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Polaris Camp RZR is an incredible way to experience off-roading the Glamis sand dunes

Ever wanted to get into off-roading?

Polaris RZR Pro R on a sand dune

Driving along California’s State Route 78 toward Glamis on Halloween weekend gives you a pretty good picture of what you might be in for. Amongst the sand, dust, and searing sun are packs of riders operating Polaris, Can-Ams, Hondas, and every other manner of off-road vehicle you can imagine. In scenes similar to a reenactment of Mad Max, the groups blast through the dunes alongside the highway. Some are parked and watching, some are broken down and waiting for rescue, and others are going full-throttle into the open sand in front of them.

Shortly after you see the small legion of bikes and side-by-sides, a trailer or two will appear in the dunes. This quickly develops into a city-sized site holding around 100,000 people. The scale of Glamis is hard to comprehend, and even if you take to the air or get a solid vantage point on a larger dune — it’s nearly impossible to scope out the entire site at once.

There’s also a certain degree of anarchy surrounding the whole thing. The repetitive thump of rotor blades is almost as common as the sound of revving engines as medivac choppers ferry the more unfortunate attendees from the dunes to a nearby medical facility. It’s a dangerous sport, taking place in an inhospitable environment, and it’s populated with people who enjoy the extremes. But it doesn’t have to be that way; a safer option exists for those who want it.


Polaris’ Camp RZR offers a different route

Given its wild side, it’s understandable that inexperienced riders and families may see Glamis as more of a risk than it’s worth. Mad Max may look great on screen, but it’s not the kind of environment you’d want to run around with a couple of toddlers. However, there is a way you can experience the best of Glamis and get experience on the dunes without risking your life and limbs.

Polaris, the company responsible for several popular off-road vehicles, including the Ranger, Xpedition, and RZR, puts what can only be assumed to be a lot of its own money into providing an accessible version of Glamis’ annual Halloween event. The two days of “Camp RZR 2023” were attended by over 20,500 people, which is roughly around a fifth of the number headed to Glamis as a whole.

Camp RZR is family-friendly

There’s really something for everyone, too. For very small children, there are RC cars, toy excavators, bounce houses, and small electric ride-on vehicles they can take around a short track. Beyond that, there are other family-friendly activities, including temporary tattoos, hair braiding, and a concert in the evening. This year, it was post-grunge band Everclear. Then there are the food vendors, t-shirt stalls, and other purveyors of merchandise. Finally, a large Ferris wheel offered views of the dunes and broader camp.

Off-roading opportunities prioritize safety

On the actual off-roading front, Camp RZR is also somewhere you’ll find several vehicle-centric activities. There’s a rolling road where you can find out exactly how much torque and horsepower your vehicle has. Polaris vehicles use the dyno for free. Other brands are welcome but must pay a fee to use the service.

Demo rides are also available and give you an excellent opportunity to experience both the sport itself and one of Polaris’ RZR side-by-sides. Demo rides must be booked in advance, and safety is paramount. Attendees must watch a safety video, where they are briefed on the dos and don’ts of riding in the dunes. Proper safety equipment must be worn, including a helmet and close-toed footwear. The demo rides also take place along a set path with an experienced rider from Polaris at the front and rear. This minimizes the chances of the terrain causing an accident. If you want to take on Glamis’ dunes while minimizing personal risk — this is a great place to start.

Driving a Rzr Pro R on a dune

Polaris makes off-roading easy for novices

It isn’t just the demo rides and the safety-first approach that makes Camp RZR an easy way into the dunes for first-timers. The vehicles Polaris offers remove a lot of the skill barrier. They’re fitted with specialist tires, a robust suspension system, and an engine with enough grunt to bail you out of a sticky situation. That last part is reflected in the mantra “When in doubt, throttle out,” which I heard repeated by what must have been twenty different people over the weekend.

Following experienced riders is a bonus

But the mantra does hold true. Getting your foot down will paper over the cracks in your off-road driving ability nine times out of ten. The other half of the battle is trusting the line you’re taking. While the best angle of attack when cresting the dunes was explained to us several times, it wasn’t something we had to worry about a lot. We always had experienced riders to follow, so the main thing we had to concentrate on was sticking to the line their side by sides carved out in the sand in front of us and making sure we gave it enough throttle to power up the dunes.

The off-road vehicles are top-notch

The RZR’s engines also proved themselves on Oldsmobile Hill. What looked steep, intimidating, and advanced the night before was very different when we were actually tackling it. I didn’t even need to go full throttle on the way up; Polaris’ side-by-side literally ate the ascent for breakfast as we crested the dune to watch the sunrise somewhere over Arizona. The RZRs we were provided are about as good as they get; they even had a “FluidLogic hydration system” attached to them that will blast about a shot of water into your mouth at the press of a button. This was an “oh, that’s nice” type of thing at the time, but a big miss around a week later when I was clad in a fluid-system-free helmet and struggling with traffic on a hot day.

There’s a vast reliability aspect to Polaris’ modern vehicles, too. As off-road champion and Polaris ambassador Cayden MacCachren says: “The new cars are better in every way. These Polaris’ you have now, you can take them off the dealership floor, roach on them for three days, and you know you’re not going to have an issue. They’re built sturdy enough. Polaris has really sharpened their knife with racing in Baja and racing motorsports. They brought that into the Pro R.”

Oldsmobile hill at night

Preparation is everything

While a stock side-by-side from the likes of Polaris can handle a weekend at Glamis, it’s worth noting that the stock human body can’t. The sun will melt your skin off, the sand will blind you if a set of wheels five yards in front of you is launching it into your face, and if you don’t bring liquid, you’ll die of thirst.

Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. There are 100,000 people around, and not all of them will leave you dying in the desert. But by not preparing, you’re placing an unfair burden on other people whose resources are limited. So don’t be that guy; pack what you need for two days in an arid wasteland. A decent RV or camper also goes a long way to making the weekend comfortable.

MacCachren said, “You only get so much Glamis Karma” and that “you shouldn’t use it all on your first trip.”

Despite the food vendors, emergency services, and friendly attendees — self-sufficiency is one of the core ideals Glamis was founded on, and that attitude is still prominent. This isn’t a bad thing in any way, and having the ability to dig yourself out of a tough spot is always preferable. If anything, it stops the available emergency resources from being stretched too thin and ensures that any help goes to those who really need it.

You have to prep your vehicle, too

If you bring something other than a vehicle specifically designed to tackle this environment, modifications must also be made there. A stock pickup truck isn’t designed for sand dunes, and several could be seen dug in on Sand Highway — a relatively flat route between the campsite and Oldsmobile Hill. Getting stuck isn’t just a you problem. Someone, or more likely several people, will have to help get you out. Beyond that, you’re obstructing a well-traveled route, forcing others to go around you and enter an area where they could become stuck themselves.

A group of people righting a flipped side by side
Dave McQuilling / The Manual

Mistakes were made

A capable vehicle doesn’t mean you can let your guard down. There are probably exact statistics lying around in a report somewhere, but from what I witnessed, the majority of mishaps were down to driver error. Miscalculate your line? You may roll or get stuck. Lose faith in the vehicle and lay off the throttle at a pivotal moment? Same story. Overcorrect or steer the wrong way when you start to slide? You get the picture.

Then there’s just bad luck. The dunes are littered with “Witch’s Eyes,” or V-shaped dips in the sand that can rip a wheel clean off, snap a half-shaft, or otherwise ruin what was a perfectly functional vehicle if one catches you off guard. Polaris’ staff scout the routes the demo rides go on, so if you’re just attending Camp RZR to dip your toes in the off-roading waters, you’re unlikely to encounter one. But if you’re striking out on your own, it’s an ever-present danger.

The dunes have other ways of catching you off guard; even the most experienced drivers can fall into their traps. MacCachren spoke about failing to spot a ledge with a 12-foot drop on the other side. The fact he was unharmed and told me about it a few hours later says a lot about how safe modern side-by-sides are.

Polaris runs a free repair service

If you do mess up, or luck just isn’t on your side, Polaris still has your back — provided you’re a customer. The company runs a free repair service as part of Camp RZR. While not everything can be fixed, the company’s highly trained mechanics work all weekend to repair what they can and get as many riders as possible back out on the dunes.

Pat McArdle, Polaris’ Off-Road Supply Chain Execution Director, explained: “If you’ve got somebody that shows up for a long weekend and the second day they’re out, they have a problem. If we have the parts and expertise to do it, we’ll gladly get people helped out.”

Polaris ‘ mechanics will tackle all things over the weekend: belt replacement, clutch repair, swapping half shafts, and doing electrical diagnosis and repair.

The service is first come, first serve, and it does take time to get through to everyone. So, getting in early is advised. Overall, Polaris’ free repair service helped around 700 customers during Camp RZR 2023. About 150 received a full repair service where the mechanics diagnosed and fixed the problem. A further 550 traded damaged parts for replacements and performed the fixes themselves.

Going through the equivalent of a two-car garage full of parts isn’t cheap, but McArdle claims it can make all the difference to people’s Glamis experiences. He says: “If people came to enjoy the weekend and enjoy the event, we want them to have that full experience tip to tail. If your machine breaks, or you break it, which is often the case in these scenarios, it really puts a damper on that. Instead of being able to enjoy the whole weekend, you’ve maybe only got a couple of hours, or one day instead of two or three.

“If you get rolling again and spend time with your family and friends for the whole weekend after that, that’s a great experience. They tend to share that story, tell their friends, and it’s helping bring people into the Polaris family.”

View of a sunrise from Oldsmobile Hill, Glamis

The winds of change are blowing through the dunes

There’s a certain nostalgia people have for the Wild West. For many, it’s a time of freedom, independence, and self-reliance. In a way, Glamis is similar. You’ll hear people talk about the way it was in the past before the permits, political considerations, and police presence. It’s also possible to see Camp RZR as a part of that encroaching civility, further sanitizing what was once just a bunch of people blasting off-roaders through the sand.

But Polaris knows its customer base, and the company has as much interest in protecting the sport and passions that make its vehicles marketable as anyone. The company, or at least its representatives at Glamis, are also deeply passionate about the sport, the dunes, and the culture surrounding it all.

Polaris is doing the right thing by making Glamis and off-roading in general more accessible to families and first-timers. The kids driving 12-volt electric cars around a short track today will be going on demo rides in a few years. A few might have the passion and talent necessary to turn it into a job. But at the very least, driving through the desert will become a significant part of their lives.

As long as people genuinely care about a concept, vehicle, or sport — it will survive in some form. With their efforts at Glamis, Polaris is doing all it can to ensure that the off-roading community not only survives but also steadily grows over the next few generations. So, if you like the smell of gas, excitement, and spectacular light shows, get to Glamis at some point in your life. Reading about it is nice, but it’s one of those things you must experience.

Dave McQuilling
Dave has spent pretty much his entire career as a journalist; this has included jobs at newspapers, TV stations, on the…
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