Desert Driving



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).

The desert holds many secrets. I’m sure, one of which is revealed around March each year. The amazing sight (not seen by many) of this beautiful bright yellow desert flower coming into bloom completely surrounded by sand, is just amazing


The stark beauty of the golden sand, the pristine sparkling blue seas and the soft shadows blanketing the dunes at sunset and sunrise are breathtaking.

The beauty and softness of the sand are wholly deceptive, however, and it cannot be sufficiently stressed that desert driving for the novice is potentially extremely dangerous if certain guidelines are not followed. Accidents do occur in the dunes and precautions should be taken seriously as the activity can be potentially dangerous. Frequently novice desert drivers have experienced grief in the sand and run the risk of seriously damaging themselves and their vehicles.

While in no way wishing to spoil the fun of the activity, following some guidelines - do's and don'ts of desert driving, - will help you to get the most out of your experience while minimising the risk of damage and injury.

The Car

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 4x4.

Inside the Car

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.

To this end, 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)

The merits and demerits of different types of 4 wheel drives for desert driving can be argued about by aficionados (and are, endlessly).


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.


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.

Lowering the pressure below 18 psi for sustained driving will increase the probability of damage to your tyres, hence when you re-inflate your tyres they will no longer be as strong as before.

Summary on tyre pressure, psi:
  • 20 for semi firm sand and faster driving
  • 18 is a compromise for most terrain
  • 16 is OK for soft sand and dune driving
  • 14 & below for very soft sand & if you’re stuck

Before you Go:

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
It's really common sense

The ideal number of cars for a trip to the desert is between three to eight. Any less can lead to problems outlined above and any more gets unwieldy, cumbersome and, inevitably frustratingly slow. I would recommend that you seat a maximum of 4 persons in each vehicle. This will allow for extra passenger space in the event of a vehicle breaking down. In this case you could place the passengers from the broken down vehicle into the remaining vehicles and then carry on with your trip and collect the broken down vehicle later or on the way back.

With regard to the jump seats located in the rear of some vehicles I feel they should be used only in an absolute emergency.


Each convoy should have at least two experienced desert drivers, one to lead the convoy and the other to fall in behind. They should assist with providing advice to novice drivers in the group. At least one person must know the Inland Sea area very well and be able to navigate carefully and sensibly. One or two trips rarely give the experience required to avoid getting lost or ending up on dangerous terrain.

try to have one person in your convoy who knows about the general workings of vehicles and who could assist with minor problems.

"That said novices should not worry about going on a desert trip. Everyone was a novice once, and the more experienced are usually tolerant and understanding about the problems and uncertainties faced by the new sand driver. Never be afraid to ask copious questions and be sure you fully understand all instructions and advice given, even if it needs to be repeated or re-explained several times."

Desert Trip to the Inland Sea

Usual gathering places are: the car park of the Airport Road Family Food Centre (useful 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

The biggest danger/problem from wet sabkha is as you drive through it, if you should get stuck, you are not only stuck in soft muddy like sand, more than likely the floor pan of the vehicle is down in the wet sand, this will cause suction. So in order to get the vehicle out you first need to break the suction, then deal with being stuck (your jacking board and lots of friends with their tow straps will be a must).

By the way, the longer the vehicle is left the greater the chance of it sinking down a few more centimetres, thus creating more suction.

If going for a day trip, it is best to set off early, in order to get the maximum pleasure from the daylight hours. Keep in mind that the round trip to the Inland Sea is about 200 kms and it can take from one to two and a half hours to get to your final destination.


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.


As soon as the convoy leaves the road, everyone stops and lets air out of their tyres to reduce the pressure. This is essential for sand driving. You will, of course, need a tyre pressure gauge for this operation (see our checklist at the end of the section). The optimum tyre pressure for sand driving is around 18 psi.

Leader's Brief

During this essential pit stop, the team leader should brief everyone on the current sand conditions, route, order of driving and possibly give some advice to the novice drivers.

Novice Drivers

One point that seems to place unnecessary pressure on novice drivers is experienced drivers becoming inpatient with the pace of driving and attempting to overtake the novice.

When a novice sees another vehicle along side his own – they will become concerned about where the other vehicle is and whether or not he might hit it, decreasing concentration on driving and his position on the sand dune. This can result in a dangerous and undesirable situation

Do stick to your allocated place in the convoy. The leader and "Tail-end Charlie" will be counting on everyone keeping in line and will be constantly checking to make sure no-one has veered off or got into trouble. The leader will then set off and the convoy will proceed to the chosen destination with as few stops as possible.

Keep an Eye on The Kids

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.