4WD beach driving tips

John Denman — 7 January 2015

Sooner or later, anyone who owns a 4WD will want to drive on a beach. The attractions range from a simple half-day excursion, to a full-on adventure. Beach “fishos”, in particular, make good use of their 4WDs to get to the more remote places over sand.

Tips and traps

Salt water

In tackling a bit of sand driving there is no lack of traps for the unwary. Of these, the most threatening to vehicle well-being is salt water. Forget the car ads you see with carefree drivers, driving through the shore break. Your best option in the first place is to drive just below the high tide mark. This will offer better traction than the softer sand above the tide mark and will give you a better chance of escape if you have misjudged the tide.


You should never attempt to drive on any beach unless you have a good knowledge of the tides. Where possible, it’s always best to drive on a falling tide, rather than a rising one. The movement of the tide very often influences the way the sand will handle weight. Anyone who has been beach fishing, or has simply stood on the tide line, will recall how you sink a bit each time another wave comes in. Imagine this if the weight happens to be your pride and joy.


Momentum is important in beach driving, but this doesn’t mean you get along with your foot flat to the floor. Choosing a speed that offers both momentum and control is crucial. Sand can be very unforgiving if you hit the wrong spot at the wrong speed. It is, in fact, the main cause of rollovers, so you need to strike that balance and only practice will get it right.

Gear choice

Correct gear choice is essential. For the most part, low-range is seldom needed for beach driving. It puts more power to the ground, but hampers momentum, so try to stick with high-range 4WD. In the main gearbox, pick the gear that offers the ideal compromise and stick with it. On a good open beach, high-range third gear may be ideal; on others, second gear. It also depends on the vehicle itself and how heavy your load is. Vehicles with automatic transmission make this choice a lot easier.


Being aware of what’s ahead of you is not to be underrated either. It’s considered extremely bad form to drive between a fisherman and the surf. Common courtesy applies, so slow down when you see an oncoming vehicle or some other folks enjoying the beach.

Other signs to look for are humps in the sand and obvious indicators of where another vehicle has broken through the surface. Any turns you make in sand should be gradual; avoid swerving or tight turns. Braking should also be done carefully to avoid bogging or losing control.

Do not drive over vegetated dunes — use only the access tracks in place. Apart from the fact that frontal dunes are held together by grass, they are often the nesting places of shore birds like terns.

Tyre pressure

Tyre pressure is probably the best way to avoid a bogging in sand. Wide tyres are no safeguard against bogging and, in some cases, can actually work against you. Tyre pressure for beach driving should be roughly one third of the pressure you run on the bitumen. Drop the pressure too low and you risk running the tyre off the rim. Too high and you don’t allow a big enough “footprint”.

Getting out of trouble

If the worst happens and you do get bogged on a beach, your next move depends on a range of factors. If another vehicle is present and you have a snatch strap, then all should be okay. If you are on your own, then you need a shovel and a set of Maxtrax or similar. The very worst thing you can do is sit there and spin the wheels wildly.

A simple solution

Sometimes, just letting the tyre pressures down, or even driving back and forth gently will do it. By driving forward and back, you are compacting the sand. The further back and forth you go, the greater the length of compacted sand for that final, and hopefully successful, attempt.

A snatch strap

A snatch strap is probably the most widely used recovery tool on the beach, and for good reason. Otherwise known as a “kinetic energy strap”, a good quality strap will stretch up to a third of its length, then contract. The stored, or kinetic, energy in the strap is the main ingredient in getting you out of trouble.

The technique goes like this: the bogged vehicle attaches the strap to a suitable recovery point and the recovery vehicle does the same. Leaving up to a third of the strap’s length laid loose on the ground, the recovery vehicle selects first gear high-range, while the bogged vehicle selects second gear. The theory behind this is that if the bogged vehicle selects the same gear as the recovery vehicle, they may bog together. Not good. The driver of the bogged vehicle waits until the slack is almost taken up, then accelerates.

The last resort

All of this assumes that you have been driving just below the high tide mark. If you’ve got yourself bogged down in the wet sand, you are in real trouble. If you don’t get unstuck before the tide comes in, it’s time to call the insurance company. Any vehicle bogged on an incoming tide will sink further into the sand and require the services of a tractor, or better.

Check out the full feature in issue #83 December 2014 of Camper Trailer Australia magazine. Subscribe today for all the latest camper trailer news, reviews and travel inspiration.


beach driving TIPS