UAE winter: Your ultimate guide to off-roading in the desert

Preparation is key for reducing the risk of an off-roading incident



By Ajanta Paul

Published: Sat 4 Dec 2021, 8:51 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Dec 2021, 11:02 AM

With the rolling desert dunes just a few kilometres away from the bustling cityscapes, off-roading is one of the most popular adventure sports in the UAE.

Louie Mel Maliksi is a Broadcast IT engineer, who has been living in the UAE for 13 years and works over 45 hours per week.

Like any other professional, his weekends are sacrosanct, and he spends them off-roading in the desert. He recently purchased an Infinity QX4 (4WD) and modified it into an off-road crusher.

When asked what he finds most intriguing about off-roading; Louie said: "It's hard to predict what you'll come across when you're driving off the beaten path. The unforeseeable circumstances make the whole adventure all the more exhilarating."

So, we speak to the experts and bring you up to speed on things you should be aware of while off-roading.

Photo: Louie Mel Maliksi
Photo: Louie Mel Maliksi

Basic rules of off-roading in the UAE:

  • Tame the devil-may-care attitude and never go off-roading alone for safety and practical reasons. Go in a group or with at least one seasoned off-roader in a separate car to avoid tricky situations like pulling a vehicle out when stuck in the sand.
  • Always be geared up. When setting off to the trails, ensure you pack your vehicle with enough resources for the trip, including drinking water, food and more than enough fuel even for a short trip.
  • Plan the route - don't just drive off without an agenda and a planned track. Before hitting the trails, it is crucial to ensure your vehicle is trail-worthy.
  • Regular off-roaders will intimately know their vehicle and its equipment, but part-timers and the inexperienced might need a refresher on what their car can do.
  • Ensure you have enough rest before you hit the accelerator and you are in the suitable medical condition to attempt off-roading. Often people neglect that it is an extreme sport that may have a massive impact on you if appropriate precautions are not taken.
  • Take pictures and leave tracks - nothing else. If you plan on camping in the desert, you must know how to take back the trash you bring in.

Shibu Nair is an expert off-roader from Titan Performance, who said: "It [off-roading] is an adventure sport, and safety along with experience plays a vital role when you hit a trail. Ensure you and your passengers always maintain safety precautions and that your driving style and trails match your capabilities. Do not push your limits and always drive within your ability."

Photo: Louie Mel Maliksi
Photo: Louie Mel Maliksi

Choosing the right vehicle:

Fraser M. Martin, a professional driver, writer and restorer of model cars, said: "For a novice driver, it is best to take as much help as you can before you start. If you have no intention of going deeper into sandy areas, an SUV (sport utility vehicle) with permanent 4-wheel drive will do most of the jobs."

Fraser, who has been off-road driving for almost 50 years, 40 of them around the Middle East, said: "I have driven most 4wd vehicles and SUVs. Choose something that will do the job, and budget accordingly.

"There are plenty of second-hand vehicles around, and if you are new, it will be a good idea to learn with something that can be damaged - as you are bound to commit mistakes."

Emong Ang, one of the leaders of PWR52 Offroaders (Pinoy Pajero Club UAE), said: "Choosing the right vehicle is very subjective as different drivers have different financial capabilities and also different driving skills. People upgrade as their driving skills improve. For me, I prefer vehicles with less driver support electronics."

Owner and lead adventurer for The Camping Box, Joe Earley, said: "There are multiple options for whatever your budget might be, but there's one thing you have to watch out for is enough ground clearance, enough power with both Hi and Lo options. I'm a fan of the Nissan Xterra, very good off-road and on-road, economical from a running cost perspective and also very affordable to purchase."

Photo: Louie Mel Maliksi
Photo: Louie Mel Maliksi

Essential kit for off-roaders:

Fraser Martin organises events, customer driving programmes and training, so he knows a thing or two about the essential off-roading kit.

  • Keep a shovel and a flat, strong board on which to safely place a jack if you need to change a wheel.
  • Gloves become an essential tool as wheel nuts tend to get very hot
  • A reliable tyre pressure gauge and deflators if you are going into the sand.

Emong, who recently concluded a desert clean-up drive with a 15-car group, said it's essential to make arrangements to take your trash with you. His list of essentials include:

  • Ultra high-frequency radio
  • Axillary lights (if you want to drive at night)
  • Shackles, preferably soft shackles
  • Flag pole for visibility purposes and to let your team know of your location or alert other off-roaders about your position.

Shibu Nair is a pioneer in off-roading in the UAE and has recently marshalled the 3rd edition of KT Desert Drive 2021. He gave us a list of essential kits every off-roader must-have:

  • Carry your first-aid box to treat any cuts or wounds
  • Recovery equipment like shackles (preferably soft shackles)
  • Spare tyre
  • Air compressor
  • Jumper cables
  • Basic tool kit
  • Fire extinguisher
  • Ensure that you carry more water than you think you will need
  • Tow rope either Kinetic or snatch strap, but at least one is essential

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Photo: Louie Mel Maliksi
Photo: Louie Mel Maliksi

Trails in and around UAE one should try:

Knowing which trails you are heading for can make the difference between an adventurous weekend and a date with a tow truck.

