The dangers of solo off-road driving
This contribution to the How To series might be a little controversial because one of the main tenets of driving off-road in remote areas is to never go alone, especially not on soft sand dunes and when temperatures can easily soar above 40°C.
As much as I agree with this golden rule, and I very rarely go out alone, I also cannot ignore that it does happen; and it being a topic of such importance that it can make the difference, documented on several occasions, between life and death, I prefer to address the issue openly.
Single vehicles go out into the desert sands every day: farm vehicles, authorities such as the environmental agencies, oil and water resources vehicles, local people who live near the desert, border patrols, etc.
But there is a crucial difference between these drivers and the amateur off-roader: the pros are prepared in three important areas:
Communication: a mobile phone is essential, and Etisalat assures me there is complete coverage over all the UAE land territory (there are places where you might need to climb to get coverage), but relying on a single device is not at all foolproof. Government organisations in fact rely mainly on radio communication and use mobiles as back-up.
Route: drivers who traverse sand for professional reasons do not take detours: they do not explore or go play on dunes (well, not officially!). They have their fixed route and they stick to it, and also their employers/supervisors know that route. Should they go missing, their location is normally quite easily determined. Plus, shared knowledge of their route and known landmarks make communicating their position easy. Desert agencies also utilise GPS devices for accurate location. These "commercial" routes across the desert are also shared by all other vehicles - some are as wide as motorways - and so the chances of other vehicles passing by within a few hours are quite high. Even the farm hand delivering camel fodder is assured that someone will come looking for him if he does not arrive by a certain time because his route and destination have been pre-communicated.
Support: Having resources available to launch a deep desert recovery operation is normally beyond the capabilities of private individuals, but organisations are normally able to do so without resorting to the emergency response teams (who will come out and find you if you need emergency assistance and call 999).
So those are some of the requirements to safely navigate the desert alone - without communication, route and support all sorted out I would certainly not advise anyone leave the tarmac alone. The weekend off-roader who goes out without a clear route, in an unfamiliar area, should certainly heed the desert rule of never going out alone.
On those rare occasions that I go out driving alone, I back myself up on all three lines: I share my route and destination, and I don't deviate from it; I have a group of friends available to come out find me if necessary; and I carry a back-up communication device.
And it's not one single problem you need to be prepared for - it's when there are multiple simultaneous system failures, such as rolling your car onto its side, severely twisting your ankle in the process, and losing your mobile phone somewhere in the sand in the aftermath … then what will you do?
Naturally, training and experience, proper equipment and the knowledge of local conditions also play a major role.