Sometimes, the road less traveled is not a road at all. Off-roaders are accustomed to facing all sorts of obstacles while they are out on the trail, from downed trees and thick underbrush to rocks, sand, and mud, but what is a driver to do when the going gets wet? Learning how to ford a creek, stream, or large puddle properly can mean the difference between a successful off-road adventure and one that ends with a waterlogged engine. When loaded with all manner of rugged off-road equipment like skid plates, enhanced shocks, and locking differentials, today’s four-wheel drive vehicles are built to face whatever you can throw at them, but even top-of-the-line trucks and SUVs might need a little helping hand when it comes to water fording. Before you point that steering wheel towards the nearest body of water, take a few minutes to review this guide covering how to prepare your vehicle for water fording.
The first step in any water crossing is to take stock of the water, its depth, current, speed, and any obstacles lurking under the surface. No matter how well-outfitted an off-road vehicle is, some bodies of water are simply too dangerous to cross. Objectively assessing the situation and being honest with yourself about your driving ability and the vehicle’s suitability can go a long way in preventing an easily avoidable accident. Still, you have got to know what to look for.
To Ford or Not to Ford
In some cases, fording a river or stream might not be your best option. Sure, we understand the appeal of splashing up some water and recreating your favorite car commercial antics, but given the risks and prep work that go into fording, sometimes you are just better off seeking an alternate route. If there is an easier crossing up or downstream or a nearby bridge, there is no reason to test your luck on a sketchy part of the river or stream.
Walk It Out
The number-one rule in fording is to never drive through any water that you can’t walk through. If the depth, current, or any obstacles prevent you from fording the river on foot, it is not a good idea to try it behind the wheel of your off-roader. A river or stream might look passable from shore but could rapidly drop off towards the middle or be strewn with well-concealed rocks that you will only discover when it is too late. Before crossing, jump out of the vehicle and do a walkthrough on foot beforehand. You might get a little wet, but it is a small price to pay if it means preventing your off-roader from becoming a four-wheeled boat. As you walk through the water, note the riverbed’s composition. If it is packed full of small rocks, you should have plenty of purchase as you cross, but deep, loose mud is a different story altogether.
Gauge the Height
If you are on an established off-road trail, the depth of a specific river or stream might be noted on a map or sign, but you should not believe everything you read. Recent rains, seasonal flooding, and other environmental variables can turn a lazy, shallow creek into something else entirely, so make sure to get an accurate gauge for the water’s depths before you attempt a crossing. If the water level is below the top of your wheels, you are probably in good shape, but once it rises above that point, fording any water can be a gambit. Add in the potential damage to sensitive components under the hood, and it is simply not worth the risk. No matter how mild the current might seem from shore, it will feel a lot different pressing against a full-size off-road vehicle. According to some estimates, a water current of 6 mph can exert the same force as a Category 5 hurricane, so never underestimate the power of fast-flowing water.
Most manufacturers will set a recommended fording depth based on the location of the vehicle’s air intake and electronics, so make sure to do your research before getting wet and wild. It is also important to remember that the vehicle’s speed moving through the water will tend to create a bow wave that can result in a slightly higher water level, so make sure to take that into account when doing your assessment.
Before you set out across the water, you must ensure your vehicle is ready to get a little wet. Today’s off-road vehicles are designed to excel in a variety of terrains and driving scenarios. Still, few come prepared for fording right out of the box, save some high-end models like the pre-2021 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro and Ford Bronco Everglades trim. For the rest of us, a quick trip to a specialty off-road supplier should do the trick, but what sort of gear should you keep an eye out for? Read on as we compile a quick rundown of some of the essential equipment you will need for water fording.
A steady supply of air is vital for any engine, but that can get tricky when you start submerging your vehicle in water. When the air gets into an engine, it can create a dangerous — and expensive — phenomenon known as hydro locking, which occurs when the pistons try to compress very incompressible water. It puts incredible strain on the engine as a whole, specifically the pistons, which tend to get bent out of shape and seize the entire engine in place.
On most vehicles, the air intake is located somewhere under the hood — usually around the height of the headlights — allowing the engine to get all the fresh air it needs to do its thing. This stock intake might work fine for shallower fording excursions, but when you venture into deeper waters, an air-intake snorkel becomes necessary. These snorkels, which attach to a vehicle’s A-pillars, pull in air from as high as possible, ensuring you will never end up accidentally drowning your off-roader during a crossing. When choosing a snorkel, it is important to splurge on a quality product as it tends to be more air-tight without reducing overall performance while driving on dry ground.
