When someone mentions sand, most people would think of picturesque beaches or mysterious deserts with hypnotic, ever-changing dunes.
For most mountain bikers, however, sand is a challenge to be avoided if they could help it.
Only providing little traction, sandy areas, patches, or sections had been crash sites for many of us.
But that did not stop us from brushing ourselves off, hopping back on our bikes, and figuring out how to easily and safely make our way through.
Mastering soft sand riding is necessary to become a better rider. Otherwise, you cannot enjoy those charming, sandy sights.
Here is everything you need to know about soft sand riding to help you conquer the dreaded sand and start riding like a pro.
- Use the gear that lets you spin at a high cadence, like 85-95 rpm. You will keep spinning as you roll through the sand, making it easy to stay in control. Do not spin at a cadence that is too high or you will lose traction.
- If you ride in a particularly sandy area, patch, or section, you may like to swap out your usual wheels for wider ones, like changing 2.0” with 2.3”. Wider wheels let you handle better.
- Lower your tire pressure a little. The tires’ surface area increases, preventing you from sinking.
- Use PTFE (i.e., Teflon) spray lubricant chain lube. It evaporates quickly, preventing sand from sticking to the chain. Do not apply the lube right before you ride. Otherwise, the lube will not have enough time to evaporate.
If your chain is brand-new, degrease it before applying the lube to ensure it sticks.
- Be extra careful when moving from a hard-packed trail to a sandy area, patch, or section. Your bike will slow down quickly when it hits the sand. So you will not go flying over the hangers, move slightly behind your bike’s center of gravity. Your front wheel will ‘float’ on the sand instead of sink, keeping the ride smooth.
- If you come across a short section of sand: approach with speed. Just before you enter it, stand up on the pedals. Lock your knees and move your weight back by straightening your arms and placing your butt behind the seat, just like in a high-speed descent position. Look ahead and stay in a straight line. Grip the handlebars and keep your arms straight to keep going straight. As long the sand is not knee deep, you will be able muster enough speed to make it through without pedaling.
- If you come across a long section of sand: approach as if you come across a short section of sand. When you start to slow down, move your weight forward to be able to sit on the back of the seat. Keep your arms straight and your weight back. Start pedaling and keep your stroke round to maintain enough speed to not have to pedal. Doing so ensures your power output is constant, improving both momentum and traction.
- If you come across a particularly long section of sand: straighten your arms and move your butt as far back as possible on the seat. Find the sweet spot where the front wheel stays afloat and you are not so far back that you cannot pedal comfortably and with force. Just like when you find yourself in a fairly long section of sand, keep your stroke round to maintain enough speed to not have to pedal. To keep the ride smooth, stand up on the pedals, move your weight back, and coast as far as possible.
- Plot out the smoothest possible path to take, but adjust when needed. Do not panic if you go slightly off course. Just get through as best as you can. As long as you are still in the right direction, you will be okay.
- If the trail is not a straightaway, steer by turning your shoulders and hips. Doing so is easier than with the handlebars.
- When cornering, move your body forward a little. Placing your center of mass over your bike’s center of gravity, or being in the ready position, allows the front tire to remain in contact with the surface and not slide about.
- Approach corners as wide as possible. Hit their apex effectively by making straight lines. If it is a left turn, go as far to the right as possible. Either way, to corner easily and safely, move your weight back and sit back in the seat. Cut into the corner at it steepest angle. Hook into the left from your far right position. Do not look down at the ground right in front of you. Look ahead and out of the corner. Exit the corner aiming wide once more, or right out of the left corner. Brake before the corner, not into or in it, and try to do so with as much speed as you could muster. If you have to brake inside, only use the back brake. You might tailslide a little, but you will stay upright. If you use the front brake, you will get pitched forward, the front tire will dig into the sand, and you will get thrown off.
- Ride at a controlled yet fast pace. Riding too slow puts you at risk of getting stuck. Going too fast is dangerous.
- Keep your speed steady to maintain momentum and avoid getting stuck.
- Do not sharply turn the handlebars. The front tire will dig in and you will pitch forward, causing you to get thrown off.
- Maintain a firm grip on the handlebars throughout the ride to stay in control.
- Keep your head up and your eyes where you are going to stay on course, adjust when needed, and avoid obstacles or hazards.
- Keep your upper body relaxed. Not only will you stay in control, you will keep a level head if your ride gets hairy.
- Brake BEFORE entering a sandy area, patch, or section. You will not stop safely if you brake into or inside it. Stopping abruptly causes the front tire to dig in. Your bike will pitch forward, throwing you off.
