Let the air out of your tires – PLEASE - Shooting The Breeze


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Let the air out of your tires – PLEASE

Thursday 09 July 2009 at 4:28 pm. It happened again.

It was another summer holiday weekend, and once again there were problems with off-road vehicles stuck on the seashore’s ramps.

Lots of them.

John McCutcheon, Hatteras Island’s head district ranger for the park, said that there were 91 “visitor assists” for the week that ended on the July 4 holiday.

Almost all of them, he added, were for vehicles stuck on the ramps. “Every person I asked had not aired down their tires,” said McCutcheon about the assists in which he was involved.

Ramp 49 was the worst, but there were also problems at other ramps – at least the ones that were open.

People who don’t deflate their tires and get stuck are always a problem, especially on holiday weekends when there is a lot of traffic on the ramp approaches and the tire ruts get really deep.  This year again, a lack of rainfall has left the sand in the ramps soft, deep, and powdery.

The worst scenario is when a vehicle gets stuck on an approach to the ramp and another vehicle tries to go around it – also getting stuck and block both “lanes” of the ramp.

There was a lot of that going on at Ramp 49 during the July 4 week.

On Friday, July 3, when I headed out to the beach at Frisco to join my family, there was a backup at the ramp.  Several vehicles were stuck, and others had to take turns using the one lane that that open.  I waited almost 20 minutes in a long line of ORVs to take my turn.

When I came off the beach that afternoon, there were two vehicles stuck heading out to the beach.  This time there was a Park Service truck, and there were two rangers directing traffic so the exiting went more smoothly.  McCutcheon said the two were Brad Griest and Jim Churchman.

Almost all islanders and most regular visitors know that you must deflate your tires to drive on the beach – especially on the ramp areas.

New signs at all the ramps say that tires should be deflated.  In its ORV driving brochure, redesigned last year, the Park Service recommends airing down to 20 to 25 pounds.

Jarvis Williams, owner of Cape Point Exxon who runs a towing service, says he recommends 18 to 20 pounds.

Williams, who towed about 10 stuck vehicles off the beach around July 4, said that the worst days were the Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday before the weekend.

He says that many vehicle operation manuals advise against airing down for a variety of reasons, but he suggests you ignore those instructions at Cape Hatteras if you want to drive on the beach.

And Williams adds that all-wheel drive vehicles do not do well on seashore beaches.

“We don’t recommend them,” he says, “even if aired down.  If you are an experienced beach driver, all-wheel drive can work.  You just have to be very careful”. 

Still, it seems there are a number of people, mostly visitors, who don’t read signs or just don’t believe they need to air down.

They try to get onto the beach without deflating their tires, and, more times than not, they fail, often causing vehicles who have to stop behind them to get stuck.

That’s what happened to Island Free Press graphic designer Donna Barnett on July 4.  A truck in front of her with over-size tires was making deep ruts as it approached the ramp to leave the beach.  Then the truck stopped.  

Donna said that as soon as she stopped moving, she knew she would be stuck in the ruts.  She was.  However, before her husband could arrive to help, she said a group of six or seven U.S. Navy sailors parked near the ramp rushed to her aid.

“They were everywhere with shovels, digging out the sand around each tire.”

Many drivers help one another out on the beach, but Williams cautions that they need to do it in a safe manner with equipment that is safe.

And one final plea.

Please, please don’t wait until you are on the ramp or the sandy approach to the ramp to deflate your tires.

It’s dangerous, rude, and can cause others to get stuck going around you.

You can air down in parking lots near the ramps or safely pull off the side of the road in some areas. Or, better yet, deflate your tires at your campsite or cottage or motel before you head to the beach.

“Airing down your tires,” says Jarvis Williams, “this is the magic to beach driving….If your tires are soft, you are going to bounce across the sand.  If not, you will get stuck in the first rut.”

The Cape Hatteras National Seashore’s newest brochure on ORV operation on the beach includes more information on safety, park regulations, and beach etiquette.

sixteen comments


Man I wish the folks down at Fort Fisher would learn from this…

Notataco - 09-07-’09 17:56
M. Breeden

I drive a full sized Bronco. I always air down before hitting Ramp 72. I can’t tell you how many times I have towed others out of the sand, either for not airing down or just pure ignorance of beach driving (in a 2 wheel drive no less!). Upon pulling a van out of the sand twice and recommending he turn around and head back to the village, he was stuck again within seconds. This time I kept on going.

