Offroading in All its Forms – Updated October 2014

I’m often being asked “will you take me offroading with you”?  This begs the question – how does one define offroading in Arabia?

For some people are chuffed to bits just driving up a gatch track (gatch is an arabic word for a special kind of limestone which these tracks are traditionally made from) or a sand track, find a sheltered spot, pitch a tent, have a bbq and watch the stars!  And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Others like to drive over some small gentle dunes for an hour or two of an afternoon, stop at sunset, have a bbq and watch the stars!  And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Another type of offroading popular in Oman and the UAE is navigating through dried up wadis and up and down mountain tracks.  Stop at sunset, have a bbq, watch the stars!  And there’s nothing wrong with that either. (But count me out as I am soooooo scared of heights: I don’t do mountain roads!)

For me, offroading means planning a long route on google earth, with start and end points, a couple of waypoints for interesting places or something to avoid (oh how I hate “Hell’s Bowl” near Al Yaher!), and a group of experienced drivers will make their way from point to point, tackling whatever obstacles appear.

Not all 4x4s are suitable for my kind of heavy-duty dune bashing but equally, I think it’s a sin to have a 4.8 litre Nissan Patrol just used for camping trips! When I take friends out to the desert, whether privately or in my capacity as a marshal of Oasis Offroad, it’s important to me that the rest of the group sustain as little damage to their car as possible during the trip.  If you want your car scratch and ding free then I would stay off the desert with it – in fact I wouldn’t even take it onto the roads here!  Small scratches from plants are almost inevitable, although many will polish out.  Other common areas for damage are bumpers, especially on relatively low cars such as Ford Explorers and Mitsubishi Pajeros and also low slung radiators for example on the Dodge Durango.

Lots of 4wd cars will take you into the desert for camping trips, but in my opinion, unless they have a gearbox with both 4high and 4low options and good ground clearance, they aren’t really suitable for dune bashing.  Approach and departure angles are also a consideration as you will encounter sand bowls which can be real bumper killers if not negotiated carefully. Below I’ve made a list of my personal choices for  a dune bashing car would be along with any pros and cons.  No doubt many will disagree with me!
Marina’s top 10 Cars for Dune Bashing – (all available second hand) in alphabetical order (which is the only reason the Jeep is at the top and the Nissans and Toyotas are at the bottom of the list!)
Jeep Wrangler
one of the most customisable cars for the desert, although some modifications will not pass registration test. Very easy to drive. Can have reliability issues, newer ones(JK)  are known to have electrical issues. Possible to pick up quite cheaply in the summer.
Mercedes G Wagen
amazing in desert with no mods, extremely expensive to buy, parts not cheap, holds value well
Mitsubishi Pajero
good in desert but needs to be driven carefully to avoid bumper damage.  Get the 3.5 or 3.8L version as 3.0L is gutless on the dunes.  Essential to re-inforce rear bumper before taking it onto the sand. 7 seater available.
Nissan Pathfinder
2000-2005 (2nd generation) – 3.5 litre engine a very good budget choice for gentle/intermediate offroading.  Lift kit available which will make it suitable for advanced offroading.  Early models with 3.3 litre engine are ok for easy terrain but lack power compared to the later ones.
2006-2012 models (3rd generation) good in desert, but really need lifted by 2″.  Fantastic power, 7 seater available.
2013 on (4th generation) this once capable offroader has turned into a softroader and is not suitable for the desert!
Nissan Patrol SWB
excellent in desert, hard to pick up a clean second hand model, but hold their value well, get it lifted by 2″ and you can take it anywhere, older models only available in manual gear.  Get any second hand model checked by your local garage to ensure it hasn’t been thrashed to death.  If you find a good clean one, expect to be chased down the road by locals calling “you want to sell your car?”
Nissan Patrol LWB
excellent in desert, slightly more likely to get “crested” than the SWB but great for a family.  There are more of these in the marketplace so good second hand models are available and will hold their value well.  7 seat option available.
Nissan Xterra
great family car for the desert, but worth putting a lift kit on to minimise underside damage.  Automatic gearbox only but gear ratios are great for duning! Came out in 2007 so only newer models available second hand.
Toyota FJ Cruiser
excellent in desert, like the Xterra, it came out in 2007 so no old budget models available, greatly improved clearance when lifted 2″, excellent gear ratios for desert driving.  Only available in automatic gear. Not everyone likes the “suicide” back doors. I was lucky enough to test drive the 2014 Xtreme model in May 2014.
Toyota Landcruiser SWB
as Nissan Patrol SWB but has leaf springs so less comfortable ride.
Toyota Landcruiser LWB
as Nissan Patrol LWB

Also worth considering –

Ford F150

it didn’t used to be possible to register pick-up trucks privately in AD Emirate but it is now, providing you have the 4 door model. Some dealerships offer models with a lift kit and these are the ones you should go for – if you take this truck to the sand unlifted it is almost certain you will sustain bumper damage.  The Raptor which has a 4″ lift kit and V8 is very capable and desert-ready, but you can get levelling kits for the base models which apparently will not invalidate the warranty (check with dealer) and will give the nose an extra 3-5cms lift.

