Ultimate UTV and Side-by-Side Dune Guide

UTVs are an insane amount of fun, no matter the terrain, but riding in the dunes is particularly exciting and entertaining. Flying through the dunes and blasting around berms is an incredible experience and one of the many reasons that dune riding is so popular. Every year, thousands of people flock to recreational sand dunes like Glamis or Pismo Beach. This has long been popular with ATV enthusiasts with sport quads, but there are more and more UTV owners venturing out into the dunes.

With higher horsepower Side-by-Sides on the market with long travel suspension, these are quickly becoming the vehicle of choice for many people. The convenience and comfort provided by a UTV is just as applicable in the sand dunes as it is on the trails.

Riding in the dunes is a different experience altogether and can provide some challenges for those not prepared. Sand dunes can be taxing on UTVs. The soft and sugar-like sand forces the engine to work much harder to keep the vehicle moving and the uneven terrain in many areas mean the suspension components are also going to get a workout. Knowing this in advance allows you to prepare your Side-by-Side to handle the challenges posed by the sand and plan for unexpected breakdowns and mishaps. So how does one prepare for a trip to the dunes in their Side-by-Side?

Preparing Your UTV for the Dunes

rzr 900 in sand dunes

Change the oil and oil filter

There are some things you can do to get your machine ready for a trip to the dunes. It may sound like an obvious choice, but changing the oil and oil filter should be step one. The sand dunes force engines to work hard for long durations. This means high RPMs, which means more heat. Heat will cause oil to slowly break down and diminish its lubricating ability. Fresh oil will do a better job at keeping the engine lubricated during those extended high RPM runs and ensure that wear and tear is minimized as much as possible.

Replace or clean the air filter

In addition to protecting the engine internals, you also want to keep dirt and sand out of the combustion chamber. An engine sucking in dirt or sand is a sure-fire recipe for engine failure. A good air filter is a must in the dunes. Swapping in a new filter is a good idea, or if you have a reusable filter, a thorough cleaning should be on your prep list.

Also, for those using an automotive style filter, you can apply a thin layer of grease around the edge or flange of the filter to ensure a tight seal that won’t let dirt or dust slip through. Many Side-by-Sides also have a pre-filter element that can be cleaned prior to the trip. All of this should ensure that your engine is well protected while you’re blasting through the sand. 

Other maintenance items can be completed prior to the trip if desired, but engine oil and the air filter are the most important.

Inspect the CVT belt, coolant and suspension

For those that have CVT equipped machines, you may want to inspect the belt and clean out the housing. Owners of the Yamaha YXZ1000R, Honda Talon or Pioneer don’t have to worry about this as they don’t use a CVT transmission.

Furthermore, check your coolant to make sure it’s at an appropriate level. The sand dunes can get pretty hot, so it’s important that your UTV’s cooling system is operating as expected. It’s also a good idea to inspect your suspension components and make sure all the bolts are tight and everything looks good.

Install paddle tires

After you’ve done your maintenance and gave the machine a good once-over, it’s time to throw on some paddle tires! These will give you copious amounts of traction in the dunes and with good sand tires on the front, the UTV will handle much better as well. Stock tires can be used if necessary, but will require extra caution to avoid getting stuck.

If your stock tires have a directional tread pattern, you might consider swapping them to the opposite side, so that the direction of the tread is backwards. This will provide some additional traction. You will also need to air down your stock tires to get the most traction possible. Just be careful not to lower the pressure too much. While the stock tires will work in the sand dunes, a good set of sand tires are highly recommended for maximum fun!

Use a Whip / safety flag

Last, but certainly not least, you will need a good safety whip. Most recreational dune areas require an 8-foot height for the flag, so the length of the whip will depend on the height of your Side-by-Side. These are intended to help other drivers see you over the crest of a dune to avoid collisions.

The dunes are huge, but there are a lot of people out there and collisions can and do occur. A safety whip will minimize the chances of that happening. The great news is that you don’t have to settle for the simple whip and flag design. You can go all-out, if you feel the urge, and get one or two LED lit whips that are visible day or night. The LED lights come in a range of colors and some can even change colors. Not only does it increase your visibility to other drivers, but it also looks pretty cool on a UTV.