- If you have to hit the brakes, only use the rear ones. It is safer than using both because you will not stop quickly and get thrown off.
- If you need to stop right away, squeeze both of the brakes gradually to avoid stopping abruptly. Keep your weight back to stay level.
- While your bike is coasting, relax and let the front tire make its own way through. But stay in control.
- If you are in a short patch of sand: stand up on the pedals, move your weight back a little, and stay loose, but keep your body centered and balanced while letting your bike squirm around a bit.
- If you are in a long patch of sand: do as instructed when you are in a short patch of sand except stay seated and keep pedaling. The front tire will fishtail a little, but stay loose and focus on making your way through safely.
- If you are riding across a ‘fire trail’, or a trail that has firm sand along the edges because cyclists ride across it regularly, next to vegetation: watch out for branches and stinging or prickly shrubbery. Stay in the ‘main line’, or the middle.
- Use a big gear to give yourself enough power to get through and stop much easier. Spinning at a high cadence has the same effect.
- If you will ride in a desert, ride tubeless with some sealant. Aside from risking the burs destroying the tubes otherwise, you will leave bigger footprints, enabling yourself to make your way easier.
- Steer by rocking the bike in the right direction instead of using the handlebars. It is easier. But if you have trouble, try to imagine your bike floating across the sand.
- Do not turn the front tire too much to avoid going off course or sinking.
- Make sure you can make your way across the entire terrain. Take a map, compass, or GPS unit even if you have ridden there before. The place can look different if the weather suddenly goes extreme, making your way home difficult.
- Map out your exit routes so that if you do have such difficulty, you can make the quickest and safest way to the nearby services and get help.
- Plan out your main routes well before nightfall to make sure that you can see the way and that you will not get lost if you get caught out when it its dark out.
- Double-check that you have your mobile phone, it is fully charged, and you have another power source.
- Tell someone close to you where you are going and when you will be back if you are riding alone.
- Know the numbers to call during an emergency, including the nearby hospital, the local police department, the rescue service, or a friend who can pick you up.
- Make sure the conditions are ideal when you ride. What will the weather be like? Will it rain? Will it be hot out, or cold? If the conditions are less than ideal, you ought to reschedule. For instance: If it will be hot out, you will be at risk of having sunstroke.
- Make sure you are up for the ride. Do you have a cold? Feeling hot? Did not sleep well the night before? Clocked in overtime at the office? Do not force it if you are feeling under the weather. It could be sometime before help arrives if you are alone and have an accident.
- Take enough food and water for the entire trip. Having enough food ensures you stay energized. Having enough water prevents you from suffering dehydration. To make sure you stay pumped, bring food that are healthy but packed with energy-giving nutrients as well as convenient to eat on the go and will not go stale easily, like energy bars and trail mixes.
- Do not push yourself. Feeling sore the day after a ride is one thing. Aching all over three days after is another. If you are feeling ill, call for help immediately. If you are with friends or a group, tell them you are not feeling well right away.
- Do not be irresponsible. Learning new skills is one of the most enjoyable things about mountain biking. But know when you are doing it properly and when you are just taking an unnecessary risk. For instance: If you have never done a drop-off before, do not try your first one on the same day you will learn soft sand riding even if you would do so with your friends or a group. You will just risk hurting yourself miles away from the nearest accessible road, which could be dangerous not only for yourself but your companions as well. If you come across a section of sand that you think is beyond your current skill level to get through, swallow your pride, dismount, and walk across with your bike instead of riding through. Only go through sandy areas, patches, or sections you know you are capable of getting across. It is your responsibility to yourself and those with you.
Wear proper safety gear
Wearing a properly fitting helmet is essential for your ride as well as ensuring you have adequate protection from the sun if you ride across a beach or desert. Make sure yours fits comfortably. It should not slip forward or backward. During your ride, make sure that the strap is pulled upwards and tightened just below your ears. Also, the chinstrap needs to be tight enough without suffocating you or being placed too far forward. Before heading out, speak out loud or with your companions. The helmet should be pulled down a little every time you open your mouth. If it does not, it is too loose.
Goggles provide more protection than just shade for your eyes. They also keep debris, like wind-borne sand, away. To stay as comfortable as possible, bring a pair that breathes well, absorbs sweat, and prevents fogging.
Any style of riding, whether it is downhill or enduro-style riding or cross country, a good pair of gloves is essential. Apart from protecting your hands and wrists from debris, knocks, scrapes, blisters, and impact, they will absorb sweat that could make keeping a secure grip on the handlebars hard. To ensure comfort, bring a pair that breathes well.
