What is a Sand Rail? The Ultimate Guide (With Pictures!)

vw sand rails in dunes

If you have been to any sand dune recreation area then you have probably seen something called a sand rail or dune buggy driving through the sand. In recent years these vehicles have become very popular at the dunes. 

What is a sand rail? A sand rail is an off-road vehicle that is built for driving in the sand dunes. Most are lightweight, have rear engines, and paddle tires to help them to glide across the sand. They are also referred to as dune buggies and can have 2 or 4-seats for the driver and passengers. 

If you want to learn more about dune buggies and sand rails, you’ve come to the right place. We have personally built and owned a few different styles of rails and have close friends that have them as well. In this article, we’ll discuss everything that you need to know about sand rails. 

sand rails in the dunes

Sand Rail History

Soldiers returning home after WWII were used to driving off-road jeeps and tanks. They had more disposable income and the off-road community was born. Part of this off-road recreation was driving on beaches and sand. 

Who invented the sand rail? 

In 1958 Pete Beiring used the frame of a damaged Volkswagen and shortened it. Two years later in 1960 Pete’s original design was the basis of the first dune buggy called the “Sportster”. In the mid 60’s, the term “sand rail” emerged. By the 70’s, VW powered tubular chassis sand rails were mostly designed and built by their owners. These first sand rails were more powerful, lighter, and could go up larger dunes than the original buggies. 

Modern Sand Rails 

In the late 1990’s the desert racing community took hold and the original old school sand rails were upgraded to include modern shock technology and longer suspension travel. These new sand rails were called mid-travel and long-travel.

If you visit the sand dunes today you are most likely to see a mix of the old school buggies from the 70’s to the newer and more modern mid and long travel rails. 

purple sand buggy on dune

What is the Difference Between a Sand Rail and a Dune Buggy?

Dune buggies are modified from existing vehicles and sand rails are built from a custom frame. They are both designed for driving in the sand. Sand rails normally have high performance engines, a tubular chassis, and roll cage. Dune buggies are not made to be as fast, some have a fiberglass frame, and many are street legal. 

Terms Used to Describe a Sand Rail

You will often hear people referring to sand rails as buggies. Technically they are each a different style of vehicle. Since sand rails were born from buggies, the terms sand buggy or sand rail were what most people referred to their sand rails as. 

As buggies and sand rails evolved through the years different terms were born to refer to these new cars. Here is a complete list of different terms.

  • Sand Buggies 
  • Sand Rails
  • Water Pumpers
  • Pan Buggies
  • Tunnel Buggies
  • Mid-Travel
  • Long-Travel
  • Sand Cars

The term “buggy” is used to refer to all the different types of sand rails, the term “sand rail” is not used to refer to the original fiberglass buggies. 

Driving a Sand Rail in The Dunes

Sand rails are built so that they can drive on soft sand. They are lightweight so that they can skim over the surface of the sand without getting stuck. 

The engines on most sand rails are located on the rear to make their front ends lighter. They also have a low center of gravity so that they can easily turn on the face of a dune and climb steep hills. 

On the rear sand rails have a special kind of tire called a paddle tire. These tires have rubber paddles that scoop down into the sand to allow for more traction and performance.

The front tires have smooth rubber tires with a treadless or minimal tread design so that the front end has less drag on the sand and better top speeds.

Everything about sand rails, including the tires, designed for them to be driven on the sand only. That is why you normally see rails and buggies at the sand dunes. 

While some owners do switch out their paddle tires for regular tires to drive on dirt or gravel roads, this is not too common. Sand Rails are made to drive in the sand. 

mid travel sand rail in dunes

Different Types of Sand Rails 

Each sand rail can be built with different options such as engine sizes, 1-seat, 2-seats, or 4-seats, and visual design. While each is unique, most sand rails fall into these three categories based on the specific type of front end and suspension that they have. 

  • Long Travel: These rails are the most expensive and also the most comfortable. They are built with A-arms and coilover suspension. They are the most modern style.
  • Mid Travel: Another modern style that is also built with A-arms but has stock suspension instead of coilovers.
  • Old school: These are the first style of sand rails ever built and they have I-beams and use the original Volkswagen front end and suspension. 
long travel sand rail in wheelie

Engines and Performance Modifications

Sand rails are built with different types of engines (V-4, V-6 & V-8). The air cooled Volkswagen is a popular option due to the availability and affordable parts. Other sand rails engine options include Subaru engines, the LS motor, or fuel injected honda motors. 

Most sand rails use premium unleaded gas, but some higher performance engines will require racing fuel. 

Climbing Steep Sand Dunes in a Rail

To increase horsepower, speed, and climb up the steepest dunes some sand rails have performance modifications. Turbochargers, fuel injection and high performance cylinder heads, racing carburetors, and larger pistons are some of the engine mods that are added to give rails more power in the sand. 

Designs and Accessories

Since most sand rails are custom built they are all unique. From having roofs or no roofs, to the style and colors of the frame and graphics each rail is one of a kind. 

Some popular accessories include custom seats/covers, sand tires, headsets with communication systems, GPS navigation, light bars, LED lights, light up whips, and stereos systems. 

sand rail parked on top of a dune

Buying or Building a Sand Rail

There are a few different options to buy a sand rail. Purchasing a finished rail, having one custom built, buying a frame or kit, or starting from scratch. 

  • Already Built: This is the most common and easiest way to buy a sand rail. Check Craigslist or marketplace. You can also find rails for sale at popular sand events and shows. 
  • Professional Builders: There are professionals that specialize in custom building sand rails. This will take time and is the most expensive option, but you will get to have everything custom made exactly how you want it. 
  • Kit Built: You can choose the type of rail you want and purchase a kit. The kits typically come with the plans, blueprints, and chassis. You will have to assemble, put together and buy everything else that is needed. 
  • Buy a Frame: Sometimes you will come across sand rail frames for sale. You can purchase the frame, modify it, and then build out the sand rail. You can buy used frames for cheap, so this is a more affordable option. 
  • Build All Yourself: This is going to be the hardest option, and will probably take the most time and planning.

Cost of a Dune Buggy

Depending on the sand rail style, type of engine and accessories the cost can vary drastically. The price will also be much higher or lower depending on if you are having a rail custom built or building it yourself. 

To give you a better idea of what you can expect to pay for an already completed sand rail, here are the three main styles and a range of their average sale price. 

  • Long Travel: $35,000 – $100,000
  • Mid Travel: $8,000 – $15,000
  • Old School: $4,000 – $9,000

Staying Safe in The Dunes

It is important to stay safe when riding in sand rails. The design of the rails are made to help keep passengers safe. They have three point safety seat belts for all drivers and passengers. The frame of a rail is also a roll cage to keep passengers protected in case of a roll over. 

When driving in any dune recreation area it is required to have a red or orange sand safety flag on the top of dune buggies. These safety flags helps to increase visibility and prevent accidents. 

Some other things to keep in mind are that if you are riding in a sand rail always keep your arms and legs inside the roll cage. You should also wear eye protection or goggles so that you don’t get sand in your eyes. 

kid riding in sand rail

Renting & Riding in a Sand Rail

At most sand dune recreation areas there are places that rent sand rails. You will also find “sand rail tours” where you pay for someone to take you on a ride through the dunes in a dune buggy.

These are great options if you just want to experience driving in a rail or if you are considering purchasing one for yourself. 

Dune Buggy Industry Today

Since the very first dune buggy to the more modern sand rails, these vehicles have evolved and the industry as a whole has gained in popularity. Today, there are sand rail races, special events, clubs, associations, and shows.