Desert safaris are a popular activity for tourists visiting desert regions like Dubai. A common question asked is whether visitors can drive their own vehicles during desert safari tours or if they must ride in vehicles provided by tour operators. Here is an in-depth look at driving in desert safaris.
What is a desert safari?
A desert safari is an excursion into the desert in a 4×4 vehicle to experience the thrills of dune bashing, camel rides, sandboarding, quad biking and more. Tour operators provide specially modified vehicles and experienced drivers to navigate the desert’s shifting sands and towering dunes. Desert safaris typically last 4-6 hours.
Why drive your own vehicle?
Some tourists may wish to drive their own vehicles in the desert for these potential benefits:
- Freedom and flexibility to explore the desert independently
- Reduce costs by avoiding paid tour packages
- Experience driving over sand dunes yourself
- Customize your desert adventure to your interests
- Ability to go at your own pace instead of a group schedule
Risks and difficulties
While the freedom of exploring the desert in your own vehicle sounds exciting, there are considerable risks and difficulties:
Lack of experience
- Driving on sand dunes requires special skills that take training and experience to master
- Inexperienced drivers can get stuck in soft sand or tip over on steep dunes
- Navigating the featureless desert landscape can be disorienting for novice drivers
- Standard road vehicles lack the necessary ground clearance and 4WD systems to handle desert terrain
- Rental cars may not have the extra underbody protection needed for off-roading
- Their engines can overheat in the harsh desert environment
- Desert heat can reach 130°F (54°C) causing risks of dehydration and heat stroke
- Sudden sandstorms with powerful winds can create blinding conditions
- Rocky and uneven surfaces can damage undercarriages of normal vehicles
Remoteness and lack of assistance
- Cell phone and GPS may not work in remote desert locations
- Breaking down miles from help can be dangerous if unprepared
- Limited fuel and water supplies increase risks
When is driving permitted?
In general, recreational driving in open desert areas is not permitted in the UAE outside of designated off-road parks. However, some desert safari tours may allow experienced drivers to operate their own 4WD vehicles on the excursion under these conditions:
- Provide a valid 4WD driving license and permits
- Pass inspection of the vehicle by tour operator
- Rent a 4WD from the tour company instead of using your personal vehicle
- Follow all safety briefings and instructions from tour guides
- Stay close to the convoy of tour vehicles in case assistance is needed
- Additional fees may be charged for driving your own vehicle
Keep in mind that restrictions on driving yourself vary between tour companies and destinations. Some may prohibit visitors operating their own vehicles at any time during desert safaris due to the risks involved. Always check with your tour provider ahead of time about their policies.
Tips for driving in the desert
If you are an experienced 4WD driver and will be allowed to drive your own vehicle, keep these safety tips in mind:
- Lower your tire pressure to spread out the weight over a larger surface area
- Drive slowly and avoid sudden acceleration, braking or turning
- Watch out for bumps, rocks and uneven ground that can destabilize vehicles
- Carry a recovery shovel, tow rope, tire inflator and other emergency gear
- Stay on established desert trails rather than venturing into open dunes
- Avoid driving at night when visibility is reduced
- Travel with other vehicles that can help if you get stuck or breakdown
- Bring plenty of drinking water and spare fuel
- Turn off air conditioning to reduce risk of overheating
- Pack protective goggles and wraps for your face to cope with blowing sand
Using a professional tour operator
For most visitors, the safest and easiest option is to book your desert safari with a reputable tour company and ride in their vehicles driven by experienced guides. Benefits include:
- No risk of getting lost or stranded
- Expert drivers know how to handle desert conditions
- Guides provide background and commentary during the tour
- Equipped with radios, recovery gear and spare parts
- Vehicles designed specifically for desert use
- Peace of mind of riding with professionals
By relying on a tour operator, you can just relax and enjoy the desert adventure without any of the risks or hassles of driving yourself. Most companies offer hotel pickups and will handle all the paperwork and permits required.
