How to drive in the sand near Kanab UT without getting stuck.
Over the past 20 years, Dreamland guides have acquired a lot of off-road expertise while driving Southern Utah’s sandy roads. We want to share our knowledge! Read this article to learn about choosing the right vehicle, deflating your tires for dry sand, sand driving techniques, what to do when you get stuck and tools you should have along. This blog post should either prepare you for sandy, desert driving or convince you to hire us.
But first…A quick road description for our most popular sand driving destinations.
Off-Road Driving Directions to White Pocket.
How bad is the road to White Pocket, really? It depends on who you ask and on which day you ask them. A drive from Kanab, Utah to White Pocket requires 50 miles of pavement, then 15.5 miles of gravel on House Rock Valley Road and Coral Valley Road (BLM 1017) with potentially a couple of muddy sections if it’s wet. After that, 12 miles of unmaintained sand roads lead to White Pocket. It’s soft like beach sand, and while it’s not the deepest sand we’ve seen, there are a few pits of fairly deep sand, with the longest, deepest stretch near a corral just before you arrive at White Pocket. There are a few rocks here and there but rocks are not the challenge here, it’s mostly the sand that proves problematic.
(We typically take Highway 89A out of Kanab to House Rock Valley Road, then head east on Corral Valley Road BLM 1017, then head north at Pine Tree Pocket up 1087, then take 1086 the rest of the way to White Pocket. This is not the shortest route, but it offers the easiest off-road conditions and is the route that’s recommended by the Bureau of Land Management)
The road to South Coyote Buttes (Cottonwood Cove).
The road to South Coyote Buttes is slightly worse than White Pocket because there are more rocks that need to be negotiated. In addition to 50 miles of pavement and about 13 miles of gravel with maybe a little mud, you’ll need to drive 8 miles of unmaintained sandy roads with a few fairly deep sections. There are slabs of sandstone mixed in which require careful tire placement. We take House Rock Valley Road to BLM 1017, then head north on 1085, then take 1082 to Cottonwood Cove. We don’t recommend taking 1079 in an uphill direction because it’s very deep sand and there is nowhere to pass another vehicle. You can take it downhill if you’re comfortable with deep sand and negotiating a couple of tricky rocky spots.
The road to Peekaboo Slot Canyon is super sandy.
We don’t generally recommend driving this 4-mile stretch of the road unless you have a lot of sand driving experience and a very capable 4X4. It’s deep and soft. Even experienced drivers like us get hung up in the sand from time to time. Really consider hiring a guide or enjoy the long, very sandy hike if you want to see Peekaboo Slot Canyon near Kanab.
Choosing the off-road right vehicle
We recommend a high clearance four-wheel-drive vehicle with good off-road tires for sand driving. What does that mean?
Ground clearance refers to the lowest point on your vehicle. You need AT LEAST 8.5 inches of ground clearance for the drive to White Pocket and South Coyote Buttes, though it’s really better to have 10 inches. With 8.5 inches of clearance, there will be times when your vehicle will bottom out on these roads. Careful tire placement over rocks and cattle guards with steep drop-offs are needed to protect the underside of your vehicle. And your vehicle will rub bottom in the deeper sand sections. That’s OK as long as you don’t lose too much momentum, that’s how you get stuck. A truck with 8.5 inches of clearance can power through deeper sand sections if it has good off-road tires that have been properly deflated, and enough engine power to push the truck through the sand even with the undercarriage dragging in it. The sand at Peekaboo Slot Canyon is DEEP. You need AT LEAST 10 inches of clearance for the road to Peekaboo, and there are many places you will still be dragging sand with the underside of your truck.
Four-wheel drive vs. all-wheel drive, what’s the difference?
