Sooner or later you will get stuck. The key thing to remember when you’re headed out on your maiden dune bashing jaunt is that you must have the right equipment for staging a full-scale recovery. Don't try to convince yourself that you won’t get stuck. It is inevitable Back in 2008 I was still not a member of the Mahindra clan when I had participated in one of India’s longest running and toughest off-road championships ― the Palar Challenge. Back then, the championship used to be conducted over a week, on the dry sandy bed of the Palar river where 42°C was considered pleasant. No AC, no power steering and the rock-hard mechanicals of my 1989 MM540 4WD meant a thorough workout in the sweltering heat. It was a surefire way of losing some of that ‘idli belly’. Being a team-based format, I was driving my unmodified MM540 while other teammates included, Sanjay David with the more powerful MM550 XD and Patrick with his lighter CJ3B powered by a 2.1-litre Peugeot diesel.
Driving my MM540 4WD required careful calculations as every bit of the juice available from the engine had to be extracted. We played by our strengths and had to strategise. The best recovery equipment we had was a rudimentary tow strap. Obviously, we had to be extra careful to not get bogged down badly. And we won! Winning over relatively more powerful, lighter and well-equipped teams was particularly satisfying. Winning aside, it taught me nuances and techniques that only got further cemented and enhanced with my career at Mahindra Adventure the following decade.
Sand driving is unique. There is no substitute to power and torque on sand. When neither is adequately available, you need skill. Sandy terrain as a surface is unforgiving on the vehicle’s drivetrain. Sand offers most resistance, combined with heat and the engine revving to its limits, it can take a toll on the mechanicals. Once stuck in deep sand, the stress on the mechanicals only multiplies. I have witnessed overheating and clutch burnouts as the most common fall out.
Tyre pressures play a pivotal role in making clean progress on sand. Number one equipment that most people ignore when they hit sand trails is the good old tyre air pressure gauge. This is so fundamental and yet is often forgotten. Digital ones are more accurate but depend on batteries to survive. A well calibrated analogue gauge is the most dependable tool that one could ever have. Many people look at the tyres and try to make a ‘guess-timate’ based on the bulging of the tyre. While experienced off-roaders might get it correct, newbies most often make mistakes and the result is either getting bogged down in fine sand or the tyre comes off the rim when the inflation is too low. The thumb rule is one can deflate down to 15PSI safely on an undamaged rim to continue making good progress and yet not lose air pressure. Once deflated, inflation is equally important the moment you hit the tarmac. Portable air compressors are handy off-road equipment that could be life saving. Driving underinflated tyres to the nearest air inflator shop is nothing short of taking wild chances.
Conventional wisdom suggests that you purchase a heavy-duty air compressor that would pump more volume of air into the tyres per minute. Normally, a branded air compressor which runs off a battery, preferably a twin piston unit delivering 60 units per minute at 30PSI is good for a single car use. Larger the tyre, larger should be the capacity of the compressor, preferably with an auxiliary air tank.
Apart from winches, tow straps and sand ladders are the quickest recovery tools one could use. Many a time people use winches when all the vehicle needs is a tug. Operating a winch is not only cumbersome but also a relatively slow process. I would prefer kinetic straps over regular tow straps for recovery operations on sand. Kinetic straps load well and serve brilliantly when the SUV that’s recovering another vehicle is also on soft under footing ― nothing gets damaged as the kinetic tow strap makes sure resistance is absorbed by the strap. When the going gets rougher, it’s best to have a powerful electric winch that’s also light. For occasional off-road and single use operation, it is always good to use a winch with nylon straps as they are lighter to operate. Always remember to buy a winch that has a pulling capacity more than four times the gross weight of your vehicle. Here again quality matters, hence buy winches from known brands that specialise in making off-road equipment. Your life could depend on them.
By the rule book, one shouldn’t venture out dune bashing alone. If one has to, please do carry a ground anchor along ― just a reminder the desert is not home to trees to winch yourself out if you are stuck. An air jack too comes in handy if one has to replace a tyre that has come off a wheel rim. The larger the base of the inflatable bag, the better raise you get on a soft surface such as sand. A normal jack without a wide base is useless here. Also, did I mention the trail marking flags? Though they may not classify as recovery equipment, this accessory is useful to locate a vehicle stuck behind a tall dune.
Many accidents occur when people get lost in the desert and there is no way to find a car hidden behind a towering dune. Above all, please do drive a reliable and well-maintained 4x4 when you venture out dune bashing. Recovering a car out of the dunes is the mightiest task you might ever face wherein all of the equipment mentioned above might just turn out to be useless. Reliability and vehicle preservation is the key. Happy dune bashing!