M. Breeden (Email ) - 09-07-’09 19:00
Bertie Dixon III, III

At one time, only the Park Service, Coast Guard and a few filling stations had 4-wd’s. Islanders were quite content with 51-53 Ford flat heads and model As.
There were geared just right for the sand. We would (if we could afford it), split rims, weld wheel rims together, lower the tube tires to 10 lbs and drive on low tide. Getting to the beach just took common sense. Jarvis and Irene suggested LOWER the TIRE PRESSURE, and I suggest the following:
1-If you don’t want to lower the pressure because you are to lazy to fill them up after leaving the beach or don’t want to lower them because you are in a hurry to fish or swim, go with a friend and let him pay Jarvis to tow you off.
2-Follow tire tracks. Don’t make your own unless you know what you are doing. (ie) Don’t cut your wheel over 20 to 30 degrees, if you are at the lower part of the surf and want to go higher up. Approach at at least a 30-45 degree angle.
3-Continually look 100 feet ahead. If you see orange, it may be gravel, or if you see a glassy spot it may be water just below the sand. This is what we call a sink or gravel pit. If you hit one, good luck and don’t stop. If stopped, the sand forms a suction on the chassis and you may then say your prayers.
4-Oh yes, I always like to observe the $50k vehicles, with 10 fishing rods, 6 people inside laughing about being stuck’ with the windows rolled up and the air conditioning on. Might as well have stayed in that 10 bedroom, 4-story house in the hot tub and enjoyed the AC.
5-Most of all, respect others. You may want to help others if they are stuck, but you may be blocking the path for some else. Pull over, sign a paper saying you are not liable for damages if you pull them out. Call Jarvis or please bother the Park Service.
Bert III

Bertie Dixon III, III (Email ) - 09-07-’09 20:45
Jim Brown

Amen Irene-
We have had people give us many times what a tire pressure guage costs after giving them ours and splainin’ how to use it. (18-20 psi).
Yeah your new Disco is great-but our Trooper with 200,000+ miles on it can stop to help you and keep right on truckin’ because I aired down my tires.
It’s a ritual we love and it works!

Jim Brown (Email ) - 09-07-’09 21:04
<span class='registered'>OBXTraveler</span>

Besides the obvious of not getting stuck, there are other important reasons to air-down. The ride is much more comfortable and much less jointing on air-down tires. And more importantly, your engine and transmission have to work a whole lot less when your air-downed tires are rolling over the sand rather than plowing through it with little traction. On a hot beach day it is easy to over-heat an engine or burn up an automatic transmission by running a distance in deep sand without first airing-down.

Some of the newer, better designed heavy-duty air pumps that plug into your cigarette lighter receptacle I find can inflate 4 average size SUV tires from 20 PSI to 32 PSI in 10 to 15 minutes or so, so I always carry one of these along so I don’t have to drive too far on air-downed tires when I come off the beach or wait in long lines at the air-pumps.

OBXTraveler - 09-07-’09 22:49

I think you’re preaching to the choir, Irene. During the NCBBA’s Operation Beach Respect event two weeks ago, a dang old Honda Accord tried to get on ramp 30! Perhaps NPS signs should include: THIS IS NOT DAYTONA BEACH!

Roninstia - 10-07-’09 09:18
Salvo Jimmy

Airing down also reduces the “wash boarding” in the ruts and makes the ride better for all.

And there is a real myth about having to wait until you are at the ramp to air down or air up immediately before hitting the pavement. I run around for a month or more aired down at 18-20 psi. Done it for years and see no noticeable added tread wear. I do notice some decrease in gas mileage because the vehicle does not roll as easily on pavement.

The real problem with running aired down tires is the sidewalls flex more and thus generate more heat. So if you go only short distances at moderate speed, even in summer, you will not have a problem.

So bottom line is there is absolutely no justification for sitting in the ramp road adjusting air pressure either way.

A couple of lesser known things I’ve not seen mentioned.

What do you do if you get a flat??? It can happen.

Best have a 2nd jack and boards to support both jacks. The 2nd jack can be necessary to keep one side of the vehicle from pushing down into soft sand when raising the other side to get the spare off. And make sure you air down the spare after putting it on. Oh, and check that your spare is inflated if you haven’t in a long time. Also a full size spare is best.

Beware that when aired down as in 15 – 20 psi you can easily break a rim seal when spinning.

The tire can grab in the sand and the torque can spin the rim inside the tire because of the reduced pressure. Break the seal on more than one tire and well you get the idea.

Also turning sharply, like in trying to get out of ruts for an oncoming vehicle, can break a seal on a front tire at low pressure.

I have seen, but fortunately not experienced, all three of these problems.

BTW I ain’t never been “stuck” anywhere on the beach. “Temporarily detained” , yes. heh, heh, heh

Salvo Jimmy (Email ) - 10-07-’09 10:20
<span class='registered'>Jersey Dave</span>

I handed out flyers over Memorial Day weekend at Ramp 44, one thing I can say for sure is that the new signs NPS put up are in the wrong place,,,,many OSV (Over Sand Vechicles) got stuck when they stopped to read the signs…others cause trafic jams becasue that is where they aired down….all of the signs should be in air down or staging areas….

Jersey Dave - 10-07-’09 15:59
Frank and Fran

Great blog and very good responses. Some added suggestions and comments. Just because a vehicle tire calls for 55-60 Lbs. of air does not mean you don’t have to deflate to around 18-20 lbs. These tires usually have heavier stiffer sidewalls requiring at least dropping to 18-20 lb.

Lot’s of folks will stay on the island the entire time they stay leaving the pressure reduced to off road sand pressure and others fill up each time off the beach. Most tackle shops have “free” air pumps as to the gas stations.

