How To Get FWD Vehicles Unstuck in the Desert — And Some Tips for Planning Ahead

Many of us dream of taking our daily drivers out into the Great Western American Desert for weekend adventures, but we have one big problem. Most of our daily drivers are no match for the desert trails.

Even the AWD and 4WD vehicles we do own are no real SUVs, and therefore, no true match for rocky and sandy terrain. So, what do you do if you head out there anyway and get stuck?

In 2019, this happened to me on a California desert road in a Toyota CHR. It took three hours to pull out my over-ambitious crossover. What would you do in this situation? Here’s the advice I received from two gentlemen on Quora.

1. Don’t Panic

So, you’re stuck in the sand on a dirt road with a front-wheel-drive vehicle? It happens — even to the most experienced travelers. “Four-wheel drive does not mean foolproof and invincible,” is a good reminder from Dieter Neth, a self-proclaimed desert rat. Once you calm down, you can then begin to think more rationally and move on to the next step.

2. Try to Back Out

“The first thing to do is actually quite obvious. Don’t dig yourself in any deeper!” says Neth. Try to get out backward by heading back in the direction you came from. Don’t overdo it, though. If the wheels don’t get any grip, stop. You might either dig yourself in further or damage your vehicle. Both of these are the exact outcomes you’re trying to avoid.

3. Consider Letting Air Out

Kai Herrmann, a professional mechanic for 15 years, recommends deflating the tires down to 15 PSI. However, Neth reminds drivers that there’s no point in doing this without the proper gear to reinflate them. Remember: it’s a long way home and you might not have phone signal. If you suspect it might come to this, purchase a 12-volt tire inflator and take it with you.

4. Do Some Digging

“Get out of the car and try to dig out the sand from underneath,” says Neth. “See how the differential is dragging in the center of the wheel tracks on the picture?”

Photo Credit: Dieter Neth

Get that center hump away from underneath and behind the vehicle. Then, try to back out again. This is usually your best bet.

5. Provide Better Traction

Place a row of large rocks underneath the wheels, similar to an improvised track. You can also use wooden beams, such as railroad sleepers, if you have some with you for exactly this purpose. Then you try to reverse your vehicle. Usually, it will roll back a few feet, fall off the “track” and tries to spin. Stop and repeat the process.

6. Get a Second Pair of Hands

Another good option is to have someone with you who can help with the pushing. Neth adds, “This works surprisingly well and my wife did a great job at this once. She is from Northern Mexico and knows her ways around sandy roads.” If you travel alone, installing a winch might provide the second pair of “hands” you need. Ensure it is weight-rated for your vehicle.

7. Check the Road Conditions Ahead

If you really need to go ahead, check out the road conditions before moving on. If it is just a windblown ridge of sand, you might be able to dig that out of your way. But there might be more trouble further ahead. Note that if you’re in Devil’s Playground, the Mojave Desert, or anywhere in the Southern California desert, there is more of that stuff ahead!

8. Prepare for the Worst

Ideally, the best way to stay out of trouble offroad is to plan ahead. Here are Herrmann’s strong words of caution:

This isn’t a game. Going off road is a serious endeavor and it requires preparation and knowledge. Bring tools, bring extra parts, bring recovery gear, bring first aid gear, etc. Be over prepared.

Don’t go out there in your pretty little SUV with a bottle of water and some sunscreen. Build the vehicle to be able to handle the situations you’re going to put it in and bring enough gear so you can help yourself if something unplanned happens.

9. Map Routes With More Than GPS

When I got stuck, the road was no off-road trail for overlanders. It was a dirt road Google directed me onto while I was house shopping in Joshua Tree, California. This is an excellent reminder to think twice about trusting the GPS in rural desert towns. It’s also an indicator that what is a regular dirt road for desert residents in their Jeeps and pickup trucks might prove to be too much for your vehicle.

10. Call for Help

If you are already stuck and you find there’s nothing else you can do on your own, you might be able to call for help. An AAA membership or tow service additions to your car insurance come in handy here. If your phone doesn’t pick up a signal, you might need to hike back until it does. In my case, I was in a residential community and received assistance from the people who lived there.

Hopefully, you find this advice as useful as I did when I first received it. Thanks to Neth, Herrmann, and my helpful neighbors-to-be, for helping to keep us all safe on the desert roads — even if we happen to drive a pretty little SUV!


About Dieter Neth

He is a self-proclaimed desert-rat who adventures with his wife and two dogs in the North American and Mexican deserts. Find him on Quora.

About Kai Herrmann

He has been a confirmed car nut since 5 years old and is a professional mechanic with 15 years of experience. Find him on Quora.

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