Welcome to Unsealed 4X4

Are you hungry for the latest in 4X4 news, reviews and travel?

At Unsealed 4X4, we’ll give you up-to-date 4X4 news, reviews and how-to's to keep you in fine form.

Ever thought about how your vehicle moves through sand, the forces acting on it and the recovery forces required? It's science time.

It's always interesting to understand exactly how and why your vehicle behaves a certain way in specific terrain because that can make you a better driver and lead to safer recoveries.  To that end, we thought we'd dust off our lab coats and look at the science of sand driving.

Why? Because too many yarns focus on dropping tyre pressures and nothing else. Here we'll look at different types of sand, the physics involved in driving on sand and the recovery weights via load cell testing. This article won't be light and breezy, but you will learn stuff.

THE SCIENCE OF

GUIDE Sand driving

sand driving

WORDS BY ROBERT PEPPER, IMAGES BY ROBERT PEPPER AND BRETT HEMMINGS

ADVERTISEMENT
SCROLL TO CONTINUE

Now we need to explore how all this translates to car setup and driving techniques. You all know you need to drop tyre pressures, but why?  Traction most would say, but that's only part of the reason. Do you know what the other reason is? To reduce rolling resistance…this is going to get a little heavy and there’ll be some maths, so, stay with me.

See, when you stand on a soft surface, you sink in. That's why you leave footprints in the sand but not on concrete. And when a wheel sinks into the ground, it has to push through the terrain, which is your rolling resistance. If the wheel can't overcome the rolling resistance, it'll spin... and dig in becoming a vicious cycle. That’s why skilled sand drivers quickly back off as soon as they feel excessive wheelspin, to find the happy medium between slip and grip; and it’s why we suggest that if your wheels are spinning in sand then you should back off and drop pressures slightly to find the happy medium.

Why do we drop tyre pressures?
Reducing tyre pressures increases the tyre's contact patch (it’s not so much width but length we’re going for), reduces the amount the wheel sinks in and thus reduces rolling resistance. There is also a traction improvement as there's more tyre in contact with the ground. The brain hurting part is that reducing tyre pressures physically increases the rolling resistance of the tyre, but that increase is outweighed by the fact you're not sinking in as much.

Sand Driving Techniques

ABOVE This LC100 wasn’t driven hard, just turned. You can see how the rear has slid, creating a lot more rolling resistance than just travelling in a straight line.

“If the wheel can't overcome the rolling resistance, it'll spin... and sink further in becoming a vicious cycle”

How can I determine the optimum tyre pressure?
This is tricky. It’s possible to determine an approximate pressure but, in the end it all depends on the type of sand you’re driving on. Just know that you definitely should drop your tyre pressures on sand.

Usually for sand driving those in the know reckon around 20-25psi is a good starting point. But that might not be ideal for your specific tyre, so you can use the law of percentages as a way to tailor reduced tyre pressures to your own vehicle.

What’s that mean? Start by parking your vehicle on a flat firm surface, like a driveway, with the tyres at your regular road pressure (this is classed as 100% height). For some extra science you could measure the distance from the edge of the wheel to the ground. Ideally, you’ll want to do this when they’re cold. You’ll need some paint and plain paper, something like A3-sized paper would do nicely, but you could always use newspaper too, and a vehicle jack.

Make sure you have a good-quality pressure gauge to check that all four tyres are the same pressure. Paint between two and three rows of the tyre, place the paper underneath the raised wheel and tape it down (never climb underneath a vehicle using only the jack but for this exercise you won’t have to). Lower the tyre onto the paper and then jack it back up again. Remove the paper and make note of the pressure on the piece of paper. Clean the paint off the tyre.

Start by reducing the pressure in increments of 10psi, paint the same rows of the tyre again and slot a clean piece of paper underneath the tyre. Lower the vehicle onto the paper. Raise it up again. Remove the paper, make note of the pressure, clean the paint from the tyre and repeat. Keep going until you get a footprint increase of around 250% compared to the road pressure. Using this trick, you’ll find that the greatest footprint growth occurs between 20-9psi.

Now, this method is a great way of knowing, at almost any given pressure, what your tyre’s footprint will look like. And it’s worth noting that tyre pressures are different depending on the tyre, the stiffness of the sidewall, the size, the weight of the vehicle, and so on. And, often, you’ll need to run different tyre pressures front and rear because of weight and how it’s spread across your vehicle.

Be aware that going too low can actually be detrimental to the ‘floatation’ we’re trying to achieve. As the tyre bags beyond optimum it can ‘well’ in the centre and actually create a little lump that it’s constantly pushing against, making the going that much harder.

