4wd Tips and Tricks – Water Crossings

These 4wd tips and tricks are provided for guidance only. I strongly recommend that you undergo 4wd training with a qualified and recognised training school. I also suggest that you join one of your local 4wd clubs to further your experience.

When you’re driving your 4×4 off the beaten track it’s inevitable that eventually, you’ll need to cross a waterway where no bridge exists. Water crossings in your 4×4 can be an exciting and spectacular part of any 4wd experience. However, it can be dangerous and result in damage to your vehicle, yourself and others. Not to mention damaging your pride if you get it wrong.

The key to crossing water safely is to throughly check the water you cross, even if this means you have to walk it first. You also need to determine the surface under the water you are driving on and also make sure your vehicle is adequately equipped to cross. once you have determined you still want to cross the water, make sure to enter the water slowly and try and create a bow wave in front of your 4WD.

While crossing water can be intimidating, its a skill any seriously 4WDer should know how to do. Keep reading as we break down the key points of crossing water in your four wheel drive safely.

Before you continue, If your new to 4wd and offroading or are not sure what equipment to take out with you on your adventures, make sure to check out the Off Road Aussies Essential 4×4 Equipment List where I have taken the time to review and recommend the equipment I use.

If you kit yourself out correctly you will be able to tackle everything that your new adventures will throw at you.

Things to Consider When Crossing Water

It’s important to get water crossings right if you don’t want to risk serious damage to yourself and/or your vehicle. There are a number of things to keep in mind when considering a water crossing.

4wd Tip and Tricks - Water Crossings
Lykey playing in the pool
  • It’s important to remember that if the water is moving and the level is higher than your undercarriage then it’ll start to push against your bodywork. As the surface area that the water has to push against increases significantly, there is a much greater risk of being washed away.
  • Know the safe depth for your vehicle:
    • Know how deep your vehicle will allow you to go before it starts to float. Some cars float more easily than others.
    • Know where your air intake is located. You don’t want your engine to suck water into it, particularly if it’s a diesel engine. Installing a snorkel is a must do.
  • Consider attaching a tarpaulin or water bra to the front of your vehicle. This assists in keeping water out of your engine bay.
  • If the crossing is deep then wind down your windows before you enter the water. Particularly in a vehicle with electric windows. In an emergency, this will be the easiest and quickest exit.
  • Spray your under-bonnet electrics with a water repellent (such as WD-40).
  • Consider loosening the fan belt if your vehicle does not have a viscous coupling type fan. This prevents your fan from becoming a propeller and potentially damaging your radiator. If your fan does have a viscous coupling, then simply tie a piece of string to a solid piece of the vehicle and loop the other end around the fan blade to prevent it from turning. When you exit the water, simply slip the loop off the fan blade and the fan will begin spinning again.
    • To determine if you have a viscous coupling fan, turn your engine off and try to turn the fan with your hand. If it turns then it has a viscous coupling.

What About Water Crossing Cover Or “Water Bra”

Water crossing bras or water crossing covers strap over the front of your vehicle’s grill to prevent the water being forced under pressure through the vehicle’s ‘grill’.  If this forced water gets caught up in the radiator fan, the fan blades can put a hole in the radiator.

A snorkel is also essential to allow the engine to breathe above the water level.

To avoid radiator damage, strap a tarp or fit a vehicle water blind/water crossing cover (water bra) across the front of the bonnet when crossing a river or creek, with some depth, in your 4WD.

There are marine grade heavy duty, PVC backed water crossing covers that attach to the vehicle’s side rear view mirror mounts.  Three large gills at the base of the water crossing bra allow water to drain away after the crossing.  The front of the water crossing cover also has a built-in snatch strap pouch and will conform to any vehicle shape including those with winches and antennas. 

The ARB Water Crossing Cover is made from Nylon material and has elasticised edges to help it fit to the shape of the vehicle, long restraining straps  to secure it to the side mirrors, clear PVC inserts for the headlights and can be fitted by one person.

MSA 4 x 4 Accessories (previously Michelle Sacs) make a product called a water crossing bra made from 420 Denier, PVC backed Nylon for maximum strength and this is available from them or 4WD after market suppliers such as TJM, Opposite Lock, BTA 4WD Centre and Mannell Motors.


What To Do Before You Start Crossing Water

  • Make sure it’s safe to do so (no crocodiles, water is not flowing too fast to walk in), then walk the crossing first. Sure, you’ll get wet, but it’s better than getting stuck or floating away in your 4wd. Even the bottom of a very shallow crossing can be sticky mud.
  • Don’t cross with a hot engine, transmission and diffs. It’s important to allow it to cool. The sudden cooling and contraction of metals can cause serious damage. Your vehicle can cool down while you are checking the crossing.
  • Mark any holes or obstacles with a stick. Plan where to a going to drive and mark your path with sticks.
  • Select the right gear for the crossing. This allows you to maintain a steady speed. Many experienced 4wders use 2nd gear low range, but this will depend on the exact situation you find yourself in.
  • Watch someone else do it first if you can.
  • Attach recovery straps to your recovery points before you enter the water otherwise, you may need your scuba gear. If you’re recovery gear is just a hook then try to work out some way of ensuring that they stay attached. For example, cable tie them to the recovery point. Also ensure that your recovery straps are not going to be dragged under your wheels as you try to cross. Tie them tightly so that there is tension between your recover points and your roof racks for example. Pre-attaching recovery gear allows for quick recoveries.
  • Select the correct tyre pressure before you enter the water. Remember that the opposite bank could be sandy, muddy, rocky, steep… If in doubt about the safety of the crossing, DON’T DO IT. Better safe than sorry.

What To Do While Crossing Water

4wd Tips and Tricks - Water Crossings
Jeff-WA Getting wet in Margaret River, WA

During the water crossing:

  • Enter the water slowly. Less than walking pace. Once the front bottom of the vehicle has contacted the water then accelerate gently. Maintain a steady speed that allows a bow wave to form in front of your vehicle. This assists with keeping water out of your engine bay. Following the bow wave also means your vehicle does not have to work as hard to maintain momentum and traction.
  • Follow your line. You planned your crossing so try to stick to the plan.
  • Remember that the other bank may be steep and muddy. Ensure you’ve selected the correct tyre pressure before you enter the water.
  • Do not change gears in the water. This assists with maintaining a steady speed and also, more importantly, keeps water from entering between your clutch plates causing them to slip.

What To Do After Crossing Water

When you are out, it’s important to:

  • If you can, stop at the opposite bank to let the water drain from your vehicle. Don’t do this if you need momentum to get up the opposite bank, or if the crossing is shallow. This achieves a number of things: Carrying excess water makes your vehicle heavier which means it can be harder to climb the bank. Dumping water on the exit track can make is wet, muddy and slippery for the people following you.
  • Dry your brakes out by ‘squeezing’ them. A couple of solid presses on your brake pedal is a start.

What To Do If you Dont Make It Across

If you don’t cross successfully then you’ll need to be recovered. If the water is deep enough then expect wet seats and carpets. If your engine is in danger of becoming waterlogged then turn your engine off. Otherwise, leave your engine running. The exhaust exiting your exhaust pipe will prevent water from entering your engine from that direction.

When recovering your vehicle it’s 4×4 etiquette for the owner of the stranded vehicle to get the wettest. Don’t sit in your car and expect others to get wet for you.

Before exiting the vehicle, ensure that it is safe to do so. If the water is flowing too fast for you to stand in, then stay with your vehicle (if your vehicle is not being swept away). If there are crocodiles around then stay in your vehicle or make yourself comfortable on the roof racks and wait for rescue.

S1mon with his nissan submarine

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