Given the combination of low-cost petrol, access to a huge selection of excellent SUVs, and having one of the world’s finest deserts just an hour or two away, it’s no wonder that tackling the dunes and camping under the stars is a favourite weekend pastime for a large section of the UAE’s population.

Experienced off roaders will have been making the most of the winter weather, the weekends and the occasional holiday, to explore the furthest reaches of the UAE and frequently these days, Oman too. But for the novice 4x4 driver, the temptation to scurry off into the desert in search of adventure, all too often leads to frayed tempers, damaged cars and at worst, potential injury. So for those of you who have recently bought, or who are planning to buy an SUV, here are a few hints and tips to keep you safe and to ensure you and your family enjoy yourselves in the UAE’s fabulous sandy playgrounds, while the weather is still cool enough.

The desert is no place for a soft roader or crossover SUV. In the hands of an experienced driver, a vehicle with all-wheel drive, even one with low ground clearance and a smaller engine, can be kept on the move in the dunes — but there’s a limit to what even an expert can achieve in a vehicle designed to cross gatch tracks, not the Empty Quarter. If you want to tackle the sand in a vehicle designed for the job, you’ll need plenty of torque, so look for a good sized engine (“there’s no replacement for displacement”) decent ground clearance, ie bigger wheel and tyre combinations as standard, and a rugged, strong four-wheel drive system. Confused by the various definitions of All-Wheel Drive, Four-Wheel Drive, Limited Slip Diff, High and Low Ratio etc?

 

Photos: GN Archive and Supplied

Don’t worry, you are not alone, so perhaps the simplest way to start your selection is to do the safest thing anyway, and that is join an off-roading club. A search on the internet will turn up several local clubs and the big advantage of joining one is that their chat forums will be abuzz with advice about vehicle selection and preparation, sources of off-roading equipment and in the larger clubs, organised trips for novice drivers.

Personally I favour long-wheelbase vehicles for off roading because by the time you’ve loaded a short wheelbase vehicle with recovery, camping and photographic gear, you’ll be forced to choose which child to leave behind on alternate weekends. LWB vehicles often have larger fuel tanks too, which is a boon on longer trips; there are few more frustrating aspects to an otherwise successful off-road trip than having to ‘bail out’ early to top up the fuel tank of just one convoy member’s car.

If you frequent the forums you’ll also quickly realise that the SUV you bought last week and had only used on the school run, is in no fit state to be tackling sand bowls. At the very least you’ll need to remove any low-hanging plastic spoilers and running boards before nature’s great ‘unnecessary trim remover’ (sand) does it for you within 15 minutes.

And you’ll be needing proper tow points welded or bolted to your vehicle’s chassis. No, the flimsy tie down points currently fitted to your pride and joy don’t count, and no seasoned off roader would put a towing shackle anywhere near them. They won’t tackle the tensile load of a snatch recovery when your car is axle deep in the sand and using weak recovery points is a sure way to kill someone in the desert; a towing shackle breaking free under a towing load could take your head clean off, so fit proper recovery points!

 

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If the car’s not under warranty then you might want to fit marginally wider tyres. On-road noise and handling might suffer a little but off-roading enthusiasts are a rugged bunch and put up with these things. When deflated, a wider tyre will have a larger footprint and thus improve traction on soft sand. Want to get into an endless discussion about wheel and tyre choices? Club forums are good for that.

Inside your vehicle you’ll need a good strong tow rope and rated safety shackles. Do not, under any circumstances, buy the so-called tow ropes made from flimsy yellow nylon and recycled paper clips, sold in back street or even high street car accessory shops. Certified, safety tested ropes and shackles can be bought from companies specialising in lifting equipment and again, a local 4x4 club can recommend sources for these items, whether you live in Dubai, Abu Dhabi or Al Ain.

A good sized shovel is a must, but cut the handle down so it fits across the load space. A jacking board (about 400mm square, 30mm or more thick and made of solid wood, not ply) so you can change a tyre on soft sand is necessary, as are some rugged gloves because it’s difficult to steer a car when you’ve burned your fingers on the wheel nuts or exhaust. You do have a tyre pressure gauge don’t you? Good.

 

Photos: GN Archive and Supplied

You don’t actually need a compressor or even a GPS to join a convoy of experienced drivers, though the GPS does introduce an additional element of safety, provided you actually learn how to use it, but buying them is a sure sign that you’ve been hooked by the dune bashing bug.

Advanced stages of this ‘illness’ include the purchase of steel bumpers, oversized wheels, sand ladders, winches and whippy aerials, many of which say as much about the size of your wallet as they do your off-roading abilities. Driving in the dunes is an art that it’s possible to learn only whilst, erm, driving in the dunes. As a novice you’ll need to follow experienced drivers and learn from them. Fundamentally momentum is the key to steady progress, whilst driving within your abilities is the key to staying safe.

Not sure how to tackle a certain obstacle? Stop, ask others, and learn from them; the desert is no place for bravado or egos. There are a thousand salient points of advice out there such as “don’t drive too close to the car in front”, “sand bowls are treacherous”, “grass grows where the sand is firm”, “camels know the best routes”, “remember to back off BEFORE you go airborne over that crest and kill yourself in the process” etc. The point is that dune driving is endless fun but is tricky to master, can catch anyone out, at any time, and presents you with a different set of challenges each time you drive.

So go equip that SUV of yours and get out there before the summer heat!