Differential Breather Extensions
Your engine is not the only part of your vehicle that is susceptible to water when fording. The differential, that is, the chunk of gears on your front or rear axle that allow the wheels to move at two different speeds, can also get a little too damp to work their best, but that is easily avoided by investing in some differential breather extensions. We will spare you the full engineering lecture, but to put it simply, the differential tends to heat up when the vehicle is in motion, so they are designed with a one-way breather valve as a means of relieving the pressure. The issue arises when the differential is suddenly cooled by, for example, plunging into an icy mountain stream, which can create a vacuum that causes water to rush into the differential. How do you avoid this? Many off-roaders install differential breather extensions, extending the breather valve into the engine bay and capping it with a valve that allows air to cycle in and out while blocking water. Similar products are also made for the gearbox and transfer case, which are susceptible to the same sort of damage as the differential.
Water Crossing Bra
While unfortunately named, the water crossing bra can be an essential piece of kit for any expedition that involves fording. As you drive through the water, the vehicle’s momentum will create a bow wave that can cause the water to reach the top of the engine bay. This oncoming water can then seep into the engine bay through the top of the hood, but this can all be avoided by outfitting your rig with a water-crossing bra. Essentially a tarp that fits over the front of the vehicle, a water crossing bra keeps water from being forced into places it should not be, protecting your engine, ECU, alternator, battery, fuse box, wiring, and other sensitive components from being inundated with moisture. A water crossing bra will also protect the vehicle’s fan from becoming warped by the rushing water, but there is one catch: in order to work properly, the driver must maintain a steady speed while crossing.
A snorkel, differential breather extension, and water crossing bra represent the bare minimum of gear you will need if you are looking to do some fording, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. If you plan on regularly wading through water, purchase door and tailgate seals to keep water from leaking into the cabin, trunk, or bed. A winch is a good investment for any off-roader. Still, it can be especially handy when you are fording as it can dramatically increase your chances of success or recovery should the vehicle stall out halfway through the journey. An emergency seatbelt cutter and window breaker should be part of any driver’s toolkit but should definitely not be left at home if there is some fording in the forecast. Lastly, there is good old WD-40. The can, with a million uses, comes in handy when fording thanks to its ability to displace water. Before you dip your tires into a river or stream, give the electrical connections under the hood — and on the winch — a healthy coating of the stuff to prevent any costly short circuits.
When it comes to fording a river, there are a few general driving guidelines to be aware of. First, have every passenger and the driver disengage their seatbelt for the crossing. While this is generally not advisable in any other driving situation, it is an important safety consideration in case you need to exit a submerged vehicle quickly. You will also want to roll down the windows for the same reason.
Once you are unstrapped, resist the urge to speed into the water as quickly as you can. Aside from giving you little time to respond to obstacles, it can also force water into vital components, create a large bow wave, and increase the risk of losing contact with the river bottom. Instead, slowly ease the vehicle into the water and maintain a steady pace around the speed of a fast walk.
Find the shallowest and narrowest part of the water and aim the vehicle either straight ahead or slightly downstream to avoid having to fight against the current and try to keep the same speed throughout the crossing. If your off-roader has a manual transmission, do not try shifting while crossing, as it could result in a stall that will complicate matters even further. If the engine dies while crossing, do not try to restart it, as it is one of the easiest ways to cause a hydrolock.
Once you have reached the other side of the water, keep the vehicle running while the water drains out. If your off-roader has plug holes in the floor, remove this to speed up the process. Ensure that the brakes are in good working order, and then take a quick walk around the vehicle to inspect for any bumps and bruises the car might have incurred during the crossing. If everything looks like it’s in the right place, you should be good to continue the rest of your off-road journey.
You never know what sort of obstacles you might encounter when off-roading, which is half the fun for most drivers. That said, it always pays to be prepared, so if there is water fording in the forecast, ensure you are all geared up and ready to go. Investing in a full complement of water fording gear might be a little excessive for some drivers, especially those who are using their off-road rig as a daily driver, so before you drop any cash on a snorkel, differential breather or hefty winch, be honest with yourself about how much fording you are likely to do in the course of your off-road excursions. Many off-road-focused vehicles can ford up to 18 inches of water with little trouble, so try crossing some shallower rivers or streams before outfitting your ride for the worst-case scenario. Most importantly, remember to test a crossing point on foot before attempting to ford your vehicle. It might sound too obvious to warrant another mention, but it is one of the easiest ways to avoid a harrowing day on the trails.