Compared to athletic shoes, cycling shoes have stiffer soles that let the wearer transfer energy while pedaling efficiently, preventing fatigue and ensuring a smooth ride. Usually, cycling shoes are paired with compatible pedals to hold the rider’s feet securely. Tuck in your laces during your ride so that they do not get caught in the chain set.
Padded shorts keep your behind protected and comfortable throughout your ride even if it gets bumpy or goes on longer than anticipated, ensuring your comfort and safety. Make sure yours fits well. It should not slip or twist during your ride. You will be uncomfortable otherwise, ruining your trip.
Not only will they keep your knees safe if—God forbid!—you fall, kneepads protect your knees from debris, branches, prickly shrubs, and rocks. Make sure yours are light and comfortable even on a hot day.
Shin guards protect your shins during a fall and from branches, stinging shrubs, debris, and rocks. Just like your kneepads, make sure your shin guards are light and comfy even when it is hot out.
There are those who consider the hydration pack as the best pack for mountain biking. Its key feature is a back protector attached between the harness and a water bladder. This safety feature will keep your back safe if you get thrown off and land on your back. Its other features are ample room and elastic internal pockets that will keep your trail essentials, like your tools and tube(s), securely in place.
An extra layer of clothing
Regardless whether you are riding across a beach or a desert, it could get pretty cold out there if you will ride early in the morning. Wearing a shirt underneath your cycling top gives you the needed insulation to stay warm and cozy.
Know basic first aid.
Basic first aid is necessary to deal with an accident, like cuts, bruises, breaks, sunburn, sunstroke, general fatigue, concussion, or shock, as quickly as possible. It can be learned easily in virtually no time. It can even save your life or that of your companions. Before heading out: Read a credible e-book on basic first aid or borrow an up-to-date book on it from the local library or a friend. If you are going with a group, find out if they have a health problem or problems or if someone is not feeling well. If he or she is unwell, you ought to reschedule to avoid an emergency.
Make sure your mountain bike is in good condition.
Your risk of having an accident will be significantly lower if your bike is well maintained. Here are some pointers to help you know for sure that it is in working order.
Check your entire bike, from front to back, systematically.
- Start with the brakes. Lift each wheel and apply some pressure to the brake lever. They should not come in contact with the handlebars. Also, the brake cable should not be stretched out, the pads should not be worn out, and the brakes should not be knocked out of alignment with the discs nor the rims.
- Check the tires. Air escapes from tires over time, so make sure the pressure in yours is at the correct level. Use a pump gauge to see whether the pressure is high enough. If it is too low, you are at more risk of getting a flat or flats than usual.
- Check the gears. If you ride across challenging routes often or regularly, your gears might be bashed in a little. If you usually ride gently and click through all of the gears as you go, you will learn where and when the problem(s) usually occur(s) by simply listening for telltale sounds, like awkward noises, and movements. You will then know what to do, whether it is tightening, realigning, replacing, or lubing, or oiling. There are fine adjustments you can make to ensure your gear transitions are smooth. Learn them by getting to know everything about your bike. But if there are still problems you cannot fix, have your bike serviced at the local bike shop.
- Check the chain and the chain set. Mountain bike chains and chain sets need a regular application of oil to stay in good condition. They are some of the parts that suffer the most wear and tear. Not only will applying oil to them regularly extend their life, it will prevent them from breaking or locking up the wheels, ensuring a safe ride. Do not use WD40. It is inappropriate for mountain bikes. Visit your local bike shop and ask which oil is best for yours instead.
- Check the rest of the parts, including the bottom bracket, both the front and rear gear mechs, the pedals, and the seat, for cleaning, oiling or lubing, tightening, realigning, or replacement.
If you want to find out what type of mountain bike is best for soft sand riding, you are planning to buy one or a new one, or do not have a mountain bike of your own and are looking to buy one soon, here are points you need to consider.
What to Look for in a Mountain Bike
The right style for you. Each rider has his or her own unique riding style, so each rider requires a different bike style that suits his or hers for the best ride possible.
Mountain Bike Styles
The Trail Bike
If your idea of an ideal ride is meeting up with your pals at the local trailhead and riding some memorable climbs and descents afterwards, then the trail bike is the perfect mountain bike style for you. Many consider it as the most common style because it is not grounded in any racing type. It is associated with fun rides, efficiency, and balanced overall weight. Its suspension travel falls between 120 and 140mm. The angle of its head tube measures between 67 and 69°.
