were digging with shovels, placing sand ladders, winching, pushing the Nissan by hand in more than one-hundred degree temperatures for hours on end. My wife became overheated turning beet red, and we aborted heat stroke by loading her up with fluid and putting her in the shade.
It took a long time to recover the Nissan because when the driver stalled the engine, the only way to get the car started again was to winch it, tow it, and push it to firm ground where the vehicle could be push started once again. Sometimes the vehicle had to be moved long distances before we could reach hard ground and get the vehicle running on its own power.
We learned lots about recovering bogged vehicles with winches, sand ladders, shovels, and snatch straps. We learned that you don't go into the Empty Quarter unless you are carrying a spare starter. We learned that when you take novices into deep desert, you don't assume anything about their skills in running their vehicle. You must have them demonstrate that they know how to put their vehicle in four-wheel drive, and they must demonstrate their ability to actually do it by watching them make it happen. Finally, we learned to not do stupid things. If a vehicle does not have a functioning starter, it does not go into the Empty Quarter.
WHEN YOU ARE IN A HOLE, STOP DIGGING.
The first lesson of sand driving is that when you are in a hole, you stop digging. Whatever you were doing that got you into the hole, you must stop doing that, and start doing something positive. If you don't stop digging, you will only make vehicle recovery more difficult.
What exactly is digging? When you spin your tires without making any forward or reverse progress, you are digging.
Green Defender is not going any where except down if I continue spinning the wheels. All forward progress has ceased, and spinning the wheels only digs the Defender in deeper making the situation worse and the recovery more difficult.
The rear wheels have dug in further than the front because there is more weight on the rear axle (13 jerry cans of fuel plus water and camping gear). Since the rear wheels are following in the track of the front wheels, they are usually deeper in the sand than the front when I bog down. The rear wheels are always running in a hole created by the front wheels. Sometimes the front wheels are buried deeper than the rear, but that usually reflects an anomaly in the softness of the sand. Occasionally the rear wheels may be on firmer ground than the front, and the front sinks further down than the rear.
When we first started driving we in sand, we did a lot of digging. We would optimistically spin our tires until we were terminally stuck. It didn't take long to figure out the error of our ways.
We learned from our mistakes and changed our approach. When we drove in the sand, and it became obvious that we were going to bog down, we stopped the car before we had much wheel spin. Then every able bodied person got out of the vehicle and pushed. Sometimes the driver even pushed. He put the car in first gear low range, hopped out of the vehicle and pushed with everyone else. In first gear low range on a Defender, you can walk alongside the vehicle at a leisurely pace for hours on end, and the vehicle will never leave you in the bull dust. With four people pushing, the truck would have enough forward motion that the tires would bite into new sand, and it would move forward without digging in. We have used the pushing technique hundreds of times to get through a patch of sand that would otherwise stop us in our tracks. You quickly develop a sense of the possible when driving in sand.
The pushing technique has one limitation. It works best with white Defenders, because in the blazing hot Arabian sun, you can cook an egg on the surface of a green Defender. When you get out to push, you put on gloves so that you don't burn your hands while pushing. If it's winter, then gloves are not necessary, but when it's 100 degrees and full on sun, it's time for gloves for everyone who's going to push.
In the real world of sand driving, we did a lot of pushing if it avoided getting seriously bogged down. But even when we were pushing, if there was no positive movement of the vehicle, we stopped. It doesn't do any good to push when the tires are digging in.
Although it should go without saying, you don't push uphill. If you are going to push, you push on flat surfaces or downhill. You are not going to recover a fully loaded expeditionary vehicle by pushing up hill. There is one exception to this rule. If you drive your truck into a hole, you may actually push the truck uphill as it drives back and forth in the hole trying to get up enough speed to blast out of the hole.
My first few trips into the desert sands, I followed the advice of our expedition leader regarding the best tire pressure for driving in sand. We followed a masochistic ritual of lowering our tire pressure to 25 psi and driving until someone got stuck. Then we would lower our tire pressure to 20 psi and drive some more until another vehicle got stuck. Eventually we dropped the pressure down to 16 psi, and people rarely got stuck.