In negotiated regulation meetings one of the subjects of discission was having a “pre- entering” area in the parking lots for vehicles to air down before entering the ram. Will NPS put these in? Time will answer!

If you see some one stuck don’t get too bent out of shape. Ejoy yor stay chill out and offer a fellow beach user a hand. He might be that doctor that sees you get a 10/0 hook in your butt and help you remove it someday or that reporte that writes the next article in Newsweek about her trip to Cape Hatteras.

Frank and Fran (Email ) - 10-07-’09 20:20
chuck allison

again your talking to the choir here ;) I remember a bunch of years ago having a big fancy rig tailgate me and finally pass on the way to the cape point ramp—only to sink way down and get stuck in front of about 15 cars. my young kids jumped out and ran up to see if they could ‘help’ my 10 year old son had his air gauge with him and announced to the whole world “hey dad, this guys got 40 psi’ the laughter could be heard in nags head!

chuck allison (Email ) - 11-07-’09 15:37
Steve Sink

One to two lbs. of pressure can make all the difference in the world. The center of gravity varies from vehicle to vehicle, which is also affected by the arrangement of the load, and this is a big factor in determining air pressure. There is no one formula that works for all vehicles. Take some time and experiment in a safe place. Learn your vehicle. Also don’t fight your steering wheel, hold it loose. LET YOUR VEHICLE MAKE THE DECISION. It knows more than we do. As the day warms up, the pressure can increase as much as five lbs., and more deflation is necessary. Also, DON’T JUST THINK IT’S IN FOUR WHEEL DRIVE, BE SURE. Been there, done it all. There is as much difference between 20PSI and 18PSI as day and night. Steve.

Steve Sink (Email ) - 12-07-’09 23:18

Had the same trouble on ramp 30. Had to pull out a Ford Explorer that blocked the whole ramp. Air pressure, 40pds. After pulling them out,(and others watching) had to get at the end of a 10 plus line of vehicles. Also witnessed a front wheel drive car and a mini van stuck on ramp 34. Could get around these. Barry, Salvo.

Barry (Email ) - 13-07-’09 08:36
Salvo Jimmy

What Steve Sink says about one size pressure does not fit all is correct. The best pressure varies with vehicle weight, including load, tire size and type.

A good way to start if you have radials (note RADIALS), is put your vehicle on level pavement, loaded as you would be on the beach (coolers, rods, people, etc) with pressure at the recommended street pressure.

Measure the height of the sidewall from the pavement to the rim. Then drop pressure until the sidewall height is 3/4th what it was at full pressure.

This should give you a good wide flat footprint.

Note, going too low can be almost as bad as not airing down. As you go too low the center of the tread will concave in toward the rim and you will then be riding mostly on the edges. That will tend to dig in almost as bad as a tire at street pressure. And when you come off the sand you will definitely be on the edges contributing to tread edge wear. With the flat footprint I never have experienced noticeable difference in tread wear, staying aired down for weeks at a time.

Salvo Jimmy (Email ) - 13-07-’09 09:44
John Alley

All the tricks of the trade, are nothing, if you can’t use them.

Without access, it matters not.

John Alley - 13-07-’09 22:57

High tire pressure is one thing but a big part of the problem at Ramp 49 and many others is lack of maint.

Prior to Memorial Day we had a blow that sanded in ramp 43 creating a single lane htat had to be approached at high speed to got over to top. I complained. Shortly thereafter ramp 43 was graded into a full two lanes.

Ramp 49 had also been sanded in creating a second mound after the decent to the beach. This was a dip that I am amazed did not take out several front ends. I would have thought that after the ramp 43 issue this would have been graded as well. It was not. On May 24, I complained about the condition of this ramp and the safety hazard created by users having to approach a single lane access at a good clip. Was it fixed for Memorial Day? NO. When did it finally get fixed? Not until mid June after I called one of the rangers to complain once again as I watched several users trying to exit ramp 49.

Bottom line, no one seems to care about the condition of the ramps which quite honestly are suffering from the traffic being added by the closures of ramp 23, 27, 34, and 44.

So if you see a problem, email McCutcheon because it seems I am being summarily ignored. For example, ramp 43 is once again in need of some maint. I watched a bio tech get stuck yesterday. Has anything been done? NO. I doubt it will until someone raises the roof.

Ginny (Email ) - 15-07-’09 16:46

I can’t believe the stories I am reading, a mini-van trying to access the beach? What in the hell is wrong with people today. It’s no wonder that locals cannot stand vacationers, and i know its true, I’ve lived on Hatteras! Unfortunately you cant fix stupid but you mix that together with arrogance and you’re hopeless.

Why any local would want to help some of these people is beyond me, especially when they turn right back around and do the same thing over again. On, the other hand I’ve seen plenty of people who are experienced beach drivers go flying down the beach where you have to go out and stand and protect your family from getting run over.

They should make it manadatory that if you want to drive on the beach then you must get a permit and take a class on beach driving (with the exception of locals , of course), maybe it would help with the foolishness?

Jim - 06-08-’09 14:31

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