The Outer Banks offers locals and visitors the rare opportunity to experience the ocean and beaches from the comfort and convenience of their vehicles. Beach driving — from Corolla to Ocracoke — has been an attraction for decades.
The National Park Service and various local websites offer maps and locations of beach access sites, as well as rules and recommendations for driving on the beaches.
Longtime beach drivers emphasize two things, one mechanical and the other mental. Deflate your tires, and exercise common sense.
“If people would properly air down and take their time when they’re out on the beach, they could pretty much go anywhere they want to go and enjoy themselves,” says Bill Smith, president of the North Carolina Beach Buggy Association.
Smith, a 67-year-old Buxton resident, and others recommend deflating tires to 18 psi, roughly half of the pressure for regular road driving. The National Park Service recommends deflating to between 15-20 psi. Deflated tires create more surface, and therefore more traction, on the sand.
“Some people with four-wheel drive don’t think they need to (air down),” Smith says, “but I’ve seen plenty of four-wheel drive vehicles get stuck. It’s the smart thing to do.”
The Outer Banks Preservation Association, a group dedicated to public beach access as well as wildlife preservation, created a public service motto in the form of a sticker: Don’t Be A Clown, Air Down.
“You want to float on top of the sand, not dig down in it and get stuck,” says OBPA Treasurer David Scarborough, a 69-year-old Avon resident who has lived here for almost 10 years and began coming to the area in the early 1980s.
Scarborough says he understands the apprehension that some people have about driving on deflated tires after leaving the beach and getting back out on the road. Tire and auto manufacturers have specific guidelines about tire pressure. But he tells people that there are numerous air stations and pumps along the coast, and that driving even several miles on deflated tires won’t damage the tires or vehicle. Also, drivers aren’t going directly from the beach to high-speed roads, where the effects of under-inflated tires would be more evident.
Smith says the lack of rain so far this summer has made beach driving a bit more challenging in some areas, as the sand is more powdery. Follow the tracks of other vehicles. Stay off the dunes. Don’t drive all the way to the shoreline, where the sand is wet. Pay attention to tides at thinner stretches of beach, where paths can be limited or impassable at high tide. Speed limits at NPS sites are 15 miles per hour in open areas and 5 mph in areas near pedestrians.
“I see people driving way too fast,” Smith says. “That creates a safety issue. You’ve got children out there; you’ve got animals out there. People on vacation aren’t always paying close attention. Just being aware of your surroundings is important.”
If a driver feels his or her tires starting to slip in the sand or the vehicle suddenly sinks a little deeper, Scarborough says, stop and hop out and assess the situation before doing anything else. Spinning tires simply dig holes in soft sand. Sometimes, he says, drivers don’t realize that their steering wheel is turned and front tires are angled, which makes moving forward more difficult. If a vehicle is stuck, he says that sometimes going in reverse is easier than going forward and can permit a driver to gain a little momentum when going forward. If a vehicle sinks up to its frame, there’s little to do but dig out or hope for a push or a tow.
Smith and Scarborough have both seen bottlenecks at various beach accesses, where one stuck vehicle impedes others. Visitors may kill time waiting to check into a rental property by driving out to the beach, Scarborough says, but they’re impatient or fatigued. They don’t bother to air down and get stuck.
“They said, ‘I was only going out a hundred yards,’” Scarborough says, “but that first hundred yards is where everybody else gets out, too.”
Be smart, they say. Be patient. Four-wheel drive vehicles are preferable to those with all-wheel drive, though some all-wheel drive vehicles acceptably navigate certain stretches of sand. Don’t drive a Chevy Malibu onto the beach.
“Obey the rules,” Scarborough says. “They’re not just best-practice rules. They’re important to the safety of people and the environment and allow everyone to enjoy the resources.”