Basic Driving Instructions
Last time we discussed the “preparation to get off-road” and this time we will give some very basic driving instructions. This article should just give you some ideas and inspirations how to drive but is not a complete and full guide for how to drive off-road. The best way to learn it is practice, practice and practice or find yourself a good teacher!
Make sure you are prepared properly before you head out in the desert. For more details, check out the November 2017 and December 2017 issues of OutdoorUAE magazine. If you are an absolute beginner, we recommend to go with one or two people anywhere to a sand area close to a road and to stay close to the road in case you need help. Just drive around there to get used to the car and get a feel for the sand, from there you should progress deeper into the dunes and onto longer and more challenging routes. If you take your time and progress gradually you will have a lot of fun without bigger setback, accidents or damages to the car. You would not want to join a group on a trip and be the obstacle slowing down the group or even worth endangering other drivers, so take your time. The learning curve depends on many factors, like your teacher your skills etc. So there is no set timeframe how long it will take. Some people pick it up in one or a few days, others need weeks and months to be a safe driver off-road.
Stopping in the sand:
First of all, try to always stop slowly and let the car roll out rather than hitting the break. If you stop too hard, the tires will sink in the sand and it will be harder to get moving again. Ideally always stop on slopes with your car facing down wards even the smallest angle of descent will make it easy to get the car moving and the smallest angle of ascent will make it harder. If you stop on dunes, never stop on the crescent, either stop right before it or right after it. Especially beginners tend to stop on top since you can see only the sky and not where you are going.
Starting in sand:
Use the accelerator with care and avoid too much throttle which would cause the tires to spin. Spinning tires on a static car will just sink the car in the sand rather than getting any forward movement. If you choose gears use preferably the second gear and not the first gear. If you stop on an upwards slope you might want to consider to reverse instead of going forward, it is important to get momentum and movement no matter if forward or reverse. Starting on flat soft sand is the hardest start.
Keep your distance:
You should never drive alone in the desert but you should keep enough distance to the car in front of you, so that you can always stop safely and that the car in front of you has also enough space to back out in case it gets stuck or a passage is not possible. It is also recommended to get one of the flexible flag poles and signal flag so your car can be seen better behind dunes which is an added safety feature.
Ideally, all cars should have radios for communication (Note: By UAE law it is generally not allowed to use radios without a license, but generally it is tolerated if they are used in the desert only). You should before any drive agree on the lead car / last car and on signals – e.g. use the hazard lights to warn others of obstacles. The last car in the group should be in contact with the lead car and is responsible that the group is kept together and no one is left behind. The two most experienced drivers should fill these positions.
Ascending and descending:
Even though it looks cool to drift on dunes, this should not be attempted by beginners since the car can roll easily if done wrong. The safest way is always to drive dunes up and down straight and head on. If you have to back down, also reverse straight down and don’t dry to turn the car around. It is almost impossible to roll a car on dunes forward or backwards and it always happens sideways, so you should as a beginner never drive sideways on steep dunes or try to turn. If you drive down steep slopes go slowly and use the engine as a brake and try to avoid using the actual brakes. Braking can let your rear break out and move the car sideways with the risk of rolling. If your car is breaking out, you need to accelerate slightly to straighten out the car even if your initial instincts tell you differently.
Momentum is key:
To avoid getting stuck it is paramount to always be moving and keep momentum. Momentum dose not equal speed and one of the hardest things is to get a feeling of how much momentum you will need to get up a dune or pass an obstacle. Off-road the same applies as for the roads, the faster you go the more dangerous the driving will be, so speed should be chosen with care. Off-road it is even more important since you can easily damage your car if you drive too fast. Sometimes the momentum can be close to a standstill but as long as you are moving, don’t stop and keep the momentum and try to build it up. Also here it’s the right amount of throttle you give to keep the car moving forward and avoid over doing it that the tires will spin and dig in. A useful technique, if you have only little momentum, is to turn the steering right and left in half turns, this gives the front tires a bit more grip since the movement is displacing a bit more sand than if you would just keep the front tires constantly straight.
Read the dunes:
Dunes can be a tricky terrain to drive in and good drivers can read dunes and sand conditions and will apply this to find the best and safest passage. Therefore, beginners should follow the lead car. Dunes can be gradually ascending on one side but have a steep drop on the other side so you should check the wind and dune direction in the area to have an idea where steep drops could accrue.
Driving on rocks, you need to take extra care of your clearance. If your underbody comes in contact with sand usually not much harm is done but it you hit rocks, you can damage your car severely. Also, you need to be careful with sharp rocks not to cut your tires or get punctures. Rocks can be much more technical than sand and be also more exposed to deep drops, so you should know your car before you go on a challenging rocky route. You should first gain some experience on sand and gravel tracks before you go on rocks.
Never drive in wadis when there is the chance of rain. Flash floods can appear out of nowhere and even if it does not rain in your area it might rain somewhere close causing flash floods coming down your way. Never drive into water puddles if you don’t know their depth and if there are any hidden obstacles – check it first before you pass it. Gravel on rocks can be very slippery, so you should drive slowly and with extra care. Avoid at all cost the tires from spinning and from losing traction – a lot of gravel tracks are not too hard to drive but they are exposed with steep drops on either side and driving errors can lead to getting off the road dropping down cliffs.
No matter how much care you take and how experienced you are, getting stuck is something you will experience and is nothing to be ashamed of. It is better to go slow and risk getting stuck than going too fast to avoid a stuck and damaging your car or causing anything like accidents. Recovery from stucks is a huge topic in itself even though it depends on multiple factors how to recover the car, there are some general and popular techniques we will introduce in the next edition.
Drive safe, respect other drivers and enjoy the beautiful landscapes! ■