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Duning 101 for ATVs and UTVs

March 13, 2017
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The accumulation of windblown sand marks the beginning of one of nature’s most interesting and beautiful phenomenon. Sand dunes occur throughout the world, from coastal and lakeshore plains to arid desert regions. For hundreds of thousands of gear heads like us, these majestic dunes are best experienced from the seat of an ATV or UTV. Up to a quarter-million dune enthusiasts flock to Glamis during the winter holidays for the same reason—it’s unbelievably fun! If you’re new to the ATV/UTV lifestyle and haven’t made that first trip to the dunes yet, you’re missing out.

There are several tips, tricks and guidelines that can help you get the most enjoyment out of a weekend at the dunes. Here are things we’ve learned about riding the magical sand dunes on UTVs and ATVs.

Sand can be hard on equipment if you don’t prepare for it. A successful weekend in the dunes should start with a little extra time in the garage. The sand will have your engine working harder as it spins the wheels looking for traction. If you run paddle tires, you will have traction galore, but sand will still make your engine work harder than under normal circumstances.

1.) Start with fresh oil. Your motor and transmission will be turning more rpm; give your engine the fresh oil needed to properly lubricate and protect it. If you’re riding a four-stroke— this is imperative—give it a fresh oil filter as well. If you’re riding a two-stroke, the oil will last a bit longer, but fresh gearbox oil will still keep your clutches and transmission in better shape longer.


2.) Dirt is the number one enemy of a healthy motor. In the dunes, loose particles of sand will be flying, and a properly serviced air filter is your only protection. Make sure that your air filter is properly cleaned and oiled. If it is a press-flange type, be sure to grease the flange as well. A properly oiled K&N filter with a filter charger skin works great at keeping sand grains out of your motor. There are mixed opinions about fabric-type filters in fine, silty conditions, but no one will argue their superiority in the sand. If your ATV is jetted to run without an air lid, try running a K&N Power Lid to get maximum airflow yet keep your air filter clean all weekend long.

3.) Give your OHV a good once-over. Check for anything that might come loose. Pay attention to cotter keys, etc. Before a dune trip, it’s also a good time to grease the swingarm pivot, suspension linkages and even the axle carrier. Removing the carrier and greasing it is often overlooked, but it is worth the extra effort.

4.) Weight is also a factor in duning. Heavy skid plates are obviously not necessary for duning, but you would be surprised at how much a belly-pan skid can help your UTV or ATV chassis slide instead of stick if you bottom off a jump. If you don’t have paddles, you might opt for lightweight, flexible stock tires over some of the heavier and stiffer aftermarket options.

Paddles are obviously the best way to get traction. There are many different paddles, but some experienced duners actually prefer regular dirt tires. In the dunes, air pressure is the key to flotation. A soft, aired-down tire will float your quad or UTV on the sand, regardless of how much traction its knobbies or paddles grab. If you’re going to dune without paddles, you need just enough air pressure to keep your bead seated, and you will need enough momentum to keep your tires from digging into the soft sand.


1.) Stock, radial sport quad tires typically work better in the sand than stiffer and heavier aftermarket ones designed to perform in the rocky desert or on a motocross track.

2.) You can run an ATV tire down to about 4 to 5 pounds on a standard wheel for optimum flotation without debeading.

3.) With beadlocks, you can run even lower pressure, but make sure they are even from side to side.

4.) UTVs are heavier, but you can typically run them down to about 8 pounds before worrying about rolling the bead off under a sideload. Once again, beadlocks can help you safely go even lower.

5.) If you are running 14-inch wheels on your UTV, you are more likely to lose a bead under low pressure. You might keep 14-inch wheels closer to 10 pounds.

6.) If your dirt tires have a directional V-tread, such as the stockers on a RZR XP 900 or Wildcat, you can try flipping them to the opposite side and running them backwards. Using the V-tread similar to a paddle can help you grab traction.


1.) There are two basic types of paddles: V-cup paddles and straight-cup paddles. V-cup paddles are designed to let the vehicle slide for carving bowls and playing in the dunes. Straight-cup paddles are designed for forward propulsion. If your passion is drag racing, hill-shooting or even just climbing the biggest, steepest dunes, straightcup paddles are for you.


