What to Do When Your Van Gets Stuck in the Sand

By: Scott Adamson
/ August 15, 2022
Safely rescuing your van after getting stuck in the sand can feel like a nightmare. But with the tips and tricks mentioned in this article, you can get the job done!

So you have your eyes set on some overlanding? Maybe you’re heading to the beach in Baja. Maybe you’re heading off-road in the terrains of Alaska. Do you know what to do if your van gets stuck in the sand?

The short answer?

Using your recovery gear/toolbox should be your primary choice. In most cases, you can conveniently get unstuck by using: 

  1. a shovel
  2. traction mats, or 
  3. tow straps. 

Airing down your tires by reducing the PSI to increase traction is another way for you to rescue your stuck van. 

There are other tried and tested techniques to get your van unstuck from the sand, so let’s dig in.

Must-Have Recovery Gear

Packing decent recovery gear to rescue your van from the sand can be the difference between spending the night in a motel OR continuing on with your adventures. 

Don’t worry about space or cost, as most of the gear I outline is relatively affordable and compact.

  1. Traction Mats/Traction Boards

Consider traction mats your new best friend. These boards can give your van the extra traction it needs to get yourself out of some really sticky situations, like getting stuck on the beach.

Here’s how they come in handy: 

  • They’re relatively lightweight and compact
  • They give you peace of mind
  • You can use them by yourself when solo vanlifing (although a second pair of hands and eyes are always handy)

How to use traction mats?

  1. Remove rubble and clear the sand from around the stuck tires.
  2. Thrust the traction mats beneath the wheels and make sure they are facing. the right direction (the angle is important too, the mats should be angled upwards so that the tires can actually use them as support).
  3. De-air your tires for enhanced traction and a better chance of recovery.
  4. Use the clutch (first gear) to rev your engine slowly with the mat’s support.
  5. Voila! You are out without needing any towing or pulling support.

Many brands make these traction boards, including Maxtrax, ActionTrax, and Maxsa.

My recommendation: Australia-made Maxtrax seems to be made with the most durable material, making it best for long-term use. To explore more options, you can check out this blog post

2. Tow Straps

Tow straps are great if you are terribly stuck. You can set up your tow straps for other people to pull you out. 

Here’s why it’s a good idea to have a pair with you at all times: 

  • Heavy duty and moisture resistant
  • Long life with high durability

How to use tow straps

  1. Place one hook on the mount of your van near the rear bumper
  2. Attach the other hook to the mount of the pulling vehicle (rear or front bumper)
  3. As the other vehicle pulls, you can slowly get out of the sand!

Pro-tip: Always go for a recovery tow strap as it’s made of nylon and is stronger than non-recovery tow straps. Also, check the minimum breakage strength of the strap. Ideally, it should be 2-3x your gross vehicle mass (GVM). 

3. Shovel

A shovel can also get you out of the sand if you know how and where to dig. I like to keep a shovel on hand because: 

  • They are versatile. Snow, sand, mud? No problem.
  • They are compact and do not take up a lot of space.

How to use a shovel to get your van out of the sand

  1. Hold the shovel steady as you prepare to dig around your stuck tire.
  2. Dig hard until the tire hits a flat surface or try to create a hole for traction.
  3. Pull the van out by only using the clutch.

Brand recommendation: DMOS makes excellent quality collapsable shovels. They’ve always been my go-to brand for compact shovels that don’t take a lot of space. 

What should I do if my van gets stuck in the sand?

First, let’s discuss what NOT to do

Once you realize your van is stuck in the sand, stop pressing on the gas. It will only force your tires to go deeper into the sand. Instead, put your parking brake on, take a deep breath, get out, and assess how bad the situation looks.

Air Down your Tires

Airing down your tires is a good place to start. Here’s why: 

  • It reduces air pressure in the tires (reduces PSI) and increases grip. 
  • It also increases the surface area of the stuck tire, thereby increasing traction.

To air down your tires, simply attach a tire deflator to the stuck tire and use the gauge to decrease pressure. There’s no definite value, but reducing the PSI by 50% should do the trick.

Create Traction

Now you need to create traction to get your tires out of the sand. You can use recovery boards or traction mats to increase traction by placing them below the tires. Make sure you fit them properly so they don’t come off when you hit the gas. 

Dig Out the Tires

If you are in a tight spot and traction mats don’t seem to do the trick, use the shovel. Dig around the tires to clear some ground and reinforce grip.

Wet Down the Sand

Still stuck? You can use water to wet down the sand around the tires. This makes the sand harder, offering more support to the tires to get unstuck.

Look for Help

If push comes to shove and you feel like nothing is working out, try finding a fellow vanlifer or traveler who can help tow your van. You can use the tow straps to get out by mounting one end on your van’s rear and the other on the other van’s front.

Re-air the Tires 

Once you get your van out, perhaps one of the most important steps that many van enthusiasts skip is to re-air the tires! Re-airing is important because aired-down tires will not work well on concrete or asphalt roads. For reinflating, I’d recommend using the Slime 40026 Tire Inflator

Additional Pro Tips 

When heading out for rough terrains, there’s always a chance of getting stuck. Here are a few tips that really helped me prepare before heading out.

Have a Solid Grasp on the Basics

Being educated about self-recovery can make all the difference between a successful and unsuccessful recovery. Reading up on blogs and watching youtube videos can increase your knowledge multifold.

Invest in your Tires

Tires with bigger sidewalls and deeper threads tend to work best in sandy conditions so if necessary, so I highly recommend upgrading your tires. 

I use and love the BF Goodrich K02 Tires. These tires have honestly been one of my best investments. Not only are they super smooth on highways but also aggressive enough to tackle dirt roads and slightly rough terrains. 

Getting your van’s suspension checked is another little tip that can be useful in getting unstuck easily on sand. 

Use Weight to Your Advantage

If you are using a 2WD camper van, you can place extra weight on the rear end of the weight for improved traction. This is because most 2WD are built with most of the weight placed on rear tires. Good news for you! You can get unstuck using the right proportion of weight on the front and rear of your van.

Do I need a 4×4 to drive in the sand?

In most cases, no, you don’t need a 4×4 to drive in the sand… However, a 4×4 does make life slightly easier. I talk about this at length in one of my other blog posts. You can check that out here

Final Word

While I hope you don’t get stuck in the sand, this article should help you maneuver your way around it. I hope you benefit from my experience and recommendations and enjoy your campervan adventures to the fullest!

Scott Adamson
Wanderful Idea Guy
Coffee drinker, adventure seeker, below average photographer.
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