This question requires a technical answer that’s not really useful to this article. What you need to know is in general, a 4-wheel drive vehicle is better equipped to handle real off-road conditions, while most AWD vehicles are designed for slippery paved roads or light off-pavement use. Four-wheel drive vehicles normally have low gears that are essential in certain off-road situations. They also typically have more ground clearance, better tires with off-road tread, and more engine power. Those attributes matter more than the technical difference between how the 4WD or AWD systems operate. (For instance, in this guide’s opinion, an AWD Subaru is probably better equipped for the road to White Pocket than the newer model 4X4 Jeep Cherokees that seem to lack ground clearance).
We’re not saying the typical AWD SUV you rent at the airport won’t make it to White Pocket. But it is much more likely to get stuck than a good, 4X4 with the right tires and clearance. The conditions of sandy roads vary depending on moisture and temperature. There are maybe 20 days a year I’d feel comfortable driving an AWD SUV such as a Subaru to White Pocket. (For the record, I own a Subaru Forester with stock tires as my personal vehicle, and I have driven to White Pocket 150 times in a well-equipped Dreamland Suburban so I know the road well) For South Coyote Buttes and especially for Peekaboo Slot Canyon, bring a good 4X4 with off-road tires and clearance. Another word about all-wheel drive vehicles: They tend to lack tow hooks or trailer hitches, so it’s not very intuitive to attach a tow strap when you do get stuck. As a guide, I am hesitant to pull someone out if I don’t know where to attach a strap.
Which vehicles get stuck the most?
We probably help more than 50 stuck drivers every year on the way to White Pocket and Peekaboo. The top vehicle we see stuck is the newer model, four-wheel-drive Jeep Cherokee. The problem seems to be a lack of ground clearance and standard road tires that most people have on them. Also, the drivers might be overconfident, believing their new Jeep will go anywhere…until it doesn’t. A lot of the new Jeep models lack the capability of the classic Wrangler. We also see a lot of Kia Sorentos, Toyota Highlanders, Rav4s, and Nissan Rogues stuck in the sand. We don’t know if these vehicles are less capable than others or if they’re just more common. We have also pulled out some more capable 4X4s as well, including an F-150 at White Pocket, several F-150s at Peekaboo, and even a couple of Jeep Wranglers at Peekaboo. Having the right vehicle is your key to success, but it’s not a guarantee.
Sand driving 101: How to drive in sand
Airing down your tires increases the tire’s surface area and helps your vehicle “float” on top of the sand instead of digging into it. It will be easier to steer in deep sand and you won’t feel like you’re having to gun it and fight so hard in the deep sections. We air down from 45 psi on the highway down to 30 psi for sand when it’s dry, which is about a 35% decrease. If the sand is extremely deep or dry, or if we do get stuck, we air down a bit more. How much to air down depends on the sand conditions and your tires. Tread Magazine recommends airing down 25% to significantly increase traction and comfort on rough dirt roads, down 30-35% to elongate the tire’s footprint to cling to rocks, and 50% to float over deep sand. If you feel like your truck is really fighting the sand, you probably need to air down more. Just keep in mind there is a limit. If you air down too much you risk rolling the tire off the rim, and that’s something you can’t really fix in the field. And we recommend traveling with a small air compressor to air back up for safety on the highway…more about that later.
Engage your four-wheel drive
Sorry, we have to mention it. But we have come across stuck rental Jeep Wranglers whose drivers didn’t realize the Jeep is only a two-wheel-drive vehicle until you engage the four-wheel drive. (Most AWD systems engage automatically when the vehicle recognizes it’s needed) You have to actually push a button, turn a knob on the dashboard or pull a lever to put the vehicle into four-wheel drive. That button will probably give you three choices: 2-Hi, 4-Hi, and 4-Low. Use 4-Hi in the sand, 2-Hi on the pavement. 4-low is only good for certain, slow-speed uses and you probably won’t need it in sand.
