How to prepare for desert driving

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

Long winding desert road up Jebel Hafeet - Desert Driving tips

This was pretty much me, until I started to live in the desert, and even more so since I started using my Mum Tank for more than just its ability to handle three car seats and a full load of shopping!  

If you are living in extreme climates such as the desert in the Middle East, it’s essential to understand not only how the heat can impact on your vehicle, but also the first steps to take when things go wrong!

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

In this post we will cover

As we are learning more about our own 4WD experiences we will share a more in-depth guide on this aspect of desert driving – for now, let’s assume any off-roading you are doing in your mum-tank is purely accidental!!!

Nissan Pathfinder driving in UAE Desert
In case of any accidential off-roading you might do – read on!

What happens to your car in extreme heats

It is important to understand exactly how the heat can affect your vehicle – and a little mechanics 101!

Tyres in extreme heat

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

If your tyres are over inflated, the centre will wear out much quicker than the edges. A properly inflated tyre should have a more even surface.  Make a stop at the air pump a part of your routine fuel stops (yes I know, that means getting out of your car in the heat – a worthy investment!) At many stations in the UAE an attendant will be there to assist you.

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.

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 be more frequently 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.

Your car’s interior in extreme heat

It doesn’t take long living in a hot country to work out how essential a windshield 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 coloured 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.

Mobile phones in extreme heat

Let’s be honest, none of us leaves home without one 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 armour in the desert. 

Phones also hate the extreme heat. In fact, anything over 35c whilst our air-conditioned car can normally keep it under control, if you are broken down with no aircon, 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 passer by may be able to help.

Keeping basic survival supplies 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?

A desert road in Dubai
Lots of long empty roads can be found in the Middle East

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 the hot desert conditions 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
  • Water
  • Dry snacks – granola bars or the like kept in your glove box
  • Hats
  • Sunscreen
  • Lightweight long clothing and a scarf – you never know when a little extra modesty might be needed, especially once you get beyond the city.

Have you got a dedicated family first aid kit for travel? Here are all the essentials that we pack

Remember you’re not preparing for ultimate desert survival, but just essentials that you can feel comfortable with until help arrives.  If you are off roading or camping, there’s a whole other load of suggestions for what you can include!

4WD driving in UAE Desert
We’re not looking at intentional off-roading! There are basic supplies you should take with you all the time when driving in a hot country

Emergency supplies for your vehicle

Review your vehicles emergency kit – sure we all know we have them right? Do you even know where it is in your vehicle?

Yes, I have been stuck with a flat tire and not even the ADNOC service garage staff could work out how on earth to get into the tool kit provided to get my spare tire out!

If you have purchased a second-hand vehicle, it is wise to get a new emergency kit.

Going all out and taking your car off road for some camping action in the dunes?  You need to check out this preparation guide.  

Regular Servicing Checks

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 5,000kms – 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 in your “home country”.

I ask my garage to look at changing the oil and filters, do tires need rotating or replacing, is the A/C gassed, brakes checked, fire extinguisher present – all that good stuff.

Things to have with you before driving in the UAE

  • Your car insurance details
  • Your roadside recovery details (may not be with your insurer).
  • UAE Police number 999
  • UAE Ambulance number 998
  • Vehicles registration documents
  • Your driver’s license

SAAED Number for reporting accidents in Abu Dhabi 800 SAAED (800 72233)

In Dubai you can report small incidents using the Dubai Police App.

Drive safely this summer and safe travels with your kids!

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This post was written by Keri Hedrick, an avid family traveller and writer based in the UAE.  You can see more of her adventures on Instagram at Our Globetrotters.  This page contains affiliate links which may earn us a small commission at no additional cost to you. Our full terms of use can be found here. 


Please seek your own independent advice from a qualified mechanic about the servicing needs of your specific vehicle, the advice given on this page is general in nature. 

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