No snorkel? Stay out of the water in your 4WD

Water crossings are an everyday part of 4WDing. Whether its a puddle, long mud run or river crossing, if you are out and about in your 4WD you will come across water.

Please, take 5 seconds to consider the risk of driving through it, especially if you don’t have a snorkel fitted. Here’s 15 ways to avoid drowning your 4WD.

Pentecost River Crossing
Crossing the Pentecost on the way to El Questro

What is a 4WD Snorkel?

Most snorkels on 4WD’s are plastic (although lots are running stainless steel snorkels now!), and run down the outside of the A pillar, and through the inner guard to the engines air intake. They are essentially an extension of the factory air intake which can then suck air from a higher location.

80 Series snorkel
The Safari snorkel on our 80 Series

What’s the purpose of a snorkel?

Any car requires air as part of the combustion process, and from the factory, it sucks air through an intake close to the engine bay. These days many suck air from inside the inner guard, but in the past they have been located anywhere near the top of the engine bay.

The primary issue with this is that contaminants, including dust but most especially water, can easily get flicked or pushed into the air intake, which then goes through your air filter, and if you aren’t very careful, into your engine.

Snorkels on a 4WD
Providing clean air (and no water) to your engine

A snorkel dramatically decreases the chances of water getting into your engine, and sucks air that is higher off the ground, which is also cleaner. If you’ve ever driven on a dusty gravel road in convoy, you’d be very familiar with this; the air around the bonnet and below is often full of dust, and above it is much cleaner.

Does a snorkel increase wading depth?

Yes, it does, providing the snorkel is properly fitted and sealed off. Some of the genuine snorkels are simply fresh air extensions, and are not completely sealed, which means if you do end up in water that’s quite high, it can leak in and still do damage.

A teaspoon of water can write your 4WD off

For most vehicles, all you need is a single teaspoon of water to get through the air intake and filter, and your engine will hydraulic lock. If that sounds nasty, it should, because it is!

In this situation, your engine will seize and stall, and your forward progress will end. That’s not a good thing if you are half way through a deep puddle; by the time you rig up a recovery you are going to be swimming inside your vehicle.

If you are very lucky, and mechanically minded, you can sometimes get the engine to run again. However, especially with modern vehicles, your chances are not fantastic. Hydraulic locked engines often have serious damage done to them, as water won’t compress like air, and it forces things to bend or break.

Navara water crossing
How deep is too deep?

If you’ve done engine damage, there’s a very high chance that your insurance company will write your vehicle off (assuming you have good quality 4WD insurance!). This is without even considering water damage to the interior (and exterior electrics) of your vehicle.

Don’t go through water without a snorkel

Most full size 4WD’s have a wading depth of around the 600 – 800mm range, without a snorkel. However, if you plough into a water crossing and it splashes everywhere, its possible to get water into your engine bay in only 200 – 300mm of water.

If you absolutely must go through water without a 4WD, take it slowly and don’t splash your way in. Excessive momentum can be the difference between making it and drowning your 4WD!

Drive slowly through salt water
Slow and steady wins the race

Drowned 4WD’s in Perth

Every year, there are more than a handful of 4WD’s that get drowned in and around Perth (and no doubt the rest of Australia). Some of these have snorkels and have gone through very deep water, but many of them are inexperienced 4WDer’s who don’t check the depth of a puddle before driving through.

Most importantly, many don’t have snorkels!

4WD into mud hole
Always check the depth before you go through

A good mate of mine a few months ago took his relatively new BT50 out to the Mundaring Powerlines Track after some pretty serious rainfall.

He’d done the track several times before, and wasn’t new to the 4WD scene. He came to a crossing (which could have been driven around!) and having done it before, was confident he’d have no issues.

However, the crossing was just a little deeper than in the past, and after getting halfway across without a snorkel, his 4WD stalled, and died. It took over 15 minutes to rig up a recovery (do you know how hard it is to attach snatch straps to recovery points in dirty, freezing cold water?!) and in that time water got into the 4WD, almost up to the seat level.

Long story short, the vehicle had to be dragged back to the road, loaded on a tow truck and taken to the dealership, where they wrote it off on first glance. It was a stressful week, where he waited to hear whether his expensive family vehicle would be covered by insurance!

Water is deceptive

If you take one thing from this post, know that water crossings are seriously deceptive. You should always walk them, or at the very least use a stick to check the depth and surface conditions (excluding where there are salt water crocodiles around!).

