Water crossings can be very exciting, however there are important considerations for the safety of you, your vehicle, and the fish.
The first rule of water crossing is Tread Lightly. This means only go into water where you are not doing damage to the environment.
- If there are fish spawning in a creek then stay out. It only takes a small amount of oil off the underside of your rig to kill fish eggs, and mud churned up from your tires can bury eggs.
- Only cross water where the road crosses it. Do not leave the road to play around in creeks or ponds.
- Avoid crossing creeks if the bottom is silty or muddy, and if you have no choice then go slow and avoid spinning your tires. Even if there are no fish present there are many other plants and animals that are adversely affected by muddying the water.
Ponds and Lakes:
- Stay out of and away from the edges of high altitude bogs, ponds, and lakes. The less water that is flowing in and out of a body of water the more sensitive it is to damage, and high mountain ponds and lakes are often unique ecosystems. Even if a pond is dried to the point of just being a mud flat there will still be animals living there. You will often see tracks from people bogging in the mud at the edge of ponds, please don't add to the damage.
Standing and Seasonal Water:
- Low points in the trail get flooded, rain water flows down old roads, and in the spring there will be drainage channels that only hold water for a short period of time. Generally these are all fine for driving through.
- Assess the land immediately around you to see what the consequences of driving through the water will be. For example if the water is flowing straight into a high mountain pond then all the concerns of actually entering the pond still apply.
Water in your engine can quickly destroy it, water in your drivetrain can kill bearings and gears, and water in your electrical system will make your engine stall.
- Know where your air intake is and make sure to keep the water line well below it. Leave some safety for splashes & waves. For those that see deep water a lot you can get an air intake Snorkel that pulls air for the engine from the level of the top of the windshield.
- You can bungie a tarp over the front of your rig to reduce the amount of water splashing into the engine bay. This only helps if you are maintaining a slow steady speed. As soon as you stop the water fills the engine bay from below.
- If the water is deep then unplugging electric fans will reduce water spray onto the engine. If you go into water often then wire a shut-off switch.
- Engine driven fans with flexible blades can distort and cut the radiator or belts. These are usually aftermarket upgrades and aren't often found on 4x4s, but it's good to check.
- Spark plug and distributor wires need to be in good shape with no cracks in the boots. Distributor cap needs to be on securely.
- Connections to your Engine Control Module (computer) need to be secure and sealed.
- Dielectric grease is designed to prevent arcing and seal out water. If you are going to be in water more than axle deep you should seal all your electrical system with it.
- If you do suck water into your engine do NOT try to start it. Pull the spark plugs and then crank the engine over to blow the water out of the cylinders or you can destroy your engine.
- After spending any significant time in water you should re-grease your rig. Regularly change your dif and transfer case fluid.
- If water is a regular feature of the trails you drive then you should extend the vent lines from your transmission, transfer case, and axles up as high as possible to prevent water leaking in through them.
- After getting out of the water give your rig a quick check over for damage and then make sure to ride your brakes a bit to dry the pads. If water got inside your rig and you have drain plugs then pull them out to let the water drain.
Hypothermia, sprains, and even drowning are legitimate concerns when dealing with water crossings. Ideally you never get into the water, but it often happens.
- High mountain streams can be only a couple of degrees above freezing, even in the middle of summer. On a sunny day getting wet is no big deal, but in cold damp weather you need to change out of wet clothes so you can get warm and dry.
- Rocks can be slippery and can roll or shift underfoot. Don't trust even a large rock to stay stable when you step on it. Do your best to check your footing before committing your weight.
- The pushing power of a creek is easy to underestimate. If you need to get out of a vehicle do it on the upstream side so you are pushed against the vehicle not washed away from it. Climb on your vehicle if it's an option.
- If the situation has a high danger level then use your recovery strap as a safety line.
- A walking stick can help you keep your balance, and doubles as a probe to test water depth.
- Check the water depth before committing yourself. Use a stick to probe the bottom, paying attention to not just the water depth but also how soft the bottom is.
- If the entrance to the water is at a steep angle you need to think about how that will affect the position of your air intake in relation to the water.
- Pick your line to avoid large rocks when you can and to put your tire on them when necessary. Remember that there will usually be a hole on the downstream side of large rocks, so don't let a tire drop in the hole.
- Hook up your recovery strap BEFORE going into the water. Run it in your window so you can throw it to someone on shore. If your hooks don't have a "keeper" to retain the strap then use a zip tie to hold the strap in place.
- Slow steady speed is the key. Too fast and you create unnecessary waves and splashes. Stop moving and water will quickly seep into every opening.
- As soon as the water goes above the floor boards of your rig it starts floating. The deeper the water gets the more buoyant your rig becomes, and the less weight you have on your tires, therefore you have less traction. Lighter vehicles like the Suzuki Samurai can actually float away when the water gets halfway up the doors. Though it goes against every natural impulse, you are sometimes better to open your doors and let the water in so you can get traction than to have your rig get washed downstream.
- When crossing standing water try to stick to the sides to avoid the deepest sections and to stay out ruts.
- When crossing fast flowing water you may need to turn your wheels slightly upstream or even drive pointing at an angle upstream in order to keep from being pushed downstream of the exit point.
- Remember that as you exit the water your tires will be wet and your traction will be reduced. Don't get yourself in a position where you can't exit the water.