Camp RZR serves up unmatched fun in SoCal’s sand dunes

There are few things as fun as throwing rooster tails and sliding turns in the sand. In Southern California not far from the Arizona and Mexico borders lies the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area, near Glamis. Miles of sand dunes that are open to the public for ATV, UTV, and off-road vehicle driving are to be had there. And every year, Polaris fans congregate for an event called Camp RZR.

We attended Camp RZR 2022, courtesy of Polaris, and saw it all first hand. At the flattest part of the edge of the park, right off the highway, hundreds of RV trailers were arrayed and thousands of people (and their machines) congregated for this event. In an unusual partnership, Polaris and chief rival Can-Am work together to make Camp RZR in the California desert.

At the center of the whole thing is a large bazaar surrounding a huge Ferris wheel adorned with the North Star logo of Polaris. Food trucks, vendor booths, custom outfitters, and informative displays of the technology inside the off-road machines here make up this fete. At one end of it, accessible from the “sand highway” that leads out to the dunes from the entrance road, is a group of tents that act as repair shops. At the other end is a huge stage and general admission area where bands play to crowds every night before those crowds head out onto the largest of the nearby dunes to make a “light show” of their machines’ LED-adorned marker poles. There, they can watch the fireworks show that happens just off to one side of the camp.

Happening for a long weekend every fall, Camp RZR is one of the largest gatherings of off-road UTV enthusiasts in the world. Machines featuring two, four, and sometimes six seats are seen plying the dunes with the occasional four-wheeled ATV and two-wheeled motorcycle also hitting the sand as well. The array of machines and customizations to them is amazing. While professional tuners like the Diesel Bros create custom designs like an upgraded RZR Turbo beast or an ice cream truck-themed Polaris, the amount of creativity displayed by everyday owners of side-by-side off-roaders is awesome.

Driving through the dunes, of course, has its hazards. Machines break, accidents happen, and safety equipment may be tested. For the most part, however, most years of Camp RZR produce few injuries or serious accidents out on the dunes. And when a machine does break, Polaris offers free repairs in its tent shops on-site – often by sacrificing corporate machines brought to the event for display in order to scavenge needed parts to get an attendee back on the sand.

Out on the dunes, there is an impressive camaraderie amongst the riders. When someone gets stuck, it’s not unusual to see three or four strangers converge on them to help them get out. Breakdown? Someone nearby will almost assuredly pull up and tow you back to camp for repairs. And if anyone gets hurt, it’s just a radio or phone call away for Polaris’ off-road ambulance team to come out into the sand.

The author climbs Oldsmobile Hill, one of the largest dunes near Glamis. In the background, the edge of Camp RZR's RV parking area can be seen
The author climbs Oldsmobile Hill, one of the largest dunes near Glamis. In the background, the edge of Camp RZR’s RV parking area can be seen

Garth Milan / Polaris

Riding in the desert

The Camp RZR event and its organization was pretty amazing. Riding in the dunes, though? Way better. Polaris took us out in two-seat and four-seat side-by-sides to ply the sands. Having some experience doing this kind of thing, I got a two-seater so I could try to pull a little airtime and use the smaller wheelbase to carve harder. Over the course of the day, I did try both the RZR TurboR and the standard RZR out in the sand. I also took a more curated group run through a predefined course with a “demonstration” machine that was open to the public to try. That latter option is a great introduction to the sand, while the runs with Polaris-supplied machines were far more entertaining. Almost as entertaining as running with a pro racer in one of his machines. More on that later.

Out in the sand, there are several things to keep in mind. First, a proper full-face helmet, goggles, and neck scarf are essential. The first two have obvious safety points. The latter is to keep sand from creeping up your helmet or down your shirt, which is uncomfortable. A long-sleeved shirt or jacket is also a must for the same reason. I also prefer to wear gloves to keep the wind and sand off my hands and recommend getting hard-knuckle gloves as you will inevitably smack your knuckles on the dashboard, safety cage, or something else while riding. Finally, long pants and close-toed shoes finish the safety gear. These things don’t guarantee you won’t get hurt, but they greatly minimize the chances of it happening and reduce the distractions that can cause stupid maneuvers. Nothing makes you flinch and turn the vehicle wrong like sand going down your pants and making things itchy, if you know what I mean –never mind sand in your eyes or down your throat.

Off-roading in sand is unique. It’s nothing like beach-running, rock climbing, or dirt skidding. It’s more like driving on fresh, deep snow or piloting a boat on very thick water. There isn’t turning so much as there is sliding in the proper direction and stopping is a sort of snaking skid if it’s done with the vehicle’s brakes. Simple rules such as not stopping on an uphill climb, always turning downhill if things feel awry, and being aware of surroundings and other riders all apply. It’s otherwise a free-for-all of fun.

Side-by-side machines like the Polaris RZR are difficult to flip or tip, easy to pull into recovery if they do begin to tip, and amazingly good at finding a way through whatever obstacles are ahead. There is a button on the steering wheel that stiffens the suspension for about five seconds. It’s instinctive to try to use this when making an impact, but that’s not what it’s really for. Instead, it’s best used when more traction is needed either to accelerate or turn. I didn’t learn this until I rode with a Baja pro racer in his rig and watched how he drove.

Older kids and teens can enjoy a curated off-road course with experts on hand to ensure safety and explain how to operate a UTV
Older kids and teens can enjoy a curated off-road course with experts on hand to ensure safety and explain how to operate a UTV

Garth Milan / Polaris

Going pro

Casey Currie, several-time Baja 1000 and 500 winner, took me out in one of his machines for a run in the Glamis sand. His machine, modified to accommodate a navigator with a large GPS screen, had several other changes as well: tubing for extra air intake, a rack for a spare tire and wheel, and other mods made it race-ready. Casey didn’t go too nuts on our run through the dunes, but instead let me watch his hands and feet as he piloted the machine and did his thing while explaining the history of Glamis itself, pointing out landmarks and highlights of what once was or is now.

It’s wasn’t so much a thrill ride as it was an hour of instruction and insider commentary. Riding by a dune, for example, Casey explained that people don’t go past that one because the other side is where Jeeps and other larger vehicles often go, so it’s not safe for these smaller machines. At another one, he pointed out where people don’t often drive because the dunes there are more shielded from the wind, so they don’t recover from the sand-throwing of UTVs as well.

I learned a lot by just watching Casey navigate and control his machine. His expert (and long-practiced) use of the controls was fascinating.

The powerful little Polaris RZR TurboR allows for a lot of fun maneuvering in the deep sands near Glamis, California
The powerful little Polaris RZR TurboR allows for a lot of fun maneuvering in the deep sands near Glamis, California

Garth Milan / Polaris

Camp RZR at Glamis is huge

The whole experience of Camp RZR is amazing and far more fun than I’d expected. It’s family-friendly as well, with small tracks for younger children to ride small machines while being instructed and watched over by experts. Kids from toddlers to teenagers will find good times there. Even before you take into account the inflatables, the Ferris wheel, and other fun camp games happening throughout.

There’s an atmosphere of camaraderie and fun all through Camp RZR. We were certainly surprised at how many enthusiasts attend and how well-organized and fun it really was.

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