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Driving on the Beach at the OBX

Updated on August 18, 2011

Adventure or Nightmare

Driving on the beach can be a cool time or it can turn into a tramatic experience. Take a few notes and learn from my mistakes and you can add an adventure to your family's vacation.

Ramp 67 access to Ocracoke Beach
Ramp 67 access to Ocracoke Beach
The sign at the top of the ramp- we almost made it... this was next to the vehicle
The sign at the top of the ramp- we almost made it... this was next to the vehicle
The photo that made it all worth it.
The photo that made it all worth it.
Back to town to refill the tires
Back to town to refill the tires
Throw some quarters in before the trip- you never know if you will need them
Throw some quarters in before the trip- you never know if you will need them

Let me tell you a tale....

... First I should set the scene,

A multi family excursion to Ocracoke Island, so we had two vehicles. Since Mom (being me) had forgotten to pack the sunscreen we had to continue into town to the store. This is where the adventure begins. The last thing I heard as my cousin and her husband drive off with their kids is "Meet you at the beach off ramp 67" .... Simple enough plan. Well, it seemed so at the time.

We found the ramp to the beach access easily enough and as you can see from the photo it appears to be a short little drive to get to the ocean. What you do not see from the road is that when you get as far as the photo shows the ramp makes a turn to the right and you realize you have only gone a quarter of the way and it is much steeper. Ooops!

I was driving and when we turned the bend I realized just how loose the sand got. By this time I felt I was committed to the climb so we continued to make our way up the extremely sloppy sand fish tailing all over the place. Then I see the crest of the hill- the prize is in sight! I expect to see my cousin's vehicle waiting for us and their kids in the waves. Just then my back wheels lose it and start to spin. I give it a bit of gas and we are stuck! Not just a little, I mean open the door and snowplow the sand stuck. Just then my cell phone rings and I hear a voice yell "Don't go to ramp 67 we got stuck and had to get towed out!!!!" Great.... wonderful timing.

Turns out, my cousin had just gotten pulled out of the sand (although I do have to point out that I did make it farther up the ramp then they did... sorry guys- I am proud of that fact!!!) They spent $70 to see their defeated vehicle be pulled down the hill backwards like a fish on a fishing pole and they never even made it to the beach. To add saltwater to the wounds there were no bars on their cell phone. So after getting towed out they had to drive back to town to find cell phone service to call me. (Their carrier will remain unnamed, but I can tell you I did have service while stuck in the sand with Verizon wireless. For all of those going to the OBX and driving off road, check your cell service before you go somewhere you may need help.)

Somehow in all of this fiasco we missed each other driving and so we ended up in a similar situation. Fortunately for us, there was someone behind us trying to get to the beach as well and they had a shovel. After reducing the air pressure in my tires and digging to china, I was ready to try again. A few pointers on the finer art of sand driving and I was crawling up the beach like a pro.

I have included some photos of the excursion, my favorite is the one of my Trailblazer next to the Atlantic Ocean. Since my husband did not find the digging in the extremely hot sand a wonderful family vacation moment- there are not any photos of the vehicle actually buried. No one else found that remotely exciting. I however did see the potential for humor, mainly because I was not pushing or digging... I was driving.

Once the prize photo was taken I still had to get back to the main road. Fortunately the driving tips that the nice young man who stopped to help us gave me did the trick. Very carefully we limped back to town to find a service station with an air pump to refill those extremely low tires. After all of this drama we finally made it to the public beach access with, you guessed it- a paved parking lot! My son laughed and splashed in the surf as the adults sat on the sand recounting their respective stories and of course, laughing. I guess even the nightmares can turn into a funny vacation story... as long as they end well.

Go prepared for your trip

12 VOLT ELECTRIC AIR PUMP w/GAUGE for Tires Bikes Cars Air Matresses
12 VOLT ELECTRIC AIR PUMP w/GAUGE for Tires Bikes Cars Air Matresses

Once you have reduced the pressure for sand, you need to get it back for the pavement


What went wrong?

Lets pick out the mistakes I made in the story above and I will tell you what I should have done differently.

