(Photo courtesy of First Tracks Productions)

Riding in sand can be challenging and even a little scary, which makes it a frequently discussed topic at our desert teaching locations (looking at you Arizona and Nevada!).  Doesn’t it seem like those sandy patches always appear right after a nice hard-packed section or on a corner? Sigh.  But wait…don’t fret! Like most mountain bike skills, getting through sand safely and efficiently becomes much easier with some practice and a little help from your friends (at Ninja).

Here are a few tips that will help make riding in sand easier and, dare we say, enjoyable!?

1. Spin to Win

Select a gear that is relatively easy, high cadence.  For those of you who like numbers, shoot for 85 to 95 rpm.  For everyone else, stay focused on keeping those wheels spinning as you roll through the sand.

2. Head Up!

As with pretty much all mountain biking skills, keep your head up and look where you want to go — aim for the smoothest possible trajectory and allowing some margin of error.  As long as you are generally going the direction you need to, you’re OK.  If you come slightly off your line, don’t panic, just ride it out.

3. Breathe

The key to sand-riding-success is staying calm and not overreaction (or over steering).  To do this, relax your arms and upper body while maintaining a firm grip on the handlebars. Keep breathing!!

4. Be Ready

Be especially careful when transitioning from a hard-packed trail to a sandy section. Your bike will slow somewhat abruptly, so be ready with your weight shifted slightly back a bit as you enter the sand. This will ensure you won’t go flying over the bars when your front tire hits the sand. With your center of mass slightly behind the center of gravity of your bike, your front wheel to ‘float’ over the sand rather than getting bogged down.

5. Keep the Speed

Focus on maintaining speed. You will not be able to accelerate quickly, so be sure to keep your momentum. Ride through the sand at a fast, controllable pace, but not so fast that one sudden wrong move will pitch you over the bars and not so slow that you get sucked in the sand and stuck. Just like Goldilocks, you may have to try riding in sand a few times before you find the speed that’s “just right”.

6. Choose the Best Tire (or Bike?)

If you’re planning on riding in a particular sandy area, use a wider tire.  A 2.3 tire will handle much better in sand than a 2.0.  A fat bike tires range from 3 inches to 5 inches and keep your bike floating over the sand (watch the video below for some fun, dune-action, Fat Bike footage).

7. Less is More

Consider lowering your tires pressure a bit. A lower tire pressure will increase (widen) the surface contact area of your tire allowing it to float over the sand rather than sink in.

8. No Sudden Moves

Avoid sharply turning the handlebars in the sand. This will cause the front tire to dig in pitching you forward (and potentially off your bike).

9. Easy Does It

If the trail isn’t a straight-away, steer with your body by turning your shoulders and hips, not with your handle bars. Don’t over-steer in sand – reactively jerking the bike is a recipe for a whip-out!  Instead, subtle shifts of your body weight will allow the bike to go where you want it to. In corners, allow your weight to come forward a bit. Get your center of mass over the center of gravity of your bike (ie. in the Ready Position). This will allow your front tire to stay in contact with the terrain and not slide out.

10. More Cow Bell!

When you successfully navigate through a sandy patch, it is encouraged—and even advised,—to yell out an audible “BRRRAAP!”

How about a little Fat Bike inspiration?   Check out this video from First Tracks Productions.

3 Responses

  1. If I may, I’d like to add a couple of tips to “riding in sand”. I live on the coast north of Perth, Western Australia and although I actively hunt out the firmer patches, I still have to deal with a lot of soft sand. I use 2.25 & 2.3 tyres @ 17-19psi.
    1- Keep your weight right back on the saddle. Your front wheel should be as light as possible to stop it from digging in, which is the source of all the problems when riding sand. In this position, you can actually enter sand patches (traps) at speed without any problem.
    2- Stay flexible at the waist. As your front wheel encounters irregularities in the sand surface (wheel ruts, foot prints…) and the resistance they create, fluctuates, it will cause your back wheel to lose traction and squirm around. Untrained riders see this as requiring corrective action, usually backing off on the pedals, which only ends up bringing them to a full stop. The best way is to ignore the squirming, keep your waist flexible, let your bum follow your back wheel as it wanders around while your upper body keeps the front wheel pointed in the right direction. Maintain a smooth cadence and you’ll find your rear wheel naturally comes back in line with your front wheel. Feathering your rear brake will help your back wheel maintain traction, if necessary.
    I hope this helps.

  2. I would like to second CyclinAl,
    I ride a lot of sand in Nor Cal in the summer time from the beaches to the Sierra Mountains, we encounter sand often in low sections of the trails. My first tip to riders who struggle to stay balanced in the loose stuff, is to sit on that back wheel. I agree with the keep your head up and that helps shift the weight, but butt heavy back and arms straight and keep the speed. If you can keep your front wheel floating on the sand you have it made. Slow down, brake, or try to avoid an obstacle and you are doomed on anything other than a fat bike! Make it fun not a fight.

    Keep up the great positive articles!

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