GRANDPA’S TIP
Watch your temperature gauge, if you’re rig is running really hot then you’re either running too high a tyre pressure for the conditions or you’re in trouble. That said, sand driving in general will see your truck run a little hotter than normal.

!
Offline: This content can only be displayed when online.

So, 'slip' is necessary?
The softer or less traction the surface has the more slip is needed for optimum efficiency. For sand, slip ratios are around 15-40%, which means the tyre rotates 15-40% more than it would if the car travelled forwards precisely the circumference of the tyre. That is one reason why fuel consumption rises when driving in the sand, and another is the increased rolling resistance of both the deflated tyre and the tyre sinking into the sand. Interestingly, rolling resistance in sand increases with speed to a point, then it decreases. This is because the tyre needs to move sand out of the way, and that's easier at slow speeds, but at high speeds the tyre can surf on top of the sand, similar to the drag reduction seen in a fast boat when it planes on top of the water.

Is wheelspin bad?
I mentioned wanting to kill excessive wheelspin when driving in sand, but that's not exactly correct. Every car tyre has 'slip'. When a car moves, it has a measure of wheelspin - which means that if it is a driven or undriven but unbraked wheel, it rotates further than the vehicle travels, and if it is a braked wheel, it rotates less than the distance travelled. The extreme examples of this are a burnout. And when a wheel slips a lot, we call it 'wheelspin'.

So how much force is required to move a vehicle in the sand?
We need to make it clear that we’re not talking about a snatched weight… that’ll be in the next par or so. Rather we’re talking about the amount of effort required to overcome the rolling resistance and move a vehicle rather than physically drag the vehicle out of a bog. And it’s worth noting that the starting force/effort required is generally 2-2.5 times more than the sustained force/effort.

On flat bitumen with tyres at road pressure, I measured (with a load cell) the amount of effort required to move (sustained) a vehicle weighing 2600kg at 2.3% of the vehicle weight or 60kg. The starting effort/force required, as mentioned, is around double this sustained amount, so, 120kg. Drop the tyre pressures to 20psi (such as you would when driving in sand) and that rises to 80kg or 3% of the vehicle weight. With a starting effort/force of more than 160kg.

Let’s just press Pause for a moment. We're talking about a 'force' here, so the correct unit is Newtons, but we can all conceptualise kilograms (this is how things like snatch straps, shackles and more are usually rated), so we'll use those instead. Press Play.

On firm, flat sand the force/effort rose to 7% of the vehicle's weight at 20psi, or more than twice the force required compared to bitumen. However, when following existing wheel marks, the force/effort was half, but this was still more than bitumen. And that is because the compressed sand creates less drag.

That result also shows why you often get stuck when turning on sand - it's because each of your four wheels has to create a path through the sand (increasing the rolling resistance), as opposed to the rear two following in the tracks of the fronts.

There's more traction lost on the outside than is gained on the inside, equating to an overall loss of traction. You can see the wheels are turned to a greater degree than the radius of the corner requires – but that is necessary due to the low traction of the sand. It does, however, create drag. And the outside front wheel is spinning faster than the inside, despite it taking a shorter arc so it should be slower. That’s not an effective traction transfer system, but the Defender’s brake-traction control is helping drive the outside wheel.

ABOVE This Defender 90 needed a snatched force equivalent to 80% of its 1610kg mass to pull it from the sand trap. Then we reset the trap and spent five minutes digging it out. The result was a recovery with 36% of its mass. Much less force required, making for a safer recovery.

BELOW The snatching force required to drag out the Prado was 1605kg. And the recovery approach was the typical, low-range, second-gear on the Patrol with the driver of the Prado driving forward at the moment of the ‘twang’.

Some years ago, Unsealed 4X4 used a load cell to measure the snatched weight experienced when snatching a vehicle bogged in sand. The snatcher was a Nissan GU Patrol and the snatchee was an accessorised Toyota Prado weighing 2840kg, the location was Stockton beach but that’s not really that important. With a load cell attached to the snatch strap the load recorded to pull the Prado out of its predicament was 1605kg or, more than half the weight of the vehicle. For reference, to bog the vehicle, the tyres were left at highway pressures as you can see in the photos.

What’s a load cell? Essentially, it’s just a block of alloy with two shackles on either side with some electro-trickery on the inside that measure the pulling force in increments of 5kg up to a maximum (our unit) of 10,000kg.

Sounds simple, right? It isn't. Sand is made up of tiny grains not connected, a bit like a handful of marbles, if you catch my drift. The hardness, or not, of sand, is affected by things like its shape and the amount of water it holds.

