Time flies! We are in the already in the month of June and the blazing summer sun has set in. Even so, there is never a bad time to get away from the hustles and bustles of the corporate world, to find yourself moments of solace at the top of a sand dune in a remote and perhaps unnamed parts of Dubai that you may not be able to locate on a map. To the many the seasoned adventurers, the desert is a second home and they need little acquaintance, but for the overwhelming rest, those first timers, here are some of the things you need to keep in mind about desert driving, before you venture out into the sands.
GETTING THE RIGHT VEHICLE!
Assuming you are licensed to drive and know the general workings of a vehicle, the first thing is to do is to equip yourself with the right kind of vehicle. You need a competent off-road vehicle – something more than a generic crossover SUV that earned a badge for elevated ride height but can barely make it through a make-shift parking lot without a scare. We are talking about proper ‘Sport-Utility Vehicles’, like the very capable Toyota FJ Cruiser and local and international off-road legends like the Nissan Patrol Super Safari and the Jeep Wrangler, respectively. These vehicles display true off-road grit like it’s a colour they wear every day. Now, you don’t own one and plan to go SUV-shopping, we recommend you get something preferably lightweight, but with a prodigious V6 or a V8 engine under the hood. It should have good ground clearance for obvious reasons; and sufficient approach, departure and ramp angles to help negotiate slopes. And although UAE is mostly dry, it’s good to know that the car is rated for a wading depth of maybe half a metre or so – this will help you get across a ford or shallow water body with ease. It would also help if the vehicles came equipped with bash plates under the front and rear bumper so that they can take the beating, in case you meet a large stone or a seemingly immovable desert bushes on the way. If you have some extra dough lying around, it wouldn’t hurt to give it a raised suspension, commonly known as a ‘lift kit’, but not more than a couple of inches. And replacing those carpeted interiors with rubber mats will also seem like a good idea. It just makes the whole cleanup process so much easier…a lesson learnt usually at the end of the drive.
THE IMPORTANCE OF OPTIMUM TYRE PRESSURE: DEFLATION & INFLATION
The next step is to prep the tyres. Now, depending on the vehicle or tyre manufacturer, the recommended a pressure rating lies between 30 and 40 PSI for regular road surfaces. But if you go into the dunes as is, the tyres exhibit a tendency of wedging their way into sands rather than floating over it. The trick is to give them greater foot print by deflating the tyres to a certain pressure depending on the terrain. You can do this by using a simple air deflator available at your local hardware store – the 3-letter store that starts with an A and ends with E is once example. Typically, you should drop pressure down to 20 or 15 PSI, or even lesser, but that is in case of extremely soft sand only seen in Sweihan and Liwa.
Ofcourse, when you get back onto tarmac you don’t want to be running those pressures for it may cause damage to the tyre structure and may call for an expensive and unnecessary replacement. So it would be recommended to keep a battery powered air compressor handy so that you can fill up those back to regular pressure and drive away home hassle free. This also helps avoid taking the last painful spot of a long queue at a fuel station.
CAN SHE GO THE DISTANCE? FILL HER UP!
Talking about fuel, it helps to embark on this journey with a full tank of fuel and with the knowledge of the vehicles approximate range – the onboard computer usually displays this in the instrument cluster. In case you think your drive may extend beyond the vehicle’s range, keeping a jerry can filled.
POWER IS NOT ENOUGH: FOUR-WHEEL DRIVE & LOW RANGE GEARING
When on the move, you can get across most stuff even with just front-wheel or rear-wheel drive operational. But true off road vehicles also come with low range gearing – an extra shift lever usually seen next to the shift lever. When you require more traction, you can switch to ‘4H’ but it is only recommended for hard-packed sand. When even more traction and torque is required, in situation when you encounter soft sand or steep inclines, you can engage ‘4L’. In such modes, the speeds you can achieve are limited and the engine will roar but such a steady pace of torque will be delivered which will help you crawl out of any rut. Also remember to lock the differentials and switch off traction control to improve vehicle motivation.
GETTING YOURSELF OUT OF TROUBLE: TOW HOOKS & STRAPS
Even with all these mechanical systems in place, there is only so much a vehicle can do after all most of us are limited to driving regular production vehicles and not all-conquering Baja race machines…and you are bound to bogged down by the desert sand, sometime or the other. In case that happens, whether friend or foe it is common desert courtesy to help one get out of a rut. But to do that you need a tow hook – that shiny, chrome receiver balls behind SUVs. If it doesn’t comes as part of the standard equipment, you should fetch one from the accessories division. And to accompany that or to tug it you also need tow straps and shackles to secure these straps. These a might look two florescent fabric strips, but they’re are high tension nylon straps that can pull a great load. Some are even rated up to 10,000 kg, some even more.
YOU NEVER STOP LEARNING: ADVANCED DRIVING COURSES
Also to be considered, is signing up for an advanced desert driving course. It may set you back a couple of thousands but it’s a good way to get acquainted with desert driving. All in the safety of an insured vehicle and recovery units, on stand-by.
KNOWING WHERE YOU ARE AND WHERE YOU ARE HEADED: NAVIGATION & MAPS
Moving on! I must state that for being the most evolved organisms on the planets, besides using opposable thumbs on a square tablet we are of not much use out on our own in the wilderness. The desert landmarks aren’t nearly as recognizable as those in the city and it is easy to get lost. Flinching your finger in the air to find the direction of the wind will get you anywhere either. These day cars come with a navigation systems and Google maps on your smart phone serve well too. But it is always best to have in possession a working satellite-based navigation preferably one that shows topography. And call us old school, but find place for a conventional paper map too. And before you set off, it would be a good idea to tell your friends and family to approximately where you would be going…even if you are trying in a group, twos or solo.
PREP YOURSELF: GET THE RIGHT ACCESSORIES
Other must haves include, a generic tool kit that contain a shovel, a flashlight, a jack and a first-aid kit that contains a blanket, waterproof tarp, matches, etc. These are the bare minimums to be considered for any four-wheeler adventure. Safety is should also be priority considering you’re a few minutes if not hours away from help. It’s not necessary to wear a helmet in fact you probably shouldn’t considering it muffles the whole experience, but its good to have a fire extinguisher by your side, just in case.
Also, always keep hydrated! Keep ample amount of beverage and food and a durable cool box, especially if your kids tag along.
Once you’ve had the taste of the desert sands and the grueling vehicular trials, it usually means that you will be back for more. Just remember to tick off everything checklist and add some more to your list as you go!
And lastly, we as human are born to roam the lands and the desert – as plain as it may seem – is a surprisingly clean place. So let’s keep it clean shall we!