I always wondered why we didn't immediately drop the tire pressure to 16 psi when we entered the dunes. It made sense to me, and finally I made 16 to 18 psi my modus operandi in the sand dunes of the Empty Quarter.
We ran modified sand tires called Michelin XS. These tires have soft sidewalls and balloon nicely when running in sand at 16 psi. Green Defender shows the appearance of the Michelin XS running in the sand. We ran on Michelin tires at those pressures for years, and we never had a tire failure or lost the bead. We never slipped a rim, and I do not know of anyone who slipped a rim at those pressures when operating in the sand.
The Michelins did well at those pressures as long as we were in the dunes driving at speeds of up to 45 kilometers/hr. If you ever ran on asphalt with the Michelins at 16 psi, you would quickly destroy them. They would get so hot that you could not touch them. One Defender in our group once had a slow leak that he did not know about, and he drove on the asphalt on a soft tire until someone noted what was happening. He pulled over to the side of the road, and we could not touch the tire without burning our hands. We had to wear gloves to take the tire off.
In the daytime, tires may be running in an ambient temperature of 100 or more degrees. At night, the temperature in the desert can easily drop 40 degrees.
When you wake up in the cool of the morning and look at your tires, they may appear disturbingly flat. 16 psi in 100 degree heat sometimes is less than 10 psi in the morning. You look at your rear tires and wonder if you have a slow leak. We never discovered a leak. The tire was down because of the cooler night air.
We got out our ARB compressor and brought the tire back up to 16 psi before we left camp. Later in the day when things warmed up, we let some air out of the tire to get it back down to 16 psi after the tired heated up.
You can tell that it got cold in the desert at night in this picture because the tire is ballooning so much, and the person sleeping on the roof rack is bundled up in a cool weather sleeping bag.
The sand equation changes significantly when you run Shaheen sand tires on your Defender. The Shaheen and similar tires do extremely well in sand. They have excellent flotation with higher tire pressures, and the situation only gets better as you lower tire pressure. White Defender is running Sumitomo Shaheens.
Shaheens are great on sand, but dangerous on wet highways. They hydroplane like you are driving on ice. Scary stuff when you apply the brakes, and the Defender floats down the highway with a mind of its own.
The lead vehicle in the dunes does all the route finding. If there is a soft stretch of sand ahead, he is the one to discover it first. It's extremely helpful for the lead vehicle to be running a set of Shaheen sand tires so that he is not always getting stuck, and we are not spending hours each day recovering his vehicle.
Shaheens make a big difference. A lead vehicle equipped with Shaheens and a heavy foot on the accelerator makes it possible to cover much more ground because your column of vehicles is rolling rather than recovering stuck vehicles.
The lead vehicle lays down a set of tracks that reveal where the sand is soft and where it is firm. That gives the following vehicles a great advantage. When you see a soft patch ahead, you put the hammer down and blast through. You can only do that because a route finder showed the way with his Shaheens.
I have seen things done with Shaheens that I could never do with my Michelin XS. The Toyota Landcruiser in this picture soldiers on through a sea of soft sand on his Shaheens. I watched this vehicle air down to 8 psi and drive out of soft sand. The disciplined driver does not spin his tires and dig in. He puts the transfer case into low, and slowly moves forward a millimeter at a time.
Having the ability to drive out of a bogging is worth it's weight in gold when you have lots of miles that you want to cover. If you can drive out with low tire pressures, then you abort all the drama of a full fledged vehicle recovery.
If this Land Cruiser cannot drive out, then you have to walk down from the top of the dune and tramp through all of the surrounding sand to find some firm ground. Then you have to get a vehicle to that location to participate in the recovery without getting a second vehicle bogged in sand. Once you have a plan, it's winch or snatch strap time if fate smiles favorably on you. If you are not lucky, it's time for the sand ladders, shovels, and pushing.
In ten years of driving in the Arabian desert, I have seen a Shaheen lose its bead and slip on a rim only one time. That incident did not happen in sand. It occurred on firm ground as a Defender was entering a deeply grooved track at an oblique angle, and when the tire slid suddenly into the track with a sharp lateral movement, it broke the bead and slipped the tire on the rim. Not a bad record for a ten year period.
