Sand Survival Skills

10 replies [Last post]
Charles Oertel's picture
Joined: 2007/04/14

Points: 9

You are riding along a lovely gravel road having an adventure.  Suddenly there is a stretch of sand.  Your adventure turns into a nightmare.

Or, you follow the advice below, and glide through the sand without so much as a wobble.

The Technique (the "Sand Position")

Push your bum backwards until it is just over your pillion seat, and pull back on the handlebars with both arms locked.  Pull harder by pushing your bum backwards with your legs.  Now grip the bike with your knees.  It is the pulling, the locked arms and the gripping with the legs that is important.   Grip and Pull!

It helps to not have your fingers covering the levers while you are doing this - you need to be hanging on to those handlebars for dear life, with both hands gripping fully.

Keep a steady throttle and be amazed while your bike tracks through the sand in a straight line.  To steer, just move your bum out to the side you want the bike to go (i.e. left if you want to turn left), but keep your arms straight and locked.

To slow down or stop, just pull in the clutch and coast to a standstill.

Some Practice Drills

While riding, seated, on a safe road (tar or gravel):

  1. Sit as far back on your seat as you can, and lock your arms.  Try to be pulling back on your arms, and grip the bike with your knees.  Now lift your bum off the seat by 10cm and pull back.  You are in the sand-riding position.
  2. In the sand-riding position, on a straight and safe road, move your bum to either side, keeping your arms straight.  Notice how the bike leans in the direction you move your bum.  If you have been extensively trained in the "weigh the outside footpeg" (sic) method, you might find yourself leaning the bike the opposite way to your bum.  You will need to unlearn this habit - it is also wrong.



But this is not what we were taught?

We have been taught to "Stand Up, Look Up, and Open Up (legs and throttle)".

I was also skeptical to go against what I had been trained to do.  And so were others on last year's Jurg se Kaya trip.  But we read about gripping with your knees from Simon Pavey (BMW instructor and multiple Dakar finisher) and decided to give it a try.  Gripping the bike with your knees works, and was tested in action by Geoff Russell and others.

On the Baviaans trip, after I told everyone to grip the bike with their knees, they sailed through the sand with no problem.  Before that, it had been carnage

and we had a casualty who had to be evacuated.

Why does it work?

To understand why "Grip the bike with your knees" works so well, we first need to understand where "Stand Up, Look Up, Open Up" fails when riding in sand.

In both techniques you need to stand up and look up - that is a given.  The difference is between "Open Up" and "Grip with your knees".

Problems with "Open Up"


The purpose of opening up the throttle is to get the front wheel to lift out of the sand so that it does not get pushed left or right.  This is essential if you have a loose open stance.

It fails though, because you are on sand.  Opening up the throttle does not drive the bike forward as much as cause the back to fishtail while the back wheel spins and tries to drive the bike forward onto a stuck front wheel.

My experience in sand in recent years is to rather go for a steady throttle in sand.  Pullaways need to be gentle to avoid fishtailing, and then you drive at a steady speed.  This is not easy to do.


The official reason for opening up your legs is so that the bike can move under you without throwing you off balance or cause positive feedback to the steering.

However, as I experienced while riding pillion with an instructor following the old method, it is very hard work, and takes a lot of concentration, to stay in control of a bucking bike that is moving all over the place.

Yes, it can be done.  But only if you are fit, have lots of riding experience, and are not having a bad day (I suspect luck plays a part too).

Here I am, well practised in the old way, but still having to pick my line and concentrate:



Benefits of "Grip with your knees"

Instead of allowing the bike to do what it wants and trying to stay on, this approach is about forcing the bike to go straight (through) the sand and not respond to every little bump or hollow.  You do this by acting as a human steering damper (pulling back on the bars), and by increasing the moment of the bike (standing up and gripping with your knees).

Now, the bike is less able to lurch about.  And you are forcing the front wheel to stay straight ahead.  This means you don't need to accelerate to lift the front wheel out of the sand, so you have less fishtailing and more stability.  Have a look - the bike is more planted and I am more relaxed:



Your bike is now a ship ploughing through the sand impervious to the "waves" below.

Proof of the Pudding

On the Baviaans trip, I was riding shotgun with Geoff on a tweespoor track.  Our bikes were a metre apart at a steady 60km/hr.  When we hit a sandy river bed, we did not separate to give each the space needed to lurch about through the sand.  Neither did we slow down or speed up.

All we did, was assume the new "Sand Position", and ride through the sand in a straight line without even a wobble, a metre apart.  Seriously, Geoff and I barely even stood up - we just pulled back on the handlebars and gripped the bikes with our knees.

Committee: Webmaster / Ride Captain

Charles Oertel's picture
Joined: 2007/04/14

Of course, this morning when I kitted up to film this lot, I had a puncture.  Lovely long piece of steel.  No good turn goes unpunished.

Committee: Webmaster / Ride Captain

RikusB's picture
Joined: 2015/10/18

Thanks for taking the time to post this Charles, its much appreciated. 

I have just returned from a 2 week trip CPT-Swakop-CPT on my 1200 GS LC. My riding partner from PE (also on a 1200 GS LC) and I joined a group of mates from Windhoek/Swakop at Ais-Ais ( 3 x KTM and 1 x Ancient Africa Twin) on a trip along the Orange River through Rosh Pinah/Aus Vista, Sesriem, Sossusvlei/Solitaire to Swakop. - some 1000 km on gravel and enough sand to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up just thinking about it.