Momentum through the sand is essential, and we don’t mean you need to drive fast. You just need to keep forward motion. In the right vehicle with properly deflated tires, you can crawl slowly through sand and even stop in most places. You can judge the depth of sand by the ruts. When the ruts get deep (especially where you feel your truck’s belly dragging) keep some forward momentum. Some people come to a deep section and hesitate because they’re indecisive about whether they should try it. You need to decide what to do before the sand gets deep. If you’re going forward, be decisive, drive into that sand with confidence, and have good forward momentum when you hit the deep patch.
What happens when I meet another vehicle?
The sand roads are one-lane wide but accommodate two-way traffic. Always drive slow enough that you can drive within half of your sight distance. If everyone follows that rule, we all avoid head-on collisions on the sand roads. When you see someone coming, start looking for a pull-out where the sand looks packed and the vegetation is already disturbed. The best pull-off may be behind you. It’s safer to slow down or stop, then sort out which vehicle will pull off the road. Usually, the more capable vehicle will be the one to pull off the road. Don’t panic and drive too fast simply because you’re worried about getting stuck and you don’t know what to do. Chill out. Stop, look around and figure it out. Having an accident is always worse than getting hung up in the sand.
A word about hills.
Never drive down a hill if you’re not certain you’ll get back up. This comes into play at Peekaboo. We’ve met a lot of drivers who made it down into Peekaboo only to be surprised that it was a lot harder to fight the deep sand as they headed uphill on the way back to pavement.
Sand conditions vary.
Anyone who has taken a walk on the beach already knows sand conditions vary greatly. Walk along the ocean and the sand is wet and packed. It’s almost like walking on a sidewalk. Walking along the top of the beach where the sand is dry requires more effort and your feet sink in the sand. It’s the same with your car. Has it rained or snowed recently? Is the desert in a long, hot, dry spell? It matters. Moist and frozen sand is in the best condition. This is the day you might get away with driving your Subaru to White Pocket. One summer it hadn’t rained for months. We saw very capable pickups stuck near White Pocket. The drivers said things like, “We didn’t have any problem last year.” In general, the sand is a bit easier to drive first thing in the morning when it’s cool vs. in the heat of the day. And remember frozen roads thaw, so conditions on the way out might be different. Call us at (435) 644-5506, or the BLM Kanab Visitor Center at (435) 644-1300 to get a sense of what the roads are like before you head out. One more word about moisture in sand, there can be too much moisture. Don’t drive up a sandy wash right after a big rain. It might look nice and moist and packed on top. Great driving conditions, right? Be warned, there could be pools of water trapped between the sand and bedrock below the surface. This creates pockets of quicksand hidden just under the wash. I know it sounds like an Indiana Jones made-up story, but I have personally driven into quicksand concealed under regular moist sand. Spoiler alert: I got stuck.
What commonly causes vehicles to get stuck?
Wrong vehicle choice is the top cause of getting stuck that we see. Indecision is next. Don’t go hesitantly into a deep sand patch. We also see people get stuck at Peekaboo at the many unmarked intersections. Do I go left or right? If you stop at the wrong spot to make that decision, you might find yourself stuck. There is an advantage to knowing the road. Our guides become stuck most often while trying to get around other vehicles that are already stuck, or pulling off the road in an inopportune spot to let a speeding side-by-side pass by.
Help! I’m stuck.
Don’t panic or feel embarrassed (like I always do because I know the other guides will laugh at me later). It happens to all of us. As an experienced guide, I still get stuck sometimes. But, I’ve always managed to get unstuck in a short period of time without needing to call a rescue. I’ve been stuck once out of about 150 trips to White Pocket and stuck about 8 times out of 150 trips to Peekaboo Slot Canyon. So far, I’m batting 1,000 at South Coyote Buttes, having never been stuck there yet. With dry conditions and increased traffic, I got stuck more times this summer at Peekaboo than ever before.
