Dunes are an ATV and UTV rider’s paradise. It’s wide open land with hill after sandy hill making every ride a thrill and a challenge. They’re beautiful, alluring, and pure wilderness. Even minor discomforts become things to be sought after—the spray of sand in your face, the piles of it built up in your socks, the spindrift from the next big dune depositing sand in every crevice of your UTV’s cab. It doesn’t bother you. It’s all fine and perfect because when you’re in the dunes, you’re living life.
It’s no wonder, then, that so many people flock to the dunes every weekend at places like Glamis and St. Anthony. But that doesn’t mean you can just cut loose and go crazy. If you enjoy sand as much as we do, you know the importance of dune safety. And if you don’t, you will soon.
If you want to keep the dunes free, fun, and accessible for everybody, it’s important to recognize that dunes are dangerous. Too many people run out to the dunes and act like it’s a free-for-all, and too often people get hurt.
We’re here to tell you how to stay safe on the sand. Follow these simple rules, and dune day will be your favorite day. Some of these rules are obvious, others are not. Learn them and share them to keep the dunes safe and accessible for everybody.
For this type of riding, it’s very important to make sure your ride is equipped with the right UTV and ATV parts. Here are some examples.
Whip lights are the best way to make yourself visible after the sun goes down. If you’re lucky enough to ride somewhere that lets you ride at night, you need a pair of whip lights. Plus, color changing whips are super fun. Just make sure you ask a park official when you need to switch from flags to whip lights as switching too early or too late can get you in trouble. If your whip lights are tall enough, you can also just attach flags directly to them.
Flag whips are an obvious safety addition that also happen to look cool. Flags allow you to be seen by other riders who might be cresting a dune—always important if you don’t want a UTV to land right on top of you. Not to mention, riding without a flag will get you kicked out of most parks and earn you a heavy fine.
Whip flag requirements vary from park to park, but if you get a 10-foot whip with a 6”x12” or larger flag, you should be good just about everywhere. Most parks also have whip flags for sale that meet their particular requirements if you don’t have one already. You don’t need to settle for some plain-Jane flag, though. Shop around and get one that matches your style. Most OEM’s will sell sets that match your machine.
This rule isn’t exactly universal, but if you’re at a park or event with a lot of vehicles, it’s important to go with the flow. Usually popular dunes will gather a crowd on the leeward side (that’s the steep side), and people will take turns riding up and down or up and over. Don’t mess with the system, just follow it.
The same goes for areas people use to drag race and paths that cut through brush or trees. With dunes you can’t see as far ahead as you think, so whenever you can go the same direction as everybody else, you’re in for a safer ride.
If you end up approaching another rider head-on, remember to always break right. It’s the universal rule to avoid head-on collisions.
And be sure to learn hand signals even if you’re rocking a turn signal kit in your UTV. ATV riders depend on them to communicate and they depend on others understanding them. ATV riders are a lot more vulnerable than UTV riders so make sure you know what they intend to do when they’re flapping their arms around.
Here’s a quick ATV hand signal reference.
Dunes are made by the wind. Steady wind piles up sand into huge mounds over several years and gives dunes their shape. As a rider, you can take advantage of the way dunes are formed by always riding against the wind.
Why? Dunes always have a gentle slope on the windward side and a steep slump on the leeward side. If you ride with the wind in your face, you’ll ride up the steep leeward side and down the gently sloped windward side. That keeps you from flying off steep, precipitous dunes that you couldn’t see and smashing down hard at the bottom.
It also lets you get huge air, make long jumps, and still get a smooth landing that’s easy on your suspension (assuming you throttle correctly to keep your machine level). Ride against the wind and you’ll save your spine, your machine, and your dignity.
Speaking of catching air over dunes, the safest way to do it is to use a spotter. Have someone park at the top of the dune so they can see riders on both sides and direct traffic. They can let you know when it’s safe to come flying over for some big air.
You’ll see plenty of people spotting when you’re at the dunes. Just keep in mind that if you see someone parked at the top of a dune, they’ve probably got a friend waiting for the go-ahead to hit the gas. Make sure you give them the space they need and you can expect the same in return.
Sometimes you want to get to the other side of a dune and you don’t have a spotter. So how do you get to the other side safely when you can’t see what’s just over the crest? You transition!
To do a proper dune transition, you need to drive towards the top of the dune at a shallow angle. That means don’t drive straight to the top. Just before you reach the top of the dune, you need to turn so that you’re driving parallel to the ridge. This lets you peak over to spot other riders’ flags and gives them a chance to see yours. When you’re confident that there’s nothing and no one to crash into, you can head over the top and head down.
Transitions make it much easier for solo vehicle riders to ride safely in the dunes.
While you won’t see it in places like Glamis, ice can pose real dangers at St. Anthony, Little Sahara, and other dune parks in the center of the continent. But the ice danger in sand isn’t at all like what you see anywhere else, so pay attention.
After rain, the top layer of sand can become saturated with water. If it falls below freezing overnight, that layer of wet sand—sometimes several feet thick—can easily freeze giving the dunes a solid crust that you can drive on. The dangerous part comes from the shifting sands underneath that crust. The natural movement of dry sand can lead to large cavities right under your tires. Hit a soft spot in the ice and you could drop three, five, or up to ten feet in some cases. That’s one hard hit that you don’t want to encounter.
What do you do to stay safe? You wait for the ice to melt. Don’t ride in the dunes while they have a hard, icy crust.
Finally, let’s quickly talk about the stuff you should or shouldn’t do no matter where or how you ride. These things are good ideas everywhere, but especially at dune parks where we see a high number of serious injuries and accidents.
First, wear a helmet! This is a no-brainer, which is what you will become if you don’t wear a helmet.
Second, use a four or five-point harness. Stock three-point seatbelts are good for a lot of situations, but if you really want to make sure you stay safe inside your roll cage when you wreck, you need to upgrade.
Finally, don’t get plastered when you’re driving. There are way too many people driving UTVs that think it’s OK to drink and drive. If you get drunk and get behind the wheel, you could seriously injure someone, yourself, or, at the very least, get slapped with a hefty fine and spend the night in jail. At the risk of sounding like your friend’s uncool dad, if you see someone drinking and driving at the dunes or anywhere, you should report them. You might just save a life.
Dunes are crazy fun, incredibly beautiful, and thanks to a small number of people that don’t understand them, very dangerous. Keep your guard up and don’t make assumptions about what you can’t see. The UTV industry is still relatively new. If we can’t keep ourselves and each other safe, then sooner or later someone’s going to come in and tell you how to ride. And there goes the freedom you loved about the dunes. All you have to do to keep riding dunes is stay safe and have fun.