My comments about dropping the tire pressure to 16 psi apply only to driving in soft sand. We often varied our tire pressure according to prevailing conditions. On the highway, I ran 45 psi on the rear tires, and 35 psi on the front. When we headed off-road, those levels of pressure would result in a jarring and uncomfortable ride that was hard on the truck. We could drop the front pressure to 25 psi and the rear pressure to 35 psi to be kind to ourselves and our vehicle.
When it was time to air up, we used an ARB air compressor to bring tire pressure up to 35 psi all around. It took about four to five minutes per tire when the compressor was new, and as the compressor aged, it took five to six minutes per tire.
We are sand people, and we spent about 70 percent of our desert time in the sand.
Camping is better in the sand, and driving in it is pure joy.
We camped in the desert between sixty and ninety nights a year, and even in the summer time, we would go up into the dunes at twilight and set up camp as the cooler evening temperatures set in.
Because we spent so much time in the sand, we gave our ARB air compressors a good workout.
On average we found that an ARB air compressor would last two years with that type of duty cycle.
When the compressors became tired, we either rebuilt them or purchased new ones. We carried a rebuild kit in the truck in the event of a compressor failure which never happened. I did all of my rebuilds at home.
One of the first pieces of gear that I purchased when I prepared my Defenders for the desert was a small clamp that I used to retract the mud flaps on the Defender away from the tires to protect the mud flap as we recovered the vehicle.
If I did not retract the mud flaps out of the way, the tires would rip them off and run over them as you recovered the vehicle in reverse.
Green Defender is bogged to the axles in soft sand. Recovering the vehicle in a forward direction is doing things the hard way as there is hundreds of feet of soft sand in front of the vehicle. The smart thing to do is to bring the vehicle out in reverse. The really smart thing to do is to retract the mud flaps out of the way so they don't get ripped off.
The mud flap is directed backward because the vehicle bogged down when traveling in a forward direction. Imagine what would happen if you reverse the direction of travel. The mud flap moves forward as the vehicle backs up. The mud flap engages the tread on the Michelin XS, and the tire tries to climb up the mud flap as you travel in reverse. The outcome is predictable and sure. The Michelin rips the mud flap off the vehicle with a loud bang. That's exactly what happened.
In this picture you see the mud flap directed backward in the sand. In the next photograph, the mud flap is gone.
The left forward mud flap is now permanently buried eight inches below the sand somewhere in the Empty Quarter as a memorial to my inattentiveness to detail. It's not a serious mistake, but it is an unnecessary one.
A simple metal clip like this attached to the bottom of the mud flap and a small piece of string to retract the flap out of the way would have prevented this act of self-destruction. It's a simple solution that costs a few dollars.
I only ripped off one mud flap during a vehicle recovery, but I had quite a fright when the mud flap came off. Ripping a large chunk of rubber from a secure attachment point creates a loud bang. For a second I thought that I had a major problem with a differential or some component in the drive train. You don't want to hear loud bangs during vehicle recovery. Breaking things in deep desert is bad news.
RECOVERY FROM A SERIOUS SAND BOGGING
When you are up to your axles in sand, you have lots of options, and all of them are good. Some are more work than others, and some are quite expensive. Your budget determines your options. If you don't mind having a light wallet, there are plenty of expensive ways to recover your vehicle from deep sand.1. Sand Ladders
The best low budget recovery tool is sand ladders welded together from angle iron. They are easy to make and mount on your vehicle.
You can fabricate the sand ladder any size you want, but bigger is not necessarily better. Bigger is heavier, and bigger bends easier, and neither of these characteristics are helpful on an expeditionary vehicle. You don't want to transport unnecessary weight on your truck. If you use sand ladders a great deal, then you design a pair that is appropriate for your vehicle. They only need to be long enough to get the vehicle moving, and if you keep them short, they won't bend when you drive on them. Even if they bend a bit, you can straighten them out by flipping them over and driving on the other side of the sand ladder.
In Arabia, we cut up enough angle iron to create four sand ladders, and then we took them to a welder to assemble them into their definitive ladder shape.
