Driving in sand?

by P-1 Guest Columnist David Nuce

Why drive on sand? A major portion of the Southern and Southwestern U.S. is composed of sandy terrain, and officers on patrol are always checking out "dirt" roads where stolen cars are known to be dumped, or where suspicious persons could go to get behind warehouse areas, construction sites, new housing sites, etc.

So, what to do?

  • First Rule - Don't assume that because you see tires tracks going off into the "bushes" that its safe to follow. Be prepared for surprises. Someone else may have already gotten struck in there, and they have left you a huge hole to try and plow through.
  • Second Rule - When you discover that the "dirt" road you were following into the "boondocks" suddenly turned into a sand trap - KEEP GOING, even if you have to spin the tires, but try NOT to GUN the engine. The rule here is CONSERVATION OF MOMENTUM. Keep going until you can return to firmer terrain.
  • Third Rule - DON'T STEER hard turns when on sand. Your front tires are "Inert" - that means they are NOT POWERED and will shove sand into a mound in front of them if you use the brakes. That will cause your rear tires to dig in, burying them. Always try to drive in wide loops.
  • Fourth Rule - IF necessary to stop, DON'T USE THE BRAKES. Rather, drift to a stop. If you use the brakes, your tires will shove a mound of sand up that you won't be able to drive across.
  • Fifth Rule - If you do stop without getting buried, try BACKING OUT. Remember, you have compacted the sand as you drove in, and your rear tires will be PULLING rather than pushing you.
  • Sixth Rule. If you do bury the rear tires, try the following:
  1. Let air out of your rear tire to soften and widen them. Tires can remain "mounted" down to around 6 PSI, but don't go below 15 PSI, and even then be cautious and don't spin the wheel loose from the tire rim.
  2. Try digging a LONG GENTLE ramp in the sand for your tires to  follow up out of their hole. If nothing to dig with, try Jacking the vehicles rear end up and completely fill in any hole you dug with the tires. (You will probably have to put something wide and firm under the jack to keep it from sinking into the sand.) You want the tires at normal ground level before you try to drive out.
  3. You could place supportive debris such as tree branches, etc under the tires to aid in giving them starting traction.
  4. If going forward, use LOW GEAR. Remember VW Bugs had a low compression, low torque engine and were great in sand. Powerful engines with high torque will keep you buried if you are not gentle on the gas pedal.
  5. BACK OUT if possible.
  6. Don't stop until you reach firm terrain with ALL powered tires, NOT JUST ONE. Remember: Some police cars don't have limited slip differentials and I have seen officers stuck with only one tire spinning in a hole in the sand.
  7. Drive carefully when going either forward or backwards due to the potential for vehicle damaging debris such as broken shock absorbers, broken drive shafts, or big rocks in your path and the fact that your vehicle is running "lower" than normal. This debris could knock a hole in your oil pan, transmission, etc.
  8. Try to go as straight as possible to the CLOSEST firm ground, BUT it's also important to try to follow your previous tire tracks because trying to steer out of your original tire path and thru new, looser sand can be even more torturous. 
  9. Got another officer with you? Have them PUSH; you would be amazed what a little help will achieve.
  10. When you get back on firm terrain or a paved road, drive slowly until you can bring your tire pressure back up to spec's.
  • Seventh Rule - Always drive straight up a slope and NEVER drive over the top unless you KNOW what's on the other side.
  • Eighth Rule - If you can't make it all the way UP a slope, don't stop and ROLL back down, better to put the vehicle in reverse and drive back down until you reach firm terrain. NEVER try a U-Turn on a slope as the vehicle tires will dig in when you get sideway to the slope and maybe roll you over.
  • Ninth Rule - IF you do drive in sand - Consider carrying something with you such as fairly stiff plastic door mats to stick under your tires in these situations. And remember - you have to get the mat all the way under the traction tires, not just shoved against them, and the longer they are the longer your tires will have traction when starting out.. Last-ditch idea is PULLING yourself out using a long towing strap secured to a rear tire and wrapped at least twice around - then the other end attached firmly to a secure object. Use the tire to SLOWLY rotate and as it wraps up the strap it will pull you toward the object. You have to pay attention to which way the tire will rotate - you don't want the strap to UNWRAP. I've never used this idea but it could work, but be careful.
  • Tenth Rule - Don't go where you shouldn't be, and if stuck don't be too proud to call for help.

David Nuce is currently the Training Sergeant at the Lighthouse Point (FL) PD with 35 years experience. He has been a patrol officer, detective, detective sergeant and patrol shift supervisor within that same department. He is also a Florida Criminal Justice Standards Training Commission (CJSTC) certified driving instructor, and since 1985 has been a part-time emergency vehicles operations/police recruit driving instructor at the Broward Institute of Public Safety Police Academy.

Send him your comments at dnuce@lighthousepoint.com

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