Essential Safety Tips For Driving in the Desert

Hands up who can profess to actually know anything about their car, other than how to drive it?

This was pretty much me until I moved to the desert. If you are living in extreme climates such as the desert in the Middle East, or deep in the US Southwest it’s essential to understand not only how the heat can impact your vehicle, but also the first steps to take when things go wrong!

This is not a 4-wheel drive “how to” or off-roading guide, but a simple survival guide for your everyday driver who may find themselves on a desert road trip and confronting difficult conditions in a foreign place.

Dealing with dusty conditions, extreme heat, tire blowouts and engine failure are just a few examples of what desert driving can throw at the inexperienced driver.

What Happens to Your Car in Extreme Heat?

It is important to understand exactly how the heat can affect your vehicle, the limits of your vehicle in high temperatures – and a little mechanics 101!

Tires in extreme heat

The most important change you may notice from your normal driving conditions is the impact on tires. Extremely high temperatures can damage the rubber in your tires, especially if they are not properly inflated – there’s a much higher risk of a tire blowout in the summer. The heat also impacts on the surface of the tire.

If your tires are over inflated, the center will wear out much quicker than the edges. A properly inflated tire should have a more even surface.  Make a stop at the air pump and check tire pressure as part of your routine fuel stops (yes I know, that means getting out of your car in the heat – a worthy investment!) 

inflating a flat tire - check tyre pressure

Note the exact amount of air pressure required varies by your vehicle, you will need to look up your manufacturer’s handbook – yes that thing you keep shoved in the glove compartment for guidance. And don’t forget your spare tire!

It should also go without saying, stick to speed limit in desert areas. Even if the desolate and wide open desert roads with no police speed cameras around feel like ideal road conditions to drive as fast as you like, you don’t want to risk a blow out.

Engine coolant and radiator

Low coolant levels in high heat can kill your engine. Keep an eye on your vehicle’s temperature gauge. Note: Never check the coolant while the vehicle is hot!

If you have a damaged radiator or hoses, coolant may leak causing your engine temperature to rise even more. Regular servicing checks should include inspecting this part of your car.

Batteries in extreme heat

The battery of your car is composed of both water and acid. When temperatures start to heat up, the water in the battery will evaporate faster, leaving the lead plates exposed. When the weather turns cold again, your battery will no longer have the amperage to start the car.

Oil in extreme heat

A hot engine needs all the lubrication it can get, so making sure you change the oil when necessary. This might involve more frequent oil changes than you normally would in a cooler climate. If your vehicle has an automatic transmission, check the level of the auto box.

Fuel in extreme heat

Fuel evaporates quicker in a hot vehicle than it does in a cold one. Keeping your car in a garage or shade as much as possible will improve your fuel economy for desert driving.

Remember remote areas you’ll have far fewer petrol station stops, so do fuel up when you can.

Your car’s interior in extreme heat

It doesn’t take long living in a hot country to work out how essential a windshield sun shade is to keep your cars steering wheel and gear stick remotely out of the direct sun, but don’t forget about all the other parts of your car.

Whilst window tinting can most definitely help, in the summer extremes, you may want to cover car seats too, especially buckles and straps that the kids might touch. If you don’t have a proper UV cover, you could even just use a light colored towel to reflect some of the heat.

Always check your kid’s seat buckles before they go to strap themselves in if you’ve been parked in the direct sun [because, of course, YOU WILL ALWAYS DRIVE WITH YOUR KIDS STRAPPED IN!]

Make sure to keep your car parked in the shade as much as you can, there’s only so much your air conditioner can deal with.

Your smartphone in extreme heat

Let’s be honest, none of us leaves home without a cell phone these days, right? And they are frankly our first line of defense these days is we do have a problem. But don’t just assume your phone is your knight in shining armor in the desert. 

Phones also hate the extreme weather conditions. In fact, anything over 35°C/95°F whilst our air-conditioned car can normally keep it under control, if you are broken down with no air conditioning, remember your battery can drain out much faster.

