Although undertaking a water crossing may seem easy, it’s not. The main way to ensure a successful water crossing is to be prepared so you don’t do any lasting damage to your vehicle.
Step #1 – Get Your Recovery Gear Together
Prepare for the crossing by attaching recovery gear to the top of the roof, so it can be accessed if your vehicle gets stuck. Consider including a tow strap with loop ends, two recovery shackles, a winch, jack, wheel chock and a chain. Also pack dry shop towels, gloves, and WD-40.
Finally, it goes without saying that you want a buddy (or three) before you try a river crossing. If you don’t have one, it might be wise to wait until someone else comes along (assuming you’re on a public trail that gets some traffic).
Step #2 – Do a Field Assessment
Before crossing, a field assessment must be conducted. This means walking the path the driver intends to take in the vehicle. Equip yourself with a shovel, and use it to check the water depth. Determine the actual depth of the water. Recent precipitation or runoff can alter previous measurements. Also, water can transport things like rocks or logs, changing the composition of the floor.
Obviously, vehicle height makes a big difference. A 4×4 outfitted with a lift and large tires can withstand a greater depth than a vehicle at stock (or nearly stock) ride height. A good rule of thumb: the depth of water you can successfully traverse is usually determined to be the top of your vehicle’s tires or LESS. For some vehicles, this is too deep, as they can ‘suck up’ water from the inside of the wheel well. Be sure to consider where your engine ‘breathes’ when determining your safe depth.
Step #3 – The Crossing
Give the vehicle ample time to cool off before taking the plunge. Let the gear box and differential cool before shocking these components with cold water, which can cause problems and weaken components (depending on how big the temperature differential is).
Put the vehicle in 4WD low, which will give you better control and more traction. Before you start to cross, remind yourself that slow and steady is the way…avoid the urge to rush to the other side. As you start to submerge, stay calm, maintain focus, and don’t overreact when the river surprises you by carrying you downstream faster than anticipated or gets deeper than expected. Stick to the original plan as best you can and remember, you’ve got your recovery gear on the roof.
When you start to emerge successfully from the water, drive a little ways along the bank of the river or stream, making sure your vehicle is leaning to one side. This allows the water to drain from the vehicle rather than pooling inside, and it also prevent muddying the trail for whomever follows.
Once the crossing is complete, you’ll want to inspect the vehicle for damage.
Tips for Preventing and Treating Vehicle Damage
Watch your block!
Air Intake Snorkels Aren’t Just For Show
Believe it or not, snorkels have a legit purpose…they’re not just for mall cruisers driven by people who desperately need the approval of others. (LOL)
Snorkels ensure that the engine ‘breathes’ from above, so that water cannot enter the engine’s air intake. As you can imagine, sucking up water is a great way to damage an engine. The engine will attempt to compress whatever is in the cylinder. If there is water in the cylinder, the engine could stop working as it tries to compress the foreign liquid. “Hydro-locking” occurs when water is pulled in through the air intake and shuts down the engine.
Consider A Water Crossing Bra/Water Crossing Blind
The water crossing bra, or water crossing blind, was designed specifically to prevent engine damage while water crossing. The canvas component is stretched securely across the front of the automobile with straps prior to making the trek across the water. When used correctly, the water crossing bra keeps water from entering the engine bay.
Check Your Fluids
After the water crossing, check all of the fluids for signs of water including: engine oil, transmission fluid, transfer case fluid, wheel hubs and differentials. Inspect these fluids for signs of contamination. If the oil has a milky appearance, condensation mingled with the fluids and the substance should be replaced.
Many vehicle manufacturers recommend you go ahead and replace your differential fluid, transmission fluid, and oil any time after you make a water crossing. This is probably good advice, especially if your vehicle is mostly stock.
Getting the Engine Bay Ready
- Radiator Fan: Disconnect the fan belt if the vehicle has a fixed coupling to keep water from entering into the engine bay. This will also prevent the fan from spinning in the opposite direction- which often leads to serious damage, such as slicing into the radiator. A kill-switch can be installed to prevent disfiguring the blades. Vehicles equipped with a viscous coupling, which includes most 4x4s, don’t need to make any adjustments as the fans don’t rotate at full speed when the engine is cool, and therefore, don’t need any adjustments before heading into the water.
