The Secrets to Riding in Sand

Sand is not meant to be feared; it's meant to be enjoyed.

motorcycle riding in the sand

If you are venturing off road, you will come across sand. This can present problems, especially on a big, heavy bike. Sand is not as difficult as it’s made out to be, yet plenty of bad advice and misconceptions about riding in it have prevailed. Hence, most riders dread, or even fear, the soft stuff. Here are some tips for riding in sand:

1. Tires matter.

If you think you can ride in sand with a smooth, round road tire or so-called 50/50 tires, you are fooling yourself—right up to the point you really need the tire to work for you and it doesn’t. You’ll be on your side or stuck—or likely both. And there isn’t much you can do about it, no matter your skill. The open block pattern, especially on the sidewall of the tire, does the majority of the work. Airing down does not really make the difference one would think. It helps a bit, but it does not compensate for a proper tire. Run your hand on the side of your tire: That’s what the ground feels. Smooth sidewalls translate to trouble in the sand.

2. Do not use the clutch.

In sand, the clutch should be an on/off switch. Slipping the clutch is pointless because your rear wheel will be spinning. The trick is to trust the torque of the motor and learn to back off the throttle to reduce the spinning and get traction. The motorcycle will actually accelerate as you abruptly back off the throttle.

3. Balance is critical.

If you are out of balance, that will compound anything the bike does, such as wander, shake its handlebar, or have its back end start to wallow. Get used to the bike moving underneath you. You need to be loose on the bars, balanced, and centered over the bike so you can use your weight to influence where you want the bike to go as well as react to the bike going someplace you don’t want. You steer with your feet by weighting the footpegs, which means you need to be standing. Additionally, this will give you a second chance to correct the out-of-balance bike by using your weight to fight back. If you are sitting, you are going where the bike wants; it’s taking you for the ride. And do not confuse speed and inertia with being in balance. If you can’t ride at 1 or 2 mph on hard dirt, you certainly can’t ride that slow in sand. In the beginning, going slow in the sand is the right way to do it safely and comfortably.

4. Do not “get over the back and gas it!”

This is a saying that everyone uses, but few good riders, especially on adventure bikes, practice. If you are over the back of the bike, you are out of balance and pulling on the handlebars, so if the bike decides to go someplace, it will take you with it. If you are going fast enough, you are just begging for a bigger crash because inertia is masking an out-of-balance rider. It’s true that a quick (short) burst of power can help you control the bike and regain balance, but if you do not get your bike and body back in balance and slow to a speed you are comfortable with, then you might not want (or even have it available) to use a burst of power for the next incident. It’s actually better to stop the bike and then take off slowly, but you’ll never hear anyone tell you this about sand riding.

5. Learn how to not get stuck.

If your rear tire is digging down faster than it is going forward, you need to stop. Stop digging a hole. The quicker you stop the better. Then, when you are about to get going, make sure you are off the seat and actively moving your body forward and pushing off like you are pushing off on a skateboard. You want to give your bike a 200-pound break on having to lug your body’s weight when you want to get started. Remember, drop the clutch (don’t slip it because the tire is going to spin no matter what) and quickly reduce the throttle to find the traction. This will work wonders for starting off in sandy conditions. Once you embrace this technique you will find that it is very hard to get stuck on level or downhill sandy conditions. If you don’t get a good start and balance or traction is not right, just stop and start over before you fall over.

6. Find a small patch to practice and gradually work up your skill.

Just reading these tips will not do much; you have to go out and feel what is going on through your bike. Having a safe place to practice is the only way to get over the fear of sand. Remember, you need to slow down before you get to the sand to allow yourself to be able to use bursts of power (throttle control) to make corrections. Starting and stopping in sand, as well as riding slow and balanced, should be part of your practice regimen so you are not afraid to do it out on the trail.