They say life's a beach, but it can quickly turn into a similar-sounding word if you're driving on the sand and get stuck. Don't worry - Driven's here to get you going again.
The ideal vehicle for beach driving is one that's light and fitted with large, wide tyres. That's why 2WD dune buggies can outperform even hero 4WDs. They sort-of float on top of sand that sucks in heavier vehicles. Unfortunately, most of us don't drive buggies.
First thing: is the 4WD actually in four-wheel-drive? It's all done automatically on newer models. The vehicle will either be full-time 4WD like any Land Rover, the Prados and Land Cruiser 200 or, like utes, must have their front wheels engaged by moving the 4WD lever or twisting a dashboard dial.
However, just moving the lever into 4WD doesn't do it on a lot of older vehicles. It may indeed be in 4WD but the front wheels won't be doing any driving until you get out and lock their hubs. Do this before going on the beach; it only takes a few seconds.
You'll soon know it if the vehicle isn't in 4WD. It'll probably bog down in the first 100m unless on a well-compacted "beach highway" like Ninety Mile Beach that's even okay for ordinary cars - as long as the driver doesn't do anything stupid, like going too fast and rolling after the front wheels hit an unexpected stream or soft spot.
There's no point in going into low-range, if the 4WD has it, when the surface is reasonably firm, but it might be really useful in softer sand. If the 4WD's finding it really heavy going, it's time for low range.
Soft off-roaders and crossovers lack low-range gearing but Driven has discovered that their electronic traction controls do a good job coping with soft sand.
On the other hand, the drivetrain will be working really hard and the electronics may shut the whole thing down because it's getting too hot or exceeding other design parameters.
If you have a vehicle without low range, be afraid of soft sand, just to be on the safe side.
Actually, be afraid of soft sand whatever you're in. If the vehicle feels like it's bogging, try to reverse out on the tracks you've just made.
Don't start revving and spinning the wheels; you'll just dig in deeper, making recovery more difficult.
About now, you're realising why wise four-wheel-drivers travel in pairs or more. If one vehicle gets stuck, it can be freed using a suitable rope attached to its rated recovery points - points that you probably don't have on your vehicle. There's a big difference between these hefty hooks from the aftermarket and the tiddly tie-downs and towing points on most 4WDs.
Don't even think about roping up to a tow ball, which may snap and catapult into a windscreen, or someone's head.
If someone does come to your aid, make sure that person knows what he's doing, rather than just making things worse. If the tide's coming in, this is not the time to be helped by a well meaning idiot.
If nobody comes along, clear the sand from the front of the tyres, or the back if you're reversing, and from any part of the 4WD touching the sand. That's why you packed the spade, shovel or both.
Wise four-wheel-drivers travel in pairs or more. If one gets stuck, it can be freed using a suitable rope attached to its rated recovery points - not a tow ball.
It may also be a big help to lower the tyre pressures to get a bigger, more pliable footprint (see sidebar, Your Own MacGyver Kit).
Another good trick off-roaders use is to wet the sand in front of the wheels, in the direction you'll be driving. This helps to "bind" the sand, perhaps just enough to provide that extra bit of traction.
No go? Put the big piece of plywood you're carrying under the jack to provide a stable base, lift one side after the other and build up a "road" under each wheel. Chuck in bits of driftwood, or anything that helps support the vehicle's weight and provides friction. You might have to repeat this several times.
Alternatively, drive the vehicle forward and back, maybe only a couple of centimetres a time. Eventually - like a couple of dozen back-and-forths later - sand will build up under the tyres, providing the height and footing needed to drive out. It's potentially hard on the transmission, but it often works.
Take your time, whatever the method. Drive out slowly, with minimum throttle. Like any other aspect of beach driving, it's all about controlled momentum.By Phil Hanson Email Phil