This page is a guide to driving in the desert. Covering everything from driving techniques to important safety tips.

Introduction

Perhaps the most novel and exciting leisure activity in Qatar is desert driving. Further to exploring the spectacular beauty of the unspoiled sand dune terrain of the Gulf it affords you the excitement of serious off road fun driving. There is little to beat the freedom of charging through the sand, roaring up and over dunes and of really getting to know your car in challenging terrain. While desert driving in the dunes near Wakrah is popular, by far the best area to practice this activity is in the southeast of the country, around Khor Al Udeid, or The Inland Sea.

Despite its name, The Inland Sea is not a real landlocked sea rather a vast Inland Sea fed by a tidal narrow channel from the Gulf on the borders of Qatar and Saudi Arabia. This vast area affords plenty of opportunity to drive over both sabkha or salt flats, and an astonishing variety of sand dunes of all shapes and sizes. (sabkha is explained in detail later).

Desert Cars

The first thing you need for desert driving, is, of course, a four-wheel drive car. Although, amazingly, one sees local folk in two-wheel drives from time to time in the sands, you cannot seriously expect to get anywhere without a 4×4.

The safest cars are undoubtedly newer models, or those maintained to peak condition. Both automatics and manuals perform well in the desert in different ways, but it is vital that the car you take to the desert is fully roadworthy, as the desert will highlight any faults of your vehicle.

Check the following before you leave:

  • Oil and water levels
  • Security and soundness of belts and hoses
  • 4 x 4 operation (test this thoroughly)
  • Differential Lock and or Rear Differential Lock operation
  • Location of car jack, jacking arm, wheel brace or wrench
  • Location of the vehicles Jacking points
  • Soundness of wheels and tyres
  • Location of spare tyre and key (if the spare has a lock)
  • Working order of seat belts (there should be one per person)

Automatics are undoubtedly easier to drive on sand, ridding the driver of the need to be concerned about revs and clutch control.

For the same reasons, however, many drivers prefer manuals, as you need a greater degree of skill to cope with gear changes and the response of the car is inevitably more sensitive.

We won’t attempt to go into the merits of individual makes of car for desert driving – all the major makes sold in Qatar can perform well on sand, if properly driven. (Generally it’s the skill and experience of the driver not the vehicle) If you want further advice on this topic, you will simply have to talk to as many experienced desert drivers as you can find, and then make up your own mind!
Whilst air bags are generally a great benefit in the desert they can deploy if you bounce or hit the front of the vehicle hard on the sand, for example, not seeing a small hidden slip face, a hole or depression in the sand.

Tyres

There have been many a lengthy conversation and argument over tyres and the recommended pressure for soft sand driving. Most tyres are designed to give you traction but on the soft sand the last thing you want is traction, you want to float over the surface.
Sand tyres are the best. Next to that are bulled tyres. Both of these offer little or no traction and allow you to float on the surface. So if you can afford a second set of tyres or don’t mind driving on bulled tyres, that’s great, but for most of us we want the best of both worlds – something safe to take us around town and to the desert. A compromise must be found – and remember that the desert is made up of sabkha, soft sand, hard compacted sand and rocky areas.

18 psi is the usual pressure I would use. This is a compromise to allow me to drive over various terrain types and then if I get into trouble I can reduce the pressure until I’m comfortable. Once out of trouble I would then re-inflate the tyres back to 18 psi.

When your tyres are deflated there is a risk of rimming the tyre, so if you want to make a hard turn or ‘U’ turn, slow down or make the turn very wide, reducing the chances of rimming your tyre. Next time someone insists you deflate your tyre below 16 psi remember you want to drive on the highway next week.

The golden rule about driving in the desert is NEVER go on your own.

  • This is because you might have an accident and incapacitate yourself or the people in your vehicle
  • You might get stuck and need towing
  • You might get lost
  • You might have a problem with the car and need help with it.

Desert Trip to the Inland Sea

Airport Station

Airport Petrol Station is very useful station for stocking up on last minute food and drink needs, the Airport petrol station located about 700m South of the Air Force roundabout on the Wakrah Road, the petrol station is favoured for those who don’t have a full tank of petrol – A MUST by the way.

Many people enjoy going for a day trip on Thursday, Friday or Saturday (Friday being the main day) especially during the winter months, when the weather is fine. In summer the heat can make the experience somewhat arduous and overtiring, and it is certainly less enjoyable sweating on the beach.The water also becomes rather soupy and warm bath-like in summer.
It is equally not recommended to go during rainy or stormy weather, as the flat sabkha areas between the sand dunes can become treacherous (and it is, in any case, not much fun sitting on the beach in the rain.)

Sabkha is a flat sandy area between the dunes and is usually quite firm, although following rains and high tides, the sand forms a crust on the surface, after the water recedes a wet muddy like sand (which can be treacherous) often remains beneath the dry crusty surface. These areas can be found many kilometres inland.

Route

Airport Station

Most expeditions drive in convoy down to Messaieed, then proceed towards the Sealine Beach Resort, which is clearly marked once you reach Messaieed. There are a number of starting points for desert driving, one of which is the beach resort itself. Another is known as rubbish tip road and is just off the main road, about halfway between Messaieed and the resort.

Keep an Eye on The Kids

Airport Station

As your convoy makes way in the desert from time to time it may stop. For some reason or the other kids, as well as adults, see this big open space and seem to feel that they are alone in the vastness. The resulting feeling of freedom often sees the kids go off, running around up and over sand dunes. Often, seemingly from nowhere, a fast moving vehicle appears heading towards them, resulting in panic on the part of parents.

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