Safety Gear and Equipment for the Dunes

avts and rzr in dunes

Helmet, gloves and protective clothing

So now that you have your Side-by-Side prepped and ready for the sand dunes, what do you need to carry along for the ride? The first and most important thing is proper riding gear or, at the very least, a good helmet and gloves. The sand looks so soft, but you may be surprised at just how unforgiving it can be. It’s always better to be safe and wear a helmet, which is required at most recreational areas. Boots and a set of riding pants and jersey are also recommended.

Fire extinguisher

A good fire extinguisher is another important item to take with you to the dunes. Side-by-Side engines generate a lot of heat, especially under the stress of riding in the sand dunes. Add to that the high temps in the dunes and you can see how a fire could happen. Now, UTVs don’t spontaneously combust, but you have fuel lines that can rupture or maybe you have a fuel container in the bed that develops a leak.

While it’s not likely to happen, being prepared for it can minimize the damage or even save a life. You should also carry a well-stocked first aid kit. Whether it’s a simple scratch or a serious injury, you’re going to want to have a first aid kit on hand. This is an absolute must have for any UTV excursion.

Stay hydrated

Water would be another must have. If you’re going to be out in the sand dunes all day, you’re going to need something to drink. A good cooler with bottled water is great to have to keep you hydrated during those hot days on the dunes. Food is also important, but hydration is the main concern. Having extra water is a good idea, just in case you somehow end up stranded or lost.


Which brings up another good piece of equipment to have with you, a GPS device. With a decent GPS unit, you can mark the location of your truck or trailhead and easily find your way back. This can be extremely useful if it gets dark before you’re able to make it back to camp.

Extra fuel

Even with a GPS device, you might be surprised at how far and how long you can ride when you’re out there having so much fun. It’s really easy to forget about the fuel gauge and before you know it, you’re running low. Running high RPMs in the sand dunes means you’re burning a lot more fuel than normal. So you may think you have plenty in the tank and come to find out otherwise.

See our list of tools and safety gear every rider should have

Carrying extra fuel is a good idea, but you want to make sure you are careful when doing so. It is imperative that the fuel container does not have any leaks.

If your fuel container leaks, you could find yourself trying out that fire extinguisher much sooner than you hoped. If the bed of your UTV gets too hot, you may want to consider something like the Rotopax fuel containers. They’re expensive, but they shouldn’t leak and they can be mounted to the roll cage of your Side-by-Side. This also opens up space in your bed for a spare tire, larger cooler, or toolbox.

Tool kit

Speaking of a toolbox, don’t forget to bring along a few tools in case you have any mechanical issues. A good wrench and socket set can be a life saver if something goes wrong. Just make sure you have the appropriate sockets to fit the bolts on your machine.

You can also purchase small toolkits in a roll-up pouch to stick in the glove box. The work may be a bit more difficult with this type of toolkit, but it should at least be enough to get you through some basic repairs, if necessary, and it doesn’t take up much space.

You also don’t want to forget about a tire repair kit and a small 12 volt compressor. A spare tire would be great, but if that’s not possible, a tire repair kit and compressor (or even a can of Fix-A-Flat) should get the job done. The sand dunes may seem like an unlikely place to get a flat tire, but you simply never know what will happen during a day’s ride.

Extra CVT belt

Additionally, for those driving Side-by-Sides with CVT transmissions, which is the majority of them, you will want to carry an extra CVT belt with you. These belts are pretty tough, but they can and do break on occasion. If the belt breaks, you’re stuck. While the engine is under a great deal of stress in the sand dunes, it’s important to remember that the transmission is also working pretty hard to get all of that power to the wheels. The added heat can weaken the belt, resulting in a premature failure. By having a spare belt on stand-by, you can swap it out and continue your ride.

Some riders remove the CVT cover while riding in the dunes to reduce heat buildup on the clutches and belt. While this will reduce heat it also allows sand to get into the clutches and will shorten the life of the bushings and rollers in the clutches. If you do ride without a clutch cover be sure to clean the clutches thoroughly after each trip.

Driving Tips for the Dunes

RZR UTV sidehill dunes

Driving in the sand dunes is very different from your average trail ride. If this is your first trip to the dunes, there are a few things that you should know about driving in this type of terrain. Sand dunes provide a unique and interesting challenge and it’s important to know what to do and what not to do, in order to ensure the safety of you and your passengers, as well as other riders.