Don’t assume that it will be the same depth as last time, or that because you have muddies, lockers and a lift kit you will make it through. Some of the crossings at Mundaring for example, are deep enough to have 100 Series Land Cruisers running 37 inch tyres and 6 inch lifts floating away (yep, that’s another story!).

Above all, if you can avoid driving through it in the first place, do that; its not worth the risk.

Here’s a few pics of our 80 series, after I decided to drive a track around Lake Jasper that I hadn’t checked the depth of. Even with brand new muddies, twin lockers, plenty of power and a snorkel, I bottomed out half way across, and ended up with some water (thankfully not heaps!) inside the vehicle. I should have known better, but made a foolish mistake and paid for it!

Our 80 bogged
Yeah, that was a bad move
Moving out of a big puddle
Recovered by a Nissan too!

What to do if your engine stalls in water

If you enter a water crossing, and your engine stalls, DO NOT try to start it again. In many cases, trying to restart an engine that has sucked water in will lead to serious damage.

Recover the vehicle, and if you are lucky, you may get away with draining fluids and water, replacing the air filter, removing glow plugs or spark plugs and turning it over until all the water is out of the engine.

Asides from damaged pride and some time spent on the side of the track, sometimes you can get away with it.

Is your snorkel water tight?

If you have a snorkel, check that it is completely air tight from the air box right through the inner guard to the snorkel.

Many have fittings that are just pushed into each other, and will still leak water very easily. A snorkel is a preventative measure; if the water is flowing quickly, or you hit it too quickly, or its too deep, nothing will save you! Treat water crossings with the respect that they deserve, and you won’t have an issue.

Air tight 4WD Snorkel
Is your snorkel air tight?

Do you need a snorkel?

Only you can answer this. If you plan on doing any water crossings, or endless dusty roads then they are a great idea. You don’t need a snorkel, until you do. We’ve always fitted one thinking they are cheap insurance, but it comes down to your requirements and budget.

Water crossings in the Kimberley
We’d never be without a snorkel


If this post stops just a single person from writing off their pride and joy, then its done its job. I’ve seen the pain and frustrations of friends having to replace or rebuild 4WD’s that have been damaged by water.

Get yourself a snorkel, enter water only after you’ve thoroughly checked it out and you’ll have a blast out there.

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  1. Linda Jackson says:

    Thanks very much, Terry. Good to know of probable consequences, instead of finding out the hard way. ?.

  2. Hey Linda,

    It’s probably almost as likely. Stalling is the least of your concerns though. A teaspoon of water is enough to completely destroy a motor, and replacements in a new form are up to about 30k!

    All the best

  3. Fair enough. Just curious if then more likely to stall? Thank you

  4. Hi Linda,

    That clip is insane, and a good reminder of why its so important not to drive through water you aren’t sure about. I removed the link for privacy reasons, but thanks for sharing

    Take care

  5. Linda Jackson says:

    Thanks Terry. I’m also concerned, if in a serious situation, as to whether car is likely to continue to operate, if put in reverse.. more than anything to save your life. Really appreciate being able to ask such questions, especially while we’re going through such demanding times.

  6. Hi Linda,

    I would certainly not recommend it. Water will run into places you don’t expect it, and trying to drive through water in reverse is likely to cause other issues with vehicle control too.

    All the best

  7. Linda Jackson says:

    Can you then drive in reverse if beyond depth safe enough to continue forward? I have no snorkel.. but interested re either scenario.

  8. Hi Terry,

    Providing the water is still, fresh, not full of mud and not flowing, I’d have no issues driving a vehicle through water up to a metre deep. The components are designed for temporary submersion, and it has minimal affect on any of the electrics these days.

    Your approach is certainly more cautious, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Often the water is not as I’ve described it above, and I’ll usually go around unless I absolutely have no choice.

    All the best

  9. I have a Toyota 80 series turbo diesel with out any modifications done to it. Irrespective of any modifications you may have there is no way I would exceed the manufacturers advice. REASON: Its not only about air intake or petrol/diesel arguments, its about electrics. Do you really want to drown your alternator, fuses, etc by being too deep, too fast, too much bow wave or whatever else you can think of that can go wrong. Frankly, if I really had to cross water at 700mm deep I would ensure it was still & also take the extra precaution of covering the front in plastic to assist in keeping water out of the engine bay. Too much can go wrong in water especially when you’re impatient.