2.) When selecting paddles, there are a few more factors that you need to consider—tire diameter, paddle size, and the number of paddles should all factor into your decision. The tire diameter directly affects your gearing as well as ride comfort. The number and size of paddle scoops should be chosen based on your available horsepower. A stock-motored quad will perform best with six to eight paddles, whereas a highly built motor will appreciate the extra bite of, say, nine to 10 paddles. Extreme drag vehicles might even do best with 12 to 14 paddles.

3.) There are two main options for front sand tires. Stock front tires will work fine, but they will throw a lot of sand back in the general area of your face. “Smoothy” or buffed tires were developed to eliminate the flying sand, but they make turning a real project. Smoothy tires should only be used for drag racing. They don’t have any bite to turn, but they offer very low rolling resistance and won’t throw sand in your face. If you’re going to be doing some serious duning, a ridge or Mohawk-type tire is the only way to go. A buffed front tire with a single rib that bites into the sand when you turn offers the best flotation, turning traction and ride.


4.) There are many UTV paddle options out there as well. There are even special paddles designed to run on the front wheels in four-wheel drive. Many of these special front UTV paddles are made by shaving down a set of mud tires and leaving just a paddletype V down the center.

Once you are prepped and ready to ride, the rest is easy. The sand is one of the safest and most fun places you will ever ride, but follow a few basic rules to keep yourself safe. Always wear your safety gear, use a whip safety flag and dune sober. Few feelings rival the sensation of flowing from bowl to bowl in big dunes and riding walls that seem impossible. Each dune is different, and they change from minute to minute, so reading terrain and maintaining momentum are keys to a fun ride.

1.) Momentum is the key to successful duning. The bigger and/or steeper the dune, the more momentum you will need to conquer it.

2.) Make sure you have enough speed to clear the transition so you won’t high-center, but not so much that you go launching blindly off the other side, like Robby Gordon did on days one and three at the Dakar.

3.) Before you climb a big, steep dune, be sure to scout out a smooth transition. Holding it pinned and sticking it into a deep whoop or steep, a jarring transition can be painful and eat up all your momentum as well.


4.) When transitioning blindly from one dune to the next, you can cross at a 45-degree angle to lessen the abruptness of the drop. When doing this in a UTV, try to have the driver’s side toward the top of the ridge to help you see the other side as early as possible.

5.) When in doubt, turn out! When climbing steep hills, if you are running out of momentum before you will crest the top, turn around while you still have forward momentum to do so. You don’t want to dig in and have to dig it out by hand.

6.) If you do have to get off on a hill, get off on the uphill side of the machine and drag the front end down, then remount and try again.

7.) Sidehilling is another fun duning technique that requires throttle control and balance. While riding across a steep slope, let the rear wheels drop down, and use front-end control and throttle to navigate the hill. Side-slipping is a blast, and you need momentum to press you into the hill.


8.) If you like jumping, the dunes can form some amazing, natural jumps. Use a spotter to alert you of cross-traffic and pre-inspect your landing. Remember that the dunes are constantly changing. After a good night’s windstorm, that jump can be completely different in the morning.

1.) Don’t pit race! For the safety of yourself and others, keep it under 15 mph within 100 feet of any camp, congregation or establishment. Regardless of where you go duning, there is plenty of open space to open it up without endangering somebody’s kids or pets.

2.) If you are new to the area, have someone experienced with riding the area give you the rundown. Make notes of landmarks and GPS routes to avoid getting lost in the future.

3.) Carry a tow strap and always ride with a buddy, if not a group. Each group should have a leader, sweep, shovel, tools, spare belt, flat-fix kit, drinking water and first-aid kit. Radios are a good idea, as cell service is spotty in many dune systems.

4.) Know what’s on the other side. If you’re riding coastal dunes, they will typically drop off steeply, going away from the ocean, and have a safer transition when heading toward the water.

5.) Keep an eye out for witch’s eyes. These holes in the sand are caused by the wind and are not always easy to see. The wind can also cause short drop-offs that you need to keep an eye out for.

6.) Remember that the sun is harsh in the middle of the day, and it is harder to see transitions, G-outs or witch’s eyes. Try using yellow-tinted lenses for better depth perception and to cut glare.

7.) Riding dunes at night can cause vertigo, and it’s super easy to get lost. Only the most experienced duners should attempt night rides. Use accessory LED or HID light bars to show the way. You can tell a night-duner camp by the huge, wildly lit flags on the motor homes so they can navigate back to camp.

8.) Hydrate! By definition, dune systems are so arid that they sap the moisture right out of you, even in winter or at night

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