Suspension travel refers to the amount of movement allowed by the front and rear suspensions. Head-tube angle refers to the angle that the head tube forms with the ground. The steeper it is, the faster the bike can turn and the better it can climb. The lower it is (a low head-tube angle is called a ‘slacker’), the more stable the bike will be at high speed. But it cannot climb as well as a bike with a high head-tube angle.
The Cross-Country Bike
A cross-country bike will be great for you if you would like to enjoy more exciting rides across the local trails. It provides a ride that can be described as fast and is characterized mainly by climbing prowess. The distances it enables the rider to cover vary from just a few miles to more than 25. Its design is focused on efficiency and low weight. Its suspension travel falls between 80 and 100mm. The angle of its head tube measures between 70–71°.
The All-Mountain Bike
The ride that the all-mountain bike provides can be described as extreme trail riding—larger, leg-burning climbs and deeper, heart-stopping descents. Apart from being designed to perform well on steep descents, it is light and nimble enough to be pedaled uphill with surprising ease. Its suspension travel falls between 140–170mm. The angle of its head tube measures between 65–68°.
The ‘Fat’ Bike
The fat bike, named so for having oversized tires which typically measure between 3.7” and 5” wide, give it excellent traction especially in sand or snow. It is great for beginners because its wide tires are easy to control.
The best features possible. The key features of mountain bikes include the brakes, the materials the frame is made of, the gears, the suspension, and the size of the wheels.
The type of suspension and the diameter of the wheel are the two key features that determine the type of terrain a mountain bike can handle.
Mountain Bike Suspension Types
Rigid mountain bikes have no suspension. They are not the most common type of mountain bike due to the less-than-comfortable ride they provide. But they are inexpensive and easy to maintain. Most fat bikes are also rigid mountain bikes because riders who prefer such bikes find their typically wide tires and low pressure capable of providing all of the impact absorption needed for a comfortable ride.
Hardtail mountain bikes come with a suspension fork in the front to absorb impact on the front tire. But its rear wheel has no suspension. Compared to mountain bikes with full suspension, they cost less and have fewer moving parts, which make them easier to maintain. The front fork on most of them can be locked out, effectively turning them into rigid bikes if needed of wanted. Cross-country riders prefer them as they allow for more direct transfer of power from the pedal stroke to the rear wheel. They can also perform well on all-mountain trails. Their affordable price and easy maintenance make them a great option for virtually every kind of ride except for serious, lift-serviced, downhill trails.
While there are many variations of it, the full-suspension bike has a front fork and rear shock that significantly reduce the impact the rider endures during his or her ride, as well as increase traction, making for a more comfortable and therefore enjoyable ride. When climbing uphill, it bobs a little, causing loss of energy during transfer from the pedal stroke to the rear wheel. To fix this, the rear suspension of most full-suspension bikes can now be locked out to provide better power transfer and more efficient climbing capability.
Mountain Bike Frame Materials
A mountain bike’s frame dictates its weight, strength, ride quality, longevity, and price.
Aluminum alloy is the most common material used to make mountain bike frames.
As manufacturers spend more and exert more effort in selecting materials, tube design, and manufacturing, there are now high-end aluminum mountain bikes that have lighter frames than regular aluminum mountain bikes.
The other materials used to make mountain bike frames include carbon fiber, steel, and titanium.
Steel is tough, low cost, and provides a smooth ride, but it is particularly heavy for a mountain bike frame.
Titanium is light and strong but far too costly to use in making mountain bike frames, so only high-end mountain bike frames are made of it.
Due to its strength and low weight, carbon fiber is commonly used to make cross-country bikes, fat bikes, and high-end trail and all-mountain bikes. But it is costly to use as doing so requires labor-intensive manufacturing.
Mountain Bike Gears
Mountain bikes now come with virtually all of the gears the rider ever needs. The number can go up to 30. But there are still single-speed mountain bikes.
The number of gears is computed by multiplying the number of the front chainrings by the number of sprockets on the cassette.
If you factor in the myriad combinations of chainrings and cogs and the number of teeth on them, gears can get pretty complex to get your head around. To avoid getting overwhelmed, keep in mind that the most important things to consider are your fitness level and the terrain you choose to ride.
If there will be a lot of steep hills and you find climbing to be a challenge, you need more gears.
If you are a strong biker who only rides flat terrain, you do not need several gears to go up, say, a hill.
Traditionally, mountain bikes have two or three chainrings to provide a variety of gears for easy climbing. Nowadays, mountain bikes with only one chainring and a wide-range cassette with nine, 10, or 11 cogs are quite popular. Such bikes are lighter and simpler to use as the riders need only one shifter to move through the gears on the cassette. It provides the ease of use they need to make their bike perform as well as possible.