You attach a small loop of chain and a short rope to each sand ladder. The rope serves a dual purpose. It is a convenient tether that you use to drag the sand ladder over the sand if you need to use the ladders more than once. More importantly, the tether locates the ladder after the vehicle drives on top of it and buries it deeply in the sand. The tether shows you where the sand ladder is, and when you pull on the tether, the ladder pops out of its hiding place in the sand.
Angle iron sand ladders are easy to use. Shovel the sand out from in front of and behind the tire, and then jam the edge of the sand ladder under the tire. Put your car in first gear low, and drive up on the sand ladder. If you are lucky, you will gain enough momentum to keep going. If you sink in the sand again, you reposition the sand ladders and take off once again in low gear. You usually need to use the sand ladders once or twice before you are on your way. If the sand is exceptionally soft, and you are twenty-five feet into a sea of soft sand, you may need to use the sand ladders four or five times before your are free.
Sand ladders are theoretically easy to use, but they involve physical work to use them properly. You have to clear sand from around the tire before you can jam the sand ladder into position. If the weather is cool and there are lots of people to assist in the recovery, then sand ladders work well, But if the sand is deep, if you need to place the ladders multiple times, if there are only two people to do the work, and if it's extremely hot, sand ladders can result in heat exhaustion. The sand ladders will get you out of trouble eventually if you don't kill yourself with heat stroke.
When it's sand ladder time, you may want to lower your tire pressure further to gain more flotation from the tires. Clean the sand from around the tires. Drag the sand ladders to their respective tires, and jam them into position. It's worth having everyone push on the vehicle as the truck drives up on the sand ladders as it may impart more momentum that will keep the vehicle from bogging down again until it reaches solid ground.
On this green Defender, the sand ladders are mounted on an L-shaped angle iron bracket attached to the front bumper.
On this white Defender, the small angle iron sand ladders are mounted on the right and left sides of the roof rack.
Red Defender has his sand ladders mounted on an L-shaped bracket attached to his front bumper.
My green Defender has sand ladders held securely in place by a clamp on the roof rack just behind the jerry cans.
Here is another view of my sand ladders mounted on the back section of my roof rack.
Even Bedouins use angle iron sand ladders for their water trucks. We found this water truck bogged down in sand in the southern Empty Quarter as he was preparing to use his large sand ladders to liberate his truck. This truck only has two wheel drive, but an enterprising and fearless Bedouin with a set of sand ladders can take a two wheel drive truck a hundred kilometers into the dunes. He picks his route carefully and shows what you can accomplish with two wheel drive when you know what you are doing.
Angle iron sand ladders are affordable and easy to construct anywhere in the world. If you bend them, you can flip them over and run over them to bend them back in position. They have a small footprint and do not attract attention. They are a low profile sand accessory that you can take anywhere in the world, and when people look at them, they will think you are clever, but definitely not rich. In third world expeditionary travel, anything that makes you look clever, ordinary, and not rich is a good asset. You don't want to attract the attention of financial predators that might regard you as a source of potential income. If someone steals your rusty sand ladders, you will not shed a tear, because in some remote corner of Bongo Congo there is a welder who will happily fabricate another set of sand ladders at an affordable price.
PERFORATED STEEL OR ALUMINUM PLATE
Perforated steel or aluminum plate makes excellent sand ladders. I have never used them, but I have seen videos of them working their magic. If you don't mind carrying large chunks of sheet metal on the side of your expeditionary vehicle, they may be exactly what you need for when you get that sinking feeling in the sand dunes of life.
They are a bit expensive and their large size attracts attention. If someone steals them, they will be hard to replace. I would be happy to have them on any of my Defenders because I believe that they are honest sand accessories that perform as advertised.
Maxtrax is an awesome sand ladder. I have never had the opportunity to use Maxtrax with my Defenders, but I am confident that they would make quick business of recovering a vehicle in sand.
Color would be important to me if I was going to use Maxtrax in the third world. I would choose black over orange because I think the black would attract less attention. Most people in the third world are good at sizing up people passing though their territory, and I would carry the black so that fewer people would notice the Maxtrax. I would try to place them on my roof rack in a low profile configuration so that people would not notice they are there unless they climbed up on the roof rack to have a look. If someone stole my Maxtrax in the third world, it would probably be a major challenge replacing them.