Jeep Cherokee (old style)

excellent in desert with a few minor modifications.  Can have reliability issues. Can pick up cheap second hand models but get it checked out before you buy by a trustworthy mechanic – I have friends who have bought Cherokees and then spent a fortune keeping them on the road/in the sand.

Hummer H3

Although popular for the desert, these are at their best when wadi driving, relatively new to market so no bargain secondhand models available. 

You may note that 8 out of my top 10 choices are Japanese and this is not a coincidence.  Japanese cars in general are able to cope with the hot roads and dust better than most others, they simple and easy to to maintain, and you can sell them quickly and for a decent price any time of the year.

Full 4x4s are excellent for offroading, however clearance and the strength of your tyre sidewall will dictate if it is suitable for wadi bashing.  Lots of sharp rocks have to be negotiated and if you have a tyre with a soft sidewall, which is ideal for sand dune bashing, they can get damaged easily.
4×4 cars which aren’t particularly suitable for dune bashing – this list is not exhaustive – I have marked the ones that I personally will not accept on a trip.
Jeep Commander – very low bumper, bad entry/exit angles – possible to take out but must have a lift kit.
Jeep Cherokee (latest models) – very low bumper, essential to remove lower trim before starting a trip (or else the sand dunes will do it for you), lots of electrics, more of a softroader.
Nissan Pathfinder(2013) – bumper too low (will not accept on an Oasis Offroad trip)
Nissan Armada – bumper too low, very heavy car (will not accept on an Oasis Offroad trip)
Toyota Sequoia – too heavy, too long, too low (will not accept on an Oasis Offroad trip)
It doesn’t matter if your car is new, old or really old, the crucial thing is that it has to be very well maintained. 
Some car insurance companies offer “offroad recovery” however from experience I know that this service is not always available when you really need it.  The rule is that if your car is rattling/banging/overheating etc on the road, it will be far far worse on the sand!

From experience, I don’t recommend you buy a new car for the desert as there are plenty of good second hand options out there.  If you become a sand addict it’s best to have two cars – a comfortable family vehicle and a second hand offroader. If your car goes offroad regularly it will be in the garage for repairs/preventative maintenance more often and if you have access to another car it will save you the hassle of being car-less when this happens.

RSA, AXA and Zurich insurers cover offroad damage with their fully comprehensive policies though only for cars about 6 years old or less.  There is no limit to the age of car you can buy here, and so long as they are well maintained you can take the oldest of vehicles out into the desert.

See you on the sand my friends!

  1. Silvester (Capri) says:

    Marina,
    I lke this blog very much, it is straight to the point and it gives lots of light into this difficult subject.
    However I noticed one fact regarding Nissan Pathfinder. Probably you remember me, as one of the drivers, who promoted this car at most in UAE desert, still she is in use and called The Legend 🙂
    Nissan Pathfinder R50 was produced in two versions of the engine:
    1/ From 1995 – 2000, 3.3L engine, very low performance, which is absolutely unsuitable for the desert
    2/ From 2000 – 2005, 3.5L engine, absolutely great engine, with lots of torque and high performance
    It would be great, to mention, that at the second hand car option, to choose only 3.5L engine.

    Thanks and regards,
    Caprihorse

    • Marina Bruce says:

      Hey Caprihorse
      Very good update – I know the earlier ones did not have so much power but was not sure which year the change happened. I have driven one of the earlier ones on easy dunes and it was ok, however I know that the 2000 onwards with a little lift are much more capable – one of the best low cost offroaders you can get and it’s a Nissan!
      The desert misses you man! Hope you come back some day! All the best, Marina

  2. I have the 2016 Ford Explorer. What are your views on that? If i need to get it lifted for better road clearance , where can i get it done professionally and how much would it cost? I miss my FJ 🙁

    Thanks…

    • Marina Bruce says:

      Hello Leo
      Views on the 2016 Ford Explorer – the new models are no longer 4×4, they are AWD/4WD which are “softroaders” and not suitable for dune bashing but they are ok camping cars for the beach and tracks. Not really enough clearance for wadis either. I am sorry I do not know of anywhere that would lift a Ford Explorer, and I think any such modification would invalidate your manufacturers warranty. I am not surprised you miss your FJ – it is one of the most capable cars for outdoor exploring, whether on or offroad. Regards, Marina

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