Dry sand grains can move freely against each other, damp or wet grains, on the other hand, are unable to move freely because the water molecules have a viscous surface tension which acts a bit like weak glue sticking the grains of sand together. You've probably seen this effect when building sandcastles on the beach; there's an optimum amount of water for best sandcastle building.

The softness of sand is also affected by what else is in it, so vegetated deserts have sand which is partially bound by vegetation. And then there's compression. The more sand, or any soft terrain, is compressed, the harder it becomes, which is why it's much easier to travel in existing wheel tracks rather than make new ones.

ABOVE If you can see clearly defined tyre marks in the sand then, typically speaking, that sand is firm enough to drive on. If you can’t see any tyre marks after a vehicle passes, then it is likely to be soft – either dry powder or soaking wet.

WHAT IS SAND?

BELOW Deserts like the Simpson are vegetated and have clearly defined wheel marks. The vegetation holds the dune together, and debris mixes with the sand to make it firmer.  Such sand driving is comfortable, provided you have dropped tyre pressures (to around 18psi or lower). All those who seem to have trouble have had so while running 25 to 30psi. That’s too high.

HOW ARE DUNES FORMED?

At a macro level, expanses of dunes are exactly like corrugations on a dirt road, only far more substantial. Both form in the same way - imagine an area of perfectly flat sand with the wind blowing on it, moving the top layer of loose sand. Then there's a little imperfection, maybe a rise, a stick, anything and the sand collects around it, forming a tiny ramp. Sand blows up the slope, increasing the sand on the slope, growing it. Over the crest, the wind drops sand, with the finest grains dropping over the top. The result is a steeper leeward (opposite to windward) side, and finer, softer sand particles. That is why sand dunes are typically easier to drive heading in the direction of the prevailing winds.

> A Discovery 4 in the Sahara. No vegetation, just pure wind-formed dunes. The sand is soft as there is no vegetation to hold it or mix in with the sand, and the wind is continually moving fine particles of sand around. You see the same effect in Australian deserts overnight – the first vehicle through finds the tops of dunes have a lot of fine sand. The second and subsequent vehicles have an easier time as the earlier vehicles compress the sand and create wheel marks.

GUIDE Sand driving

sand driving

THE SCIENCE OF

Ever thought about how your vehicle moves through sand, the forces acting on it and the recovery forces required? It's science time.

It's always interesting to understand exactly how and why your vehicle behaves a certain way in specific terrain because that can make you a better driver and lead to safer recoveries.  To that end, we thought we'd dust off our lab coats and look at the science of sand driving.

Why? Because too many yarns focus on dropping tyre pressures and nothing else. Here we'll look at different types of sand, the physics involved in driving on sand and the recovery weights via load cell testing. This article won't be light and breezy, but you will learn stuff.

WORDS BY ROBERT PEPPER, IMAGES BY ROBERT PEPPER AND BRETT HEMMINGS

ADVERTISEMENT
SCROLL TO CONTINUE

Why do we drop tyre pressures?
Reducing tyre pressures increases the tyre's contact patch (it’s not so much width but length we’re going for), reduces the amount the wheel sinks in and thus reduces rolling resistance. There is also a traction improvement as there's more tyre in contact with the ground. The brain hurting part is that reducing tyre pressures physically increases the rolling resistance of the tyre, but that increase is outweighed by the fact you're not sinking in as much.

Now we need to explore how all this translates to car setup and driving techniques. You all know you need to drop tyre pressures, but why?  Traction most would say, but that's only part of the reason. Do you know what the other reason is? To reduce rolling resistance…this is going to get a little heavy and there’ll be some maths, so, stay with me.

See, when you stand on a soft surface, you sink in. That's why you leave footprints in the sand but not on concrete. And when a wheel sinks into the ground, it has to push through the terrain, which is your rolling resistance. If the wheel can't overcome the rolling resistance, it'll spin... and dig in becoming a vicious cycle. That’s why skilled sand drivers quickly back off as soon as they feel excessive wheelspin, to find the happy medium between slip and grip; and it’s why we suggest that if your wheels are spinning in sand then you should back off and drop pressures slightly to find the happy medium.

ABOVE This LC100 wasn’t driven hard, just turned. You can see how the rear has slid, creating a lot more rolling resistance than just travelling in a straight line.