- Exhaust: Ensure the exhaust system doesn’t become a way for water to get into the engine. To prevent this from occurring, try installing an exhaust-fording kit.
- Caps: If the truck features a vented gas cap, oil fill cap or power-steering cap, water may enter through these openings. Inspect the caps and use RTV silicone to seal any open vents.
Check the Engine Bay After Crossing
After the water crossing, ensure no water entered into the differential oil. This can be done by removing the differential oil drain bolt and allowing a small amount to drain into a container. If there is a milky white appearance to the liquid, then water is mixed in with the oil. Treat this problem by draining and flushing the differential oil and replace it with new oil.
Electrical System Damage
Keeping your 4×4’s electrical system dry during a water crossing is critical. If water reaches these components, the vehicle could stop working. It’s also one of the most difficult tasks associated with prepping for a crossing. Spraying water repellent under the hood is an important step to take in order to avoid damage to the electronic elements.
Consider investing in a waterproof power distribution system pack. Comprised of six relay-controlled circuits, the system is available for any vehicle and comes with sealed, waterproof relays. It provides fuse protection for every circuit.
A waterproof fan relay kit provides protection for the vehicle’s electric fan and wire harness. It provides continuous voltage and prevents amp spikes while stopping the fan from feeding back voltage through the wire harness.
Another option is to install a universal switch panel. This system is designed to stop water damage.
Check the Electrical System After Crossing
If the truck stalls, take apart the distributor, coil and/or plug wires. Check for signs of water. If moisture is discovered, wipe the component dry, then grab a can of WD-40 and spray.
If the truck has a distributor, take off the cap and inspect the inside for moisture. Use a hair dryer to dry out moisture that has entered the distributor.
If the engine stalled out during the crossing, restart the engine carefully to avoid damaging it. If the vehicle takes unleaded gas, remove the spark plugs, then turn the engine to remove water that entered the cylinders. Replace the spark plugs, first making sure the connectors are dry.
Apply dielectric silicone to the ignition system to prevent failure due to wet electrical components.
When exiting the water, attempt to drive up the side of the bank. Maintain a tilt, allowing the car to slowly expel any excess water that may have reached the interior of the vehicle. Air out the car by opening all of the doors. This will help prevent mold from forming, especially in hot and humid climates.
Of course, the best way to prevent interior damage is to make sure the water isn’t deep enough to seep into your vehicle.
Look Over the Interior After Crossing
If the upholstery and carpeted surfaces of the your vehicle appear to need some extra help, try getting the interior shampooed. This will help to remove any trace of mildew or mold that could be forming- even in places where it can’t be seen, such as under the actual upholstery.
It is important to prevent rust as corrosion will continue to wreak havoc on the exterior even after the car is dry. To protect against rust and corrosion, think about investing in an anti-corrosion treatment. After-market rust-proofing is a preventative measure that could pay off in the long haul.
Treat the Body After Crossing
Wash the vehicle to remove debris, and carefully inspect for sticks, rocks and other materials that could cause damage to the underbody. A buildup of mud on the undercarriage can lock in moisture, becoming a welcoming environment for rust to set in.
Rocks and even tiny pebbles that hit the vehicle can lead to rust. If debris dings your vehicle, leaving a small patch of the surface unprotected, that could be the start of rust. Once the process sets in, it cannot be reversed. It’ s best to tackle the minor annoyance now, before it turns into a big problem later.
If the paint is chipped, immediately clean the surface. Apply touch-up paint or a coat of clean nail polish to the problem area to prevent further paint damage such as spider cracking.
If the truck received a fair amount of body damage during the water crossing, you may need to take it to a body shop for inspection and repair.
The big picture here is that water crossings need to be approached with care – and that a little preparation goes a long way towards preventing problems.
Still, water crossings are fun and fairly common. If you take time to prepare, follow the steps outlined above, and do a thorough job of inspecting your vehicle after the crossing is complete, you should have no problems. Happy wheeling!