Wadi Shawka, Ras Al Khaimah - You will not need a big beast car to off-road here. It is easy to intermediate wadi driving, making it ideal for those with or without a 4x4. Some trails require the height clearance of a 4x4. You can approach Wadi Shawka and continue driving until you reach the place where the valley is at its widest point. Then keep moving right, and you will drive deeper in the wilderness.

Location: 25.1042° N, 56.0465° E

Al Khatim, Abu Dhabi - This trail is popular because of its proximity next to Al Faya and is located around 78km from Abu Dhabi. Drivers usually ride from Al Faya to Al Khatim or vice versa. A good place for beginners and has areas for advanced drivers as the desert offers small and medium dunes with challenging sections to drive through.

Location: 24.2000° N, 54.8333° E

Big red desert or Bidayer - Located along the Hatta-Oman highway in Sharjah, it features big, dark red-coloured sand, earning the nickname 'Big Red'.

Bidayer is one of the most popular dune-bashing, stargazing and camping in the UAE around 65km southeast of Sharjah City. This spot is always filled with those looking for an adrenaline rush, probably because this has the most accessible dunes that amateurs and professionals can manoeuvre.

Location: 25.8795° S, 139.0544° E

Lahbab, Dubai - Lahbab is a village in the Emirate of Dubai, about 50 km south of Dubai city. It is situated on the highway between Dubai and the border of the Emirate of Sharjah. Easier to drive, and in some parts, the desert is suitable for SUVs. This trail is popular among desert campers when the weather gets more pleasant during the winter.

Location: 25.0421° N, 55.5913° E

Sweihan, Abu Dhabi - The drive time from Abu Dhabi is around one hour. It is on the border of three cities - Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Al Ain. Dunes are close to each other, leaving almost no room to gain speed that you need to climb tall dunes. Known as "Little Liwa", Sweihan is the practising ground of Liwa enthusiasts. Sweihan is different from the other deserts and is only advised for experienced drivers due to giant dunes and soft sands.

Location: 24.4582° N, 55.3324° E

Liwa, Abu Dhabi - Known as 'The Empty Quarter', Liwa must be attempted only by the very experienced dune-bashers. Spread over a wide area with very soft sand, Liwa is the largest desert in the Arabian Peninsula and shares its border with Saudi Arabia.

Off-roaders will encounter some of the largest dunes in the world, and it is meant for the adrenaline junkies for the thrill it gives drivers behind the wheel while going full throttle, crashing onto the sand and cascading down the mounds. Experts advise against doing it alone; always go with an experienced group.

Location: 22.9240° N, 53.9936° E

KT photo by M. Sajjad
KT photo by M. Sajjad

Safety rules one must follow:

As Covid-19 restrictions have eased in the country and winter has set in, enthusiasts are out drifting with a vengeance. However, as the adage goes, slow and steady wins the race. It is imperative to follow the basic safety rules while driving in the desert.

  • Amateurs should undertake an introductory off-road driving skills course if one often plans to hit the dunes.
  • Follow the sacred rule of driving and wear your seat belt at all times (front and rear). And keep your sunroofs closed.
  • Check equipment is securely tied - a lousy bounce can dislodge people and tools.
  • Follow what the team leader and marshals tell you to do. Try your best not to deviate.
  • When driving in convoy, always keep adequate distance in between cars.
  • Keep in contact; constant communication is the key to avoiding risks.
  • Keep your mobile phone fully charged and carry recovery equipment.
  • Tell somebody where you're going and when you expect to be back. At least they will know when and where to start searching.

Fraser signs off with one hallowed rule for drivers: "Remember that the best off-roaders are the ones who can do it the slowest without getting stuck - if you want to go fast across the desert, apply to Etihad Rail."

Without mincing words, Emong said: "Leave your ego at home, or else it might end up hurting you or someone else. No need to be competitive as there are events specifically for that."

KT photo by M. Sajjad
KT photo by M. Sajjad

What to do when in trouble:

No one ever foresees getting into trouble outdoors. But a turn in the weather, a mistake in judgement, unexpected injury, equipment failure, or sudden nightfall can quickly change any recreational outing into a crisis. So here's what you need to do when a crisis hits.

  • Don't panic, as this will lead you to make rash decisions that could worsen your situation.
  • As soon as you get stuck in the sand, avoid accelerating. You may sink deeper.
  • If you cannot avoid getting stuck, radio group so the convoy can stop while marshals assess the situation for possible recovery.
  • Alert authorities if you deem the situation to be out of control and endangering your safety
  • In case of an emergency that needs medical attention, dial 999.

There's always a chance of an accident in the desert, but you could reduce the risk of an off-roading incident if you keep these pointers in mind.

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Most drivers might be unaware of the rules and the risks involved in off-roading. It is an adventure sport and needs specific skills, but enthusiasts often continue to traipse woefully unprepared, blissfully ignorant, to the dangers of taking a vehicle in the desert.

Louie Mel Maliksi said he is preparing to hit the dunes in the coming weekend. "I am looking forward to navigating through the desert in my new car; the weather is perfect for me to unwind and de-stress. I travel in a group, so I worry less about the pitfalls of off-roading."


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