Videos of Maxtrax in action show that the far end of the Maxtrax flips up when the tire engages the end of the Maxtrax that is jammed under the tire. The same teeter-totter effect happens when you use long angle iron sand ladders as well. One of the reasons to have shorter sand ladders is to prevent the sand ladder from flipping up and engaging the underside of the truck. I would love to try the Maxtrax in the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia. I think they would be more efficient that my angle iron sand ladders. I suspect that I would need to carry four Maxtrax sand ladders when traveling in big dunes. With a fully loaded expeditionary vehicle, I would not want to shock load my front half shafts/differentials or rear half shafts/differentials with a single set of Maxtrax. It would be much safer to have all four tires simultaneous engage the Maxtrax and spread the load evenly through the entire drive train. The most vulnerable half shaft in a Defender 110 is the left rear. If the left rear instantly took all the strain, it could be the end of the half shaft. The hub drives are also a vulnerable point where you can strip out the splines on the hubs. It would be a good idea to spread that load so that one hub drive didn't get overloaded because of the excellent traction provided by the Maxtrax. I would love to have Maxtrax on my Defender 110. In the USA I would be happy with either the orange or black Maxtrax. In the third world, I would go for the black Maxtrax because they would attract less attention.
SNATCH STRAP TO THE RESCUE
A snatch strap works wonders in the right conditions. Some boggings are ready made for the use of a snatch strap. As long as the strap isn't buried in an inaccessible black hole somewhere in your vehicle, the snatch strap can make a quick and easy recovery.
The main limitation to most snatch straps is the length of the strap. Most snatch straps tend toward the short side, and some of them are very stiff with little stretch. In sand I prefer to use a longer strap that has a modest amount of stretch when loaded.
Longer straps give you more options than shorter ones. You have more freedom as to where you place the towing vehicle. Very often the bogged vehicle gets far enough into a sea of soft sand that a short strap doesn't reach all the way to firm ground. A short strap could result in two vehicles getting stuck in soft sand. The snatching vehicle should always work from a position of strength with its wheels on firm sand.
A slightly elastic strap decreases the shock loading on both vehicles. It is possible to link two snatch straps together to get increased length, but that makes your recovery more complicated, time consuming, and possibly increases the risk. If the only thing you have is a short snatch strap, you make do with what you have. But a long strap with stretch is my first choice.
When a vehicle is high sided on the crest of a dune, a long snatch strap is my preferred method of recovery. It's relatively quick, and the snatching vehicle is usually on a down slope making the recovery even easier. A gentle tug on the snap strap easily liberates the high-sided vehicle.
On level sand, I use the snatch strap less often to recover bogged vehicles. Usually a single strap won't reach the bogged vehicle without some type of extension.
When we have multiple ways to recover a stranded vehicle, we generally choose the easiest and quickest way to solve the problem. If a snatch strap is quick, easy, and sure, then we go with the strap.
Straps are affordable, replaceable, safe, easy to use, and storage isn't a problem.
DOUBLE BRAID NYLON ROPE
The fickle finger of fate sometimes drops gifts into your lap.
At the end of Gulf War I, the U.S. military left lots of gear behind in Arabia, and some of it trickled down to the 4x4 community. One of the Defenders in our group received a spool of one-inch diameter double braid nylon.
Double braid nylon has lots of stretch, and a one-inch diameter has lots of strength. That combination of stretch and strength makes it ideal for quickly recovering vehicles stuck in the sand.
A spool of double braid nylon was mounted on the swing away spare tire carrier on the white Defender. When someone bogged down, the rope was quickly removed from the spool and used to recover the vehicle. The rope was more than 100 feet long so it was ideal to recover a vehicle that was stuck longer distances in a field of soft sand. The towing vehicle could easily find an area of firm ground from which to execute the recovery because the rope was so long.
The double braid nylon was pure magic. It feels like you are bungee jumping out of the sand. The towing vehicle slowly drives away, the double braid stretches, and the bogged vehicle gracefully and smoothly comes out of the sand without any violent snatching. Recovery is as smooth as silk, as soft as duck down, and quicker than greased lightning. It's also supremely easy. Simply unspool the rope, attach it to both vehicles, and roll it back on the spool when you are finished.
