After hosting an introduction to off-roading course for women and families, I realised that many people do not know how to get into dune-bashing. Driving trips can be fun and exciting, and so it seems a shame for some people to miss out. The terrain in the UAE is beautiful, you are able to see wildlife you didn't know existed, you get plenty of fresh air and it is a great way to teach children about the local environment while they play in the sand. What's not to love?
On top of that, you can camp in the desert and meet like-minded people who are always keen to help, especially if you happen to get stuck in the sand. But before you venture out into the exciting world of desert-driving, allow me to clear up some of the common errors people make when starting out, to keep you safe.
Prepare, prepare, prepare
It may seem obvious, but the first thing you need is a vehicle capable of conquering the terrain. Simply because your car is an SUV, it does not mean it has 4x4 capabilities. Compact SUVs are the fastest-growing segment in the market. Many manufacturers are creating cars that look like traditional off-road vehicles, with more space and a higher seating position, but they operate in two-wheel drive and you have insufficient ground clearance for the job at hand. So before you drive off, check your car is suitable by reading your owners' service manual.
Once you know you have the right vehicle, it is time to prepare yourself and your car. Fill your tank to the brim and carry a secondary fuel can (stored in a safe place), as you will not find many petrol stations in the desert, and on-demand fuel delivery company Cafu is unlikely to venture out that far.
You should also make sure your vehicle is roadworthy and has been recently serviced and checked, including the spare tyre. Secure all your belongings in the appropriate storage areas and consider tying them down. Tell people where you are going, stay local and do not travel alone – find other off-roaders to go with.
And don't forget to download a compass app to your phone that gives you latitude and longitude (a geographical co-ordinate that specifies your location), so the emergency services know exactly where to find you if you need them.
Pack the necessary equipment
There are several essentials to take with you on your journey, not only equipment for the car. Food and water will keep you going in the heat. You could spend as much time out of the car as in it, so calculate three large bottles of water per person as a minimum, but not the low or zero-sodium stuff, as it will not rehydrate you. Buy or borrow a tow rope, preferably one that is elastic and more than 10 metres long, in case you find yourself stuck in the sand and in need of a tug. Sunscreen, covered shoes and light comfy clothes are also a must, especially for children. And always carry your phone and a first aid kit. Even if you have no phone signal, the police can track you via GPS.
Build it up slowly
There are many places that offer a wide range of off-roading experiences, from the huge dunes in the UAE's Empty Quarter to the rocky mountains on the Oman border. Start with desert close to a city, as the dunes are generally smaller, so you can hone your skills and move up to the big stuff over time. Al Qudra, the old Hatta road and Al Ain are all good places to start. It is best to have a look at potential locations on Google Maps beforehand, as this will show you the type of terrain in the area. But remember, sand changes and moves constantly, so expect the unexpected.
The best people to offer advice on the right location for you are those who are already part of the off-roading community. There are many clubs and members who love helping each other and meeting new people. Going out with a group is the best way to get advice on driving techniques, as they will lead you though the dunes using the safest route for your skill level. It will build your confidence quickly and you will have others to share your experiences with.
Watch out for others
The desert is a beautiful environment that offers a sense of calm and wide open spaces. Take care of it by watching out for others on bikes or quad bikes, or in buggies or cars, as they can come from any direction. The desert is getting smaller as our community grows, so you might be surprised by how busy it can get in popular areas, especially on Friday and Saturday mornings. Go as early as you can, because the sand is more forgiving – it dries and heats up later in the day. Obviously, it is hot in the summer, so you will find more people camping and spending longer on the dunes between now and March.
You are likely to fall in love with off-roading and the places you visit, so ensure you leave them in the same condition in which you found them. Do not disturb wildlife, respect the boundaries of locals and camel farmers and take all of your rubbish home with you so everybody can enjoy this hobby for years to come.