Be courteous driving through camp

When you unload your Side-by-Side at the trailhead or campground, you’ll be itching to get out in the dunes as soon as possible. Despite that overwhelming desire, remember to be courteous and maintain a low speed at the trailhead and any campgrounds that you visit. These areas have a lot of people moving about and there’ll likely be children and pets that don’t know to look out for fast moving UTVs. Be a responsible driver and maintain a safe speed in these areas.

Keep up the momentum

Once out in the sand, you’ll quickly learn that momentum is the key to successfully navigating the dunes. When approaching a hill, it is imperative that you maintain enough momentum to reach the crest, but not so much that you go flying over it.

Approach crests and hills at an angle

You also need to know what’s beyond the crest of the dune, so having a spotter is a good idea, if possible. If not, you should approach the crest at an angle to give you a better view of what’s over the top. That way, if need be, you can swing back down to the bottom of the hill.

This brings up another important point. When tackling long climbs, you should attack the hill at an angle, so that if you see that you aren’t going to make it to the top, you can break off and turn around and come back down. You have to do this before you completely lose momentum however, so that you are still able to swing around and down the hill. If you end up completely stopped on a hillclimb, navigating your way back down can be very treacherous.

Watch out for hazardous dune conditions

Likewise, there are dune hazards called “razorbacks” that can also be dangerous. “Razorbacks” are formed when the wind blows the sand from multiple directions. It creates a sharp edge at the top of the dune and one side will have a drop off. This is another reason to approach the crest at an angle for better visibility.

SEE ALSO: When to use 4WD on a Side-by-Side

If you hit a “razorback” head-on, you could easily flip your UTV and cause serious damage and injury. It’s best to avoid these if possible and one way to do that is to ride against the wind. This way you always approach dunes from the leeward side, which will have the steeper slope on your approach and a gentle slop after you crest the dune. Some may be too steep and in those cases, it’s probably a good idea to find an alternate route.

Perhaps even more dangerous than a “razorback,” is another hazard called a “witch’s eye.” These are holes or depressions in the sand, created by wind gusts. They can be difficult to spot, especially if you are moving at a quick pace. Hitting a “witch’s eye” at speed could cause a loss of control of the vehicle and possibly a rollover.

Always be alert and looking ahead and remember that the dunes are constantly changing and it doesn’t take long for some of these hazards to form. Always stay focused on the path in front of you so that you can avoid these. You can also wear tinted goggles to help reduce the glare from the sunlight hitting the sand. This will increase visibility so that you can better spot a “witch’s eye” before it’s too late.

Jump safely

Lastly, jumping a Side-by-Side in the sand dunes can be a ton of fun. Getting big air in your UTV is an adrenaline rush that’s unlike anything else and you’ll see plenty of people hitting jumps at the dunes. If you’ve never jumped your UTV, you should know that they have a tendency to nose-dive on most jumps. If the jump has a long and gentle slope, it helps, but doesn’t eliminate the vehicle’s inclination to pitch forward while in the air.

Start out with small jumps and get a feel for how your Side-by-Side handles it and always have a spotter to make sure the other side of the jump is clear. Bad things can happen if you miscalculate on a jump. YouTube has a lot of videos of Side-by-Sides going end over end down a hill after a jump. That’s a mistake that you don’t want to make. Like everything else, start small and work your way up.

Time to Hit the Dunes!

Riding in the sand has its own unique challenges, but it is also a great deal of fun. Simple preparations and packing the appropriate gear will ensure that your trip to the sand dunes is a success and you’ll be ready to come back for more. The landscape is beautiful and it’s a great way to spend time with your family and friends.

One thing to note, once you’re out in the sand dunes, it’s your responsibility to be a good steward of the land. Always pack out what you pack in and if you see any trash, make a point to grab it and take it with you. If everyone is respectful of these unique riding areas, they will remain open for years to come.

Always remember to be safe and courteous to your fellow riders. Have a blast flying around the dunes, but also try not to overlook the remarkable scenery all around you. Take a break every now and then to enjoy the view. The first trip to the sand dunes is always an unforgettable adventure. Now that your UTV is prepped, you have your gear loaded up, and you know what to watch out for on your ride, it’s time to hit the dunes!