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4WD Beach Driving Techniques - 4x4 Trucks

by Chris Thompson

Back to 4WD Article Index

With some thought and preparation you can make your beach driving much easier, safer and spend more time enjoying your fishing – without damaging your 4x4 trucks.

Driving up the beach in the 4WD to get to a good fishing spot is part of the NZ way of life.

As a kid I spent a lot of time playing at the beach while Dad fished, and I hope my kids can enjoy the same experience.

However, there are a few tricks to 4x4 beach driving that are worth thinking through.

On recent trips up the beach I have found someone stuck in the beach sand just about every time – and getting stuck is only one of the dangers.

4x4 Driving Tips - How To Put It In 4WD And Drive Safely

Offroad 4X4s Driving On Beach Sand

It's pretty silly but some people wait until getting stuck while driving on beach sand before asking, "How do I turn on my four wheel drive?" or finding their four wheel drive does no engage.

Or worse still they go for a long beach drive without any knowledge of four wheel drive troubleshooting or off road recovery tips.

The articles on this site are not meant to be an alternative for the kind of extreme driver training available at accredited off road driving schools and we recommend joining a club and go a a few of there four wheel drive events or attend a proper course offering certified driver instructor training.

How To Use Four Wheel Drive

How do I turn on my four wheel drive

Top: Freewheeling 4wd Locking Hub - when the two lugs point at 4X2 the hubs free-wheel in two wheel drive - when the lugs point at 4X4 the four wheel drive hub locks are set. If you have engaged the transfer box then you are in four wheel drive.

four wheel drive hub locks

Just in the last year I've seen quite a few people stuck at the beach, the first guy didn't even have his vehicle engaged in 4WD.  

This is a pretty common occurrence actually, and as different makes of 4WD use different systems, it can be a bit confusing.

Generally you engage four wheel drive via the transfer case lever (it's like an extra gear shifter) or by a push button four wheel drive switch on the dash, but in some vehicles you also need to lock the centre diff, and, if your vehicle has freewheeling hubs, lock them in.

Figure this all this out at home first before you go offroad if you're not sure, the beach is no place to be asking, "how does four wheel drive work?" because there may be no-one there to answer!

The right time to select 4WD is before the going gets tough. As soon as the surface isn't sealed it's safe to select 4WD, gravel roads etc are fine.

Generally as soon as you get on sand, put it in 4WD and don't forget to take it out before you get on a hard surface.

The reports indicate that many of the Ford Explorer four wheel drive problems were due to people leaving them engaged in 4WD while driving on the road.

Leaving a vehicle in 4WD mode on the road puts huge stresses on the driveshaft, gearbox and transfer cases as well as causing unnecessary and uneven tire wear.


Handling Soft Sand - Beach Driving Tips

The next thing that stops people is soft sand. Often you can avoid it, driving on the hard sand next to the water at low tide is often easiest but there can be patches of soft sand just about anywhere.

The best way to think about sand is that it acts like a fluid uder some circumstances and your 4WD is actually "floating" on it.

If you have watched an ATV and 4x4 traveling over the same section of soft beach sand you may have noticed how high atv tires travel on the surface of the sand. This is because the weight of the ATV is less than one eigth of the weight of most 4x4's yet the tires are around the same width.


Similarly, a two wheel drive cheap off road VW buggy fitted with wide wheels will often out perform a heavy four wheel drive vehicle on the beach purely because it is running on top of the sand.

If you hit a soft patch of sand at speed it can cause a fatal SUV rollover very quickly like the one that killed three people at Muriwai Beach recently.

cheap off road VW buggy


The best advice is to keep your speed down and don't relax while you are on sand, you may have to correct a drift in an instant.

Don't wrap your thumbs around the steering wheel either, when the sand “grabs” the front wheels the force comes back through the steering wheel which spins with such force and speed it can break your thumbs.

Off road shocks

Above: Off road shocks give the 4x4 suspension a real workout. Four wheel drive shock absorbers should be checked regularly.

You can get stuck in soft sand easily. The most common way is to be in a high gear and not have any power in reserve. Hitting soft sand just sucks huge amounts of power and if you are in a lower gear you can respond quickly.

If you are losing forward momentum, don't keep the power on and dig yourself into a hole. Let the truck come to stop and reverse out on your own freshly compacted tracks.

If you sit there and spin your off road truck tires in the sand it does nothing but make a bigger hole that makes your 4wd wheels stuck even more firmly.

Tyre pressure is also a major factor in performance on sand, the link below will give you the recommended pressures as well as other valuable info on tires

4x4 Truck Wheels and Four Wheel Drive Tire Size for safe beach driving


Getting A Bogged Vehicle Free

If you do get stuck, you will need to get the vehicle out. If you have another vehicle with you, you can get a gentle tow.

Most 4WDs do not have recovery points on them that can handle anything more than the gentlest of recoveries. Tow balls can shear off easily so aren't suitable for attaching tow ropes to.

4WD Wreck

A good set of recovery hooks bolted to the chassis is a sound investment if you will be using towing as your main method of recovery.

If the other vehicle doesn't have good recovery points (and gear), be very careful. This is the most common mistake people make and it can have lethal consequences.

Don't use chains, shackles or other attachments that may become dangerous projectiles if the rope breaks. These can go straight through cars, and people, and are incredibly dangerous.

A badly attached recovery point (like a bulbar) can also come off as they aren't attached to the chassis strongly enough in most cases.

If you regularly travel with another vehicle, setting them both up with decent hooks and proper recovery rope (9m or so) will see you handle most recoveries easily. Always use the minimum amount of force needed in a recovery.

