Whether you want to cross the Sahara or just go for a quick safari in Namibia or Botswana, sooner or later you will encounter a sandy track and most likely you will get stuck on it. But you wonder how the guys before you got through without problems since it is a more or less used track?
For a start, don’t panic. Sand is your friend, it is easy to dig and you don’t get dirty unlike mud. Before you unpack the sand anchor and unhook your winch cable, start with the basics first. Driving on soft sand is all about weight and tire pressure. In the ideal case your landy should be floating on the sand. The moment you are too heavy you will sink. So how to lose weight? You don’t, unless you want to leave all your gear and your doors and panels behind! Keep your weight and instead increase the surface of your footprint by deflating your tires.
A flat tire is as the word says – flat at the bottom instead of round. This increases your footprint tremendously and decreases the pressure per square inch on the ground. You start to float. How far you let the tires down is a matter of feeling and you will gain confidence through experience and experimenting. It depends on the weight of your landy and the softness of the sand. On one of our self drive expeditions I told the group to let their tires down to 20psi, which is usual on soft dunes, one of them did not believe me and only went to 30psi. The result was 30% more fuel consumption and the engine started overheating – all cars were all totally identical – discos all weighing the same.
A wide tire increases your footprint only by an almost negligible margin; besides it is more prone to punctures and side wall damages. Ideally you want a tire as high as possible as it creates a much bigger footprint once deflated and also makes a long footprint instead of a wide one. It runs in its own track which means less resistance. It goes without saying that low profile tires are not suitable for sand since you can’t let them down! Friends of our actually met a guy who took his brand new city cowboy 4×4 on 20 inch mags and low profile tires into the Kalahari desert in South Africa he didn’t get very far …….
Another crucial factor on sand is traction; of course you will need some but only minimal. Too much of it and your landy will dig itself in. So keep your hands off the diff locks and don’t put low traction tires on. The best tires for sand are slicks; we used to bring totally bold tires on our desert trips and put them on once hit the sand. Since we picked them up for free, of course, we did not have to worry about any side wall damages. Tires are not designed to run flat nor at speed for long distances so you will do some damage. But you are also doing damage to your landy going of road in the first place and unless you let your tires down you simply won’t get through.
There is a story going around in overlander circles about a tourist couple who hired a landy in Namibia and headed out into the desert. They got stuck and tragically died of thirst a few days later; they didn’t manage to get out of a sand bog. After they had been found the guy in charge to recover the landy simply let the tires down and drove off.