Cruisin’ the Beach, Buggy-Style

By JAY MANN | Mar 23, 2018

When you think of “cruisin’ the beach,” it’s most often in terms of beach walks on crowded summer days. But another fine form of cruisin’ the waterfront is four-wheel-drive oriented.

Driving LBI’s replenishment-widened beaches has never been easier, though it’s strictly limited to a timeframe before and after the high-profile, highly peopled beach activity of the summer season has been reduced to a trickle – when activities such as surf fishing, off-season waveriding, advanced beachcombing and empty-beach sightseeing reign supreme.

With 4WD SUVs and trucks becoming a highway standard, the prime qualification for driving the waterfront is at hand – namely, a vehicle able to handle often-sinky shoreline sands. While some vehicles take to the beach better than others, any 4WD in experienced driver hands can become a proverbial beach buggy.

A quick mention that some all-wheel drive vehicles, especially those designed for off-road travel, work decently on the beach; however, on-demand 4WD is the surest ticket to ride.

Before going beach cruising, there’s some mandatory paperwork to be done, like purchasing the proper “beach buggy permit” for the targeted beach area.

On Long Beach Island, separate permits are needed to drive Beach Haven, Long Beach Township, Ship Bottom, Surf City and Harvey Cedars. Barnegat Light is the Island’s lone stick in the 4WD mud, not allowing any public beach traffic, at any time.

Long Beach Township offers a lot of bang for the permit buck ($50). Its yearly beach buggy pass – along with a special beach buggy permit for the duration of the nine-week Long Beach Island Surf Fishing Classic in the fall – includes access to all its beaches. The highlight of the LBT permit is access to the hyper-popular state-owned beaches adjacent to the Edwin B. Forsythe Wildlife Refuge at the far south end. Note: No driving is ever allowed on the refuge itself, period. Don’t go there.

Once graced with a permit, it’s time to ready a buggy for the sand. This entails some proper and exacting gauging. The gauge of the moment determines tire pressure (psi). While some vehicles now allow the reading of tire conditions from the cockpit, nothing can take the place of a handheld tire pressure gauge. Even the cheap ones work very well, though more elaborate models are commonly used by buggy devotees.

While car dealerships often hype 4WD vehicles as “ready for the beach,” the notion of simply throwing a truck or SUV into 4WD and letting her rip is a near diabolical sales pitch, one that overlooks the most essential part of any and all beach cruises: letting air out of the tires, aka airing down.

For a proper air down, remove tire valve caps and, using something pointy but dull, press the valve core (sometimes called the needle) down … and let the hissing begin. For many a beach-driving regular, an ignition key works fine as a near-at-hand de-airing device.

Trick: Count how long the air is being released, stopping now and again – don’t count the stop time – to check the tire pressure. When the tire pressure is down to about 22 psi, you’re getting close to being beach-ready. Using the deflation count determined with the first tire, the other three tires can be deflated on count alone – providing you had all four tires evenly inflated to start.

Important: Tires with bulkier “mountain” tread – good for snow but not so much the beach – might need to go down as low as 18 psi … but no lower!

Aired down, you’re now beach buggyafied. And make sure you put the permit(s) in the window.

Locate one of the many beach buggy entrances. By the by, always keep track of which municipality’s beach you’re on, reflecting back on those town-specific permits.

Vital: Keep at least one serious digging implement on board for minor sinkages, i.e. bog-downs. Forget those little Army “trenching” shovels, none of which have ever worked to free a bogged-down buggy. Think in terms of a full-sized shovel, like a pointed digger, or a transfer model. A longer handle helps shovel farther under a buggy.

For serious bog-downs, sometimes referred to as burying a buggy, keep the phone number of beach towing services close at hand. Better yet, keep it in a cellphone queue. That cellphone should also have the numbers of LBI police departments programmed in. Better safe than … stuck. By the way, it’s almost always folks leaving the straight and narrow who suffer bad-news, rescue-needed bog-downs.

READY, SET, SLOW: Nowadays, beach driving is smooth sailing, thanks to the Island’s widened beaches. Still, there are tricks to cruising safely and soundly.

There are granite-hard speed restrictions on all LBI beaches. Stick within the 15-mph zone, never going above 20 mph. That rock-bottom crawl is for the safety of all beachgoers. Besides, a beach drive should be a slow, comfortable cruise, not a city sprint.

As to picking a course of travel, drive in preexisting tracks, those made by other buggies. These pressed-down tracks offer the surest paths of least resistance. Following the pressed-down lead of others also saves fuel – though no type of beach driving is a bargain when it comes to conserving petrol. Gas is guzzled.

Beach driving etiquette demands always giving wide passage to beachgoers, particularly beachgoers with running dogs. While a slow-moving beach vehicle poses no real risk to Fido, pet owners often don’t see it that way, going into a panic mode. If need be, come to a total stop if dogs are too nearby.

Beach walkers always have the full and unabridged right-of-way. If beachcombers are crossing the beach up ahead, or lying about on the sand, steer well clear of them, plague-like. Such driver politeness pays big dividends when friendly waves are then exchanged.

EXIT STRATEGY: Along with knowing where you are when cruising the beach, it’s vital to also keep in mind where you’ll be exiting. Onboard GPS systems can now assure finding the same street-end where you entered. It should be noted that everything looks different from a heading-off angle.

On the beach side of things, all buggy exits are duly marked with signage, as in “Exit.” While tracks heading off the beach are often a sign of an exit, tracks alone have been known to be wrong. Try to exit on a non-exit street end and nearby homeowners have been known to howl.

Once exited, it’s time to air up. Just pull out the permit-mandatory portable air compressor … and get crankin’. Alas, this process can be quite time consuming, taking far longer than to let the air out. Again with the importance of a tire gauge.

Unbeknownst to many, a vehicle can safely drive a goodly number of miles on low tires, easily far enough to reach a service station. While most gas stations no longer offer free air, a few quarters will fill the bill. Some towns, like Beach Haven, offer a municipal air hose.

While a post beach-drive rinse-off is always loved by a vehicle that has temporarily played beach buggy, such a cleansing is not as mandatory as many would think. As long as the buggy’s beach time was not unadvisedly spent plowing through wet sand – or splashing through waves, like TV commercials seem to endorse – an immediate hosing is not compulsory. In fact, driving the highways after a snowstorm forces more road salt and caustic chemicals into a vehicle’s inner parts than 50 beach buggy drives.

For exact dates when beach buggying is allowed, check town websites, or ask at local bait and tackle shops.

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