Don’t get stuck on the beach

Nov. 02, 2013 @ 05:08 PM

It was a beautiful fall day, and Cherie and I were driving out to the Point at Cape Hatteras. We’d just come over the hump in the dunes and were almost in view of the water when I noticed a stopped truck ahead. As we got closer, I realized he wasn’t just stopped; he was stuck in the sand. The truck was a brand new looking Ford with all the bells and whistles. His wife was behind the truck pushing, but they were far past the pushing stage. By the time I got to them, the wheels were buried down to the axles and the truck was sitting on the frame.

I pulled up and got out. I knew the answer, but I asked it anyway to be nice. “Did you air down your tires?” The term “air down” in beach lingo indicates deflating the tires to about half their recommended running pressure; deflated tires will run on the beach in soft sand, fully inflated tires won’t.
The driver gave me a blank look, and I explained what “air down” meant. “I don’t have to,” he said. “This is a four wheel drive.” His expression indicated I was an idiot for not noticing the huge 4X4 on the side of the truck. I explained that even four wheel drive trucks have to run on low pressure tires to negotiate the soft sand. Once again, he looked at me like I was wearing shoes with rolled up toes and a dunce cap.
After ten minutes of trying to explain why highway pressure tires dig into the sand and low pressure tires roll over it, he was giving me the same look. He asked if I could pull him out of the soft spot and I explained it wouldn’t do any good if he didn’t air down, he’d just get stuck again. He again explained that his truck was state of the art four wheel drive and he didn’t need to air down.
Eventually, I drove off and left him sitting there. He refused to let his tire pressure down and I knew I’d have to drag him completely off the beach and probably burn out my transmission doing it. There are people you just can’t help.
Driving on the beach isn’t rocket science. People have been doing it for years on Hatteras Island before Highway 12 was built and there are hardly any paved roads on Portsmouth and South Core Banks. In those days hardly anyone had four wheel drive. The method was to take a regular car and add big slick tires with just enough pressure to keep them on the rims. As a boy, I remember ads in the newspaper for worn out cars, advertising them as fishing cars. Surf anglers would drive them down to the coast and ferry them across to the Outer Banks. The cars would then stay there until they died, and they were simply abandoned. A few still lie in state along the dune lines of Portsmouth and Lookout, quietly rusting down to iron flakes.
Even with the best four wheel drive system in the world, driving on sugar sand, as I like to call super loose beach sand, is almost impossible and will take a toll on transmissions and gas mileage. With proper tire deflation, your vehicle will cruise over that loose sand, and it will do so without straining the transmission or burning about three times the highway consumption in gas.
The reason deflated tires roll better on loose sand is that they spread out and cover more footprint. The additional area prevents the tires from sinking in the soft sand and lets the vehicle ride on top, rather than pushing through. If your deflated tires aren’t soft enough that you can see the sidewalls flex when you rock the truck in a parking lot, they’re overinflated for beach driving. When properly deflated, you should be able to drive down the beach in soft sand in two wheel drive. You should only need four wheel drive to get started in the softest sand.
If the truck begins to jump and buck, you have too much air. If your automatic transmission stays in first gear, you have too much air. If the vehicle stops without coasting when you take your foot off the accelerator, you’re still over inflated. For lightweight vehicles like Jeeps and small SUVs minimum pressure is around 14 psi. For full sized trucks and SUVs, the minimum is about 16 psi. I like to deflate my truck down to 20 psi front and rear, or 20 front and 26 rear while I have my slide in camper on. More weight flattens the tire sooner so you can get away with more air pressure.
Every service station and tackle shop near beach driving locations should have a compressor, so you won’t have trouble finding a place to replace the air. I run on low pressure the whole time at Hatteras, since I only do short jaunts on pavement. You should drive very carefully because underinflated tires don’t corner nearly as well. 
Any time you’re on the beach, you should be looking for firm sand. There’s no reason to drive in sugar sand when you can move over and drive where it’s more solid. Follow the tracks of other vehicles, the ruts are almost always the path of least resistance. Never cut between anglers and the surf unless you look carefully for fishing lines; tangling and breaking another angler’s lines isn’t a good way to make friends. Always carry a tow strap. If you have a strap, help is rarely hard to find. Be a good neighbor and pull others out if they need it and aren’t a bonehead about taking advice about air pressure.
Just in case you do get stuck, keep your head and don’t gun the engine and push all the sand from under the tires. If the vehicle starts to jump and shudder and you aren’t at the minimum pressure, stop and let some air out.  Two or three psi will normally let you simply drive away. It’s a good idea to always have a shovel and a couple of strips of carpet. If you get really stuck and can’t get a pull, shovel the sand from under the frame and get the carpet under the tires. Most times you can simply drive out.
As we came off the beach a half hour after encountering Mr. Bonehead, I noticed he was still there in exactly the same spot. This time, he was more interested in my advice. I helped him deflate his tires, hooked him up to my tow strap and within minutes, he was on his way to the Point, a little wiser. If he hadn’t changed his mind, I’d already decided to offer him a ride back to town or leave him where he was. Fortunately, he did have a change of heart; otherwise, he might still be there.
Dick Jones is an award winning freelance writer living in High Point. He writes about hunting, fishing, dogs, and shooting for several NC newspapers as well as national magazines and websites.  If you’d like to have him speak to your group, he can be reached at or