4wd Off Road Emergency Equipment

Self Recovery - Off Road Recovery Tips

You may not always have another suitably equipped vehicle nearby. If you are on your own you still have some options.

Clear the sand away from the front of the tires and any other point touching the sand. A shovel is a big help here.

If you can't drive out, use a wide piece of plywood under your jack to lift one side at a time and build a road under each wheel.

Use firm sand, car mats, old carpet, or anything that helps support the vehicle.

When you have all wheels done then slowly drive off! It pays to carry a shovel, a piece of plywood (as a jack base) and a jack for this.

I remember my old man got the Holden bogged in the soft sand at Foxton once. He had been driving on that beach all his life and knew what to do.

He simply scooped the sand away from in front of the tires, then wetted the sand in front of each driving wheel. We hopped back in and drove off! Simplly wetting the sand in front of the wheels made all the difference.

Off Road Recovery Tips


Winches are a bit over rated. Many people don't service them and find they don't work when needed. On a beach you have the other problem of very few things to winch off. You can bury your spare tire, but I carry a decent ground anchor that I know works in sand.

Think through what you will do if you get stuck and carry the correct off road emergency equipment for getting yourself out. I have seen one guy in a van with the surf coming through it still battling to stop it being washed away, don't let that be you.

Off Road Emergency Equipment

Above: A popular four wheel drive modification is to fit a snorkle for the air intake to prevent water being sucked into the motor when traversing deeper creeks. Note the winch bumper hides the drum ot of sight and out of the way.

Off Road Bumpers - 4x4 bumpers

Steel or aluminum off road bumpers are ok for protecting the front of the vehicle from bush and twigs but are not a suitable tow point.

The one below provides a mount for the electric fishing reel and trace rack.

Off Road Bumpers - Bullbars 4wd

Winch Bumpers 4x4

Above : While off road truck bumpers are not usually suitable for attaching tow ropes to, they are an ideal place to mount a kitefishing winch. Bull bars are also useful for mounting spotlights or fishing rod holders


Avoid The Water

Avoid driving in the sea. It may look great on the car ads but it will kill modern cars very quickly, even if you rinse them. The splash can kill electrics instantly, the motor I have in my 4WD came from a car killed this way.

If you stop in the water the tires will sink in quickly and you will be well and truly stuck. Only stop on the firm stuff above the reach of the sea.

If you are lugging along in soft sand be sure to keep an eye on the temperature gauge. It's very hard work on clutches and motors and especially on automatic transmissions, an aftermarket transmission cooler is far cheaper than a transmission rebuild.

4X4 Off Road Insurance

Don't forget to check your insurance. Some policies do not cover you if you aren't on a formed road and this can be a very expensive lesson. Rothbury Insuranc Brokers specialise in offroad insurance and gives free auto insurance quotes online. Off Road Use Free Car Insurance Quote

Off Road Use Free Car Insurance Quote Online

4WD Club events like the one above are a great place to get 4x4 driving tips and off road instruction.

If you want to learn more about your 4WD there are some good books around but the best place to learn is your local 4WD club. They are often good places to pick up the recovery gear at a good price as well or you can try a specialist like

Off Road Emergency Equipment

If you plan on doing some beach driving, make sure you get your off road emergency equipment and four wheel drive accessories sorted out, the items below are worth having aboard.

  • Tire pressure gauge
  • Jack
  • Plywood for jack base
  • Decent tow hooks
  • Shovel
  • Decent recovery rope (like a Cookes Snatch Master)
  • Cell phone

If you are doing a lot of driving on the beach, consider adding an air compressor, some old carpet, conveyor belt or other flotation and a winch and ground anchor.

Off Road Emergency Equipment

Most Importantly – Tread Lightly

4wd off road trucks can damage the environment. The one plea I would have is that we all act responsibly. Many councils are considering limiting beach access to vehicles, and once it is gone it's unlikely to come back.

4wd off road trucks

Driving on the dunes, speeding, littering, accidents and traversing bird-nesting areas – all these topics are ammunition for groups wanting to see vehicle access banned. On this issue we are masters of our own destiny, closures can only be avoided if you and I act responsibly.

Safe driving – and enjoy your fishing.

About the Author: Chris Thompson is a longstanding member of the Auckland Landrover Club. Chris is also teaches off-road driving techniques in his spare time - including extreme driver training - when he isn't out kite fishing.


4WD Beach Driving Notes From Paul Barnes

If you are taking a 4WD on the beach it is important to familiarise yourself with a few simple recreational vehicle driving safety tips.

Undoubtedly, the best time to drive safely on the beach is three hours either side of low tide.

This allows you to drive on the firmest part of the beach and is much easier on the vehicle.

On most west coast beaches this is almost as good as driving on the road.

If you are going to drive on the upper part of west coast beaches, then your vehicle should be fitted with wide offroad wheels and tires, designed for operating in soft sand.

Offroad Wheels and Tires

Getting the correct tires for offroad use is the single biggest factor in improving the vehicles performance in sand. Offroad mud tires are not the best in soft sand, specialist four wheel drive tires designed for sand are vastly superior. often has suitable cheap offroad tires and rims or offroad tires for sale at reasonable prices if buying new is too expensive.

Four Wheel Drive Vans

If you haven't purchased a vehicle for driving on the beach yet I would advise giving four wheel drive vans a wide berth. A four wheel drive van has a higher center of gravity and in my opinion is more likely to flip should the wheels get caught in a rut of softer sand. Even with the right wheels and tires offroad accidents like the one below can mean long delays in rescue.

Fortunately for these unlucky beach goers the Westpack Rescue Helicopter was available to assist.

Back to 4WD Article Index

Four Wheel Drive Vans

Helecopter rescues four wheel drive vans passengers



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