Double braid nylon is worth its weight in gold when you want to make a quick recovery in hot weather. You don't spend half an hour digging and placing sand ladders multiple times in blistering temperatures risking heat stroke.
Bungee jumping vehicles out of soft sand using double braid nylon is particularly well suited to experienced drivers who recognize early that they are getting stuck, and they quickly stop digging. A vehicle bogged to the axles where the driver has done lots of tire spinning is less suited to this type of recovery. It doesn't make sense to test your double braid nylon to destruction with severely bogged vehicles when other methods of recovery (like a winch) are more appropriate. Double braid nylon can break, and it's strength degrades over time with prolonged sun exposure. Sensible drivers who don't do a lot of digging when they get stuck are just the type of people who benefit from the large diameter double braid nylon rope recovery technique.
Double braid nylon is expensive and not easily replaced in remote locations. It would also be a prime target for theft in some areas of the third world. It has high visibility when mounted on the spare tire carrier, and I question how long it would last on a trans-Africa trek. But in non-larcenous places like Arabia where it is free gift from the 4x4 gods, double braid is hard to beat.
WINCH YOUR WAY TO FREEDOM
Winching your way out of a sand trap is convenient and fast as long as you have two vehicles. Trying to winch yourself out of soft sand using a buried sand anchor is hard and generally works as well as one hand clapping.
I took an Fx-37 Fortress anchor into the Arabian sands to see how it would work as a winching point. This anchor holds exceptionally well in a sandy sea bed, but not so well in dry desert sand. I buried the sand anchor three feet under the surface, and activated my winch. The Defender did not budge even an inch, but the sand anchor plowed easily through the desert sand. If I dug a hole ten feet deep and covered the anchor with sand, and then wet the sand with 100 gallons of water, there is a good chance that my sand anchor would work as a winching point. Unfortunately, I could recover my vehicle fifty times with sand ladders in the time it would take to do it one time with a sand anchor.
A second vehicle makes an excellent sand anchor that does not move. All you need to do is keep your foot on the brake in the vehicle that is being used as the anchor point.
Once you get your winching routine down, using the winch is almost like going on autopilot. Everyone understands the drill and automatically does what needs to be done to winch a bogged vehicle out of the sand.
Every trip in the desert has a certain rhythm to it. On long expeditions in soft sand where vehicles frequently bog down, you may use your winch a great deal. Once you practice the drill a couple of times, winching a stuck vehicle is no big deal. The winch team springs into action, and in a few minutes the column of vehicles is once again on the move.
Whenever we winch a vehicle out of soft sand, the winching vehicle always raises the hood of the car to protect the windshield and car occupants should the winch cable break and come flying toward the winching vehicle. It's a great idea to place a blanket or sleeping bag over the taught cable, so that if it breaks, a flying cable will not create mayhem.
If you are the vehicle being winched from the front of your truck, you should put your hood up to protect your windshield as well as the occupants of your vehicle. Raising your hood has one other benefit. It helps cool down your engine and decreases the risk of developing a vapor lock on a gasoline engine.
If everyone is on the same page and functioning as a team, winching extracts bogged vehicles very quickly. It's a great way to recover vehicles as long as you observe the rules of winch safety. When lots of vehicles move in a column through sand dunes, a quick vehicle extraction with a winch keeps the column moving. In hot weather, I would prefer to recover a vehicle using a winch rather than using sand ladders. A winch recovery happens so quickly that there is little risk of heat stroke. Sand ladders in the same conditions would be an arduous and risky way of extracting the bogged vehicle.
SAND TRAPS IN THE DUNES - HOLES FROM WHICH THERE IS NO ESCAPE - LOOK BEFORE YOU LEAP
When you drive in big sand dunes with large slip faces, you need to look before you leap. Every once in a while you encounter a hole of doom, and if you drive into the hole, the only way out is with a helicopter Skycrane. Getting lifted out would cost more than the vehicle is worth.