Once your vehicle has lost momentum and it’s no longer moving forward you are stuck. STOP. You need to get out and fix the problem from the outside. The first thing I do is air down my tires further. If I’m at 30, I drop them to 25 psi. Then I get out my shovel and dig a nice trench in front of each tire so the tire is no longer pushing sand in front of it. Next, I make sure no part of the undercarriage, axle, or frame of the vehicle is dragging in the sand. Crawl under the truck and dig. Once it’s completely free, I put the truck in a drive (it might help to try a lower gear) and hit the gas. If the tires spin but the vehicle does not roll forward, take your foot off the gas immediately so you don’t dig yourself into a bigger hole. Some tour companies have success with traction boards but we don’t use them. We’ve seen people place sticks, boards, or floor mats under the tires for increased traction but our guides don’t use this method because we usually get out simply by digging or airing down so I can’t comment on whether it’s effective. You can try getting out using 4-low to increase torque but be very careful not to dig a hole. This can happen fast in 4-low. There are also techniques that include spinning the tires slowly to climb the vehicle out of the sand. It works on YouTube and I’ve personally seen it work once at White Pocket, but I haven’t tried it because it seems like a recipe for digging in deeper. Some vehicles even offer a crawl control feature for this use. Call me old-fashioned, I simply rely on my trusty shovel.
Why is it bad to get stuck?
Depending on your tolerance for adventure, getting stuck can be good fun. It makes for a great photo, an engaging story, it’s funny. But it’s also inconsiderate to block the road for everyone else. Or even worse. Maybe you’re stuck and you can’t self-rescue. You’ve waited 4 hours. You’re thirsty. There is no cell phone reception to call for a tow. In these remote locations, tows are expensive but sometimes necessary. If you are lucky enough to have found a signal, call Ramsay Towing in Kanab at (435) 644-2468.
Necessary off-road tools. Don’t leave home without them.
Dreamland guides carry an “adventure kit” to equip us for common problems in the field which includes many tools and a Garmin InReach for satellite communication. If you plan to venture out to White Pocket on your own, at the least, you should bring as necessary gear:
- Tire pressure gauge
- Air compressor
- Map, yes, a real map made out of paper
- First aid kit
- Extra drinking water
- Lighter for starting a campfire
- Sleeping bags in case you’re stuck for the night.
Strongly recommended gear includes:
- Tow strap
- Tire plug kit. Know how to use it. It’s one of the easiest ways to become a hero. Flat tires are more common on gravel roads because of rock punctures.
At home, I personally have a kit that includes all of the above items, plus several others. Even on my days off when I’m in my personal vehicle, my policy is, my tires never leave pavement without that tool kit. On my days off, I have had my rental SUV stuck in the mud miles outside of Moab, had two flat tires on my Subaru (and only one spare with no plug kit) miles from pavement, and out of phone range. I’ve also come close to running my dirt bike out of gas on the remote Arizona Strip. Because our offroad motorbike tool kit includes a siphon hose, we were able to combine gas from two bikes into one, which saved us a 25-mile hike to camp. (We also carried plenty of water for the hike because we knew we were taking a risk on the low fuel) Every calamity is educational, and new tools are added to my kit as a result. The tool list is not overly cautious advice to scare you. The tools are recommended based on real experience in the field. You can learn from my calamities and save yourself the trouble, though it doesn’t make as good of a story.
The air compressors we use cost about $100, but there are cheaper versions that plug into your cigarette lighter. They take longer to fill your tires, but who’s in a hurry?
Finally, one more gear tip. Don’t trust your GPS. If you’re using a typical road navigation app as you use on pavement, don’t put too much stock in it out here. The app may not know the remote, unpaved roads, or it will likely send you on the shortest route that may not be the best. It will not have an internet connection and you will likely have no map, just a blank screen. Let common sense prevail. Don’t drive off a cliff because your computer screen tells you to. Do yourself a favor and buy a good, detailed map at the BLM office or at Willow Canyon Bookstore.
Last but not least, have fun, enjoy the ride!