Booking a desert safari tour
If you decide to join a guided desert safari, here are some tips for choosing the right tour:
- Pick a company with a good safety reputation and experienced drivers
- Read reviews from other travelers to check quality of tours
- Select a tour package that fits your interests like dune bashing, camel rides or dinner
- Book in advance online for best price guarantees and availability
- Look for small group tours for a more personalized desert experience
- Enquire about hotel pickups and drop-offs to simplify your visit
- Check that all fees, taxes, permits, meals and activities are included
- Understand cancellation and refund policies in case plans change
With a reputable tour operator, you can experience the thrill and beauty of the desert without the hassles and risks of driving yourself. All you need to do is sit back and enjoy the ride.
- Driving your own vehicle in the desert can be dangerous due to harsh conditions, lack of experience, and unsuitable vehicles
- Self-driving is only permitted under certain conditions by some tour operators
- Booking a tour with a professional company is the easiest and safest option
- Experienced drivers can expertly navigate the desert’s challenges
- Focus on the desert safari experience itself without any driving worries
- Do research to find a top-rated tour operator that fits your needs and interests
Desert safaris are an exciting way to experience the vast beauty and thrills of the desert landscape. While the freedom of driving your own vehicle across dunes may sound appealing, the risks and difficulties make booking a tour with professionals the best choice for most people. By leaving the driving to experienced guides, you can relax and make the most of your desert adventure. Do your research to find a tour company with skilled drivers, top safety standards, and a package that fits your desires. With the right tour operator, you are guaranteed an unforgettable desert safari in the safest hands possible.
Q: What type of vehicles are best suited for desert driving?
A: Full 4WD vehicles with high clearance, specialized tires, extra fuel capacity, and underbody protection work best. SUVs and jeeps can handle desert terrain better than standard passenger cars.
Q: How can I avoid overheating if driving myself in the desert?
A: Drive slowly, keep the air conditioning off, watch the temperature gauge, carry spare coolant, and stop to let the engine cool if needed. Do not push the vehicle too hard.
Q: What should I wear when going on a desert safari?
A: Light, breathable clothing to cope with heat, along with a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen. Wrap a scarf over your face to protect from blowing sand.
Q: Can I rent a 4WD vehicle for my desert safari?
A: Some tour companies offer 4WD rentals with the necessary modifications and gear for desert driving. This can be cheaper than using your own vehicle.
Q: How young is too young for children to participate in dune bashing?
A: Most tour operators do not allow dune bashing for children under 6 years old due to the extreme bumping and jerking motions. Use discretion based on your child’s height and ability to wear a seatbelt properly.
Q: Is it safe for pregnant women to go dune bashing?
A: No, pregnant women are advised not to go dune bashing due to the intense vibrations and jarring motions which could risk injury to the baby. Other desert activities are safer.
Q: Can I bring my own food and drinks or picnic in the desert?
A: Most tours include meals and beverages. But you can double check with your tour operator whether outside food and drink is permitted, aside from water.
Q: Do desert safaris operate at night or only during the day?
A: Many companies offer evening/night desert safaris to see sunset views. Dune bashing and driving activities only take place during daylight hours however.
Q: Is it better to book a desert safari online in advance or in person?
A: Booking online in advance ensures you get the tour package, date, and price you want. Same-day booking in person may be limited.
Q: What is the best footwear to wear during a desert safari?
A: Light hiking shoes or boots with ankle support work best to handle walking in soft sand. Make sure they are broken in so they do not give you blisters.
Q: Can I choose my own travel companions/group for the desert safari?
A: Most tours group travelers together based on the vehicle capacity. But some allow booking a private tour just for you and your selected companions.
Q: Is travel or medical insurance recommended for desert safari tours?
A: Yes, it is wise to have coverage in case of any injuries or issues requiring medical treatment or evacuation during your desert activities.
Q: Do I need vaccinations or medications for desert safari travel?
A: No special vaccinations are required. But visitors should make sure they have any regular medications they take, sunscreen, proper footwear, extra water, and first aid supplies.
Q: Is barbecuing or campfire cooking part of desert safari experiences?
A: Some overnight/camping safari tours offer campfire cooking, grilled meals, or Arabic barbecues called shisha. Most day tours include buffet lunch.
Q: What is the best time of day to see mirages in the desert?
A: Mirages are most common in midday when the desert is hottest. The temperature differential between hot air near the ground and cooler air above creates the optical illusion.
Q: Can I ride my own ATV, dirt bike, or quad bike during a desert safari?
A: Usually not, for safety reasons. But some tours may allow experienced riders to operate their own alongside the group under supervision.