Before you go over the edge of a dune, you stop and have a look. You may not even need to get out of your car to see what you need to see. Smaller dunes tend to be a bit more forgiving with respect to holes, but looking before you leap is a good habit to develop. Once you are over the edge of the dune and on the way down, there is no turning back. You are committed, and the only question is how fast you should go to deal with the sand at the bottom.
As long as you stay square on a slip face, you rarely have a problem descending. On rare occasions an improperly anchored roof rack will slide forward while going down a slip face. As long as you don't get crossways on the dune, you are fine even if the dune is two-hundred feet high. Higher dunes just give longer rides.
On rare occasions you may encounter big hummocks with large shrubs inexplicably growing on a slip face, and you may not have noted them until you are on your way down. You will have to deviate your descent to one side or the other to avoid the hummock.
The big problems start at the bottom where there may be a large area of soft sand. It's generally a good idea to accelerate near the bottom to get additional momentum just in case you are entering a sea of uncompressed sand. Large patches of soft sand at the bottom of a dune make recovery difficult. Positioning a recovery vehicle to use a winch or snatch strap may be impossible because there is soft sand all around the bogged vehicle. Sand ladders may be the only way to recover the vehicle or to get it close enough to firm ground that the truck can be extracted with a winch.
When one vehicle is stuck at the bottom of a dune, people at the top walk down to the bottom to discover areas of firm sand to which they can descend in their own vehicle so they don't end up with four trucks stuck in a sand trap at the bottom.
Descending into a hole like this is usually done cautiously after walking down to see if there is a way out of the hole. The sand is firm enough in this sand pit, that you will be able to drive out if you have to turn around and retrace your track. In places like this, it helps to see Bedouin tire tracks that show you the way. You know that if they made it through, you can probably do the same.
Sometimes a moment of inattention gets you into sand strife. The green Defender made an unanticipated descent into a twenty foot hole. The driver was distracted by a passenger and did not see a slip face ahead. He went sideways over the slip face, and quickly turned his vehicle down the slip face to keep the Defender from rolling. Unfortunately, there was a hole at the bottom of the slip face.
The sand around the hole was extremely soft, and extraction by snatch strap or winch cable was not possible. The green Defender lowered his tire pressures the maximum amount that he felt safe, and he began driving backward and forward in the hole. Because the bottom of the hole was firm, he could get up a little more momentum each time backed up or went forward on the sides of the hole. He was eventually able to back up high enough on one side of the hole that he was able to blast out of the hole on the opposite side. Even though this was not a giant hole, it illustrates the difficulties of getting out of holes.
STOP ON TOP WITH YOUR VEHICLE POINTING DOWN SLOPE
Rookies park their car anywhere in sand. Experienced sand drivers drive until they arrive on firm ground, and then they park their truck so that it's pointing downhill with firm sand in front of the vehicle.
Stopping on top with the vehicle pointing downhill may sound like nit picking and overkill, but it's not. When you are moving a column of five to eight vehicles across 1000 kilometers of sand, you don't want to waste your time recovering vehicles that parked in a stupid manner. It's one thing to extract a bogged vehicle when getting stuck is unavoidable. It's entirely another to waste time, energy, and fuel recovering vehicles driven by people who are not situationally aware. You will not be invited for future expeditions into the sand if you do stupid things.
A PROPER SAND DRIVING COURSE
A proper sand driving course prepares you for expeditionary travel in the great sand deserts of the world.
Our Arabian sand driving courses lasted a full day. The courses were fairly comprehensive including the following:
1. Start driving in sand at road tire pressures to discover how poorly vehicles perform at normal tire pressures.
2. Drop tire pressure down to 16 psi to discover how well vehicles perform with reduced tire pressure.
3. Demonstrate the simplest recovery techniques that are useful in a minor bogging. These include rocking the vehicle from side to side, bouncing the back of the vehicle up and down, turning the steering wheel slowly back and forth to bite into new sand, and of course, the positive effect of simply pushing the vehicle out by hand. These simple techniques may seem silly, but I have watched Saudis extract two wheel drive sedans and pick up trucks using these methods. These techniques will not work for a fully loaded expeditionary vehicle, but for a lightly loaded vehicle on a day trip, they may work well.