Not to mention once you are outside urban areas you may not have reception.

Always keep a spare battery kit with you – as well as emergency phone numbers stored somewhere other than just in your phone so a passing motorist may be able to help.

Car stuck in desert sand
When the unexpected happens on desert drives – breakdowns or ah, soft sand on a wrong turn – are you prepared?

Basic Survival Supplies to Keep in Your Car

Now without being too dramatic, what happens if you break down in the desert? There can frequently be sections of the desert with not another car in sight. Especially in the middle of the day when farmers and locals who frequent the roads are not in sight, so what do you do if you’re stuck on the side of the road?

Emergency supplies that can be kept in your car for you & your family

You don’t need to be taking an epic desert camping trip before you take these precautions. It’s sensible for all drivers in hot desert areas to understand their vehicle, the effects the heat can have on it and what to do in case of an emergency.

  • A spare phone charger – as we mentioned before you cannot rely just on re-charging through your car
  • Physical maps – you’ll find limited or no signal once you hit the desert so don’t rely on your online phone apps
  • Plenty of water
  • Enough food – Dry snacks such as granola bars or the like should be kept in your glove compartment
  • Hats & sunscreen
  • Lightweight long clothing
  • A first aid kit

Remember, you’re not preparing for ultimate desert survival for a week. Still, some essentials that you can feel comfortable with until help arrives are important – this could be minutes or hours, depending on where you’re located. 

If you are off-roading or camping, there’s a whole other load of suggestions for what you can include!

Emergency Supplies For Your Vehicle

Review your vehicles emergency kit – sure we all know we have them right? If you have purchased a second-hand vehicle, it is wise to get a new emergency kit as essential parts may be missing.

Everlit Survival Car Emergency Kit, Roadside Safety Tool Kit with Gloves,Digital Auto Air Compressor Tire Inflator, First Aid Kit, 12 Feet Jumper Cable, Tow Strap, Flashlight for Women, Men, Teenagers
WETBAS Car Roadside Emergency Kit with Jumper Cables, Auto Road Side Safety Kit for Vehicles - with Premium Carry Bag, Repair Tool Set, Folding Shovel, First Aid Kit, for Men, Women, Teenagers
Car Emergency Roadside Tool kit,Road Side Safety Assistance Kit for Women Men Adult,Auto Truck Vehicle Emergency Bag with Shovel Jumper Cable First Aid Kit Blanket Front Rear Cover Alignment Tool

Although not intentional to off-road, have you got the correct recovery equipment if you do accidentally find yourself “off-the-beaten-path”? (we’ve all had to make an emergency U-turn at some point!)

A basic collapsible sand shovel will be enough in most situations and don’t forget to let some air out of your tires if this occurs, this gives your tire a bigger ‘footprint’ to work with and easier to glide over the sand rather than digging in. A traction mat can also be a bonus to pack if space allows.

Also consider items such as road flares, jump cables and safety gloves if you’re putting together a DIY road safety kits suitable for desert conditions.

Regular Servicing Checks For Your Vehicle

The best advice I can give is to keep your vehicle regularly inspected – this is more than just when your annual vehicle registration is due! Especially if you have not owned it from new you don’t know how the previous owner has treated it.

I make it a habit to check our vehicles every 5,000 miles – something I would probably not be so fastidious about, but the extremely hot weather as you can see can have a severe impact on your vehicle far beyond every day use at “home”‘ little and often should save you from some major repairs if things go wrong.

I ask my garage to look at changing the oil and air filters, do tires need rotating or replacing, is the A/C gassed, brakes checked, fire extinguisher present, windshield wipers working (even dust needs wiping off!) – all that good stuff.

Post contributed by Keri Hedrick – Mom of 3 and editor of Family Travel in the Middle East – follow along with her online magazine for more great tips on road tripping in the UAE and Middle East region.


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