Sand Driving Techniques

“If the wheel can't overcome the rolling resistance, it'll spin... and sink further in becoming a vicious cycle”

ADVERTISEMENT
SCROLL TO CONTINUE

How can I determine the optimum tyre pressure?
This is tricky. It’s possible to determine an approximate pressure but, in the end it all depends on the type of sand you’re driving on. Just know that you definitely should drop your tyre pressures on sand.

Usually for sand driving those in the know reckon around 20-25psi is a good starting point. But that might not be ideal for your specific tyre, so you can use the law of percentages as a way to tailor reduced tyre pressures to your own vehicle.

What’s that mean? Start by parking your vehicle on a flat firm surface, like a driveway, with the tyres at your regular road pressure (this is classed as 100% height). For some extra science you could measure the distance from the edge of the wheel to the ground. Ideally, you’ll want to do this when they’re cold. You’ll need some paint and plain paper, something like A3-sized paper would do nicely, but you could always use newspaper too, and a vehicle jack.

Make sure you have a good-quality pressure gauge to check that all four tyres are the same pressure. Paint between two and three rows of the tyre, place the paper underneath the raised wheel and tape it down (never climb underneath a vehicle using only the jack but for this exercise you won’t have to). Lower the tyre onto the paper and then jack it back up again. Remove the paper and make note of the pressure on the piece of paper. Clean the paint off the tyre.

Start by reducing the pressure in increments of 10psi, paint the same rows of the tyre again and slot a clean piece of paper underneath the tyre. Lower the vehicle onto the paper. Raise it up again. Remove the paper, make note of the pressure, clean the paint from the tyre and repeat. Keep going until you get a footprint increase of around 250% compared to the road pressure. Using this trick, you’ll find that the greatest footprint growth occurs between 20-9psi.

Now, this method is a great way of knowing, at almost any given pressure, what your tyre’s footprint will look like. And it’s worth noting that tyre pressures are different depending on the tyre, the stiffness of the sidewall, the size, the weight of the vehicle, and so on. And, often, you’ll need to run different tyre pressures front and rear because of weight and how it’s spread across your vehicle.

Be aware that going too low can actually be detrimental to the ‘floatation’ we’re trying to achieve. As the tyre bags beyond optimum it can ‘well’ in the centre and actually create a little lump that it’s constantly pushing against, making the going that much harder.

GRANDPA’S TIP
Watch your temperature gauge, if you’re rig is running really hot then you’re either running too high a tyre pressure for the conditions or you’re in trouble. That said, sand driving in general will see your truck run a little hotter than normal.

!
Offline: This content can only be displayed when online.

So, 'slip' is necessary?
The softer or less traction the surface has the more slip is needed for optimum efficiency. For sand, slip ratios are around 15-40%, which means the tyre rotates 15-40% more than it would if the car travelled forwards precisely the circumference of the tyre. That is one reason why fuel consumption rises when driving in the sand, and another is the increased rolling resistance of both the deflated tyre and the tyre sinking into the sand. Interestingly, rolling resistance in sand increases with speed to a point, then it decreases. This is because the tyre needs to move sand out of the way, and that's easier at slow speeds, but at high speeds the tyre can surf on top of the sand, similar to the drag reduction seen in a fast boat when it planes on top of the water.

Is wheelspin bad?
I mentioned wanting to kill excessive wheelspin when driving in sand, but that's not exactly correct. Every car tyre has 'slip'. When a car moves, it has a measure of wheelspin - which means that if it is a driven or undriven but unbraked wheel, it rotates further than the vehicle travels, and if it is a braked wheel, it rotates less than the distance travelled. The extreme examples of this are a burnout. And when a wheel slips a lot, we call it 'wheelspin'.

So how much force is required to move a vehicle in the sand?
We need to make it clear that we’re not talking about a snatched weight… that’ll be in the next par or so. Rather we’re talking about the amount of effort required to overcome the rolling resistance and move a vehicle rather than physically drag the vehicle out of a bog. And it’s worth noting that the starting force/effort required is generally 2-2.5 times more than the sustained force/effort.

On flat bitumen with tyres at road pressure, I measured (with a load cell) the amount of effort required to move (sustained) a vehicle weighing 2600kg at 2.3% of the vehicle weight or 60kg. The starting effort/force required, as mentioned, is around double this sustained amount, so, 120kg. Drop the tyre pressures to 20psi (such as you would when driving in sand) and that rises to 80kg or 3% of the vehicle weight. With a starting effort/force of more than 160kg.

Let’s just press Pause for a moment. We're talking about a 'force' here, so the correct unit is Newtons, but we can all conceptualise kilograms (this is how things like snatch straps, shackles and more are usually rated), so we'll use those instead. Press Play.