4. Get into the student's vehicle, and show them how to drive up a sand dune. The first time I drove my Defender in the dunes, I could not make it all the way to the top of a large dune. I did not understand how hard I could safely push my vehicle without blowing the engine. My instructor got into my truck, put the vehicle into second gear high range, put the accelerator all the way to the floor, and in twenty seconds we were at the top of the dune. It was an unforgettable lesson.
5. Participate in vehicle recovery with sand ladders.
6. Participate in vehicle recovery using snatch straps.
7. Participate in vehicle recovery using a winch.
8. Learn how to go over the crest of a dune in a safe manner without getting high-sided or going airborne.
Going over the crest of a dune requires experience and good judgment to do it cleanly and safely.
I would rather see a student get high-sided than go airborne and damage his vehicle. Recovering a high-sided vehicle with a snatch strap is easy. The only thing that gets hurt is your ego. Going airborne is an entirely different manner. People get hurt and vehicles damaged.
Our nearly fail safe way to crest a dune is to put the vehicle is second gear high range and approach the crest at a moderate speed, slowing down just before the crest. We use second gear because it limits our speed and makes it easier to avoid going airborne. I allowed my kids to crest dunes in my Defenders as long as they approached in first or second gear.
During one sand driving course, I told a student in a Discovery to approach the dune in second gear and keep his speed down. We talked about it for about five minutes as we watched other vehicles conquer the crest. We told him at least five times to not shift out of second gear and to use moderate speed. He hopped into his Discovery, and he put the hammer down shifting through first, second, and third gear. We could not believe our eyes as he accelerated toward the crest. Disaster was getting ready to happen. When he hit the crest in third gear, he went airborne, and his rear wheels did not touch the ground until it was ten feet past the crest. We got into our Defender expecting to see carnage on the other side of the dune. Fortunately, the vehicle landed square and did not roll. The impact on landing caused his wife to hit her head on the windshield, and it popped the hood on the Disco bending the hood mounts. Everyone survived and the vehicle still ran, but it was completely avoidable carnage.
Learning the principles of driving in sand pays great dividends. The Empty Quarter becomes your playground. You load 400 liters of fuel into your vehicle, you meet up with your friends, and you disappear for a week into the Arabian sands. Life is good.
Awesome music video that captures the essence of what it's like to sail offshore in a catamaran around the world when conditions are less than perfect. David Abbott from Too Many Drummers sings the vocals, and he also edited the footage from our Red Sea adventures. This is the theme song from the Red Sea Chronicles.
Sailing up the Red Sea is not for the faint of heart. From the Bab al Mandeb to the Suez Canal, adventures and adversity are in abundance. If you take things too seriously, you just might get the Red Sea Blues.
If you like drum beats, and you like adventure, then have a listen to the Red Sea Chronicles Trailer.
Flying fish assault Exit Only in the middle of the night as we sail through the Arabian Gulf from the Maldives to Oman. And so begins our Red Sea adventures.
Sailing through Pirate Alley between Yemen and Somalia involves calculated risk. It may not be Russian Roulette, but it is a bit of a worry. Follow Team Maxing Out as they navigate through Pirate Alley.
Stopping in Yemen was just what the doctor ordered. We refueled, repaired our alternator, and we made friends with our gracious Yemeni hosts. We also went to Baskins Robbins as a reward for surviving Pirate Alley.
After you survive Pirate Alley, you must sail through the Gate of Sorrows (Bab Al Mandab) at the southern entrance to the Red Sea. The Gate of Sorrows lived up to its name with fifty knots of wind and a sandstorm that pummeled Exit Only for two days. Life is good.
Although I like the feel of a paper book in my hand, I love trees even more. When people purchase an eBook, they actually save trees and save money as well. Ebooks are less expensive and have no negative impact on the environment. All of Dr. Dave's books are available at Save A Tree Bookstore. Visit the bookstore today and start putting good things into your mind. It's easy to fill your mind with positive things using eBooks. No matter where you are or what you are doing, you can pull out your smart phone or tablet and start reading. You can even use electronic highlighters and make annotations in your eBooks just like paper books.