First rookie mistake was assuming I knew what I was getting into. A short little walk up the hill would have shown me that I was not seeing the big picture from the road. I would have also gotten one other important piece of information- my cousin was not there! Always know what the conditions are like BEFORE you start, how loose and how deep the sand is are extremely good things to know. Unless you are prepared for what is ahead you should probably not think that you are in a jet ski and will just skim over the top of the sand. I can tell you from experience that this will end more like the Titanic.

Reduce your tire pressure! Fat wide tires are like snowshoes, thin hard tires are like snowplows. Don't wait until you get stuck to take the pressure down. 15 psi is what it took for my Trailblazer to make the journey. Be very carefull though because too much bouncing around will possibly result in the tire coming off the rim with lower pressures. This is really not a good thing! Make sure you have some way to reinflate the tires when you get back to pavement. A 12 volt air compressor is a great thing to pack for this trip. If you have to drive back to civilization on low tires keep your speed down and do not make any sharp turns.

Here are a few sand driving tips

  • Always drive straight up an incline never parrallel because you risk flipping the vehicle.
  • Stay in the vehicle tracks from other cars so that you can take advantage of the compressed sand.
  • Do not make any sharp turns
  • Try to avoid using your brakes, glide to a stop otherwise you pile sand up infront of your tires
  • Take your foot off the gas as soon as your tires start to spin - you can always back out if you have not buried your tires.
  • Don't try to turn around until you make it to wet sand if at all possible. Usually the waves have already compacted a section of sand and you can manuever far easier down by the water.
  • Keep your speed steady and crawl your vehicle
  • Be aware of the tide schedules and do not park your vehicle where you could get stranded. Salt water is extremely corrosive and will ruin your vehicle.

Can you point out what I did wrong? Yes, just about everything! So I am thinking that makes me an expert on what not to do. The two biggest mistakes that I made were thinking that I had committed to the drive so therefore I needed to keep going and giving it a little gas when my wheels started to spin. I am used to northern Pennsylvania snow driving and those two things have kept me on the road and between the ditches on some of the nastiest and snowiest road conditions. However, sand and snow are two totally different substances. Don't be afraid to take your foot off the gas, glide to a stop and back out. There is no shame in admitting defeat. Better to find another place to gain access then to get in over your head (or axle) while driving to the shore. Never ever give it "just a little gas" when your wheels start to spin. Immediately get out and assess the situation. Shovel, traction mats, backing up a bit, all of these things can save you from having to pay someone for a tow or starting an archeology dig to find the bottom of your tires.

Carry a short handled shovel, traction mats, tow rope and gloves with you. Hopefully you will never need them, but if your luck is like mine- you will need them if you forget them. Car mats will work in place of the traction maps in a pinch- just be aware that the will likely get ruined. Mine went shooting out the back of the car with melted skid marks on them! Everything you touch will be hot on a sunny day. The sand, the car, any exposed engine part under the car, so save your hands from burns and scrapes by packing a pair of gloves or two. If someone is around who can give you a hand it is helpful to have a tow rope. If you really get yourself stuck a tall jack can help. Become familiar with the operation of the jack PRIOR to having to use it. Reading the instructions while you are buried to the axle in the sand is not exactly prepared. Besure you know how to use the jack correctly or you could damage your vehicle. Also you may want to purchase the base to give it some stability in the sand. I included a few links to amazon to get you started. One other thing, be sure you give your car a bath when you get done so that the salt water spray does not harm your finish.

All in all the trip very worthwhile. I gained some valuable information and experience for further adventures. I know what I need to bring to be prepared, I know how to use them if all does not go exactly as planned and I know that the rewards are worth it when you succeed. I hope my story inspires you to get off the beaten path and take an adventure and that my shared mistakes will keep the nightmares away.

Until next time..

"May you always have a seashell in your pocket and sand between your toes."


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    • Stephanie Henkel profile image

      Stephanie Henkel 6 years ago from USA

      Good story and great tips for driving on the sand! We drive on OBX beaches often, and just as often we pull out stuck vehicles with our Jeep. Drivers who are new to the beach would be wise to follow your advice or to pick up tips on beach driving at the National Park Welcome Center or campground offices. Probably the worst mistake is not letting air out of your tires. Even 4x4s need to do it! I also think that your tip on watching the tide schedules is VERY important. We once saw a vehicle completely drowned in the incoming tide on Ocracoke! Voted up and useful!