In fact, most of what I can remember of the whirlwind trip (our actual mission was to go fishing at mile 108 with mates - the bike trip was just the means to get there and not shy away from a dare) was the sand patches. The two of us riding BMW's where soon called the "Submariners" and many comments were made about the "snakes" we left behind us in the sandy bits.

It was diabolical how the GS got a mind of its own when hitting sand - no matter how much I stood up, leaned back, opened up and looked up, the bike bucked and fishtailed like it hated the dude riding it.

So I cant wait to go and try the "Sand Position" - to a novice like myself, it makes a lot of sense.

Just one question: what is the recommended tyre pressures with this position? Still 1.5 - 1.0?

Thanks again


Charles Oertel's picture
Joined: 2007/04/14

Hi Rikus

Thanks for your comments.  The fishtailing seems to be a direct consequence of giving gas.  I have managed to curb my bike's fishtailing by avoiding opening up the throttle and being very careful to keep a constant speed.

The tyre pressure depends entirely on the road and sand.  If it is the sand dunes of Atlantis, or a soft, sandy West Coast road, then 0.7 to 1.2bar.  If it involves some stones and gravel also, then 1.2 to 1.6bar.  The LC can tolerate slightly higher due to its wide back wheel.

Also, since the Sand Position is more about riding through sand instead of trying to float on top, you could probably also get away with riding at full pressure in some circumstances.  For e.g., on a gravel road with some sandy patches, set pressures for gravel and just plough through the sand.  On roads where you are stop/starting in sand, it is helpful to have lower pressures to make it easier to get going.

The nice thing about the Sand Position, is you can try it any time.  When you first hit sand you will probably do it the old way until you remember that there is an alternative.  When you close your knees and feel the difference you will end up woohooting like a fool ;-)

Committee: Webmaster / Ride Captain

Hans Ambulans's picture
Joined: 2013/10/01

Very nice and interesting post. Thanks Charles.

Joined: 2007/06/25

Note the riding position of the Dakar riders, similar to Charles' experience, it works.

Think before you ink.

Trust is the most valuable asset.

I have the rest of my life to get old.

Shaun Stassen's picture
Joined: 2013/01/04

Really nice post Charles. Very true. I learned to ride sand in Namibia on a Honda XL500S with a 23" front wheel which believe does what it wants when it wants to unless you lean back on the bike. My bike had a very small seat and i can remember that i had my bum just above the luggage rack and the rack sometime bumping me. I have  also doubt what has been taught on sand riding course and tried the different techniques but still have found the "old way" that i taught myself was the best. Thanx for the time and effort  that you put into this. Believe this will a lot of people and  now i wont feel as  if i might be  dooing it wrong

Rony Desodt's picture
Joined: 2011/06/18

Hi Charles

I am not going to counter your advise on sand riding as you are an experienced rider and I have respect for that. However I would hate to ride for hours on end in that position, the stance will kill me, not the sand!

The "old way" works very well as can be seen it this video (This is Jurg se Kaya)

I think to get a novice through sand (50 meters or so) this "new way" may work and I will try but hanging on the bars for dear life and clamping the bike like this for an extended period would be very tiring!

The "old way" allows one to eventually stand up straight and relax even in thick sand (as in the video), if bike "snake tails" lean slightly back, never lock the bars or legs! Bike stays on top of the sand!

I checked some of the recordings I have of sand riding (Dakar and others) and yes when in trouble it looks like anything will do but check the riders when plaining, they stand up and relax!

Think the following video shows that with a slight lean to the back once rolling on sand and leaving the handlebars to their own one can negotiate a stretch of sand easily (this piece is at Eselbank, a stretch many BMW club guys will recognize) Look at 00:14 how the front wheel points to the left of the rider but the bike goes straight!

The second rider was looking down and trying to steer, to his dismay!

Played in Atlantis dunes, on Dune 2 and 7 in Walvisbaai, ridden the Doros and Mesum crater in Namibia and last and not least the Marienfluss desert in Dorsland! All of these are for hours on end, if experienced i am sure you would prefer the "old way"

Once mastered its so much fun, Geniet Sand !


Do it today, maybe there is no tomorrow!

Off road instructor at "Rough and Ready"

Charles Oertel's picture
Joined: 2007/04/14

Hi Rony

I agree that the position can get tiring after a while.  I only use it when things are really bad, and relax into a more upright position when the sand is a bit easier.

On a very long sand road, you will start in that position and when you get into the swing of things relax by standing more upright and not pulling on the bars until the next crisis.

Committee: Webmaster / Ride Captain

Rony Desodt's picture
Joined: 2011/06/18

Hi Charles

Those are my thoughts as well, getting into a relaxed position as quick as possible, even for the experienced rider sand is tiring!

Another video of thick sand, this is the stretch between Hondeklipbaai and Groenrivier, note i did not say road!

Biker freetings

Do it today, maybe there is no tomorrow!

Off road instructor at "Rough and Ready"

mr.stripes's picture
Joined: 2008/10/22

Thanks, Charles, this is brilliant. I live in sand land..


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