Wind on Mars is a significant agent of contemporary surface change, yet the absence of in situ meteorological data hampers the understanding of surface–atmospheric interactions. Airflow models at length scales relevant to landform size now enable examination of conditions that might activate even small-scale bedforms (ripples) under certain contemporary wind regimes. Ripples have the potential to be used as modern ‘wind vanes’ on Mars. Here we use 3D airflow modelling to demonstrate that local dune topography exerts a strong influence on wind speed and direction and that ripple movement likely reflects steered wind direction for certain dune ridge shapes. The poor correlation of dune orientation with effective sand transporting winds suggests that large dunes may not be mobile under modelled wind scenarios. This work highlights the need to first model winds at high resolution before inferring regional wind patterns from ripple movement or dune orientations on the surface of Mars today.