Mountain Bike Wheel Size
Before, all the mountain bikes for adults had 26” wheels. While this size is still available, when you walk into a bike shop and ask, the clerk is likely to offer you the other sizes.
Seen as a ‘best-of-both-worlds’ solution for cyclists, 27.5” wheels provide a middle ground between the standard 26” wheels and 29” wheels. They roll easier than 26” wheels. They are more maneuverable than 29” wheels. 27.5” wheels are usually found on full-suspension and hardtail bikes.
The plus symbol (+) indicates wider wheels (e.g., 2.8” or more). They provide a more comfortable ride and less rolling resistance. Thus, mountain bikes now typically have wider wheels and tires.
Mountain bikes with 29” wheels are slower to accelerate, but once the rider gains momentum, he or she can conquer far more terrain much easier than on a mountain bike with standard 26” wheels. The former are also more efficient in longer rides because they are good at keeping their momentum going as well as have a higher ‘attack angle’, which basically means the wheels roll over obstacles easier. 29” wheels are usually found on rigid, hardtail, and full-suspension bikes.
Such bikes have become quite popular with cross-country bike enthusiasts.
24” wheels are usually found on mountain bikes designed for kids because the size is comfortable for their short legs. They suit kids 10 to 13, but this depends more on their size than their age. Smaller/younger kids can get started on a mountain bike with 20” wheels. Most 24” wheels are less-costly versions of the wheels typically found on adult bikes for having less-complex components.
Mountain Bike Brakes
Disc brakes have replaced rim brakes on all mountain bikes except some entry-level ones.
Disc brakes have brake pads that grip onto the brake rotor mounted on the hub of the wheel. They are available in two versions: hydraulic and cable-activated, or mechanical.
Hydraulic disc brakes provide stronger, more progressive braking; involves less effort to use; and self-adjusts to brake pad wear.
Cable-activated/mechanical brakes require manual adjusting.
Rim brakes have pads that grip onto the wheel rims.
- Advantages of disc brakes compared to rim brakes: they provide more consistent braking in virtually all conditions; they let the owner replace a worn-out rotor instead of the entire wheel, which costs less; they provide superior performance in steep and wet terrains; they cause less strain on the rider.
- Disadvantages of disc brakes compared to rim brakes: they make it harder to inspect pad wear and replace worn-out pads; they are costlier to service.
- Advantages of rim brakes compared to disc brakes: they are economical; they make it easier to inspect brake pad wear and replace worn-out pads.
- Disadvantages of rim brakes compared to disc brakes: they gradually wear out the rim of the wheel, necessitating replacement; they provide less stopping power; they provide inferior performance in wet or muddy terrain; they require more effort to brake aggressively.
The perfect fit for you. Your mountain bike needs to be just right for your height, provide adequate flexibility, and is in the style that you will love to ride. It will improve your confidence and handling, enabling you to pull off challenging, more technical rides, like soft sand riding.
The standard mountain bike sizes are small, medium, and large (S, M, and L). They are similar across all of the brands. Generally, they correspond to the rider’s height.
Most manufacturers include size charts of the height range for each size. If your size is in-between, go for the smaller size.
Know what size will fit you best by visiting the local bike shop. Finding out what it is in person ensures you will get it right. Ask to test ride several bikes of varying sizes. Take a ride on each for five to 10 minutes over different surfaces, including up a hill if there is one nearby. With the help of a clerk or sales specialist, you will be able to narrow down your selection to two to three. While they may have similar parts and prices, each will give you a different ride. One is sure to feel better to ride than the rest. Pick the one that feels as if it is an extension of your body. It is sure to provide you with many memorable rides, including an enjoyable soft sand riding session, for years to come.
Given this comprehensive beginners’ guide to soft sand riding, we are sure that not only will you master soft sand riding in virtually no time but be well on your way to becoming an authority on mountain bikes and mountain biking itself soon enough as well.
So keep in touch and see you out on the trails.
About The Author
Rod Bucton, mountain bike fanatic from Mid North Coast, New South Wales Australia…discover the shortcuts to mountain biking for beginners and while you’re at it follow Rod on Facebook or Instagram.
Like any sport, bicycling involves risk of injury and damage. By choosing to ride a bicycle, you assume the responsibility for that risk, so you need to know — and to practice — the rules of safe and responsible riding and of proper use and maintenance. Proper use and maintenance of your bicycle reduces risk of injury.