On firm, flat sand the force/effort rose to 7% of the vehicle's weight at 20psi, or more than twice the force required compared to bitumen. However, when following existing wheel marks, the force/effort was half, but this was still more than bitumen. And that is because the compressed sand creates less drag.

That result also shows why you often get stuck when turning on sand - it's because each of your four wheels has to create a path through the sand (increasing the rolling resistance), as opposed to the rear two following in the tracks of the fronts.

There's more traction lost on the outside than is gained on the inside, equating to an overall loss of traction. You can see the wheels are turned to a greater degree than the radius of the corner requires – but that is necessary due to the low traction of the sand. It does, however, create drag. And the outside front wheel is spinning faster than the inside, despite it taking a shorter arc so it should be slower. That’s not an effective traction transfer system, but the Defender’s brake-traction control is helping drive the outside wheel.

Some years ago, Unsealed 4X4 used a load cell to measure the snatched weight experienced when snatching a vehicle bogged in sand. The snatcher was a Nissan GU Patrol and the snatchee was an accessorised Toyota Prado weighing 2840kg, the location was Stockton beach but that’s not really that important. With a load cell attached to the snatch strap the load recorded to pull the Prado out of its predicament was 1605kg or, more than half the weight of the vehicle. For reference, to bog the vehicle, the tyres were left at highway pressures as you can see in the photos.

What’s a load cell? Essentially, it’s just a block of alloy with two shackles on either side with some electro-trickery on the inside that measure the pulling force in increments of 5kg up to a maximum (our unit) of 10,000kg.

BELOW The snatching force required to drag out the Prado was 1605kg. And the recovery approach was the typical, low-range, second-gear on the Patrol with the driver of the Prado driving forward at the moment of the ‘twang’.

ABOVE This LC100 weighs 3180kg. It was pulled over the sand as shown which was soft with no wheel tracks, but not powdery. The force required to move it at 20psi was more than double what was required to move it at road pressures on bitumen.

ABOVE This Defender 90 needed a snatched force equivalent to 80% of its 1610kg mass to pull it from the sand trap. Then we reset the trap and spent five minutes digging it out. The result was a recovery with 36% of its mass. Much less force required, making for a safer recovery.

Sounds simple, right? It isn't. Sand is made up of tiny grains not connected, a bit like a handful of marbles, if you catch my drift. The hardness, or not, of sand, is affected by things like its shape and the amount of water it holds.

Dry sand grains can move freely against each other, damp or wet grains, on the other hand, are unable to move freely because the water molecules have a viscous surface tension which acts a bit like weak glue sticking the grains of sand together. You've probably seen this effect when building sandcastles on the beach; there's an optimum amount of water for best sandcastle building.

The softness of sand is also affected by what else is in it, so vegetated deserts have sand which is partially bound by vegetation. And then there's compression. The more sand, or any soft terrain, is compressed, the harder it becomes, which is why it's much easier to travel in existing wheel tracks rather than make new ones.

WHAT IS SAND?

BELOW Deserts like the Simpson are vegetated and have clearly defined wheel marks. The vegetation holds the dune together, and debris mixes with the sand to make it firmer.  Such sand driving is comfortable, provided you have dropped tyre pressures (to around 18psi or lower). All those who seem to have trouble have had so while running 25 to 30psi. That’s too high.

ABOVE If you can see clearly defined tyre marks in the sand then, typically speaking, that sand is firm enough to drive on. If you can’t see any tyre marks after a vehicle passes, then it is likely to be soft – either dry powder or soaking wet.

HOW ARE DUNES FORMED?

At a macro level, expanses of dunes are exactly like corrugations on a dirt road, only far more substantial. Both form in the same way - imagine an area of perfectly flat sand with the wind blowing on it, moving the top layer of loose sand. Then there's a little imperfection, maybe a rise, a stick, anything and the sand collects around it, forming a tiny ramp. Sand blows up the slope, increasing the sand on the slope, growing it. Over the crest, the wind drops sand, with the finest grains dropping over the top. The result is a steeper leeward (opposite to windward) side, and finer, softer sand particles. That is why sand dunes are typically easier to drive heading in the direction of the prevailing winds.

> A Discovery 4 in the Sahara. No vegetation, just pure wind-formed dunes. The sand is soft as there is no vegetation to hold it or mix in with the sand, and the wind is continually moving fine particles of sand around. You see the same effect in Australian deserts overnight – the first vehicle through finds the tops of dunes have a lot of fine sand. The second and subsequent vehicles have an easier time as the earlier vehicles compress the sand and create wheel marks.